Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay.
Published by: Penguin
I am part horrified part fascinated by the state of the global economy. I am constantly looking for someone - anyone - to clarify how we got here. Whoops! has to be the best clarification to date. It isn't pretty - more like depressing with a gloomy ending - but, as they say, knowledge is power and maybe what is needed is for more of us 'mere mortals' to grasp just to what extent the financial sector f*cked things up for everyone - and it is colossal - and say 'no more!' Because governments aren't willing to and so it could happen again.
It turns out there were numerous contributing factors over many years and it started with the fall of the Berlin Wall - an interesting theory I haven't heard before, but makes sense. Then there was globalisation which led to almost everything being made in China, making China wealthier than ever, leading to China using that wealth to invest heavily in the US economy. The UK went from a country that produced stuff as well as services to one that produces almost nothing and only provides services, the biggest market being financial services, on which it is now dependent.
I did get lost by some of the explanations, such as the point of mortgage backed securities and the concept of risk management in banking (which is unlike any other kind), but I grasped enough to get why they were major contributing factors to the meltdown and subsequent credit crunch.
Lanchester made an interesting point with regard to blame, an opinion I have held ever since 2008 but hardly ever hear or read in the media, which is: as much as bankers and governments who failed to regulate them are responsible, so are the collective 'we'. From our obsession with owning property and getting excited as the value continued to go up (into infinity and beyond?) to our gorging on credit to finance everything from our luxury holidays to our must-have Mulberry handbags.
In the western world whenever there is a major incident that affects the lives of the people, such as a major accident rendering it a health and safety danger, human rights abuse, or terrorism, that country's government tends to step in and create laws to (a) protect its citizens and (b) ensure said incident doesn't happen again. What I learned from this book is for the first time governments (and I mean UK and US in particular) aren't prepared to step in. Why? Because the banks are 'too big to fail' and they are too powerful for governments to mess with. So the result is 'we', as in the tax payer, will just have to keep on paying for the reckless behaviour of the banking sector (into infinity and beyond?).
Not wishing to alarm anyone but, unless something is done, the financial crisis affecting the west could be the making of a future one reads about in post-apocalyptic dystopian novels, if you ask me.
Friday, 22 March 2013
Publication date: 1st October 2012
Published by: Tera Mía Press
Sweetest Taboo is told from the POV of Isabel Cruz, the female protagonist who, at 15, meets and falls in love with one of her high school teachers, Mr Stevens - a married man with 2 daughters in his late 30s. Isabel soon discovers that the feelings are mutual, as Mr Stevens makes moves, which become bolder and more frequent, in her direction, sending out signals that this is the case. They start to communicate when he suggests to her that she should write him a letter telling him how she feels. Isabel writes the letter, holding nothing back, after which they begin their illicit affair.
I discovered this novel via an R2R (read to review) in a group on Goodreads. I chose to take part because I was intrigued by the controversial subject. I could see one of two possible approaches to the topic. (1) Make it a controversial love story or (2) Make it a cautionary tale. I have no problem with either and I went in with an open mind, not wanting to make moral judgements. The book starts with a prologue (which, by the way, reads more like a preface) explaining that the novel is a work of fiction based on a true story, and implies that the approach taken is option (1) a controversial love story.
Although I have little doubt that Isabel was in love with Mr Stevens, I was not convinced that Mr Stevens was in love with Isabel. Surely, love isn’t just about ‘chemistry’, physical attraction, hearts skipping-a-beat and all that stuff. Surely, love is also about simply wishing that person well, caring about that person’s well-being, putting their needs before your own. Isabel was a young and naïve teenage girl. Mr Stevens was a mature experienced man in a responsible position. I get that sometimes people fall in love under difficult circumstances and they have no control over their feelings. I get that they find themselves torn and tempted and this can be frustrating beyond belief. However, we all have free will and we can CONTROL our behaviour. It’s not easy, it takes restraint and strength, but it can be done. And yet consideration of the consequences barely came up for either of these two (although I consider Isabel to be blameless). Not once did I get the impression that Mr Stevens was conflicted, that he was concerned about the consequences of the affair for Isabel, for his wife or for his children. He did constantly tell Isabel about the consequences for HIM (the risk of HIM losing his job, HIM losing his family, HIM going to prison) and the implication was that she should be grateful that he was willing to take the risk for her – which of course she was.
As you can probably tell I had a problem with this one and here it is: In my opinion, for this to be a convincing love story, it needed both characters to be sympathetic and Mr Stevens was not. Instead, quite frankly, he came across as a creepy, predatory, inconsiderate and above all SELFISH scumbag from start to end. A prime example is when Isabel gets a ticket for illegally parking outside of Mr Stevens' house (see below) and Mr Stevens insists he'll take care of it but doesn't, which lands her in trouble. Also, since this is a love story, is some romance too much to ask for? There were plenty of meetings in classrooms and dark rooms and in trucks where these two lovers could kiss and fondle each other. Did they ever take the time to get to know each other? To just talk? There is no evidence of this in the novel - okay, Mr Stevens allowed some conversation on the sofa the first time Isabel came to the house when his wife and kids were away before they got down to business. The next visit she barely gets past the threshold before he says “Are you ready for bed?” My point being: for a romantic novel this book seriously lacked romance.
If this had been a cautionary tale that ended as such situations usually do, it would have worked. As a controversial love story however, for me, it is fundamentally flawed because there is a lack of EVIDENCE to show that the male protagonist, Mr Stevens, was truly ‘in love’ with Isabel. Instead his behaviour suggested that he was a man approaching a certain age who was bored and not happy with his lot. He wanted (maybe even needed) a distraction from his miserable life and Isabel just happened to be there.
On a positive note: Full marks for originality: the subject was a good one and well worth tackling. Both the male and female protagonists as characters are realistically portrayed and therefore believable – very well done indeed! I liked Isabel. She was strong and smart – a true heroine. I liked the stuff about her family and would have liked to have had more about them in the book. I liked the title of the book and the chapter titles. It was clever to use love song titles in that way (it would have been even better if it was meant to be ironic - but apparently not). I liked the book cover, very apt and very pretty.
In fairness to the author, this novel has done very well. It has had mixed reviews on Goodreads but a lot of readers loved it and it was runner up for a few prizes, including quarter finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough 2012 award, so well done to her for that. I would be interested to read more from Eva Márquez in future - She definitely has potential... and I might even like the next one.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Since writing this review I have learned that there is a sequel. It's called "Tainted Love" and, from what I gather, this time it is from Mr Stevens' POV. Like the song says, ...I feel I've got to .. run away, I've got to .. get away ..
Thursday, 21 March 2013
Publication date: 1st June 2006
Published by: Corgi Childrens
Genre: Contemporary (Pre-teen/YA)
NB: Spoiler alerts appear in this text (sorry it was unavoidable).
Book covers like this one put me off. I don’t like them because they scream ‘Hey little girlie, you know you want me. How could you not? After all, I’m pink and I’ve got a big red heart. Buy me!’ However, Jacqueline Wilson is an author who is well regarded and despite never having read any of her books I was interested in the subject – teacher/pupil relationship – and I wanted to see how she tackled it.
I am not sure what age the book is meant to be for. The subject matter suggests young adult but it reads as though it is for the under 12s. (I suspect teenagers would find it somewhat patronising and in parts eye-rollingly ridiculous.)
I would divide this novel into 2 parts with the distribution of those parts at 60:40. The first 60% is about Prue, her family life and how she comes to be stuck in a school she hates (and quite rightly so under the circumstances). The last 40% focuses on her relationship with her art teacher, Rax, who she falls in love with.
I can see the point of the first part as it is Prue’s backstory and it clarifies why she is the way she is and how she came to behave the way she did. All that was fine but there was too much of it. The book was supposed to be about her relationship with her teacher and there wasn’t enough of that.
Also, I can appreciate that there are probably parents like Prue’s that exist in the real world but I found the whole situation too extreme – verging on the ridiculous. I am not keen on novels that exaggerate characters because instead of being realistic they are like caricatures, which only work in comedic situations as far as I am concerned. In the same way scenarios become too animated.
Spoiler Alert: I was okay with the portrayal of the father, but the mother? Would she really think it acceptable in the 21st century to dress her 11 and 14 year old in homemade dolly style dresses? Second hand stuff from charity shops would have been more realistic and just as effective, surely. And the sister Grace who is somewhat overweight - would she really not only be happy to be referred to by her school friends as ‘Piggy’ but be the one to suggest it? And the school girls – would they really pick on another girl because she deigns to wear sexy underwear, calling her a slag and referring to Ann Summers as a sleazy shop to be avoided? If they were in a prissy convent school in the 1950s, maybe. And Tobie – would he really react to an erotic novel in that way? Next she’ll be suggesting he’s never heard of NUTs magazine. And how is it the teachers all stood by and watched as practically every pupil who came into contact with Prue insulted and bullied her – even Rax! Like it’s perfectly acceptable behaviour!
What I think Wilson did well – very well – was the relationship between Rax and Prue, when we finally get to it. I found it realistic and could see how things could play out exactly as they did.
Spoiler Alert: Rax steps closely to the line, and yes he crosses it. I was convinced that he genuinely fell for Prue, but his behaviour was neither pervy nor predatory nor was he manipulative (as is the case with the teacher in other books of a similar theme). I am not condoning his actions but I can see he was torn between his feelings for her and doing the right thing and sometimes this caused him to make the wrong choices.
Some have criticized Wilson, accusing her of being irresponsible for portraying the relationship as she did. I disagree. After all, things do not bode well for Prue – not at all – to the point that it leaves a nasty after-taste (for me anyway). Of course time is a healer and she would move on eventually, just like Rax said, but not before suffering a great deal first. If anything it is like she is saying to girls, if you do this, this is what will happen – which I think is pretty responsible. Unfortunately I think there is a danger for the message to be misinterpreted as the complete opposite and therefore lost.
Sunday, 17 March 2013
Publication date: 30th November 2012
Published by: Self published
Genre: Science Fiction
On the surface Halfskin is a science fiction novel set in an alternate reality where nanotechnology has advanced to the point where it is being used to create man-made stem cells (biomites) that can be used to not only heal the body but enhance it. Unfortunately there is a catch, the little buggers continue to increase and spread, eventually taking over the human side. Marcus Anderson is a government official who has played a key part in introducing and implementing a law preventing humans from becoming more machine than human, and individuals are ‘shut down’ when they reach the 50/50 level or Halfskin. It is also Marcus’s job to enforce the law – and he loves his job.
As a boy Nix Richards was in a car accident that killed his parents and nearly killed him. If it wasn’t for biomites he would be dead. Ten years later at 18 he is dangerously close to halfskin, prompting the authorities to come for him.
Cali Richards, Nix’s sister, is no stranger to loss, pain and suffering – first her parents, then her husband. She is not going to lose her brother too and is determined to keep Nix from being captured and killed by the government…
For me, in a nutshell, this novel was a cat and mouse chase – or more accurately cat (Marcus) and mice (Cali and Nix). It reminded me of that well known recurring dream (not a nightmare but definitely disturbing) about being chased - just when you think you have eluded your pursuer you look behind only to find he/she is still on your trail. Eventually you wake up in a cold sweat relieved that it is over. Reading Halfskin evoked those same feelings. There was an unexpected twist, which is always good.
The novel is both clever and thought-provoking. It certainly got me thinking - in the same way that one debates about whether Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is actually about espionage or whether Twilight is actually about vampires. For me Halfskin wasn't so much about humans at risk of becoming machines but an examination of how intolerant, inflexible and fearful members of a group in a society can make it their mission to come down heavy on those who deviate from said group and seek to at best silence and at worst annihilate them. (It got me thinking about the sign of the times: the far religious and political right versus the liberal centre-left, about the fiasco of the recent US presidential election and the UK coalition government). Unlike other novels, this is done with subtlety - it's not trying to be clever and it's not in your face. Of course novels can mean different things to different people so not everyone will agree with my take on this.
I also found myself drawing parallels with Bertauski's previous novel The Annihilation of Foreverland. Nix's character and experiences were quite similar to Reed's. There is the common theme of a virtual world - "Foreverland" and "Dreamland" - with a mysterious girl in both worlds who is important to them but remains in the background. You could say Halfskin is the adult version of The Annihilation..., which is pitched for the young-adult reader. If you liked one then you'll probably like the other.
I have also read the first of Tony’s Socket Greeny trilogy and I must admit I preferred that. All the same, Halfskin is worth a read and Tony Bertuaski is one to look out for.
Thursday, 14 March 2013
Published by: Self published
Genre: Contemporary (New Adult)
Attention! Well written indie fiction!
A Bed of knives is a story set in Oxford, England about 4 friends who met at college. The story moves between the present (when they are in their mid-twenties) and the past (5 years earlier, when the four are fresh out of college).
There is Gina the business graduate, Rose the fashion designer, Spider the promising chef and Eddie the rising football star. At around 18/19 years old, having just graduated, they come together for a final celebratory night out before Spider leaves for London to start his first position working at a high profile restaurant, and Eddie goes travelling in New Zealand before returning to start his career as a professional football player with the Rangers. Spider is mad about Rose, Rose is mad about Eddie, Gina is mad about spider and Eddie, although shy, likes Rose too. Their night out ends with them all staying the night at Rose’s house where Eddie and Rose finally get it together and Spider and Gina are left abandoned to watch a DVD on the sofa….
Five years on, Eddie is doing very well as a professional football player while Gina and Rose are searching homeless shelters for Spider who is now living rough on the streets of Oxford….
I enjoyed this book so much! It was well written. The characters and situations are so realistic. I was particularly impressed by the way the author, Elizabeth Jasper, was able to get into the head of an 18 year old boy and give us a glimpse of how he REALLY thinks. Nicely done.
This is a sweet story with very likeable characters. I loved finding out what was happening to each of them. I liked the strength and wisdom Gina had but my favourite character was Spider.
Jasper graciously warns people about the swearing and sexual content of the book. I understand why since it may not be suitable for younger teens or those who are sensitive to swearing and sex in books, but for others please don’t let this put you off reading it. It isn’t erotica.
I couldn’t fault this wonderful novel. (I couldn’t work out why it was called A Bed of Knives though and I’m curious to find out.)
Independently published, it is better than many of the conventionally published books I’ve read, and is a prime example of WHY those who are snotty about self-publication are wrong.
I think it would make a great drama for the screen (a TV series or a movie). I have already been recommending A Bed of Knives to friends.
Saturday, 9 March 2013
Publication date: 13th November 2012
Published by: Razor Bill (Penguin)
Genre: YA Dystopia / Sci-fi
This is the last in the Matched series. I enjoyed MATCHED and CROSSED so I was really looking forward to REACHED. As it turns out, for reasons I will clarify below, this one was the weakest of the three.
The story is told in 5 parts and from three POVs; that of Cassia, Ky and Xander. At the end of Crossed, the previous book, all three had joined the Rising (the rebellion against the ruling ‘Society’). Cassia is sent to Central, while Ky and Xander are sent to the city of Camas -although neither are in contact with each other.
Ky has been trained to pilot planes to transport cargo during the coming rebellion. Xander, who until now had a supporting role in the series, comes to the forefront and is working for the Rising (undercover) as an official for the Society. He is a ‘Physic’ but apart from being healthcare related I could not work out what that was supposed to mean - he spends his time treating and caring for patients but describes himself as an administrator, so it’s a bit confusing. He is assigned to work in a health centre with instructions to await the sign of the rebellion. Cassia is also working undercover in the Society as a 'sorter' which, if I have understood correctly, is a type of statistical analyst - she sorts data. She is stuck in Central, a city far away from Ky and, because of a serious outbreak which leads to a pandemic, she is unable to get to him, Xander or her girlfriend Indie.
It took a long time for me to get into this novel. I was about 33% in, and at the point when I had decided to give it another 100 pages before giving up, when it got interesting. The interesting parts of the story are told by Xander and are about the outbreak of a virus referred to as ‘the plague’and the Rising’s attempts to cure people of it. Unlike in the previous novels, I would say Xander is very much the hero of this one.
Ky, on the other hand seemed to have undergone a complete personality change. Classified as an ‘Aberration’ for crimes committed against the Society by his father, and sent to live in Cassia and Xander’s neighbourhood with his aunt and uncle, he was forced to live the life of a second-class citizen in the Society. In previous novels he was the favoured underdog (at least by me). He was wise, philosophical and forward thinking. In this book he apparently no longer cares about anything or anyone except Cassia. When the narrative focuses on him it is mostly him going on about Cassia. I liked the old Ky but frankly I found the new Ky a bore.
Although separated, at first Cassia manages to communicate with Ky - as they trade items for messages with the 'Archivists' (a code word for specialist ‘traders’). Then her loot is stolen and she no longer has anything of value to trade so she becomes a non-specialist trader for the archivists. She then sets up a place called the Gallery where creative people can share and exchange their art. Is this all sounding a bit dull to you? It was to me and my eyebrows creased quite a lot while I tried to figure out the point of a lot of the stuff going on. However, to Condie’s credit, they did all tie back to the central plot – eventually.
So here are my issues:
This book has helped me understand why it is important to use the italics function sparingly. Condie got carried away with her use of it. A lot of the time I thought it was unnecessary and found it distracting.
Admittedly, I prefer prose to verse but even I can appreciate that incorporating poetry in novels can be effective and enjoyable, but, unlike in the previous novels, the use of poetry was over-the-top and did not do much for me.
There is a lot of symbolism in it; the Archivists, the Pilot, the Poet, the Physic, the Otherlands etc etc. Plenty of opportunity for book club members to discuss what Condie meant by it all (especially the Pilot - at one point I was shouting 'Okay, enough about the pilot!'). Symbolism is good, but it is very much in your face in this particular novel. For me it lacked subtlety.
I will be as bold as to suggest that this novel has over-REACHED and is perhaps overly ambitious about what it wants to be. It is trying too hard and, in the end, this is what weakened it for me. The previous two novels focused on just telling the story and were better for it.
Don’t get me wrong: it is not terrible - Xander’s story and the stuff about the plague is quite interesting and I could not help but be chilled by a character who is narrating to me while trapped in his own body, or feel sorrow for a boy who has no choice but to make his living identifying the bodies for loved-ones in mass graves. I also liked the realistic and complex portrayal of the relationships between characters - Indie's attraction to Xander and then to Ky. Ky's attraction to Indie despite being in love with Cassia, Xander's attraction to Lei while still being in love with Cassia, Ky and Xander as 'frienemies.' Condie also has a knack for tying up loose ends. I would however be very surprised if the majority of people who read REACHED would agree that it is a ‘gripping page-turner’ (which is what it claims on the cover of my copy).
My appeal to readers
Wednesday, 6 March 2013
***SBRs 2nd Best Read for 2013***
Published by: Broad Reach Publishing
Genre: Adult Dystopia / Sci-Fi
Attention! This novel is outstanding.
Wool was first published as a standalone novella in July 2011 by author Hugh Howey. Howey had taken the self-publishing route and the story became so popular his fan base convinced him to write a series. His collection of self-published novels sold by the hundreds of thousands before he was offered a book deal with publishers Random House on the strength of the Wool series. He has also sold the movie rights to 20th Century Fox and Wool is set to become a movie to be produced by (none other than) Ridley Scott (director of the first Alien movie and more recently Promethius).
The omnibus edition (books 1-5) is described as the one for those who arrived late for the party. I confess I am one of the late-arrivals but, in a way, I am glad since there is a benefit to reading them back-to-back (see below).
The setting is a futuristic post-apocalyptic society where humankind has been driven underground. Not much is revealed about how this has come to be but it is clear that it was anticipated because preparation was made with the construction of ‘The Silo’, a structure that extends over 100 levels underground. There is a class structure in the Silo where people closer to the surface tend to be running the place (political leaders and law enforcers), those on the middle are the supporting skilled workers (IT and maintenance) who aspire to be part of the group above them, and those in the ‘down deep’ (the mechanics) who do the manual labour and keep the mechanisms for access to essential resources in the Silo operational (such as the supply of electricity and water).
The people in the Silo have by now lived there for several generations and, although not particularly oppressed, live under a dictatorship. Their relationships between couples must be sanctioned and the population is controlled. They are forbidden to speak of the outside and to do so is considered treason. Breaking the law is punishable by what is referred to as ‘Cleaning’, where the accused is forced to go outside and window clean the external surface of the Silo, thus allowing a better view for those inside. Once you’re sent out you can’t come back in and are left to perish.
I have deliberately focused on the background and refrained from going into detail about the actual plot because it is better to go in knowing as little as possible. I can assure you Wool is an intriguing and gripping story. It incorporates a variety of genres including, crime thriller, mystery and sci-fi. It is funny in parts and there is even some romance (just a little). There are so many strong characters in the book and you can’t help becoming attached to many of them. Unfortunately, being dystopia, I think it is safe to say not everyone survives and you feel the loss of those who don’t make it.
My feeling about dystopian novels is that, for them to work they need to be affecting, thought-provoking and slightly disturbing. Wool manages all of these. The writing is exceptional and the fiction is incredibly imaginative. I would say Hugh Howey’s greatest skill is keeping the reader hooked. He is a master at creating cliff-hangers - hence the benefit of reading the complete series back-to-back. If I’d had to wait for each novella to come out I am sure I would have gone crazy!
Some have compared it to the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins but I found myself drawing parallels with The Moon Dwellers by David Estes. However, both these novels are pitched at teenagers and therefore, although both very good in their own right, are not as grown-up and lack the sophistication of Wool.
So, if you like grown-up dystopian sci-fi and you haven’t already, my advice is join the party!
My appeal to readers
Publication Date: 7th June 2012
Published by: Penguin
Genre: Contemporary Romance (Chick Lit)
At sixteen years old TJ Callahan has been through intensive treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and is given the all clear by his doctors when, much to his annoyance, his parents arrange to take the whole family to the Maldives for the summer. TJ’s illness has meant that he missed a lot of school and so his parents appoint a private tutor to accompany them on the trip to prepare TJ for the coming academic year.
When high school teacher Anna Emerson gets the opportunity to spend the summer in the Maldives, working as a private tutor with a wealthy family, she sees it as an opportunity to escape her unhappy situation at home. She can see that her long-term relationship with her boyfriend is rapidly deteriorating and realises they want different things.
Anna meets TJ at the airport, having (for reasons I won’t go into) arranged to travel to the island with him several days after the rest of the family have already left. Delays and problems with connecting flights lead them to take a small private plane for the final leg of their journey. As they fly over the islands – of which there are 1000 – their plane crashes. The pilot dies while Anna and TJ are left stranded on one of the deserted islands with very few resources, and nothing but their wits and each other…
It was an eye-opener reading what it would be like to find oneself in such a situation; with little-to-no survival training or experience. That Anna was a teacher helped as she had a lot of essential practical knowledge. That TJ had good common sense also helped - at one point he relies on his memory of watching survival TV shows to work out how to build a fire and, after several failed attempts, he does. They probably would not have survived if they were alone. They kept each other alive. I can see how such a situation could create a strong bond between two people, as it did for them.
I knew this was a romance and I was slightly uncomfortable about where the novel would go – TJ is after all just 16 and Anna is in her early 30s when they first arrive on the island – but I was really impressed by the way Garvis-Graves had their relationship develop. The attraction was one-sided at first (a typical teenage boy lusting for a hot older woman, but in his defence he did his best to conceal it). For Anna it happens much later – when TJ is no longer a boy – and even then she does not enter into the relationship with him lightly or without questioning her actions.
There is so much more I could say but I’ll stop here because I don’t want to give too much away. Basically, it is a story about survival - not only literally (staying alive on a desert island against the odds) but also metaphorically (survival of a relationship against the odds).
The novel was so compelling I could not put it down! I can honestly say it is one of the best romantic stories I have had the pleasure of reading. I have a tendency to try to unravel a plot as I am reading and can usually guess where it is heading; not the case with this one. It was full of surprises. Both protagonists are very likeable (in fact, I would say TJ is a loveable character and just the right kind of romantic hero). I tried to find a downside to this book (for balance) – but I couldn’t.
If you enjoy a good romance my advice is get hold of a copy of this book because On the Island isn't just a GOOD READ, it is a MUST READ, and one I certainly will revisit.
My appeal to readers
My appeal to readers