Review: The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey

I could review this book in one word – wow.

Seriously, it’s really, REALLY good.

I hadn’t heard about The Girl With All The Gifts before a friend said he thought I’d like it and another friend said she wanted to read it (who is now following my blog – hi Juliet! Let’s see if she’s paying attention). I know there’s also a film version which I’ve heard even less about (apparently rubbish according to friend-who-thought-I-would-like-the-book) so I’m not sure how both of these things have passed me by, but hey, whatever. They did. But I’m soooo glad that I finally found out about it and had the chance to read it.

If I had read the synopsis to this book I’m not sure that it would have appealed to me. Zombies take over the world and a motley crew of people (ish) have to battle their way back to the safe zone? Surely, I thought rather smugly, there’s only one way that this story can be told; it’s been done a thousand times before. Obviously there’ll be a journey, a few characters will die but the nice ones will make it and probably save the world at the same time. Boring.

WRONG!

Honestly, this is such a meaningful, heartfelt book. It’s sweet and clever and charming in ways I totally didn’t expect. It’s got diverse characters (a sexy black woman! A queer child!) and loads of action and suspense as well as complex relationships, friendships, maternal care… pretty much everything really. I’ve read that other people have likened it to Never Let Me Go and I can see the parallels (children being used by adults for research/scientific purposes) but in a weird way it reminded me more of Let the Right One In, in that it’s a classic horror premise but the focus of the writing is largely emotional.

However, I have to admit that I was genuinely scared in some parts. I’m a total wuss when it comes to horror and sometimes the tension and descriptions of the zombie hordes got to me. Like I said, I have a very low tolerance for these type of things. You’ll probably be fine.

I loved how cleverly written the story was. It’s incredibly well paced and I was utterly gripped from the start. It turns some of the generic horror tropes on their heads – the scientist trying to save the world is a horrible, awful person and I spent most of the book wanting them to die, the military guys are ok, the monsters are largely piteable, even in their zombiefied state. There’s some very touching scenes where a monster (Hungry) is seen sadly flipping through old photographs and another is pushing a pram. This humanising aspect added to the overall heartbreak and sense of desperation that the book created.

Ethically, the book raises a lot of questions. In the same way that Never Let Me Go is a total conundrum of progressive science vs “human” rights, The Girl With All The Gifts poses similar issues – except the “children’s” treatment is more visceral, more clinical and far more torturous – although for understandable reasons. I still don’t know whether I agree with everything that was done to them, but with such high stakes I can at least appreciate that there was a solid argument for the way they were treated.

At halfway through the book I could kind of see where it was headed, but there were enough twists and turns along the way to keep me guessing. The ending itself was so touching, awful and tragic that the small glimmer of hope left within it did little to initially make me feel anything other than total dejection. However, after reflecting on it for a few days, I feel a tiny bit better about the whole thing. I can’t say much more than that without giving the game away but it’s safe to say that it’s not your typical, neatly tied up in a bow, yay for humanity situation. From a purely literary perspective it’s a fantastic idea that cleverly mirrors the story of Pandora’s Box – a story which is told to the children earlier on.

Overall, I thought this was a fantastic book. I would recommend it to anyone who wants a fast paced, engaging horror/dystopian fantasy book that you can really sink your teeth into (you’ll get that joke when you’ve read it).

Rating: 9/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #11 Read a book by an author with a pseudonym.

Review – How to be Happy by David Burton

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Don’t be fooled by the title – this is not a ‘How To…’ guide, nor is it the story of someone who figured out the secret to living a fabulous, meaningful life. It’s the story of a young man coming to terms with his own insecurities, sexual confusion, depression and general angst that I’m sure anyone thinking back to their teenage years can relate to on some level. The story Burton tells is interesting, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, with periods of pretty severe depression and suicidal thoughts thrown in for good measure. Oh, and the bit about it being a memoir of sex is also misleading – rarely have I read an autobiography where the author is so truthful about how they found pulling someone completely, painfully difficult.

A lot of what I read in this book reminded me of the way that some of my friends seem to be constantly searching for some external thing that will make them happy – whether that’s a hobby, a partner, a successful career etc. when really what they’re doing is projecting their own insecurities. At some points I just wanted to hug David Burton and tell him that it was ok to be sad and confused, and that it would get better. Luckily, Burton comes to this conclusion on his own and How to be Happy has plenty of great examples of how building a support network is soooooo important for anyone who is suffering from depression/anxiety/low self esteem.

Burton is also very honest about his experiences and initial negativity towards therapy. I think it’s incredibly important to discuss this issue because I know that a lot of people still feel that they’re admitting defeat by seeking professional help for their problems. Happily, Burton finds a therapist that he’s comfortable with and the book shows how perseverance with counselling can have life changing results – but only if you’re prepared to really work at it.

The other thing that I really liked about this book was the way that Burton experienced confusion about his sexuality (to the point where he came out as gay to his parents) but then ended up having to rethink this. I’ve never seen this mentioned in a book before and it was really refreshing to see someone being so open about their changing feelings. This is clearly a very emotive topic and I applaud Burton for his honesty in saying ‘this is what happened to me and how I felt at the time’. I guess some people will see it as fuel for the ‘you’re too young to know how you feel…this is just a phase’ argument but I saw it as an example of how nuanced sexuality and sexual attraction can be and how completely confusing and difficult to understand it often is.

I did, however, find How to be Happy a little tedious in places. As a memoir of a fairly ordinary (albeit depressed) teenager/young adult there aren’t any explosions, zombies or natural disasters and the book is set in Australia, not in a post apocalyptic future.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and applaud Burton’s honesty in portraying a very difficult period of his life. I think that anyone suffering from depression could benefit from reading it as it is ultimately an uplifting tale of triumph over
personal demons.

Rating: 7/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #15 Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.  

Review: Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

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I’ve just finished Hagseed and my feelings are mixed to say the least. One the one hand, I really enjoyed Atwood’s writing and the characters that she creates. On the other, I felt like I wasn’t quite clever enough to be able to follow the various narrative threads and layers of metaphors woven throughout the book.

Thanks Margaret Atwood for making me feel thick.

This book (well, audio book) took me a while to get into as I didn’t understand at first if it was a straight retelling of the Tempest, or a story about doing the Tempest as a production. In the end, it sort of turned out to be both – but I wish I had been more familiar with the original Shakesperean text in order to see how Atwood had used it to inform her characters and the way that the plot developed. I haven’t read The Tempest since school so although I vaguely remembered what it was about (mostly fairies and a shipwreck) I felt like I needed a refresh. At the very end of Hagseed there is a summary of The Tempest and I wish that I had read (heard) this first as it would have helped me to understand the plot far better.

I got very heavily invested in the main character, Felix; a producer of plays who, after suffering the death of his wife and child is forced to retire from his job. He clearly suffers some mental health issues which makes for an unreliable narrator and means you’re never quite sure about the whole madnesss/genius thing. He’s clearly very talented but deeply disturbed by the death of his daughter, so you never know how much of what’s going on is fantasy or reality – much like in The Tempest (not too thick to see the parallels there, Atwood). Felix then goes on to get a job in a prison teaching English and Drama to a group of convicts. Far from resenting the scheme, the prisoners flourish under the tutelage of Felix and he casts them in a number of Shakesperean plays with great success. However, his greatest triumph is his production of The Tempest; the play which originally pushed his previous company to retire him early. Through some cosmic synchronicity and by taking advantage of some of the prisoners ‘skills’, Felix is able to use the play to not only get his revenge but also as a release from the mental prison he has created for himself. Again, this is one of the parts where the book gets very meta – Atwood makes it clear the The Tempest has a number of metaphorical prisons in it, Felix is producing the play in an actual prison, he is living in a mental prison and holding his own daughter prisoner within it… aargh! Sometimes I felt that there were three (or more) narrative threads which were all interwoven and I struggled to grasp all of the concepts. See, told you I was thick.   

You can see Atwood’s love for Shakespeare shining through in many parts of the book. She discusses a range of devices that are used to teach the play to the group of prisoners in order to engage them with the text, such as asking them to spot all of the prisons in the play, asking them only to swear using Shakesperian curses – it made me wish that I’d been taught like that. Did Atwood use to be a teacher? *checks wikepedia* yes, she did! What a guess.

As I said before, I’m not familiar enough with The Tempest to spot all the allegories that I’m sure Atwood has woven throughout Hagseed and as such I felt like there’s a whole level that I  missed – like watching the Simpsons as a child and not seeing all the adult jokes/political bits. My advice would be to familiarise yourself with the original Tempest story before reading this, or just to read the last chapter first. Trust me, you’ll get a lot more from the book if you do. However, despite feeling like I was missing something, I still enjoyed the book. There was a thread of tension throughout – you knew that Felix was planning his revenge but Atwood kept me guessing as to how exactly it would all play out (hahaha, now I’m getting all meta). Once I got into it I did find the story compelling and because I really cared about the main character I kept listening to find out how everything was resolved.

At the end of the book, Felix asks his students to present their ideas on what happens to the characters in The Tempest after the play ends. I felt like Atwood was trying to allude to something here (were the main characters in the Tempest directly represented in Hagseed? I was never quite sure if Felix was meant to be Prospero) but I feel like I missed it. If anyone has read this book and has an opinion please let me know!

Overall, I think that any Shakespeare fan would love Hagseed and I’m sure they would get far more from it than I did. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood and so I enjoyed the book, but I did feel a little lost in places. I think this would be a great book club text because a lot of questions are raised which could provoke some lively discussions. Its just a shame that I have no-one to talk to about it!

Rating: 7/10

  

Review: After You by JoJo Moyes

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I approached this book with some trepidation. I’d read Me Before You and loved it (despite it absolutely Not Being The Kind Of Thing I’d Usually Go For) and I, like a whole legion of other fans, was curious to see what happened to Lou and the Traynor family next. I’d seen a few reviews saying that After You was nowhere near as good and had actually ruined the experience of the first book so I prepared myself for the worst. I’m pleased to report that nothing particularly drastic happened once I had read After You, but only because I don’t have ANY strong emotions about the novel. The best I can come up with is ‘meh’.

I hope I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the thing I enjoyed most in the first book was the dynamic between Lou and Will (the two main characters) and that this was obviously missing in the second installment. The relationship that Lou has with everyone else in her life is in no way as meaningful or powerful as the bond that she had with Will and I felt that this made After You nowhere near as engaging or interesting. The story picks up after Lou has got through her initial grieving and finds herself living in a small flat in London on her own, working in a bar. A major accident, a chance encounter and a very-much-not-by-chance encounter lead Lou to reconnect with her past, face some demons and finally start to live her life again. However, the plot meanders between a variety of other characters (so many that I lost track of who was who) and a number of other scenarios which don’t seem to have much impact – pretty much all the things that happen are once-in-a-lifetime events and could have been fleshed out into entire stories on their own, but Moyes just keeps adding one thing after another with the overall effect of watering down their impact.

I thought that the plot was pretty predictable (excluding some of the bizzare events that kept happening). It was easy to read (although I did notice a few random words like ‘wazzock’ appearing – I’ve not heard that since the 80’s) but I just felt that it was far too long and rambling. I thought that After You should either have been about the Traynor family and Will’s legacy/family, or Lou meeting someone and moving on. By trying to mash everything together I felt that the book lost its way and could have finished a lot sooner than it did. The ending in particular really dragged for me and I kept expecting it to finish, only for another thing to have happened.

I also thought that the relationship between Lou and love interest Ambulance Sam could have been a lot more complex but Lou’s feelings about Will don’t seem to get in the way at all. To be fair, there is an awful lot in the book about the different ways that people grieve but I felt that this was sometimes glossed over and occasionally felt like lazy stereotypes were employed to tie up loose ends – i.e. everyone releases a ballooon to say goodbye to their loved one to signify that they’ve moved on.

I didn’t think that the relationship between Lou and Sam was a patch on the relationship between Lou and Will. I expected a lot more soul searching and a lot more guilt from Lou but she seemed to fall in love again relatively easily. I cared SO MUCH about Will but I just didn’t engage with Sam in the same way. I felt that his character needed far more development which the excessive amounts of action in After You just didn’t leave space for.

I think that if Me Before You didn’t exist and hadn’t been so insanely perfect then I might have judged After You far less harshly – but I thought that it was a pretty disappointing sequel. Its not a bad book, but it seems to be a mish mash of two or three novels squashed into one, leaving events glossed over, relationships formed far too easily and characters underdeveloped. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Rating: 5/10.

 

Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I’ve never read Margaret Atwood before (I know) so this was my first experience of her work. WHY HAVE I IGNORED HER FOR SO LONG???? Seriously, this book (well, audio book) is amazing.

The book tells the story of Charmaine and Stan, a young couple living in a car and struggling to make ends meet since the economy collapsed. Living on Charmaine’s wages in her low paid, dead end job and spending their nights on the lookout for thugs smashing into cars and beating their inhabitants up, they hear about an amazing opportunity to volunteer for a new way of living. The town of Consilience promises full employment, housing, healthcare and a safe environment to live in – and it’s looking for residents. Seems too good to be true? It is – the catch is that you only spend one month at a time there as you have to ‘volunteer’ to spend the next month in prison. Stan and Charmaine have little choice but to sign up and at first they adapt well, but underneath the company endorsed plastic happiness their secret desires fester and manifest themselves in dangerous affairs.   

I found this book to be such an original concept that was amazingly well written and thoroughly engaging. There’s a very small cast of characters but the way that they all interacted and the impact that they had on each other was really fascinating. It’s amazing how Atwood got such a complicated story out of such a simple set up and still managed to tie it all together with a killer ending.

I loved how allegorical the title of the story was. Literally the heart goes last – it’s the final thing to stop working when someone dies (or is killed). In a figurative sense, even when Stan and Charmaine are interested in other people they still somehow love each other. Again, in Stan’s volatile relationship with his brother they always have each other’s backs. When Charmaine is asked to commit terrible acts she still does so with compassion. And at the end – I can’t say too much, but Atwood beautifully poses the question – can we really override our hearts with our heads? Or are our emotions too strong to break?

I also loved how there was a thrilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel. You know that Consilience is going to be a bad idea but the Stepford Wives style township seems to provide safety and security – two things that Stan and Charmaine are in desperate need of. You can tell that the sickly sweet packaging might look pretty now but will make you ill eventually – but what choice do the couple have? The truly terrifying part though is that in today’s political climate, are we really so far away from setting up social housing experiments along the same lines? And do we already have people living in such desperate need that they would willingly sign up? I hope Donald Trump doesn’t read this and get any ideas (no wonder people have protested against him dressed as Handmaids). 

I actually didn’t like any of the characters in the book, but I somehow ended up rooting for them anyway. As I was listening to the audiobook version I think I didn’t fully absorb all of the story because in places I found it a little hard to follow, so I’d like to read it properly. I also found the voices of the actors playing Stan and Charmaine quite annoying (Charmaine in particular was very nasal) but it was obviously intentional as her over-the-top cheeriness belied her underlying unhappiness and at times manic ability to keep putting on a brave face. By the end of the book, I found that this had actually added another dimension to the story (although twelve hours of listening to it is more than a little grating).   

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, especially fans of dystopian futures and intricate fantasy. I loved it.    

Rating: 8.5/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #4 Listen to an Audiobook.

Review: The Yellow Envelope by Kim Dinan

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Photo credit: http://www.netgalley.com

I hate giving bad reviews when people are obviously trying hard to write a good book. If there’s obvious gramatical errors, or you can tell that parts have been rushed, or lazy stereotyping, or an obvious lack of research, or glaring continuity problems, or no plot then yeah, I’ll call you out on it. But his book is something worse. There’s nothing that was bad about the story or the writing style, or the editing per se. It’s the characters that I found immensely annoying – and as this is a non-fiction account about someone’s world travels with their husband, there’s not a lot you can do about that.

*Deep breath – tries to remain constructive*

If I were to describe this book in one sentence, it would be ‘one miserable woman’s trek around the world’. There are problems with everything. Her marriage seems to fall apart, then magically get better. At no point does she seem to be excited, despite the whole worldwide trip being her idea and nothing really bad happening. This gets a bit tedious after a while. 

I hate to say it, but I really struggled to sympathise with the author, Kim Dinan. She seemed to find the negative in every situation and even criticised others for being too spoilt and self centered (to be fair, she does seem to meet some horrendous tourists) without seeming to recognise that she had also acted pretty ungratefully. I thought it was a bit rich to be acting like a worldly wise hippy who got annoyed with part time travellers when most of the book is about how much she isn’t enjoying herself. At one point she discusses a situation with a friend where a fellow tourist hands out school supplies and takes pictures with local kids – which she criticises him for. Her friend sees it as a man unafraid to get involved, whereas Kim sees it as pushy and self serving. I would guess that the situation was probably a mix of all these things, but again Kim seemed unable to see the positive side for herself. It was this pervasively negative, glass half full approach that really ruined the book for me.  

I also found the title of the book quite misleading. The actual yellow envelope (an envelope of money her friends gave her to donate to others) itself doesn’t make an appearance until nearly half way through the story, and the whole novel seems to be a more introspective account of Kim’s thoughts and feelings about her life and her relationship. I failed to connect with Kim on an emotional level (I didn’t understand her relationship problems AT ALL) so I wasn’t really interested – I really wanted to hear more about the amazing places and cultures that she was experiencing. I simply couldn’t understand why someone would convince their husband to sell everything (house, car, pretty much all of their possessions), quit their job and embark on a worldwide trip (with no plans to ever return home) if they were unhappy in that relationship – especially as her husband wasn’t particularly keen on the idea and she had to spend months trying to get him to agree to it.  

The yellow envelope money is just such an amazing gift but Kim and her husband seem to massively overthink the scheme and don’t really engage with the idea. They do give money away, but they seem to struggle to do so and don’t seem to get much pleasure from it. I thought this was such a shame as the money could obviously make a massive difference to the lives of so many people (many of whom were living in abject poverty) but again there was a negative overtone to the process which turned what could have been such a positive into a negative experience. I also got quite annoyed at a situation where a monastry asked specifically for regular donations not one off gifts – which the couple completely ignored and gave a one off donation. There didn’t seem to be any kind of consideration to setting up small regular payments (even for a defined time period). Having worked as a charity fundraiser myself I know how important regular donations are (imagine trying to budget if you randomly got paid differing amounts every month) and it was this complete lack of awareness that really got to me.

I didn’t like the way that Kim and her husband Brian failed to really engage with the locals. They seemed to keep themselves to themselves and didn’t try to understand what life was like for any of the people that they met. Kim seemed to be so afraid of making a mistake that it really held her back, which for me was understandable, but a real shame. Because the couple seemed to just pass through destinations I failed to get any sense of place from Kim’s writing which to me is the whole point of a book about travel.

Some positives – the writing is well structured and flows easily. Some of the places described (albeit briefly) sound incredible and there are some funny moments. There’s also a happy ending which (I think) shows how far Kim and Brian come as a couple.

However – I just REALLY didn’t enjoy this novel.

Perhaps if I had been more interested in Kim as a person and I could engage with her emotionally then I might have enjoyed the book more. If you’re that type of reader, you may enjoy this more than I did – as I said, there’s nothing wrong with the writing itself, its the content matter that simply wasn’t for me.

Sorry Kim.

Overall rating: 3/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #8 Read a Travel Memoir.

Review: The Chronicles of Narmo by Caitlin Moran

Written by a teenage Caitlin Moran, this hilarious story of a large, dysfunctional family growing up in Wolverhampton was obviously heavily influenced by her own childhood and seems to be the basis for the hit sitcom “Raised by Wolves”.

The Narmos are a normal, working class family just trying to make ends meet. With not much cash but huge amounts of enthusiasm and creativity, the children convince their parents to home school them – with some unexpected and often downright bizzare consequences.

I enjoyed reading about the Narmo’s (I see what you did there Caitlin) although I did have some problems with the text. Good things first: it’s a great book when you consider how young the author was when she wrote it. Some parts (the home made bread that lasts 6 months, the school inspectors, the whole of their holiday) are laugh out loud funny. It’s an easy read as it’s quite short and the language is fairly simplistic. However, I did find quite a few negatives. The book is quite obviously written by a (albeit very talented) 15 year old which means that some parts are a bit unclear and the overall story lacks any kind of plot – it’s just a description of a series of events that occur within the family. There’s no real introduction or ending and the lack of structure meant that I did find myself getting a bit bored. I imagine that Caitlin Moran drew heavily on her own family to write the novel and as such I felt like I already knew the story, having watched Raised by Wolves (the sitcom based on her childhood experiences) and having read How to be a Girl (where she frequently peppers the text with anecdotes from her childhood). I thought that the characters needed more fleshing out and as there was quite a few of them I did get a bit lost trying to work out who was who.

In terms of the rest of Caitlin Moran’s work (which I’m a really big fan of) I don’t think The Chronicles of Narmo is anywhere near as good but it’s still a fun read for a younger audience.

Rating: 6.5/10