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.

Reading Challenge Update

Hello lovely readers!

Now that we are over a third of the way through the year (where did THAT go) I thought I’d review the two reading challenges that I’m taking part in to check my progress and also to look at my Netgalley account to see what percentage my feedback ratio is.

Incidentally, does anyone else get a bit obsessed by their reading stats or is it just me? I digresss…

Ok, so first up I had a look at the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This challenge compromises 24 categories, so 2 books a month to be identified and read.

Current progress:

23/24 books identified (with an idea for the remaining novel).
9 books completed.
3 further books started but currently incomplete.

Verdict – winning!

I then looked at the Popsugar Reading Challenge – 40 categories so just under 4 books per month to be identified and read.

Current progress:

35/40 books identified. Struggling to think of a book with career advice and a book from a non-human perspective. Can anyone help?
16 books completed.
1 further book started but currently incomplete.

Verdict – on track.

Finally I had a look at my Netgalley account. Netgalley recommend that you have a feedback ratio of 80% or above. I have 11 books which have already been published that I haven’t reviewed – basically that I’m behind on. I have a further 5 books that are due to be published from June onwards that I’m not worrying about yet but that drags my overall feedback ratio to 54% which is quite frankly rubbish.

Verdict – must try harder. 

So overall I think I’m doing ok, I’ll be concentrating on getting my Netgalley score up which will also mean reigning myself in when requesting new titles *sad face*. On a positive note I’m not going to worry about the reading challenges because I seem to be doing quite well in those *happy face*.

How are you getting on with your reading challenges, Netgalley scores or TBR lists? Do you have any suggestions for the two Popsugar categories that I’m struggling with?

Lucinda xxx

 

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: Things I Should Have Known by Claire LaZebnik

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

Things I Should Have Known is a sweet, unique and funny YA novel set within the slightly dysfunctional Mitchell family. There’s a controlling, no-idea-how-to-deal-with-teenage-girls stepdad, a pushover Mum who has previously been clinically depressed (so JUST WANTS TO MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY), an older teenage daughter with autism called Ivy and a slightly spoilt, typically stroppy younger daughter called Chloe (the main protagonist). Chloe is one of the popular girls at school, with the jock boyfriend and one dimensional friends. She realises that Ivy has never had a boyfriend and so sets about finding a suitable candidate to date her. Enter Ethan, the adorable, wouldn’t hurt a fly classmate of Ivy’s who Chloe thinks is perfect for her. Unfortunately, Ethan’s brother David goes to the same school as Chloe and is known for being an annoying weirdo. Thrown together by Chloe’s desire to make her sister happy, the unlikely foursome end up coming to some pretty startling realisations about themselves, and each other.

I thought Things I Should Have Known was a great read. I felt that it was such an honest portrayal of what it was like to live with an autistic person, warts and all. It’s unusual to have a story with an autistic character as the sibling of the narrator – everything else that I’ve read in this category is either from the point of view of the parents or the autistic person themselves, which I thought made it unique. It was also nice to see that although the impact of autism features heavily, the book also had another strong storyline (the relationship between Chloe and David) which gave it a bit more variety.

I really liked that there was a bit of everything in this book – LGBTQ+ issues, disability, teenage angst, family problems…all dealt with in a believable and sensitive way. Each character is flawed and to see how they all adapted to a challenging situation was really interesting as a huge range of reactions and emotions were conveyed. I became really invested in the storyline – at one point the main character Chloe makes a huge mistake and I really felt for her.

Unfortunately, some of the comments that Chloe makes about her boyfriend are truly cringeworthy and their relationship seems a little too perfect for two teenagers at high school. Chloe goes from being a bit of a vacuous cheerleader type to a sensitive young woman, who doesn’t care about her boyfriend being the picked on, unattractive weirdo that her friends don’t like. Similarly, David goes from being the weird, bullied, outspoken nerd to the politically correct, feminist, adorkable love interest. Even so, their relationship was very cute and I will forgive the fact that some of the things they said would never come out of the mouths of fifteen year olds because they were just such a sweet couple.

Despite the fact that this was a YA novel it was good to see some difficult issues like full time residential care for autistic adults being discussed. I thought that the issue was dealt with very sensitively, although I expect that in the real world far more problems would have occurred. It also would have been nice for the author to have considered some of the real world implications of long term care, not least the financial element. I guess you can’t have everything, eh?

Despite this, I found myself really enjoying the novel. It’s a nice twist on the standard YA plotline of boy meets girl and it dealt with some difficult issues with sensitivity, even though things turned out to be a little too perfect in the end.

Rating: 7.5/10

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 Popsugar Reading Challenge #13 Read a book by or about a person with a disability.

Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd

A beautifully written tale of loss and letting go, A Monster Calls is the story of Connor, a young boy with a terminally ill mother. Connor begins to have terrifying nightmares and so is unsurprised when a monster appears in one of his dreams in the form of a Yew tree. Because Connor is used to being so frightened he doesn’t find the Yew tree monster all that scary, so they begin to converse…except the next day, Connor isn’t so sure that it was a dream after all.

Beware – this novel is a real tear-jerker. I never cry at books but I cried at the ending to this one. It’s just so sad and touching, with beautiful imagery and really emotive characters. What makes it especially poignant is the introduction where you discover the book was only part written by Patrick Ness because the original author died before she finished writing it. I wonder if she had children and wrote it to help them to deal with the loss of their mother? If so, that’s just too sad for words – but what an incredibly brave thing to do, and what a gift to give them.

The characters in the book are fantastic. I thought it was really important that Connor is shown to have a “normal” life despite what he’s going through with his mum’s illness. This is also a book about friendship, bullying, divorce, loneliness and dealing with difficult relatives. It shows how love can take many forms and can be found where you least expect it. It deals with all of these issues in a very realistic way and (without giving away too much) it uses a fabulous allegorical scene to show that sometimes, you just have to let go of the people that you love in order to set them free.

The book itself is quite short so I was able to read it in a couple of installments. Despite having two authors, it doesn’t feel like two stories mashed together and flows coherently from beginning to end. It features a young main character and is written in simple English, so it would appeal to older children/teens and up. I think it would definitely help a child going through the loss of a loved one (or an adult for that matter) because key concepts about life, death and illness are explained using beautiful stories-within-the-story that are basic enough for everyone to understand.

I hope this book is used in schools and that many children suffering from grief find that it helps them to express their emotions. I think the film will be amazing too and will hopefully be able to touch even more lives.

Rating: 8.5/10

I read this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #37 Read a book that’s becoming a movie in 2017.

Review: Interworld by Michael Reaves and Neil Gaiman

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Interworld seems to be the “forgotten” story written by Neil Gaiman – but I loved it. Fun, chaotic and wildly imaginative it’s a real Boys Own adventure of a novel.

Joey Harker is an ordinary young boy living a perfectly normal life, until one day he walks (not walks, walks) into an entirely different dimension – and chaos ensues.

I was a little concerned that there may be an issue with having two main authors, but unlike the other Gaiman collaboration that I’ve read (Good Omens – where you can literally attribute different characters to either Neil or Terry Pratchett) the book flows seamlessly. There’s lots of action and a few unpredictable moments and unexpected events that amp the pace up and kept me interested until the end.

The characters could have been a little better defined – as they are all variants of anti-hero Joey from different dimensions it was very easy to confuse them. However, the other characters (in particular the baddies) were described in such terrifying detail that I had a very clear imagine of what they looked like.

I can imagine this book would appeal to tween or teenage boys – although I am neither and enjoyed it too.

I thought that Interworld was a madcap adventure that was a hugely imaginative and fun read. As it’s aimed at younger people there wasn’t really enough of a story to get my teeth into but I would still like to find out what happens in the rest of the series.

Rating 7/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar reading challenge 2017 #8 Read a book with multiple authors.

Review: Toast by Nigel Slater

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I’ve always disliked Nigel Slater. I’m not sure exactly why but I thought he was a bit, well, patronising. I think it’s partly the way he speaks and partly his terrible TV show. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Slater presents “Simple Suppers”, a televisual concept so pretentious that when I first saw it I thought it was satire. Imagine the most middle class show kitchen ever. All the flour is decanted into mason jars, the butter is wrapped in brown paper and string, everything is painted in Farrow and Ball’s Elephants Breath. In between VT of Slater making balsamic reductions and char grilling asparagus are graphics of a little handwritten notebook with cute drawings of leaves and things with fake post it notes saying “don’t forget to cook a bit extra for tomorrow’s supper – even better the next day!” There’s something about this that really grates on me. No one lives like that. It’s all so fake but he presents with such seriousness – then you realise all he’s done is made an omelette with a few extra herbs that you could knock up in your sleep. Blaargh.

So you could say I had pretty low expectations of Toast – Slaters memoirs of his childhood to the age of 18. But boy, was I wrong.

Unlike other life stories, Toast is written in very short chapters which each centre around a memory of a specific item of food. I know that Slater is a food writer for the Observer so when I began reading this I did wonder if he’d just recycled his newspaper columns. Was I being ripped off?

All I can say is – I very much doubt that the content of Toast would be printed in a national newspaper. I couldn’t believe how candid Slater was. He was so honest about his feelings towards his own family, his early sexual encounters, his loneliness and struggle to make his father proud. He had almost nothing nice to say about his stepmother and didn’t seem to care that (presumably) members of his family would read it it and quite probably be upset.

To say I was shocked by this novel was an understatement. Not only to find out that Slater is from Wolverhampton (I seem to be reading a lot by people from Wolves, but he’s from the posh bit so I can’t relate as much) but to discover that he’s actually really rather sweet and comes across as witty, geeky and utterly oppressed by his family (he must be a therapists dream, there’s literally years worth of issues to work through). I couldn’t believe it – I actually found myself liking Nigel Slater. Weird.

Throughout the book there’s more than a hint of Slater’s bisexual/gay proclivities although he never confirms his sexuality. However, this seems almost irrelevant as its clear that Slater has one great love – food. This book is a love letter to all the cooking he had consumed throughout his formative years and is nowhere near as fancy as you might expect from someone who I always thought was a bit, well, up his own arse. Although towards the end Slater starts to discover decent restaurant food, throughout his childhood he devours his way through the whole repertoire of Marguerite Pattern 70’s style cooking and devotes as much love to a humble slice of toast as to home made lemon meringue pie. I have to add here that I also grew up on Marguerite Pattern’s Perfect Cooking and the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook (written by Bake Off’s finest Mary Berry, no less) and found myself reminiscing right along with him. I inherited Perfect Cooking from my partners mother and still maintain that it’s the best book to use for basic home cooking, although if you try out any of the variations of the blueprint recipes then you’re heading into uncharted territory.

Anyway.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s compelling reading and by linking his memories to specific types of food Slater creates an immediate bond between reader and author – I guess food is a great leveller. I love a bit of nostalgia and Slater’s memories of certain chocolate bars (Cadbury’s Aztec anyone?), dinner party food (I have vivid memories of my mother’s coq au vin and dauphinoise potatoes) and booze (when was the last time anyone had a babycham?) were really evocative of my childhood, despite it taking place almost two decades after his. The short chapters allow Slater to skip all the boring and-then-I-went-to-school-where-nothing-happened bits and just tell anecdote after anecdote, which makes the whole thing far more interesting.

Altogether I thought that Toast was a really interesting read and despite some desperately sad parts a lovely trip down memory lane. I have a new found respect for Nigel Slater – who’d have thought it?

Rating: 8/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge #19 Read a book about food and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #10 Read a book that’s set within 100 miles of your location.