Tony’s Review: Insurgent, Veronica Roth

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3/5

Tris has to come to terms with killing a friend, and losing her parents, while trying to form and keep new alliances with The Factions (and Factionless). But nothing is black and white anymore…

I checked back, and it’s been two years since I read Divergent – high time I read Book Two, I thought, and I had some summer time reading space and went for it.

Despite the gap between the stories, I didn’t feel lost as to what was going on in this book. It’s almost self-contained, with enough back-story reminders to keep you on track. There’s a nice sequel hook at the end so you come back for Book Three to see how it all works out.

Roth sketches her world in rough outlines, with shades of grey and rain the predominant colours and weather, but despite that, you get a solid sense of place and are very grounded in this world and its characters.

I commented in the first book there didn’t seem to be much chemistry between Tris and her instructor, Tobias (now her lover). This time it seems more developed and the relationship more concrete. There seems to be more of a need for each other now.

Roth doesn’t hang about in this book. Her pacing is relentless; there aren’t many pages where the characters aren’t moving forwards to the next event. Tris is shifting locations constantly in this book, from Amity orchards to Candor confusing corridors. The pacing is almost too fast, and sometimes the action blurs into one.

Tris also changes alliances as her whims take her. I’m not sure I would Tris with my back in a fire-fight: She might decide the people we were supposed to be fighting have a better deal for her. It does make her character and the dynamics of her relationships more interesting though. Tris is a woman in conflict, with everyone around her and herself.

I will be coming back for Book Three…maybe in another two years.

Tony’s Review: The Tipping Point by Walter Danley

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No rating – didn’t finish it.

(This was a read-for-review sent by Mr Danley)

I got to 25% of the Kindle copy of “Tipping Point”, a corporate thriller set in the world of real estate before I stopped. It was fine for the most part before the 25%. For the most part…the rest of the time, it read like a first draft: There were tense changes, POV switches midway through paragraphs and numerous typos. A character on a ski slope inhales the “fridge mountain air”; a major characters name is mis-spelled; There were sentences without a subject that made no sense.

A bigger problem was the telling and not showing, particularly of the love interest, who we were told was beautiful four times without being shown it once – having someone stare at her as she walked by, for instance.

The notes at the end made this clear that this was a revision of a book already published…and that it had been proofread by a few people before it saw the light of Kindle-dom. These were mistakes that should have been caught by that net and weren’t. Also in the addendum was an extract from Part Two of the series, where a character “…barley escaped with their life.” Ouch.

What started out as the main plot – the murder mystery of a character killed by a hired assassin – just fell apart at the 25% mark into recondite and very…very…dull real estate jargon. It wasn’t moving the plot along, so I skimmed it to the end of the chapter, where another real estate board meeting was taking place, filled with more boardroom jargon. I skimmed that as well, then decided it wasn’t going to get any better and dropped it.

Sorry, Mr Danley. You pretty much lost my interest when you spent a chapter talking about how the assassin came to name his cat.

Tony’s Review: Emma, Jane Austen

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3/5

Emma Woodhouse is an early 19th century matchmaker. She’s also very rich (I saw a modern comparison put her wealth at $3 million or so in 21st century value), very bored and a snob – and a spoilt brat with a sense of superiority and inflated ego.

In the 19th century, the only way a woman could make her mark on the world was to marry; it was the only way she could secure her future and the future of her children. Marriage to the right man was all that mattered. And when I mean the right man, I mean a richer one. Everyone in 1815, it seems, was a social climber.

It’s background like this that you need to have before you go into this book, or Emma’s attempts at matchmaking and her refusal to marry won’t mean a thing. Once you get that idea of the social set, you’re on your way.

I had a hard time getting into this book. No fault of Austen; I was reading thirty minute snippets at lunchtime in a very noisy and distracting environment at work, and not much seemed to be happening – endless dinner parties or arrangements for dances or visits, mixed in with Emma’s hopeless attempts at matchmaking and discerning human behaviour.

I didn’t feel I was being fair to the book, so I started reading where it was quiet. Suddenly, something about Austen seemed to click. I practically heard it. Everything she was doing with the characters and situation started to make sense.

And let me tell you something: Austen is a bloody brilliant writer. Her characters are warm, witty, full of life and idiosyncrasies and funny. They are human and jump right off the page. Her small cast of characters and her observations of humanity are spot on.

Here’s an example. Mrs Bates: That woman. Will. Not. Shut. Up! And then Emma calls her on it, and realises how much it has hurt Mrs Bates. As a reader, I thought, I’m just as bad as Emma. I’m just as rude for not listening to her, or at least tolerating her. Brilliant.

Emma and her life herself take some dissection. Her social set consists of about ten people in one village, and she has no means of travel for long periods away from home. Her father worries a lot about everything, convinced some disease will strike her down if she does, and Emma respects that.

Her life is boredom, essentially. She matchmakes the people around her to stretch her strait-jacketed life and to alleviate the tedium – a tedium I felt as keenly as her as she arranged yet another trip to Randalls, or discussed the best place to hold a ball.

The only thing about Emma’s matchmaking…she’s not very good at it. No; she’s useless at it, completely misunderstanding everything that’s going through other people’s heads and hearts. Her ego and self-assurance won’t admit to any fault on her part though. She’s convinced she can’t be wrong.

She also refuses to mix with people below her, or those she considers ‘inferior’, like Jane Fairfax. She’s not an easy person to like. But despite that, you stick with her because you glimpse the good in her – in her respect for her father, her heeding advice for Mr Knightley, she shows the good woman she could be. And she does get better. A whole lot better, by the end of the book – she’s a woman transformed.

I enjoyed this a whole lot more than Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps now I’ve got the hang of Austen – she’s a writer having a blast and a whole lot of fun – I might go back and give it another try.

I certainly have a lot more time for her now.

Tony’s Review: Coraline and other stories, Neil Gaiman

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4/5

 

My first dip into the Gaiman universe was an enjoyable experience. Like a day at the beach – sometimes the wind will drop and the vista of the sea before you will open out to infinity. You’ll settle into your chair of choice and sigh, contented. The next minute, the wind will be kicking sand into your eyes and the sun will be shooting shard of lights into your eyes from the choppy ocean.

Gaiman is like that. When he’s good (which is most of the time), he’s excellent, with a wry and humorous turn of phrase, a delicate touch of wit. When he’s bad, he’s mediocre, and doesn’t do a lot for you. You shift in your seat and push on, hoping he’s going to get better again.

This was a collection of ten stories and one blank verse…

Coraline, the header of the book. An old-fashioned fairy tale, with an old-fashioned witch and a feisty heroine. Nothing new here, not really, but Gaiman spins the tale with a deft wit into an exciting and at times frightening tale. To be honest, I was more scared by Coraline’s parents’ indifference than by her Other Mother. Great bedtime story for kids though.

The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds This is an absolute hoot, a riot of a tale. A hard-boiled detective working the nursery rhyme beat, full of characters like Little Jack Horner and Humpty Dumpty, aka The Fat Man. Just brilliant, and I guffawed and chortled my way through it. One to read aloud, detective voice included.

Don’t ask Jack The weakest and shortest story in the collection, about a malevolent toy abandoned in a toy box. Such little happens that it wasn’t worth the effort.

Troll bridge A spin on the tales of trolls that live under bridges, but more about the boy (and later man) who discovers it. Since he’s a jerk, we don’t really care if the troll catches him or not; and since he’s a jerk, the story didn’t do much for me.

How to sell the Ponti bridge The oldest scam in the book – selling something that isn’t yours. A twist at the end, but it isn’t a particularly good twist, and doesn’t lift the story above average.

October in the chair A homage to Ray Bradbury, full of strange imagery and twisting sentences. The story itself is quite weak, but the frame around the story is nice, full of seasonal atmosphere and wit.

Chivalry Another hoot of a tale. An old lady finds The Holy Grail, and refuses to part with it, even when a knight makes her better and better offers. Wonderful tale, especially the little epilogue.

The Price A family takes in stray cats, and one of them repays them. Interesting story; what was refreshing was how genre-savvy the character was. He locks the cat in the basement, and his life starts to go wrong. He releases it, and his life improves. He’s smart enough (for a change for a literary character) to realise what’s going on.

How to talk to girls at parties Thinking about this one again, I see where Gaiman was going with it. Talking to girls when you’re a teenager is like talking to strange aliens who make no sense. In fact, I think it still is.

Sunbird Strong characters let down by an average story and so-so ending.

The witch’s headstone A boy – who might or might not be dead – can see the dead and interact with them. He decides to buy a witch a headstone as a favour. Too easily resolved, this could have been stretched a little more and the characters given more depth to make it more satisfying.

Instructions A blank verse poem about going on a quest, with some cool imagery. Falls apart at the end though, like Gaiman didn’t know what to do with it.

So, in the end, what do I think of my first dip into Gaiman? I liked the way he developed his characters, and his world building – sometimes in a phrase or two – was brilliant. His characters are very genre-savvy, which is energising. When the boy in “October in the Chair” meets another boy in a graveyard, he knows (as we almost instantly do) that the boy is a ghost; as when the man in “The Price” who finds that a stray cat is protecting his family when he locks it into the cellar and his life begins to break.
His endings seemed the weakest part of his writing. He seems to be aiming for twists in some of his stories, but they were laboured and obvious.

However, I think I’ll be back for more Gaiman. I’m intrigued enough to continue reading!

Tony’s Review: Carrie, Stephen King

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4/5

Bullied by her fundamentalist mother and outcast at school, Carrie White is slated to live a life of misery. Until she realises she’s telekinetic…

I’ve read quite a few of Stephen King’s books, but never got around to reading this until now. No reason, specifically, unless it’s the fact I read ‘salems Lot (Number Two) and thought it was clumsy and hard going.

What a surprise Carrie is then, in comparison. Carrie herself and Sue Snell, really the main two characters, are well thought out and three-dimensional, and I really felt for Carrie and her miserable life. And for Sue as well, trying to reach out to her in anyway she could. The fact that she left it too late is the real heart of the story, and the tragedy of it all.

King’s first book is a short tale compared to most of his others, and there’s none of the bloat that affects some of his later writing. The climax is slow and inevitable, but unaffected by that slow build. The book slips between the main events and the aftermath easily, lending a nice feel to it and breaking up the linear narrative.

I can see why King became such a popular writer after this. This isn’t a story of the boogie-man who eats children or vampires coming to town. This is an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent; her only response to bullying is to fight back the only way she knows how, with terrifying and bitter results for the town where she lives.

Extraordinary, and without doubt one of the top three King books I’ve read.

Tony’s Review: Forbidden, Tabitha Suzuma

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4/5

Lochan and Maya have been abandoned. Left to care for their three siblings by a drunken mother who’s out chasing men, a father on the other side of the planet, all they have is themselves.

Lochan suffers from social anxiety and Maya has never had a boyfriend; they see themselves more as partners than brother and sister, they always have…and so they fall in love, physically and emotionally.

I think incest is the last taboo subject to be covered by YA (although my wife said Flowers in the Attic did it in the 70s – I haven’t read it.) I’ve read books about suicide, rape, pregnancy, sexual preferences…there’s really nothing YA can’t cover anymore. Fantastic time to be reading it!

The book splits points of view between Lochan and Maya, and it was Lochan I immediately connected to. Not because of the incest angle, but because of his social anxiety. I suffered through it as a teen, and still do to some extent 30 years later. Not as bad as Lochan – no panic attacks, thankfully – but I was right back there with him, eating outside on a cold day because of the terror of being around other people. Suzuma has nailed SA, and nailed it right down to the last detail. When a teacher shows him a sliver of compassion, I nearly cried as he did.

As a result, I didn’t connect with Maya as much; almost not at all, actually. I found her to be two dimensional, but I suspect it was because Lochan was very real to me and not through any fault of the writing, which is flawless.

Suzuma draws a world full of details and life. Every character comes alive – Tiffin’s love of football, Willa’s anxieties, Kit’s teenage rebellion. This is a family full of very real characters, and the world building is superb for its little details. One complaint: She’s fallen in love with the word puce.

Now I suppose the reason the book was written: The incest angle. Apparently, even consensual incest is illegal in the UK – didn’t know that.

For me, the least interesting thing about this relationship is that it’s between a brother and a sister. All I see is two people in love. Who they choose to love is entirely up to them.

Lochan and Maya have no illusions that what they’re doing is going to end well (and indeed it doesn’t), and they admit they might grow apart and find other people to love. They know biologically they can never have children. They don’t care. What they have is each other, right now and their love is passionate, deep and very real. Also very physical, something Suzuma pushes the edges of with her intense descriptions of their intimacy.

When someone asked me what this book was about and I told them incest, they went, ewwwww. This is from someone with a very liberal mind. I thought that was interesting. It really is an ingrained taboo.

My thoughts on it: Who are we to impose our morality on them? Society says they can’t love each other. Society also once said that a man can’t love another man, or a woman love another woman, or even marry a woman with a different colour skin.

Society changes; love doesn’t.

Tony’s Review: Unwholly by Neal Shusterman

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4/5

In a world where unwinding – the dissolution of teenagers for organ replacement – is legal, a group of very different teenagers struggle to survive in any way they can.

This is a sequel to the outstanding Unwind – one of the few books I’ve given 5/5 to, I believe. Neal Shusterman is one of the best writers I’ve ever come across – YA or otherwise. His world is totally believable, his characters are full and complex. There’s nothing flat here in dialogue or pacing; not a sentence is wasted. His writing is flawless.

His heroes and villains are both beautifully realised. Nothing is black and white; the heroes make hard choices, they make realistic choices as to what actions they can take. So do the villains. Everyone thinks their actions are right and the moral choices they make feel right to them. As readers, we empathise with them, even if we don’t agree with their actions.

Shusterman isn’t afraid to ask tough questions: Questions about how society treats its teenagers. Questions about leadership, and standing up for what you believe in – questions about leaving people to die so that others can live; questions about what it means to be a hero. There are no easy answers, either in the book or in the world.

So why not 5/5 again?

In ways, this felt like a bridge between Unwind and Unsouled (Book three). As a result, there was a slow sense of exposition going on – a lot of questions, but no answers. The pacing is slow – don’t expect explosions on every page – but the evolution of the characters and their situations is handled so well, the slow pacing can be forgiven. New story arcs develop, but not many of them complete.

I will be reading Unsouled, and not just so I can see how all this plays out; I want to spend more time with the wonderful writing and powerful world Shusterman creates.

I want to know how it ends.

I’m a fan.

Tony’s Review: The Great Gatsby

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3/5

Nick Carraway lives in a 1920s world outside of reality, a world of endless parties and flitting affairs, a world of the extremely rich…the richest of which is Jay Gatsby, a legendary party host and a mystery.

The Great Gatsby is a short read, about 200 pages, but there’s a lot in there. At times, Fitzgerald’s prose is so thick with imagery that you have to cut it with a machete and read a paragraph again. Most of the time, this worked brilliantly, but there were times when the image he was going for was lost.

Unsurprisingly, some of the novel is dated. As I was reading about one summer of 1925, I couldn’t help but imagine how many of these rich and very spoilt people wold be bankrupt by the end of the depression and contrast it with John Steinbeck’s writing about the poor. However, the central theme of Gatsby – a man seeking his lost love – is timeless.

There’s a chapter which is nothing more than a list of names of ‘famous’ people in 1925 who attended Gatsby’s parties, most of which I skipped. I assume they were famous and not fictional; I only recognised one name. Such is transitory fame, another theme of the book.

Gatsby’s life is a forgery (even his name, even the title of the book), and he’s shallow and ephemeral, but he’s no shallower than the people around him. His only wish – impossible – is to have the woman back he loved (For a whole month!) five years before. All the parties, all the drive to make money, all of it was for that one purpose. Gatsby is a fantasist, chasing a dream lover he can’t have, and one he probably never had anyway. Who can’t relate to that?

Despite all his wealth, we come to pity him – the sadness of a man who can only live in the past. Gatsby dies at the end and no one – none of the famous, none of the rich who couldn’t get enough of him when he was alive – come to his funeral. He lies forgotten and abandoned, his only mourners Nick and Gatsby’s father.

The writing style is an immensely powerful engine that drives the story forward. Fitzgerald describes the world in terms I’ve not seen out of synaesthesia (experiencing the world through alternate senses: smelling a musical note, listening to a flower), and the different way of world building is mesmerising. The world is the best thing in the book actually; compared to that, the characters are thin and hollow – which was probably the point.

(Trivia of the day: The actress Sigourney Weaver took her stage name from a character in this book.)

Tony’s Review: A Streetcat named Bob

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4/5

James Bowen was a mess. He’d lost touch with his family, his music career had stalled and he was a recovering drug user in emergency sheltered housing, only a few steps away from living on the streets. He scratched a living busking on the streets of London, but had no purpose or direction to his life.

Then he saw a cat sleeping outside a nearby flat, and after some hesitation, he adopted it. It was a decision that was to change his life.

Suddenly, he was aware he had a responsibility to his cat – he named him Bob – and from that he realised he wanted to take more responsibility for himself as well. The real transformation for him is when he took Bob busking – from scratching a living, suddenly he can afford a proper meal. Suddenly he wants his life back. He’s been thrown a lifeline and he snatches it with both hands.

This deceptively simple tale gets under your skin. It slips under your guard and sucker punches you, sliding into your heart and restoring your humanity. It melts your cynicism and makes you look at the people you ignore on the street with new eyes and compassion.

Bowen alternates tales of his cat with tales of himself, his past life and his attempts to rebuild himself. He doesn’t skim his past or romanticise it, being wise enough to know he was a mess, and smart enough to know what Bob has done for him.

I nearly cried when he lost Bob for a few hours – then he found him again, even more emotional. Even more when James visits his mother and starts the slow process of methadone withdrawal.

It is an overused word and almost a cliché, but this is the most heart-warming tale: This man, slowly slipping through the cracks of society, rebuilt his life because he adopted a cat.

What could you do with yours?

Tony’s Review: The Giver

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3/5 – Spoilers throughout

When Jonas reaches the age of twelve, his career will be chosen for him, as it is for every twelve year old in the community where he lives. Some will become labourers, some mothers, some doctors.

Jonas is the reciever of memory – every memory in the history of the old world, passed on by his tutor, The Giver. The question is, what will he do with that knowledge?

This is a short book, only about two hundred pages, so it only took me a few hours to read. The premise, though an old one – Utopia with a dark heart – is unique in its width. The community (it’s never named) has pushed blandness to an art form. Even colour (somehow) and music are banned, for fear of the population going wild and rioting if they see a patch of green grass or hear some Mozart, or something. Sex is forbidden and love controlled with drugs. Procreation is moved to a rotating group of birthmothers (who are presumably inseminated artificially).

However, they have taken the smart move of delegating everything ever learned onto one person. Most Utopias seem determined to forget the past ever existed.

Early in the book, Jonas talks about elderly patients and miscreants being sent ‘Elsewhere’ and ‘being released’, and it was very obvious from the first references that this is a community that not so much enjoys euthanasia as revels in it; ‘sub-standard’ infants and the elderly all go through the procedure. So it’s no shock to witness it when it happens late in the book to a baby.

The technical aspects of this book – it’s all telling and no showing (“Jonas was angry”, not “Jonas clenched his fists”) – and the oddly stilted dialogue make this book feel like it was written in 1955, not 1993. The writing is at the level of a children’s book; this is not YA, people! Eleven year olds have moved on – you don’t need to spoon-feed them by telling and not showing.

On the other hand, that stilted approach works well in the community as presented – everyone is bland and two-dimensional as the colourless world where they live. But here’s the thing: For effect, that tell-not-show should have changed when Jonas began his lessons with The Giver. And it didn’t.

Because of that, I felt nothing for Jonas or anyone else. I didn’t connect to him because he remained so two-dimensional. He could have been given so much more depth, but he’s never given the chance before he’s running away from home.

Jonas is also very passive. His relationship with The Giver is there only for exposition. Instead of Jonas finding things out for himself, instead of him pushing the boundaries of his life, instead of him maturing into an adult, he asks and The Giver explains the world to him on a plate. Spoon-feeding again. So the hero in this book does nothing until the last twenty pages.

Let’s talk about those last twenty pages, which is when the book really starts to fall over. Jonas crests a hill, finds a sledge and slips through the snow. It’s the first memory The Giver passed on to him. I had the feeling that Lowry wanted some deep metaphorical ending, but it didn’t work for me; Jonas is obviously hallucinating, or already dead. So the passive hero who does nothing but flee dies at the end. Lovely.

I rated this three stars, but I hesitated between that and two. Lowry creates a solid world, and one that works, but the hero in it is bland, even when he has the chance to become much more. The only colour in the book comes from The Giver, and all he does is exposit.

For a better time with a Utopia with a dark heart, read Mel Cusick-Jones, “Hope’s Daughter” – teenagers who actually discover things for themselves.

Disappointing.