Tony’s Review: The Fallen, Charlie Higson

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3/5

Everyone over fourteen has been infected with an illness that makes them crave human flesh…Only the kids are left to fight and survive for themselves…

This is book five in a seven series set. Luckily, I’m reading them back-to-back which helps a lot. There’s no way I’d remember all these intertwining stories with a long gap between them. There are a lot of characters floating around London…

The focus this time is on a group at the Natural History Museum. There’s an infected kid hiding and hunting them, and a second group sets out on a trip to where the disease affecting the adults started, stumbling across a group calling themselves the ‘Twisted Kids’, a teratogenic bunch with odd abilities.

As though sensing that the endless killing of diseased adults is getting a little repetitive after five books (And it is), Higson keeps the death count down and spreads his wings a little, digging into the characters more, exploring their relationships and friendships.

Because of that, this is a slower and more thoughtful read than the other books. The pacing slips a little though, and this feels like it could have been shorter by about twenty pages.

Towards the end, the pacing picks up again when Small Sam re-appears. There’s a monster of a cliff-hanger with his sister Ella, but no spoilers as to what’s going on. I’m glad I don’t have to wait a year for the follow-up though.

As usual, the geography and the world is flawless and the characters (the ones he develops, that is: The rest are sometimes merely second-spear-carrier-on-the-left material) are well thought out.

It felt like a long walk to those closing chapters, but I’m here for the long haul right the way to book seven…Book six is coming next month!

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Tony’s Review: The Fault in our Stars

 

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3/5

The cancer that seventeen-year-old Hazel survived left her lungs in tatters and tied to an oxygen bottle for the rest of her life – however long that may be. Her mother suggests she visits a support group, where she runs into Augustus Waters…

This has been at the edge of my reading-pile for at least two or three years now, and I finally picked it up. (One of the reasons I delayed was Becky’s review (Here), where she rated it…okay. Didn’t set the world on fire for her. I trust her judgement on books, which is why it’s taken me so long. But I digress.)

The first thing I noticed when I was reading this – and I’m talking Chapter One – is that no seventeen year old in the history of the world talks like Gus and Hazel. I’m a pretty smart guy; I’ve know some very smart people. I have never met ANYONE who used the word univalent in a sentence. No one. People simply don’t talk like this. Hazel knows what an oncogene is; she knows the word hamartia; Why then, doesn’t she know the word ontological?

Green seems determined to be obscure and borderline pretentious with his language and his characters, and they suffer because of it. Their conversations are superficial, for the most part; cocktail party debate on the breakfast-only nature of scrambled eggs.

I got very little from Hazel and Gus but mostly surfaces. It felt like I rarely saw the places where they lived and dreamt. Because of it, they’re as superficial as the conversations they hold, and easily forgotten.

Fortunately, the dialogue settled down after a while and approached a normal level. Green definitely has different narrative voices for Gus and Hazel, there was no trouble telling them apart. His wordplay and love of puns makes the dialogue – when it does work – sparkle and shine. Make no mistake that Green is a smart guy…but he seems intent on preening his feathers and flapping his wings to show off.

There are moments which do work wonderfully well in the book. The trip to Amsterdam was the delight of the book, the real highlight. Making Hazel’s favourite author a jerk was a masterstroke: After all, you should never meet your heroes – they’ll never live up to your expectations. And because Green wasn’t too worried about showing off with the author, he’s the most realistic character in the book.

There’s a character dies in this – no spoilers as to whom – and another character goes to their funeral. I’m pretty sure…no, I’m definitively sure…that Green never went to a funeral when he was seventeen of anyone close to him. I did. And there’s no way you would act the way the character did when they were there. You don’t have the mental capacity, for a start. You’re certainly not going to fire off witty replies to people who post on a dead characters Facebook page.

An intriguing read, but it lost its way somewhere with an author determined to show off and not let his characters do the walking and the talking.

 

Tony’s Review: Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

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3/5

In the disintegrating world of 2044, Wade Watts, a hermit teenager, dedicates his life to discovering the online clues that could win him the ultimate prize…

The OASIS is the only place to be in the future. The world has fallen apart, and almost every aspect of humanity is pushed onto a massive online, virtual reality. Even schools and public services are in there – there’s a planet with nothing but schools, for instance. Interaction is through avatars. They can be ‘killed’ (more like a restart), but nobody really gets hurt in there. Not physically, anyway.

The man who designed this became the richest man on the planet, and when he dies, his fortune is left up for grabs for whoever can solve the puzzles he left behind, puzzles rooted in very, very obscure 1980s pop culture and gaming references.

I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not particularly skilled at computer or arcade games, so the (80s) subculture that the author immerses us in is mostly lost on me. But luckily, he explains every reference as he goes along.

In fact, he seems just to drop references in just to explain them…they don’t really advance the plot much. There’s an example where Wade travels somewhere in a Back to the Future DeLorean with a Knight Rider and Ghostbusters add-ons. It’s never used again and not mentioned, so why do it?

In the movie “Signs” a character says: “…this stuff is just about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend their whole lives. They make up secret codes and analyze Greek mythology and make secret societies where other guys who never had girlfriends can join in.”

That’s what the 80s subtext of the novel mostly felt like to me; obscure references that very few people would understand (or even care if they weren’t there). They’re just secret handshakes for the society the author moves in.

Fortunately, the main character is likable enough to keep you reading – you want this little underdog to win, especially against the corporate bullies who are willing to kill him and his friends. You want him to come out with the girl and the prize and some good friends. There are no real surprises when he does all three.

I have some grievances against the pop culture references. Where was Madonna? Where was Spielberg? Where was Tron? And one the author missed that I caught: Wade references Fantastic Voyage (1966)…why not Innerspace (1987)?

Also, since the references seemed to stretch back and forward decades a little, where was Potter World?

Wade calls his diary for keeping track of all the clues his Grail Diary, a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a nice metaphor, and it carries nicely through the book; as Jones discovers that the search for the Grail is the search for what’s important rather than an artefact, so does Wade discover that what’s important to him isn’t inside a computer, but back in the world of the real.

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: 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: 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.

Tony’s Review: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness

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3/5

Todd and Viola – and a growing cast of others – have to fight for peace with the native ‘Spackle’, as well as keeping their own warring camps apart.

Phew. I’m exhausted. This is the third of the “Chaos Walking” trilogy, and I’m as war-weary as Todd and Viola. The pace is frantic, the writing dense and the characters actions thick and fast.

New this time is a “Spackle” character – they call themselves The Land, with obvious references to Native Americans (Or for a more modern audience, Avatar), complete with complex culture, nobility and a deep connection to the planet. They even ride their mounts standing.
Patrick Ness isn’t afraid to use the page to show you what’s going on. Explosion?

BOOM.

– with a size 40 font. Different character voices? Use a different font for each for extra emphasis.

After three books, some of his writing style was starting to grate though –

Like –

He will write something –

And then –

And do this –

And then do that –

…all the way down a page or two. His stream-of-consciousness style I can get behind most of the time though, tumbling together his sentences and images into a single paragraph. I certainly can’t complain, since I use it in my own writing style.

And as usual, his characters are full and three-dimensional and his world building is flawless, even the bit players like Ivan (who goes where the power is, something Ness uses to good effect).

The characters inaction frustrated me. Todd is over there, Viola is over here, and they spend a fair part of the book apart, worrying about each other, fighting to keep the warring factions apart. I wanted to shout at them: PICK YOURSELVES UP AND MOVE TO ANOTHER PART OF THE PLANET.

I was as frustrated as they were at the endless point-scoring of the Mayor and Mistress Coyle. What does it matter who wins the peace? All that matters is the end result. Not one person had the wisdom to tell them that.

Ness creates such a realistic world that I wanted to shout at the people who lived there to grow up. Now I know how it feels to be a politician, trying to bring peace to a war-torn country. No one can see past the hate and stupidity to see what bloody idiots they are. No one can see the futility.

I need to talk about The Mayor, the most developed character in the book. I never trusted him…well, maybe for chapter or two, but he never seemed anything less than sociopathic. Like most dictators, he was charming with it, able to (literally) bend minds to his will. He claimed that the best parts of Todd rubbed off on him. I didn’t believe him…until his actions at the climax of the book.

It’s a long haul from the start of book one right the way to the end of book three – it’s about 1500 pages, actually. I’ve been on that world with Todd and Viola, fought as they fought, felt their frustrations and their exhaustion.

Ness is one hell of a writer, and I’ll be back for more.

Review of Part One…Here

Part Two…Here