Tony’s Review: The Handmaid’s Tale



In a harsh dystopian America, women are stripped of all rights…

It’s scary how prophetic this story is. A coup overtakes America – most members of Congress are killed in a terrorist attack and the constitution is suspended. Fundamentalism takes over, a fundamentalism that regards women as nothing. The reduction of women to non-citizens is done by the simple process of checking their bank accounts. If it has an F in your gender field, your account is frozen. And who, these days, carries cash?

So women aren’t allowed to read; they aren’t allowed to drive; they aren’t allowed money; they must go with their bodies and hair completely covered. They are split into castes that denote their position by the colours of clothing they wear. Women don’t exist without a man to act as a proxy.

Does any of this sound like a Middle Eastern society? Interesting if it does, because the fundamentalists running America are Christian. The subject here isn’t religion; the subject is fundamentalism, the corruption of religion.

This dystopia has a deeper problem as well – a catastrophically falling birth rate. The most fertile women are shoved into the role of Handmaids – inseminators, for want of a better word (artificial insemination is deemed immoral). In a cold and clinical scene, we see the process through the eyes of the protagonist, physically stuck between a wife and her husband in a symbolic and utterly passionless union.

The story is told from first person, and we only have the un-named protagonist to guide us. And we know she’s an unreliable narrator, frequently recounting events and then back-tracking to tell us what really happened.

We never discover her name. She is merely “Offred”, literally “Of-Fred”, nothing more than the property of her male owner and an inseminator for his wife. (Since this is a complete patriarchy, men cannot be sterile; only women can be so imperfect.)

There are complications when the wife, hungry for a child, sets Offred up with the chauffeur, and the husband, breaking taboos, tries to get to know her (intimately) better. For his purposes or just to make Offred’s life easier, we never discover.

There are times when we feel Offred’s sanity start to slip, and we slide along with her, travelling through disjointed flashbacks – sometimes in the middle of a thought. It’s disquieting to feel like you know her so well and then feel her reason falling away.

Attwood has a beautiful descriptive style of writing, throwing in marvellous images that work brilliantly (“I walk along the gravel path that divides the lawn neatly, like a hair parting”). It’s a world, despite its grim nature, that the narrator sees in vivid colours – the reds of the Handmaids, the black of a car, the green of a dress. However, Attwood skips on the punctuation of dialogue except when it suits her, and it can take a few reads to figure it out sometimes.

It’s an engrossing story, and one well worth reading. It took me along for the ride and never dragged or lost my interest. It’s a story not just for feminists or women, but for anyone who thinks and reasons.

Tony’s Review: The Hunted, Charlie Higson




Everyone over the age of fourteen has been turned into a flesh-craving monster, with a taste for teenage meat…The kids that are left are fighting to survive.

Book six of seven. I reviewed Book five here, and went straight on to The Hunted.

In terms of pacing, as a comparison, it took me four days to read the four hundred and fifty pages; it took me a fortnight to read The Fallen (the previous book), which is about the same thickness. What was missing there came back here; the characters are pushing forward even when there’s not much happening.

Higson moves the action out of London entirely for this one, into the countryside west of London. It’s no less dangerous though… Small Sam’s sister Ella and her protectors make a break for the countryside. No spoilers, but it doesn’t end well for some of them.

Ed and some fighters go and look for her to bring her back to London, meeting new groups of kids – some friends and some enemies – on the way. There’s also a group of adults, untouched, who have secrets to tell…

There’s a drawing together here, a tying of loose ends that started five books back with characters you thought were long gone. There are ends tied up here that I didn’t even realise were loose, and Higson is clever and subtle in the way he weaves them back into the storyline. Coming out of it are new plot lines for the final book.

The final battle is about to begin…

Tony’s Review: Every Day, David Levithan



“A” wakes up each morning in a new body. “A” has done this every day for the whole of their existence, and doesn’t question it any more than we question waking up in the same body every day. Then “A” meets Rhiannon and wants to have a ‘normal’ life.

This is a difficult book to review. Not because of the content or writing. It’s a lot simpler than that, and a lot harder: “A” is without a pronoun. They are completely non-corporeal – without a permanent body. “A” is neither he nor she, and I’m going to be forced to call them It, to give them the overtones of a non-person. It feels like the wrong approach, because “A” is such a strong character, labelling them as It feels…rude. Derogatory.

“A” has a unique narrative voice, one I have never come across, or even contemplated – one without gender. Gender is so tied into every book I’ve ever read, that having a character without gender, with a constant shifting body every day is disorientating. The only way I could relate to “A” is to read them as a male character.

A female friend is going to read it and I’m really fascinated to see if she reads “A” as a female. I wasn’t sure I wasn’t projecting my male narrative voice onto “A”. I needed a gender to work with.

That isn’t an issue with the book at all by the way; just my perceptions of reading it.

The book itself is wonderful. “A” is eloquent, warm, emotive, caring, passionate. If you wanted a friend for life, “A” would be it. “A” feels every moment of every day, living entirely in the present; it’s all “A” can do before It moves on. Because of “A”‘s unique perspective on life, “A” notices details the rest of us would miss. The shoes Rhiannon wears; the callous on her thumb; the texture of sand through a host’s fingers. “A”‘s language is lyrical and powerful, the soul of a poet.

We get to touch lives from the inside with “A”, feeling the tragedy of a girl who can’t stop drinking; the first funeral “A” ever goes to; a girl who wants to commit suicide. But also the joy as well; a gay pride parade with “A”‘s host’s boyfriend. Gender or sexuality doesn’t matter to “A”; only the emotion. So we get to see “A” as girl with another girl, a boy with another boy. Love is all that matters.

Through it all, “A” loves Rhiannon; it doesn’t matter if he’s a girl or boy, black or white. “A”‘s only thought is to be back with her, and It breaks Its own rules of ‘non-interference’ to do it more and more as love takes over.

It’s great writing, but the book does have problems – hence the not-perfect rating. There are plot holes left undeveloped – most significantly, is “A” the only body-hopper? – and the subplot with a boy who remembers being ‘possessed’ by “A” just fades away. And then there’s the epilogue. It’s only eight or nine lines, but it wasn’t needed, and only left confusion.

What “A” knows, and the rest of us barely realise, is that the package love comes in doesn’t matter; only the emotion matters. It’s a message that Levithan carries off with panache and style, with wonderful passages of lyrical and emotional writing, and a tearful punch of an ending. Superb.

Tony’s Review: Trouble, Non Pratt



Hannah is a wild fifteen year old, who loves nothing more than drinking parties, socialising with her friends and not caring too much about school. Then she gets pregnant.

I hadn’t heard much about this book before Becky’s enthusiastic and passionate review here. I follow every one of her reviews, and she very rarely rates a book five stars…and certainly never reads a book in two days. This was one I had to see for myself…and I’m glad I did.

I was expecting some social lecture about the perils of pregnancy, and some moral lessons about underage sex (age of consent in the UK is sixteen), but there was little of that. In fact, the book isn’t really about Hannah’s pregnancy as much as it about the social changes it causes around her.

I won’t reveal the spoiler of who the father is (I did work it out fairly quickly though), and why Hannah doesn’t go to him is revealed over the course of the book and makes a major plot point.

This brings in the other main character: Aaron. Aaron is the new boy in school, emerging from some trauma he can’t deal with. He views the eddies and streams of friendships and enemies with an indifferent eye, new to all and in some ways immune.

But when Hannah needs a father, he volunteers himself to be branded as the dad. Why he does it links back to his trauma…which is another spoiler I can’t reveal.

The short punchy chapters alternate between Hannah and Aaron, and since they have very different narrative voices, it works very well. Hannah’s sister receives a pet rabbit called Fiver for instance: Aaron would have recognised the Watership Down reference, but Hannah thinks it’s how much it cost. Their outlooks and expectations were very different. No doubt that we were dealing with two different people at any point.

Minor characters were given lots of room and backstory as well. Neville, a pensioner Aaron visits, is a great character full of wit and wisdom, as is Hannah’s gran. Nobody felt two dimensional.

There were points when the plot veered into kitchen-sink soap opera, but they were isolated. Pratt does a great job of pulling at your heart and then tickling it with her emotive writing within a paragraph or two.

This is a book about the strength of family and the power of good friends; a book about finding out who those friends are and who you can count on when you need them.

In the end, it’s a happy and uplifting story, a potent and positive spin on a subject usually given more dour treatment.

Tony’s Review: Doctor Sleep, Stephen King



Dan Torrance, the child protagonist of King’s The Shining, is now an alcoholic drifter, chased by the ghosts of his childhood and trying to drown them in drink. When he gets off a bus to nowhere in New Hampshire, his life begins to change…

Including The Talisman – Black House books King wrote with Peter Straub and his Dark Tower series, King is actually an old hand at sequels. This one doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of warmth and humour and characteristic King touches and style.

About a quarter of the way through, I realised the plot is more of a Dean Koontz feel: Troubled man helps protect precocious tele-everything teen from very real psychic vampires, learning the redemptive power of family on the way. Not that’s a criticism at all, I just thought it was interesting.

Dan attends Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the twelve steps is apologise to those you’ve hurt…and it seems like King wants to apologise to Dan Torrance for running him through the hell of The Shining. He wants to know that Dan’s life turned out all right in the end. It’s very much a story of redemption and returning sanity, a counterpoint to the damnation and slide into insanity that was The Shining.

And King’s own demons mirror the book: As a recovering alcoholic and substance abuser, he’s been at the bottom where Dan starts off. As a result Dan feels like a very intimate and personal portrait, a thin veil of King’s own fall and recovery.

As much as Dan realises he can’t escape the virtual demons in his head, so Abra – his teenage counterpart – can’t escape the real demons chasing after her: Wherever you go, there you are, they realise.

The climax felt a little rushed, but then as a book about redemption and healing, it was never really about who was going to win in the end. And, to be honest, it was pretty obvious from the start.

It’s been a while since King wrote anything as simple as splatter and gore, and the horror and the terror in this book are restrained and off-screen. No one loses a foot or does the Mashed Potato all over a giant eyeball for instance.

With such a strong young adult protagonist, it’s also a great young-adult book.

I haven’t read The Shining in a few years, and it didn’t feel as if I needed a refresher to read this. There would have been a few paragraphs that wouldn’t have made much sense, that was all.

If you haven’t read any King, this is a good place to start.

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




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



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: The Knife of Never Letting Go

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4/5 – Spoilers throughout

Todd Hewitt lives in a strange village on a distant colony world…a village where there are no women, and all the men (and all the animals) can hear thoughts…that is, every thought. This Noise – as Todd calls it – is constant, a mash of every waking and sleeping thought; enough to drive men away from each other into isolation or lose their sanity. It’s covered in the book with changes in font and size, a really nice idea – (if you look at the first example, you can see Aaron thinking Todd Hewitt? by the way)

Todd has been told that the village where he lives is the only one left on the planet; and since there are no women, one day that will die out as well…

When Todd stumbles across something in the local swamp – a silence, a hole in the noise of the world, he has to investigate. And everything he’s been told is a lie…

It took me three or four chapters to settle into this, but once I did, it rocketed away and I couldn’t finish it fast enough. Other reviewers have complained about the constant danger-escape-danger-escape format, and the bad language, but I didn’t notice any of it. I was swept into Todd’s world, his stream-of-consciousness narrative, and I was eager to finish it.

As for the bad language, did they read the same book? Todd uses ‘effing’ – and then says, ‘…except I didn’t say effing.’ His language is never worse than that. Puzzled over that.

Todd has a great narrative voice, a real treat. He uses words like direcshuns and creechers, and when Viola shows him his crashed spaceship, it takes him a minute to work it out. I like that; no telling here, just all show.

There were plot twists I saw coming thirty pages back from where they appeared – Todd is told there are no women on the planet, so it was inevitable that the silence, when he finds it, is going to be a girl; he’s told that the village where he lives is the only one left on the planet – so it’s inevitable that the rest of the world exists and is populated. I also worked out about half-way through that Prentisstown was a ‘penal colony’ (I didn’t know why though, that was a startle.)

The world Todd travels through is rich and verdant, vividly described and created. When Todd comes across creatures he doesn’t know the names of, all he can do is marvel at them; he has no names for them, so neither do we. The people he meets all have different viewpoints on life – and different accents. I read the dialogue of the first people he meets in a Scottish accent; it was simply how they sounded to me, along with another family that sounded Dutch. This is a world full of everyone, not just a homogenised colony.

Also refreshing is his attitude to Viola. He’s never seen a girl before, so he doesn’t act any differently around her, or think she’s incapable of action because of her gender; nor does he fall instantly in love, or even romantically attached to her – she’s a friend like any other to him. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end where he realises he can use Viola’s body language to tell her moods. It’s a real insight for him, and a wonderful piece of writing.

The book is rich in symbolism. Todd and Viola travel through an unspoilt world to Haven – only a letter short of heaven – always being told that hope is lying there…salvation awaits them if they can only make it.

The knife Todd is given takes on a character of its own as well. He’s given the choice again and again to kill, and he can feel the power of life or death this inanimate object gives him. How he uses it shapes and defines Todd, and he begins to realise a man who kills isn’t who he wants to be. He will not kill, even in self-defence, even under extreme provocation.

Except that’s where part of the story breaks. Todd kills a local intelligent alien – a Spackle – attacking him viciously without provocation; two pages later, the incident is all but forgotten. Yet he refuses to kill Aaron (who is virtually a Terminator – that boy does not stay down!) and the price he pays for letting Mr Prentiss Jr live is high.

Frontier life is brutal, and the violence in the book is brutal as well, not shying away from describing gory details, especially in Todd’s battles with Aaron near the climax.

Some of Todd and Viola’s actions aren’t logical – why are they walking? Why don’t they steal a horse? They could travel most of the way by boat, for instance, and it never occurs to them.

The most wonderful part of the book is one quite a few people seemed to have picked up on – Manchee the dog. Originally, it seems, he’s just there for comic relief, but he turns on the dog loyalty as the story develops, a shining example of dog-dom, unswerving in his devotion to Todd and Viola. No Disney animal here though – his life is poo and squirrels. He’s the star of the show, without doubt.

And it was inevitable that he would die. Unnecessary, but inevitable. Heart-breaking as well, but I saw it coming ten pages before it happened.

There are parts of the book that didn’t work for me. The climax is a cliff-hanger, and I should have felt manipulated by it, but I don’t (Then again, I don’t have to wait for the sequel!). Todd is told things and doesn’t relate them to the reader until a hundred pages further on, a bit of a cheat there, especially for a first-person present tense.

Worst of all is exposition that’s about to begin when –
Oh sorry, I got called away there.

Annoying isn’t it? Imagine a conversation being interrupted by a random horse-rider and then the characters moving on, even though they could have continued their conversation as before.

Luckily, I spotted when it was and wasn’t going to happen, and it produced more of a rueful smile than annoyance. But it was starting to get old.

In some ways, this book is manipulative. It knows what buttons to push, when to hold a finger over those buttons and not push them. Sometimes it holds the finger over those buttons for two hundred pages before pressing them. Todd and Viola are constantly in danger and escaping it, but it doesn’t feel repetitive.

But I didn’t feel manipulated. Like good magic tricks, no one cares if the tricks are good and the reveals are worth it. And they are worth it.

The best trick in the book loops right back to the start of the journey – Todd wonders which fork in the path to take, and when the Mayor arrives at Haven before him, we find out what would have happened if he’d taken the other one. Nice touch. Very nice touch.

I already have the library looking for the sequel. Count me in.

(Review of the sequel “The Ask and The Answer” next month)