Tony’s Review: We all looked up

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2/5

Four teenagers and an asteroid that’s coming to most likely kill them all and everyone else in the world in a matter of months…What would you do with the time that’s left?

The premise for this is great: Teenagers are suddenly presented with a finite lifespan. Instead of seventy years to plan for, they have months. They all decide that what they have doesn’t make them happy.
The book started off with a strong premise and some interesting characters – Andy the slacker was the most interesting from the start, certainly the liveliest and most carefree.

But then they all dissolved into a mess of similarity. Each character had an epiphany, a crisis, a resolution. They all went through it at the same pace, encountering problems that were cookie-cutter to their personality types.

There was almost no point naming them and they might as well have been called The Slacker, The Jock, The Outcast and The Achiever (Subgroup: Pushy Parents). Nothing really surprising happened to any of them. It would have been a joy if one had said, “Yes, I am actually happy with who I am and where I’m going.”

It felt like the author had chained them to a rowing boat, and they all pulled together, all the time, perfectly meshing until they crossed the finish line. Their character arcs were calculated to a fraction of a degree, and they were absolutely NOT allowed to deviate in any way. It made them two dimensional and they didn’t work for me.

And they were the only characters to go through their arcs as well. Secondary characters ended the book as they began it; there was no sense of them having lives of their own, of them coming to terms with the end of the world.

Teenagers, of course, rarely have a sense of contentment. Most of them don’t have a clue as to where life is taking them…well, I pretty much don’t either. That’s the fun part of living.

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Tony’s Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

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4/5

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

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4/5

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: 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!

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: Every Day, David Levithan

 

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“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

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4/5

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.