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 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.

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: 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.