Category: Books

Carve the Mark: Review

Carve the Mark: Review

Carve the Mark is the first in a new young adult duology by the author of the Divergent series, Veronika Roth. In it, expect new characters, new worlds, and a full sense of creating an entirely new galaxy that is both forwards and backwards in time in comparison to our own world – it’s a nice, easy world builder which focuses more on character and plot development than building the new galaxy, but that’s what I would expect from a young adult book.

The book focuses on two main protagonists, Akos and Cyra, switching between a first person narrative for Cyra and a third person omnipresent narrative when we read Akos’ chapters. They are two unlikely foes who, through circumstance and ‘Currentgifts’ (read it, I don’t want to give that away) are thrown together and eventually come to depend on each other, forming a friendship. Again, I can’t really go into too many details regarding their relationship because I try my hardest to do spoiler free reviews, but I’ll just say: it’s a young adult novel. What do you expect happens?

This is part of the reason why I didn’t always find their relationship believable – it was sometimes too good to be true, and sometimes a bit like good luck, or a dias ex machina. I’m not sure how deep into more character development the second in the series will delve, but there were moments of good development and understanding thrown in amongst the cliches, so I’m willing to give it a chance. The one thing I strongly hope Roth stays away from is that idea of a ‘strong’ female protagonist, which I felt Cyra occasionally falling into – I want more than that.

Carve the Mark, unfortunately, has had some fall out over the fact that Cyra is seen to suffer from ‘chronic pain’, and over a potentially racist outlook – see this link for more details – but from Roth’s acknowledgements I can see she has at least tried to do some research (at least into the chronic pain element). Also see this link about ‘sensitivity readers’, which I think is a great idea and Roth maybe should have had one read over Carve the Mark before it was released, considering the amount of controversy that ended up surrounding it as a story.

Personally, I did not notice the racial stereotypes and undertones; I would never dismiss the people who did, and having read into it I can understand their frustrations and agree if PoC (or anyone, really) have problems with this book after reading the descriptions of characters. However, when reading it, I didn’t personally notice those things – maybe it was because of my privilege, and if so I apologise, but I was more interested in the characters’ personalities and the choices they made. I loved the Shotet people (Cyra’s people). I thought Akos’ people, the Thuve, were slow and boring. So it didn’t seem to me as the “white hero vs. dark enemy”… it was just young people, a band of renegades, against one tyrant – one man, Cyra’s brother – the king. Maybe I’m just naive.

I didn’t see the issues in discussing chronic pain as a ‘gift’, probably because I have never had that issue personally but again, I can see why people who do suffer from the medical condition would have been outraged by Roth’s easy dismissal of it. However, I do still believe in fiction – Carve the Mark is supposed to be a world builder, and I would have thought that we could hope to give authors the benefit the doubt when they’re creating whole worlds, that they might not have realised if they are being insensitive? Again, probably why we need sensitivity readers – but how far can we go before it’s too much? A Series of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) is a world builder full of rape, murder, incest, slavery – the list goes on. Why does this not get the same level of criticism? Just because it is an adult novel?

Overall – and to get away from the deep questions – Carve the Mark has a good pace and characters that try to be interesting, but it falls into the usual traps that young adult books seem to fall into all the time. It is not quite as believable as it should be, and the characters are mostly ‘good’ or ‘bad’, without the level of depth that I would have preferred to see to help me understand their view points. However, I still couldn’t put it down and wanted to keep reading, so I guess thats a good thing.

An easy read that focused more on a plot and character creation than the worlds around them, I will continue the series and hope that Roth has learnt from her critics. Verdict: 6/10.

Children of Time: Review

Children of Time: Review

This is, by far, the most complicated world builder I have ever read. Potentially this is because I have only recently begun reading serious science fiction, and even Children of Time, though meticulously detailed, was not heavy on scientific jargon. It focused more on the two halves of the story, even though it spanned what seemed like millennia – seriously, that’s not an over exaggeration. It literally was a story that was told over thousands of years.

Children of Time begins with a terraforming project that ends up creating a world where arachnids (more specifically, jumping spiders) have become conscious and intelligent. Meanwhile, the ‘last hope of Earth’ is leaving our barren planet in search of a new home . Unfortunately, that new home is crawling with giant insects. It should be enough to make your skin crawl, thinking about spiders the size of your leg, but I didn’t find this at all. Half the time, I was rooting for the spiders, finding the world and language they created fascinating.

What transpires, when these two worlds come together, is a very interesting – if a bit long – tale about human nature and how far we are willing to go to survive. Both the humans on the ‘last hope’, a giant space ship, and the spiders, have their own chapters. We are shown how the humans are getting on with their confined spaces, power struggles, and need to find somewhere to call home. We also, on the other hand, see the spiders building their world; their lives, their hierarchies, cities, and finding God and science (the two are not mutually exclusive). I was scared for the spiders, after a while – if the humans tried to come to their terraformed world, their life style could be destroyed. But I also couldn’t bear to think of the human race wiped out entirely. Call it my own survival instinct kicking in, which was a weird thing to feel whilst reading a book.

Children of Time is written by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and is thoroughly, wonderfully descriptive. It is utterly captivating, and he has created worlds that I would have never even thought about, let alone be desperate to know their inner workings. Tchaikovsky has created an incredibly detailed world where the spiders live, and I wouldn’t mind reading a handful of novellas about different parts of the world and how the spiders live their day to day lives.

The only thing that may put readers off is that this is a very long book; I think, in between working full time and actually living, it took me about two weeks to finish it. Sometimes you could feel how long it was, because the action took place over thousands of years as the spiders’ civilisations evolved, but I was never bored. There was always something more to know, or a question I hadn’t thought to ask answered by the author.

Children of Time s touching, human and alien all at once, and imaginative in ways I had never thought about before. This is a great book to read if you’re trying to get into science fiction but are worried about how complicated it can get, as it definitely eases you in and explains everything it needs to. Also, helpful in getting over a fear of spiders? Maybe. Verdict: 9/10.

Wolf By Wolf: Review

Wolf By Wolf: Review

By the author of The Walled City, Ryan Graudin, Wolf By Wolf is one of the biggest “what if”s of the 20th Century: what if the Allies lost World War II? What if the Axis, mainly Germany and Japan, won the war and Hitler managed to pretty much take over the entire world? It’s a massive idea, and Wolf By Wolf is somehow capable with dealing with it on a manageable scale, resulting in an interesting story that follows individuals set in this frightening wider world.

Our main protagonist is Yael, a sixteen year old Jewish girl who also happens to have been experimented on as a child, resulting in her ability to “skin shift” – she can transform into any female, with any physical appearance, that she wants to. This has also led to her lacking a personal identity, which is looked at throughout the book and definitely struck a chord with me. It’s an interesting notion that works in well with our modern world, its interconnectivity and the idea of people becoming ‘international’ – or, more personally, how people can have a ‘third culture’ and lack identity for a certain place, instead choosing their identities based on other aspects of their lives.

The year is 1956 and Yael’s mission, as you might expect, is to kill Hitler. The way to get close to him is for Yael to win a cross-world (from Germany to Japan) motorbike race which is usually reserved for teenage boys – I won’t go into much other detail, as I try to make these reviews spoiler free, but all I will say is that Wolf By Wolf is worth the read to find out how Yael gets on with her mission. The book is fast-paced, with thought-provoking insights to a world I’m glad we didn’t have as a future. The only problem I had with Wolf By Wolf is that it is quite an easy read; the concept was good, but the language didn’t challenge or create an superbly vivid descriptions. As a fast reader who was only reading in drips and drabs at work, it only took me three days. If I had been able to sit and read it through, I think it would have taken me a day, a day and a half at most.

A mix of both a young adult novel and historical fiction, I found in Wolf By Wolf the action was quite light, which contrasted with the historical events and their seriousness (such as the labour and concentration camps). Sometimes, the fear I felt I should be feeling for the characters and their predicaments was not as intense as I thought it should be, considering the brutality of the Nazi regime and the genocide that took place. Even in Yael’s life, it’s historical brutality, and the action that takes place in her present did not make me particularly anxious for her safety.

Saying this, I read it quickly because I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know – needed to know what would happen, and had to keep reading whenever I got the chance. Wolf By Wolf may have been occasionally too light, but there was enough action and oh-so-many cliff hangers that my interest was constantly peaked, and there was never a dull moment.

True, classic young adult fiction with a zesty twist of “what if” history, Wolf By Wolf is a good, strong, juicy start to what I know now is a duology looking into this thought-provoking alternate timeline. Blood By Blood is the follow up, which I will be getting from my local Waterstone’s as soon as I can. Verdict: 7/10

The Trees: Review

The Trees: Review

An intriguing, totally original book by Ali Shaw, The Trees marries reality with the fantastical in the most magical of ways, resulting in a book that is both down to earth and wonderfully human whilst still holding something of the spectacular. It begins in a suburban town just outside London, but within the first chapter, the country (and world, it seems) has been tipped upside down by the arrival of the trees. They appear very suddenly overnight, causing chaos and changing life as we know it in the blink of an eye.

Our unwilling protagonist is Adrien Thomas, and the book follows the journey of this self-proclaimed coward as well as the companions he meets whilst trying to traverse this new world. There’s nature-loving Hannah, her technology deprived son Seb, and a mysterious Japanese hunter girl (and badass) Hiroko. Adrien ‘accidentally’ sets out on a mission to find his wife when he finds out that Hannah and Seb are travelling to find Hannah’s brother; along the way the group come across mythical, or ancient, creatures (not sure which they classify as), confront death and the breakdown of social structure, and also manage to learn a lot about themselves and each other.

The Trees begins at a crawl, and at first I didn’t enjoy many of the characters – especially our antihero Adrien. This might have been because of Adrien’s lack of drive, which the book definitely plays on throughout. I mostly related to Hannah as a character at the beginning, having always also enjoyed nature, but the realisation that social norms (and their lives) have fallen apart quickly has Hannah’s love of the forest beginning to wain and wear out.

At times, Shaw’s novel is very dark; The Trees plays well on human nature and our fluctuating emotions and desires, proving that our instinctive nature is as brutal and wild as the trees that appear over night and show no signs of moving or relenting. In simple terms, The Trees delivers the wonderful, if harrowing, message that humans are still just animals, and our base desires are as savage as the natural world is. I love it.

As the book progresses, I began to feel for the characters and understand them in a more profound way as their personalities were explored, the original impressions peeled away to reveal their inner natures, strengths and weaknesses. The way that they grow to care about each other, in their little band of misfits, was the same way that I grew to care about them. It was an organic (pardon the pun) character growth that definitely made me feel more involved in their predicament, and proved that Shaw’s writing and sense of pace is excellent. By the end of the book, I couldn’t put it down – I needed to know that these people I had grown to care about were going to be alright in their new and frightening world.

Thoroughly engrossing, with a spectacular concept for a nature-lover like me (or anyone who is interested in the different ways we may see the apocalypse), The Trees grows on you like the natural world that gives the book its name: slowly, inching forward and creating solid foundations, but finishing with power and total captivation of the imagination. There is definitely something in The Trees for everyone. Verdict: 9/10.

The Girl With All The Gifts: Review

The Girl With All The Gifts: Review

(note: this is for the book, not the recent film adaptation)

Another dystopian future, I hear you cry? I guess there must be a trend… The Girl With All The Gifts, by M. R. Carey, gives us a believable look into a zombie apocalyptic future. It takes place two decades after a variation of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (it’s real, I looked it up. Check “Cordyceps: attack of the killer fungi” on Youtube. David Attenborough even calls it “something out of science fiction”) has caused the apocalypse – but this plot reads as the most sophisticated, understandable zombie-story I’ve ever come across, within a topic that I would usually shrug off as fantasy.

The zombies in TGWALG are known as ‘hungries’; humans whose nervous systems have been taken over by the parasitic fungus, whose sole purpose is to hunt down non-infected humans and bite them – both to eat them as protein, and to pass the pathogen on through spit and blood, transferring the fungus. Interestingly enough, this is not the first time Ophiocordyceps has been used as a potential zombie-creator. A friend pointed out to me that this is the same fungus used by the console game The Last of Us, developed by Naughty Dog. Interesting coincidence, although in The Last of Us the fungus is also airborne, whereas in Carey’s novel, this hasn’t happened.

TGWATG follows a third-person omnipresent narrative, focusing on four main characters. The most prominent and interesting of these four is Melanie, a 10-year-old child genius… who also happens to be a hungry. She has grown up in a lab with other hungry children who all still have a self-consciousness (unlike the usual hungries, which have reverted to an less-than animal-like state). Enter: Parks, an army sergeant charged with looking after the lab’s security; Dr. Caldwell, the scientist trying to understand the miraculous hungry children and use them to find a cure; and Helen Justineau, the woman who teaches the hungry children, and who Melanie sees as a surrogate mother. Input: chaos, and watch their lives get drastically altered. Nothing will ever be the same again.

I find the ‘hungries’ a genuinely horrifying idea; unlike your traditional zombie, they’re fast, mobile, and once they get your scent, cannot be distracted from the hunt. Originally, I decided to read the book so that when I went to see the film, I would have some idea of the scare-rate, and I’m certainly glad I did, because I would not have been expecting their aggression (saying that, my local cinema didn’t even show the film, so I still have yet to see it). One of my favourite things about Carey’s writing, though, is the depth of every character and the post-apocalyptic world that was created. Half of the characters we get to know were born after the “Breakdown”, and it is interesting – refreshing, even – to see the way they view their new world, as someone who is part of the ‘old’ one.

Set in England, there are a lot of mentions to London, its outlying towns, and pre-apocalyptic memorabilia which I found were easy ways to be drawn into the world of the story. That, and Melanie’s thought processes are incredible; detailed, well structured, and easy to empathise with. I had to keep reminding myself she was 10. Sometimes, I did find myself thinking there were too many similes chucked in that drew attention away from the ongoing plot, but otherwise there was good, thorough description and thoughtful, researched science when the chapters focused on Dr. Caldwell and her research.

A thoroughly refreshing – if horrifying – look on a potential zombie apocalypse, The Girl With All The Gifts is dark, well-paced and an ultimately touching story. It is both deeply, totally human, whilst heavy with science that portrays a scary, animalistic future. Also, it has an absolutely killer ending that I never, ever saw coming. Verdict: 8/10.

 

 

Luna, New Moon: A Review

Luna, New Moon: A Review

Though I have always been a fan of strange and eclectic fiction – which usually gets put under the general headers of ‘sci-fi’ and ‘fantasy’, Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald was my first full-blooded space adventure, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Occasionally, the language was confusing and challenging, but being a English and Drama student, I don’t know much about the science behind the book’s ideas. I mean, I would believe anything McDonald wrote about the way humans have managed to colonise and live on the moon – I have to remind myself it’s still fiction .

Being a prolific reader venturing into a new genre, one thing I noticed about myself is that I don’t really care about the setting of a book. I think setting can enhance a story, but the reason I didn’t blanch at the heavy-duty space jargon was the fact that in it’s core, Luna: New Moon is a book about people. What enthrals and captivates us about books are their characters and their plots- if these things are clever, well developed and interesting, everything else is just a bonus; this theory, I think, perfectly incapsulates Luna: New Moon. (As well as the fact that I was both terrified and intrigued by the book’s constant reminder that the Moon could kill you very, very easily. Just take the first two sentences of the blurb: “The Moon wants to kill you. She has a thousand ways to do it.”)

Luna: New Moon follows the interlinked stories of various individuals surrounding and involving the Corta family. The Cortas are one of the ‘Five Dragons’; five families/corporations that live in delicate balance with the others, controling all of the resources and industries on the Moon. (The Corta family’s wealth and power come from mining Helium-3 to fuel the Earth’s energy needs.) Everything on the Moon – even the air in your lungs – has a price; when you die, your parts are recycled. Nothing is wasted, nothing is squandered. But human nature – our desires, needs and wants – are still strong within the individuals living on the Moon, most of whom have been there so long that they can’t physically return to Earth.

I’m not the first person to notice that Luna: New Moon is similar in it’s politics and family feuds to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones, for the show-watchers), and it’s very true. The difficult, complex web of who-controls-what and who-wants-control feel very similar, except with the huge difference that Luna is set in space, adding an entirely new level of danger. Family is everything to the Five Dragons, but with shifting alliances and an almost-assassination, you can’t trust anyone – and then things start to get really interesting.

Two of my favourite surprises in this book included McDonald’s easy use of characters who were genderless (and have their own pronoun!) and a main character who is autosexual. Having never read a book with either of these preferences in them, it took me a while to get my head around it before I realised: why the hell not? It makes perfect sense, given that the book is set so far in the future. Even if it wasn’t, I feel like more authors should be writing about different forms of sexuality and gender as we become more aware of these things as personal choice rather than trusting ‘traditional’ binaries.

Overall, Luna: New Moon is an eye-opener, in more ways than one. Ian McDonald has created a well-paced, rounded, gritty story packed full of well developed, interesting characters. There is real danger at every turn, and you never know what might happen next. The sequel, Luna: Wolf Moon, came out on September 27th. You can be guaranteed it’s a sequel I’ll be getting my hands on. Verdict: 8/10.

Nod: A Review

Nod: A Review

Though originally published in 2012, I didn’t stumble upon Nod, by Adrian Barnes, until early 2016. Saying that, I’m truly glad I decided to pick it up after seeing it hiding amongst the science-fiction in my local Waterstones.  As I turn to the back of the book and read the blurb, the first sentence is the premise in a nutshell: “Dawn breaks over Vancouver and no one in the world has slept the night before, or almost no one.”

The story follows our narrator, Paul, who is one of the few people in the world – 1 in 10,000 – who has been able to sleep. Not only this, but when Paul now sleeps, he has a mysterious ‘golden dream’. We follow him through the book as modern day descends into sleep-deprived madness; though our interesting, introverted protagonist is still capable of sleep, he is forced to watch as his girlfriend Tanya crumbles, and the city he lives in turns into a wasteland.

It seems to start slowly, but the hordes of ‘Awakened’ are soon digressing to their primitive, animal selves; all bets are off, shackles of humanity stripped away, and order is a thing of the past. The most harrowing thing I felt about Nod? Barnes paints such a vivid, stark image of the apocalypse that I could honestly see this one coming true.

This, in part, is what makes Barnes’ idea so fantastic – and also frightening, in equal measure.  Unlike many other dystopian future/apocalyptic ideas I have come across before, this feels very real. It asks no questions of itself, and doesn’t try to find an answer or a ‘cure’. The plot is both complex and simple in its motive; it’s not about why this has happened, but how it affects everything, day by day, and how humanity tries – and ultimately fails – to traverse their new landscape and deal with their terrifying new surroundings.

Adrian Barnes has a very clever idea here, and it is made even more poignant (I think) by his own personal circumstances. Though my copy of Nod came with his essay, I didn’t read it until after I had finished the book (watch for the ending. Bittersweet). It’s called ‘My Cancer is as Strange as my Fiction‘, and in it, Barnes details his own struggles with cancer, and how Nod and the world Paul inhabits sometimes mirrors the difficulties Barnes himself is facing.

Even if you don’t get the chance to read Nod, the article is a good one, and it’s easy to see why Adrian Barnes is such a good writer. Even when speaking directly to his reader, his writing is intelligent, melodic, and self aware. If you’re looking for a novel (pun intended) read that combines clever, subtle science-fiction with real, human emotion and our basic instinct to stay alive, then Nod is the book for you.

It’s a fairly easy read – though some of it’s content is mature – and it captures the imagination with vibrant description, so if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to put it down. Verdict: 7.5/10.