IT

Title: IT

Author: Stephen King

Summary: It was the children who see – and feel – what made the small town of Derry so horribly different. In the storm drains, in the sewers, IT lurks, taking on the shape of every nightmare, each one’s deepest dread. Sometimes IT reaches up, seizing, tearing, killing…

Time passes and the children grow up, move away and forget. Until they are called back, once more to confront IT as it sirs and coils in the sullen depths of their memories, reaching up again to make their past nightmares a terrible present reality.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: Straight off the bat, i’ll admit: This review is bias. As a 10 year old kid, i graduated from Point Horror books to Stephen King, and my first novel was IT. I don’t remember first picking it up and deciding to read it. I do remember re-reading sections dozens of times. I remember reading the first chapter aloud to friends during a sleepover. I remember this book being an important part of my childhood.

So this was maybe my fourth or fifth time reading the book cover to cover, but the first time in over 15 or 20 years. The memories flooded back to me. I remembered the overall gist of some parts, and others i remembered almost word for word. I took almost three months to read this book, and it’s because i was savouring it. Fair warning: there will likely be (at the very least, out-of-context) spoilers.

For the most part, the book takes place in two timelines: the summer of 1958 and the summer of 1985. It follows the same group of characters, interspersing their lives from when they are 11 with their lives 27 years later, when they’re 38. This group of characters is the Loser’s Club. Shall we start here then? I love all the losers in one way or another, but my favourite is Beverly. As an 11-year-old kid she’s super awesome–tough and brave and taking no shit. She’s a tomboy who plays rough and dirty with the boys and thinks nothing of it. She won’t let other people’s judgements on the fact that she’s a girl stop her from doing anything. As an adult, i liked her less. She somehow let life wear her down, and she wasn’t as hardy as her younger self. King used her as the much more emotive adult character, where as children it seemed they were all allowed to have a spectrum of emotions. Of the others, i especially loved Ben (emotionally intelligent and intuitively ingenuitive) and Mike (unknowingly wise and unshakably steadfast). But all of the characters are brilliant in their own way–they all have depth and flaws and talent.

The Loser’s nemeses are twofold: an ancient demonic evil entity that preys on children by taking the form of their worst nightmare… and the school bully and his minions. It’s a toss up as to which i find more abhorrent, to be honest. But i guess the ancient demonic evil entity just pinches it, because at least we get the bully’s back story. Henry is a tad twisted and a lot fucked up; full of anger and hate and inadequacy he projects it all at those weaker and more easily targeted, in typical bully fashion. This is heightened, however, by the influence and coaxing of IT. IT has many guises–as a werewolf, a leper, a shark, dead children, a giant bird–but it’s more common facade is Pennywise the dancing clowns (though i don’t recall him doing much dancing). Every 24-27 years, IT shapeshifts it’s way through the odd town of Derry, killing children, before hibernating the time away underground until the cycle begins again.

On the surface it’s a book about monsters, childhood fears, and children’s ability to believe (in the monsters, and in the things that will kill the monsters). But the books is much more than that. It’s about friendship, loyalty, and growing up. It’s about the way society often disregards and controls children. It’s about the ways in which people change as they mature… and they ways in which they stay the same. It’s about how people’s fears and desires influence them on conscious and unconscious levels. It’s about a lot of stuff, okay?

I liked the 1958 timeline more than 1985. I found the characters as kids much more interesting and generally more developed and fleshed out from a writing perspective. The adults seemed a little more two dimensional in comparison, and that wasn’t helped by the fact that for most of the book they couldn’t remember much of their childhood. I think that memory loss left them as less themselves (and that’s me being generous, making it part of the plot, rather than a flaw in the writing). It even goes as far as what they each bring to the group; as kids they all had specific traits that aided their fight against IT, but come adulthood and these are all but gone. While Eddie still showed them the way to IT’s lair as adults, they didn’t need him to get them out. Bev was a natural with a slingshot, but as an adult she didn’t even touch one. It seemed that on the whole, as adults, there wasn’t as much to them as when they were kids.

In both timelines, it was the build up, the planning, and the brief encounters with IT that were the most enjoyable. The climax of the book–the children and adults fighting IT on its home ground, juxtapositioned–was less thrilling for me. For all that build up (over 1000 pages of it), not a lot actually happens. No real fighting or much action–all mind games. Which i don’t mind so much, in fact i rather enjoyed those scenes and getting to hear IT’s own point of view first hand… but the fact that a group of people had ventured there together, to then stand and watch one or two of them hypnotically communicate with IT telepathically was a bit of an anticlimax. It begged the question: Why were they all there?

What did get me was the forgetting. I knew it was coming, but it still hit me quite hard. This group of people forged incredible childhood friendships before gradually moving away and forgetting each other. They then get it all back–they remember each other, they remember all they did that summer, and they find they’re still bonded and care for each other deeply. But then it’s all taken away from them again–and this time they know; they can see it happening. That hit me right in the feels, and was the thing i found scariest of all. The connection these people had to each other, and the memories they made together… all taken from them. It’s altering who they are at such a deep level–they’ll never again know who they really are. That bloody hurts.

I believe we were both thinking the same thing: it was over, yes, and in six weeks or six months, we will have forgotten all about each other. It’s over, and all it’s cost us is our friendship…

Ultimately, it is the chapters detailing the summer of 1958 that i enjoyed the most. Meeting these seven children and them meeting each other. Following them juggle normal summer holiday activities, clashes with an ever more psychotic bully, and discovering and fighting an ancient demonic evil entity. Seeing them learn and experience and bond. Those are the chapters i remember most vividly from when i read this book as a child, because those are the chapters i re-read the most. It was nice to savour a full re-read of the entire book again, but it’s still that summer of 1958 that i’ll carry with me now i’ve finished.

I will also be re-watching the 1990 miniseries, which i was (unsurprisingly) also obsessed with as a kid. It’s likely i’ll write another non-review post about this book, and the film, and what they mean to me. I could have expanded on it here, but i wanted to keep this about the book (and otherwise this post would be far too long!). So watch this space, i guess!

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The Darkening Sky

Title: The Darkening Sky

Author: Hugh Greene

Summary: Dr Power is recruited by Superintendent Lynch of the Cheshire Police to help him solve a murder in leafy Alderley Edge. Power and Lynch are challenged by a series of intense events and realise that they are both caught up in a desperate race against time.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I found this book via goodreads and was taken with both the summary and the cover. Since then i’ve entered about five or six goodreads giveaways for it–but it paid off, as i finally won one!

I was taken with the book and the story immediately. I work in the health service, so the hospital scenes and doctor/patient relationships really got me stuck into the story and this world. I took to Dr Power quickly, too. For a psychiatrist–for someone who can read people so well–and for one of the main characters in a crime-solving duo, he’s very laid back and almost timid. He’s not got anything near the ego you might expect, in fact he’s more unsure of himself than anything. And that’s rather endearing. Superintendent Lynch took a little longer for me to warm up to. As a copper and a religious man, the odds were against him, but overall these are only parts of his character, and often an interesting juxtaposition explored well in the book. Neither of these main characters is either what you’d expect or as simple as they may seem to be.

The writing was great. It was concise, without being pretentious or bloated, telling as much as was needed while still being descriptive and emotive. It made the book easy to read, while also being engaging and enjoyable. I also loved the few pieces of artwork in the book. The drawing style was striking and had a lot of character. There were only a few drawings, so the book was not overwhelmed with them, but they added an interesting extra when i came across them. The cover art is also great–it’s what drew me to the book in the first place. I love the style, and it’s the best cover i’ve seen for a self-published book.

Unfortunately, though, the book isn’t perfect. The biggest things i couldn’t forgive were issues i had with the plot. For the fact that Power is brought on a board as a psychiatrist for his insight… he doesn’t actually bring that much to the table. The fact that it was the sight of the killings that was the key was patently obvious to me from the get go. It undoubtedly helped that the reader has insight into the murderer during the events, but after the second killing at a remote place of historical interest, any investigator would look at the locations for some kind of link or pattern, surely? The fact that i had already put it together made Power’s revelation less than climatic. Linked to this, was Lynch’s hard-won support for the idea. I couldn’t understand how he was at first so resistant to the idea, simply because to him it didn’t make sense. He’s been in the job long enough to have made superintendent, i find it hard to believe he’s yet to come across a criminal whose motives didn’t make sense to him, personally. And then, of course, the rest of the police force and the press, who find the whole theory a load of mumbo jumbo, despite the fact it’s the only thing proving any link between the murders. It made me roll my eyes, honestly.

The ending wasn’t what I had suspected, which was good (i like to be surprised), but it did lack a little something. It felt a little too easily concluded after everything that had been put in. (I hate to say it, but i liked my own ending better.) The first chapter was such an excellent set up, it was so intriguing and posed so many questions. But then the end didn’t really tie back to that, or make any further reference to it, which i think was a shame. Even just a last paragraph, alluding to the fact that a Dr Allen or Dr Ashton had been trying to contact Power would have given me a wry grin and rounded the book off perfectly.

Overall, i enjoyed the book a lot. I loved the characters and although it had its faults, the plot was interesting enough. On the whole i think the book suffered with trying to introduce its characters and build on their new relationships, as well as carry the story. I’m hoping that with Power and Lynch’s friendship and respect for each other established, the sequels can fully explore more interesting plots while pulling this new duo along for the ride. I do plan on reading them, so i’ll find out soon!

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The Scorch Trials

mrstTitle: The Scorch Trials

Author: James Dashner

Summary: Solving the Maze was supposed to be the end. No more puzzles. No more variables. And no more running. Thomas was sure that escape meant he would get his life back. But no one really knew what sort of life they were going back to…

Burned and baked, the earth is a wasteland, its people driven mad by an infection known as the Flare.

Instead of freedom, Thomas must face another trial. He must cross the Scorch to once again save himself and his friends.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ 1/5

Review: I read The Maze Runner about a year ago, and it left with a lot to say. While i loved the story, setting and mystery of the book, the writing was atrocious. The writing in this sequel did not improve, and unfortunately the story, setting and mystery only went down hill. So much so, i couldn’t bring myself to finish the book.

I gave up a little over halfway through, when i realised there was nothing about the plot that was fascinating enough to keep me reading–to keep me reading a book written this badly. I disliked it so much, i don’t even think i can bring myself to write much about it. I’ll take it one aspect at a time:

The plot: This started well, with the safety the kids think they’ve found turning on them. Things changed quickly and so dramatically it was easy to stay interested, to want to keep reading. This lasted through their time in their limited dorm-type space, through the tunnel of molten head-eating machines and up to their exit into “the Scorch”. After that, things started to go downhill. A few days of the boys slogging through the heat, getting nowhere fast, nothing happening… it was dull, to say the least. When they finally made it to the city, to buildings, to other life forms, i thought things might pick up. But after that, it just seemed like action for the sake of action, rather than anything the was driving the plot. IDGAF about underground tunnels and cranks too far gone–i want to know more about WICKED and what the hell they’re doing to these kids. It was at that point i had to give up.

The characters: Minho was still my favourite. I think because he seems the most real. His emotions seem close to the surface, but he’s also pragmatic and wants to get shit done. Despite there being a smaller number of characters, we still don’t get to know many. In fact Thomas, our (still lack-luster) lead, comments a few times that he can’t even name a lot of them. Way to be a dick, Tommy. I guess that way you don’t have to emotionally develop when they die. Talking of Thomas, i hate him. A large part of that is because we’re experiencing this from his POV, and the writing of that POV is absolutely terrible. Some of that is because he lacks any kind of emotional depth. He doesn’t mention Teresa, the girl he shared such a deep and meaningful connection with who went missing, for several chapters, then suddenly claims she’s all he can think about. He’s sobbing and angry when he finds her but has to run and leave her behind, but as soon as a new girl shows up he’s eyeing her up and getting touchy feeling within minutes. There are a dozen male characters, they can’t get hooked up with the new girl? With each other? You can’t have a female character who isn’t a love interest?

Finally, the writing: It is bad. So bad i have to wonder if this was even edited. Did they accidentally print the first draft? Dashner can not write. It’s all tell, no show. Things stated plainly with no feeling or mood. Questions asked blatantly, outright leading the reader rather than enticing them along. Settings described in unnecessary detail, but the emotional states of the characters and evocative atmospheres are consistently absent. His pacing is off, he fails to use language to immerse the reader into the moment, instead dragging them along awkwardly. While i was reading this sequel, my partner attempted to read the first book–operative word: attempted. He didn’t get past the first chapter, and it took him so long because we were sitting together reading out the best examples of the appalling writing. It was fun for 20 minutes or so, but only when you have someone to share the cringe-worthiness with.

I’m throwing in the towel on this series. I officially don’t care how it ends. Call me when someone opens a kickstarter raising funds for a decent author to re-write the entire thing.

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No Monsters Allowed

nomonstersTitle: No Monsters Allowed

Author: Various

Summary: Horror has a human face…

In a world over-run with vampires, werewolves and zombies, No Monsters Allowed goes back to the very roots of horror – humanity itself. The vile acts of our fellow men and women, the fears that hide in our own minds, the nightmares that inhabit our everyday lives . . .

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: This book caught my eye from the shelf in the library. I love horror and i love short stories, but what really got me interested was the human-horror element. So often the horror in fiction is represented as “other” be it in the form of monsters or disease or some such. But horror that draws on the cruelty and evil inherent in the human race is a horror you can’t tell yourself doesn’t exist when you’re trying to sleep at night. It’s scarier because it could be real–because it is real.

Overall the stories here were hit and miss. It’s not that any were outright bad, but that some didn’t hit as hard or leave an impression on me. And overwhelmingly the stories read as quite amateurish, which isn’t a criticism, per se, but the inexperienced writing didn’t help in the stories that were also weaker, and unfortunately did effect how seriously (or not seriously) i took the stories.

One story i really enjoyed was the second one, The Silence After Winter, which was about a woman and a young girl getting by following an apocalyptic event. Really, though, this story didn’t read as horror to me. I loved it because of its post-apocalyptic setting, and it certainly explored human nature and its drive to survive in various ways. But horror? Not so much.

Another great story was Puppyberries, about a new food stuff that takes a small town by storm for a short while. They don’t know what it is or really where it came from, but they can’t stop eating it. The thing is with this story, i was waiting for the human-horror twist for the entire narrative… and it didn’t come. I’m still baffled as to what the human-horror aspect was intended to be, as ending on the insinuation that the puppyberries had living things inside them that burrow out brings this story back around to a monster.

Bred in the Bone, Killer Con, and Precious Damaged Cargo are three excellent stories that hit human-horror spot on. For the first, i could feel the anticipation and the hidden horror throughout, and was perfectly satisfied when it was revealed. The second i loved as a commentary on society’s fixation with murderers and serial killers, with newspaper articles and books written about all the gory details–this story took that to a place and exposed the horror of not only the killers, but the public obsessed with them. The third one surprised me–i did not see that end coming, and i loved it!

My favourite story, and i think the one that struck me the most, and will likely stay with me a while, is Some Girls Wander By Mistake. I loved it because it explores sexuality and transgender topics, but within a horror setting. And the fact that it’s human-horror suits it perfectly. I also loved it because i knew where it was going, what the twist would be, but i don’t know how i knew. I just kept thinking, “This seems that,” and “It would be so good if this happened” and then it did. I just. Loved it.

Despite the stories being hit and miss, i did enjoy this book a lot. Mostly because the stories i enjoyed, i really enjoyed. I might actually have to re-read (and even photocopy?) Some Girls Wander By Mistake before i return it to the library. Damn, i really loved that story.

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High Rise

highriseTitle: High Rise

Author: J G Ballard

Summary: Within the concealing walls of an elegant forty-storey tower block, the affluent tenants are hell-bent on an orgy of destruction. Cocktail parties degenerate into marauding attacks on ‘enemy’ floors and the once-luxurious amenities become an arena for riots and technological mayhem.

In this visionary tale of urban disillusionment society slips into a violent reverse as the isolated inhabitants of the high-rise, driven by primal urges, create a dystopian world ruled by the laws of the jungle.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 2.5/5

Review: I moved this book to the top of my to read pile when i heard about the film, hoping to read the book first and get to see the film at the cinema. There were some delays in getting to the book, but even if the film was still showing, i’m not sure i’d want to bother.

The premise is fascinating. A self-contained society within one multistory block of flats descending into chaos. That’s the kind of story i want to get into the details of, to follow along with as things unravel. Except in this case, that didn’t really happen. The specifics and action surrounding the collapse of the society within the high rise are severely lacking. There are glimpses, but it’s mostly exposition after the fact. The focus is not on the action. Not on what is actually happening or why. The focus is actually one the three main characters. Really, the story is more of a psychological thriller. Instead of detailing the high rise’s decline into dystopia, it follows three men’s descent into varying types of madness.

Spoilers ahead. I can’t talk about how problematic this book is without them, i’m afraid…

There is Royal, the architect of the building, who lives on the top floor and sees himself as above–literally and figuratively–the rest of the residents. This causes him to draw away from his neighbours and isolate himself, instead forming (what he thinks is) a kinship with dogs and birds. There is Wilder, a television producer who lives on the lower floors and is at first keen to make a documentary about the high rise and its self-contained collapse. Over time he becomes obsessed with ascending the building, even abandoning his wife and children to accomplish the feat. There is Laing, a medical professor who lives in the middle of building and mostly just wants to keep to himself. Despite the madness around him, he manages this, pulling his sister in until she’s dependant on him.

The thing is… a story about the fragile egos of three men isn’t fascinating. I didn’t like any of them, honestly. By the end i assumed at least one of them would die, but I wanted all of them to. I just didn’t care about their plights, their mental health, their futures. I just didn’t care.

As male-centric as the bulk of the story is, the end was almost–almost–pretty awesome. While the men have been scrambling about the building, fighting, barricading, protecting… the women have been biding their time, working together and generally getting shit done. BUT, when the focus of the women’s power is centred around caring for children and keeping house i’m left feeling distinctly resentful. Honestly, that’s some pretty dated stereotyping, even for 1975.

Essentially, this was a brilliant idea poorly executed. I had a couple of other Ballard books on my to read list, but i’m seriously going to re-think them. I’m in no rush to read more of his work. I think i will give the film a go, when it comes out on DVD. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually better.

Swan Song

ssTitle: Swan Song

Author: Robert McCammon

Summary: Facing down an unprecedented malevolent enemy, the government responds with a nuclear attack. America as it was is gone forever, and now every citizen—from the President of the United States to the homeless on the streets of New York City—will fight for survival.

In a wasteland born of rage and fear, populated by monstrous creatures and marauding armies, earth’s last survivors have been drawn into the final battle between good and evil, that will decide the fate of humanity: Sister, who discovers a strange and transformative glass artifact in the destroyed Manhattan streets… Joshua Hutchins, the pro wrestler who takes refuge from the nuclear fallout at a Nebraska gas station… And Swan, a young girl possessing special powers, who travels alongside Josh to a Missouri town where healing and recovery can begin with Swan’s gifts. But the ancient force behind earth’s devastation is scouring the walking wounded for recruits for its relentless army, beginning with Swan herself…

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 2.5/5

Review: So, i’ve decided it’s a thing. A read an epic apocalyptic dystopian over Christmas and new year thing. It really cheers me up over the festive period. In 2014/15 i read The Stand, in readiness to read Swan Song in 2015/16. I felt i had to read The Stand first, because chronology and all that. And in the end, it’s turned out i did prefer The Stand, but now we’ll never know if that’s because i read it first (but really, it’s not).

I loved the start of this book. It got straight into the action of launching nuclear weapons and we’re introduced to the characters as the bombs fall. I loved the lack of messing about and getting straight into the story. I loved the gruesome, realistic descriptions of the characters’ post-nuclear blast wounds. I loved how nothing was easy, everything was a struggle and how much the tension was set high from the very beginning.

For most of the book, i enjoyed all the main characters. I didn’t necessarily like them (i’m looking at you, Ronald), but i enjoyed their storyline and their representation–they interested me. I don’t think there was anyone i was overly fond of; there was no one i favoured more than the others, and for that, the deaths that occurred throughout the book were sad, but not genuinely upsetting, which felt like a shame. As much as i liked the characters, i felt far enough removed to see the deaths as a device to the story and other characters’ motivations.

My problem with the characters began when the two main groups of ‘good guys’ finally met up. I had been waiting and getting excited for it, but it was quite a let down, and actually left me disliking characters i had previously been fond of. You choose to traipse all over the country for seven years looking for someone you see in a magic glass crown, that’s your choice. Don’t get all righteous and demanding when that person’s trusted friends are protecting them from you because you are pushy, potentially dangerous, strangers. I’m going to side with the sane, rational people looking out for each other, not the bossy self-important ones who think they deserve something. I never fully recovered my fondness, unfortunately.

The, perhaps very strange, thing i liked most about this book, was its ability to make me wince. I’m a fan of horror, i’m used to gross and disturbing things, and it usually takes a lot to get to me. But there was something about the simple, almost blasé way this book described disfigurements, violence and injuries that had me screwing my face up and hissing through my teeth. And i loved that. I loved being physically affected in that way, because i so rarely am.

Something that bothered me from the very first chapter, continually, right up through to the last chapter, was the choppy–dare i say sloppy–point of view. It switched from person-to-person without warning and in no discernible pattern. No chapter or even paragraph breaks to distinguish and prepare the reader for the change, just -bam- you’re in someone else’s head. It wasn’t hugely difficult to follow, it just interrupted the flow of the reading, particularly when it would flit to one person only for a line or two, then switch back, or switch between a multitude of people in a short space of time. I understand it was to get across more and relevant information to the reader, but honestly it was a sloppy way to do it.

About halfway through the book, time skips ahead. By seven years. I know it’s seven years, because the narrative makes sure to mention that fact several times, very clearly and extremely pointedly. And at this point, i suddenly felt very far away from the characters i’d got to know over the several months the first half of the book spanned. Could not, instead, those first several months have spanned several years? To take the reader, gradually, on the journey with these character over the years and showcase the key points of their growth and spread the plot points out over the years… rather than skipping ahead as if nothing of note had happened in seven years. It rubbed me entirely the wrong way and felt entirely like a quick and easy cheat on the author’s part. “Let me introduce you to all these interesting characters! Aaaaand… skip to the end.”

The major turning point for me and this book was towards the end. When the two teenagers are pushed together in an awfully sexist fairytale way. A kiss to wake sleeping beauty… i strained my eyeballs, i rolled them so hard. I very nearly gave up right there and then, on page 627, with only 229 pages to go. But i persevered, and was rewarded only with more talk of how beautiful Swan was, with how much Robin loved her, even though they’d barely spoken 20 words to each other. Forget all the violence and gore–this made me sick.

Overall, the ending felt rushed and unsatisfying; the threads of stories weren’t so much woven as tangled haphazardly into a knot. It was a case of moving things along too quickly to pack everything in, and in an 856 page book, that’s quite something. Suddenly war and defence! Suddenly prisoners of war! Suddenly weeks later on the road! Suddenly ‘God’ and the end of the world! And still other things weren’t explored or utilised enough. For seven years a magical glass crown is converted, protected and hunted. Its vital role in the story is stressed and pages dedicated to an exaggerated ‘crowning’ scene… only for it to have no relevance to the dramatic conclusion of the book. It becomes a trinket. And i’m left with the overwhelming feeling of, ‘What was the point?’

What was the point? That was the ultimate feeling i was left with when i closed the book. For all it galloped to the big climax, the very end–the ‘they all lived happily ever after’–dragged. At that point, i didn’t care that much. I was just wanting it to be over.

The Maze Runner

mazerunnerTitle: The Maze Runner

Author: James Dashner

Summary: When the doors of the lift crank open, the only thing Thomas can remember is his first name. But he’s not alone. He’s surrounded by boys who welcome him to the Glade, an encampment at the centre of a bizarre and terrible maze.

Like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they came to be there, or what’s happened to the world outside. All they know is that every morning when the walls slide back, they will risk everything to find out.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: This book found its way onto my to-read list thanks to the film they made out of it and, of course, my desire to read the book first. A couple of year later and i finally got around to reading the book. Billed as “a must for fans of The Hunger Games”, the dystopian science fiction and the draw of the puzzling maze… all these things had me hopeful and excited.

The entirety of the 3.5 stars i am giving this book are based solely on its plot, genre and ideas. They are fascinating, original and left me eager to keep reading. I had so many thoughts and ideas and questions that i had to keep reading to explore and find out more. Where is the Glade? Why are all these teenagers being sent there? Where (if anywhere) does the maze lead? ETC, ETC. However. The 1.5 stars this book did not get, is mostly what i find myself needing to talk about.

Firstly, Thomas. Our lead character. I didn’t hate him, but neither did i like him. I wasn’t rooting for him, because ultimately i couldn’t get a genuine feel for him. He seemed like a non-character. He was wildly inconsistent; he would decide he liked someone, then in the next chapter they would do something he didn’t appreciate and he’d decide he didn’t like them. I specifically noticed this with Chuck, Minho, Newt and Alby–Thomas was constantly liking then disliking then liking them again. He was also a contradiction in himself; one example that sticks in my mind was one minute he wanted to avoid people, then the next he didn’t want to be alone. And the thing that bothered me most about these swift changes in attitude was how sudden and out of the blue they were. There was no plot-driven reason, or even situational reason, it just seemed like he needed to think and feel something, so it was just bunged in without thought.

Leading on from that was the fact that Thomas asked a lot of questions. And i don’t mean to the other Gladers, when he was trying to get information or figure things out, but i mean, in his head. He posed questions straightforwardly, prompting the reader to consider certain things–pushing them in a certain direction. Essentially, it’s a poor writing device. Instead of leading the way with action and description, Dashner decided to point the way with neon road signs.

There were a few things that felt forced, contrived and unnecessary. The first and most obvious thing was the slang language of the Gladers. Words like ‘klunk’, ‘shank’ and ‘shunk’ which to me had no specific definition and all seemed interchangeable with ‘shit’ and/or ‘fuck’. The other thing that felt unnecessary was, i’m sorry to say, Teresa. The token female, she brings nothing to the book for being a female other than a vague attempt at a romance and a few poor-taste rape jokes. Why not just make the entire group a mix of males and females? From what we learn towards the end of the book, am i to assume penises make a person more intelligent? Because if so, fuck you, James Dashner.

For all its mystery and world building and hooks and set up, at times this book was rather predictable. The large-scale plot and back story is almost impossible to figure out precisely, but the small plot points and the details were simple enough that i saw them coming immediately. And for a group of oh-so-intelligent teenagers, it leaves me highly unimpressed that they missed these things. Who set the fire was obvious before the fire was even mentioned, and WICKED was literally staring them in the face, to give but two examples.

Although i devoured the second half of this book in a couple of hours, it still had its issues. The action-packed climax was not smoothly written; i was never so caught up in what was happening that i forgot i was reading. There were even times when things were unclear and i was confused, which caused me to go back and re-read parts. I want to be immersed in the action, not stopping to figure things out or rearrange things in my head. Action scenes, particularly, need to be edited to hell in order to make them run smoothly and effortlessly for the readers. These ones weren’t.

The last few chapters and the last few reveals were… a little rushed. So much changes, but at the same time, so little is actually revealed, that i felt very unsatisfied by the non-answers to the entire book’s set up. Instead of a satisfying end to this book, i felt like i had read the first few chapters of the next. And that’s bad form, as far as i’m concerned. Screw the sequel, you need to give closure to this book–to this story, before you start writing a big ellipsis and thinking about all the money you’ll make from a sequel.

Saying that, i think i will read the sequel. I’m not overly optimistic about it, but there was enough interesting plot and world in this book that i’m still thinking about it; still, in some ways, want to be reading it. So, i will give Dashner one more chance. I’m pinning my hopes on him having taken a writing class and hired a better editor between writing The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials…

The biggest downfall of this book, 100%, is the writing. At best, it’s mediocre. It’s all tell no show, it’s so basic and straightforward. It lacks passion and atmosphere, it lacks interest and development. Although a few characters were interesting, i got the impression this was an accident, and they were never explored deeply enough. It’s one of those books i can so easily see being so much better, and that disappoints me more than anything–so much wasted potential. As i have read in other reviews, if this book and its premise and ideas had been in the hands of another author, it could have been incredible. Instead, it’s only halfway decent.

This knocks one square off my Bookish Bingo: An Asian main character.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

WHALitCTitle: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Author: Shirley Jackson

Summary: Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn’t leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with the overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family.

In her final, greatest novel, Shirley Jackson draws us into a dark, unsettling world of family rivalries, suspense and exquisite black comedy.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I adore Shirley Jackson’s work. There is no simpler way of putting it. She writes such slow, careful, creeping horror stories. Not the kind to make you jump or wince, but the type of horror that crawls inside you and makes you cold. It’s atmospheric and psychological and entirely within the realms of possibility. And i love it.

I was hooked from the first chapter here, as our narrator Merricat walks through the local village, buying groceries, exchanging library books and pausing for coffee. It sounds so normal, but it is anything but. What struck me most was how she turned the unpleasant trip into a game–if she could make it to her next goal without being whispered about, stared at, or called out to, she would win. Head down, moving as swiftly as possible, she would pass through the village while imagining all of its inhabitants dead, consumed by rot. And Merricat would picture herself walking over their bodies, on a satisfying and peaceful trip through the village. Yes, i liked Merricat right from the start.

It was also during that first chapter that [SPOILER>>>] i decided she had been the one to poison her family. [/spoiler] I don’t think it’s meant to be a huge twist when that fact is revealed later in the book–it is more a surprise that they are openly talking about it, as comes across as an unspoken acknowledgement for most of the story. Merricat very much lives in her own world, using her own made up “magic” to keep herself and the family safe. But when her magic starts to fail and Cousin Charles shows up, Merricat doesn’t admit defeat.

It may be the fact that Merricat is our narrator, and an unreliable one at that, but i really did dislike Charles and the villagers. But Merricat is the protagonist, and as the reader, i was behind her 100%. I wanted Charles gone and the villagers punished. In fact, i wanted it so much that this book kept me up until midnight last night. I had to keep reading, i had to get to Charles’ comeuppance. It is actually so, so rare for a book keeps me up at night, and i really relished it.

The only think i really disliked about the book was a lack of detail or information on certain things. Mostly regarding the village and why all the locals hated the Blackwoods so, so much. It was alluded that the Blackwoods had never really been popular; shutting their property off with a fence, thinking themselves better than the others in the village. But so much of the villagers’ anger focuses on the poisoning, an incident that was so self-contained i can’t understand why it alone would be enough to incite such hostility. Of course, we see all this via the unreliable narration of Merricat, so the reader is either misinformed, or Merricat herself doesn’t have all the information.

The ending was… enough to satisfy me. It felt a little like it trailed out and went on just a smidgen too long, for my own tastes, but the situation was apt. Despite all that happened, Merricat and Constance are simply more entrenched in their solitude and safety than they were at the start of the book. The last couple of chapters also gave me more appreciation for the minor characters, who genuinely did care, despite their inability to help.

It’s a book with no firm conclusion, no cut and dry happy ending, and leaves me with more questions than answers. But then, that’s exactly the kind of conclusion i love.

This knocks one square off my Bookish Bingo: Set in a small town.

Breakfast of Champions

breakfast-of-championsTitle: Breakfast of Champions

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Summary: In a frolic of cartoon and comic outbursts against rule and reason, a miraculous weaving of science fiction, memoir, parable, fairy tale and farce, Kurt Vonnegut attacks the whole spectrum of American society, releasing some of his best-loved literary creations on the scene.

Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5

Review: This book is… i’m not sure ‘weird’ covers it, to be honest. But it’s not just weird. It’s funny and insightful and astute and 100% on point. This book is brilliant.

If you can look past the strangeness–the odd, round the houses tale of the two main characters and the chain of events that lead them to meeting… the multiple random asides that go on for several pages that are then referenced several chapters later… the interweaving details and history of the characters, the characters’ family, and things that happened to them many years ago… the author-insertion into his own book… If you can look past all that, or, perhaps more accurately, look deeper into that, Vonnegut is making some relevant, sharp and witty comments on life.

My personal favourite was when he started giving the length and girth of the penis of every male character he introduces, and the bust/waist/hip measurements of every female. Oh, and the average number of orgasms each character has in a month. Because this is the real information people care about, right? How big your dick is and how much sex you have. Of course, this information allows you to draw zero conclusions about these characters. Another example of the same thing would be the way he introduces characters by telling you whether they are black or white–because far too many people think this is relevant when it isn’t–it adds nothing to the characters…

…Except of course when Vonnegut has a point to make about racist and class divides, then things become very relevant. And Vonnegut has a lot to say–a lot of points to make–about a lot of things. By framing them slightly off, by showing them from a slightly odd character’s point of view, he points out the slightly odd things about society, about humans, about life. Those points could be missed if all you’re thinking about is how weird the story is. In a way, the story itself is lost without the astute details Vonnegut is slipping in.

I think this is the kind of book you either get, or you don’t. And while i’m sure there was plenty of things i missed (and do believe a re-read would be in the book’s favour), there was so much i loved and took away with me from this book. So many smiles and laughs and wry nods of the head.

This knocks one square off my Bookish Bingo: A memoir (okay, maybe not exactly, but the blurb does say: ‘a miraculous weaving of science fiction, memoir, parable, fairy tale and farce’ so i’m totally having it).

The Hourglass Factory

hourglassTitle: The Hourglass Factory

Author: Lucy Ribchester

Summary: Meet Ebony Diamond: trapeze artist, tiger-tamer, suffragette. Where there is trouble, she is never far away. But now she’s the one in trouble, and she’d up to her neck in it.

Enter Frankie George: tomboy, cub reporter, chippy upstart. She’s determined to make her name on the London Evening Gazette, if only someone will give her a chance. The Ebony disappears during a performance at the London Coliseum, and Frankie jumps at the chance to find out what happened.

How did Ebony vanish, who was she afraid of, and what goes on behind the doors of the mysterious Hourglass Factory? From the newsrooms of Fleet Street to the suffragette headquarters, Frankie enters a world of society columnists, corset fetishists and circus freaks on the trail of a murderous villain with a plot more deadly than anyone could have imagined…

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 2.5/5

Review: I bought this book on a whim after i saw in in a shop. The cover caught my eye, it had females leads, it included suffragettes… it seemed interesting. It seems like it will be the last time i buy a book on a whim.

This has taken me over a month to read, it was so hard going. The worst of it is, though, that there is nothing i can point to to say ‘this was bad’, but at the same time, not much i can point to to say ‘this was good’. It wasn’t so exciting or engrossing that i wanted to pick it up to keep reading, but it wasn’t so bad that i just wanted to give up altogether. I wanted to have read it, i just didn’t want to read it. And in some ways, that’s worse than just disliking a book enough to not finish it.

It had a great concept, a great premise. The era it was set in and the suffragettes… except the plot was so (so, very, very) slow to get going that instead of being interesting in the book itself, i was more inclined to research more details about the suffragette movement. In fact i have a copy of The Militant Suffragettes on my bedside table to read in the near future now i’ve (finally) finished this book!

I liked the characters, at least, the characters i was supposed to like. And i disliked the characters i was supposed to dislike. It was all very easy–too easy. What i would have liked is more. There are hints and trickles to these characters, but nothing more. Inspector Primrose and his wife particularly gained my affections and interest, and i wanted to know more about them. Instead they seemed like bit-part characters filling the role of stars. The same can be said for all the characters. I liked Frankie, but we’re only ever given hints of her feelings. Does she regret her childhood sweetheart married someone else? Does she feel for the women she gets to know over the course of the book, or is she only interested in making it in a man’s world? Milly and Ebony seemed too far away to reach… too attractive to be very deep. Liam seemed smart and highly under-appreciated, and i would have liked him and Frankie to stop arguing and acknowledge the value of each other at some point.

The plot meandered, with the characters fumbling from one clue to the next, not really figuring anything out until it was put right in front of their noses. And never actually finding the missing Ebony–instead she finds them. The end culminates in action-packed fashion, but mostly i didn’t care, unfortunately.

There was just so much to like about this book… but it was so lacklustre and mediocre. I’m annoyed with it for not being what i had hoped it would be.