Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Fireman

They put down Draco Incendia Trychophyton on the death certificates, but even the Surgeon General called it Dragonscale. Or he had, until he burned to death.

A plague is spreading across the world, no one knows how, but the infected burn up. Literally. Not just a fever, they spontaneously combust. Harper is a working as a school nurse when she first sees a man burst into flames, and with the disease spreading fast she soon finds herself volunteering to care for the victims. There is little she can do to help but one day a fireman walks into the hospital with a child needing medical attention. Her act of kindness will not be forgotten…

The Fireman is a long book but every page was worth it. It shows both the best of people and the worst of people, with some amazing characters that cannot fail to illicit an emotional response, be it positive or negative.

It’s not action packed; I mean people fight but they are not all conveniently trained in martial arts or have a natural talent for beating people up. They use makeshift weapons and not everyone is confident with a gun. And when people are injured, they stay hurt for days, or weeks. It just feels more authentic, like they’re normal people struggling to survive.

Humanity is a germ that thrives on the very edge of catastrophe.

I liked that the protagonist was a pregnant women and her pregnancy isn’t a hindrance. There are some characters that see the unborn baby as more important than what Harper wants but these are always treated with disdain. When the child is called “precious cargo” you know no one is endorsing that kind of attitude towards women. The pregnancy doesn’t define her, although maybe it contributes to her resilience. Harper’s pretty amazing.

So really the unique selling point of this novel is the disease, which is different but actually felt really plausible. There’s some science behind it that kind of makes sense. It’s not a virus but a spore and I could believe that there’s fungus out there that could self-combust, taking a person down with it, as well as excreting mind altering chemicals. I mean there’s a lot of freaky stuff out there in nature already.

What was really fascinating was the exploration of group acceptance. I vaguely knew about the existence of a “social media hormone” which is oxytocin. This hormone makes us feel good about group activities and being accepted by your peers. That’s why you get a little buzz out of retweets and likes. As the story progresses we see how the presence of this hormone affects people differently and it looks at the behaviour behind pack mentality and cults.

When they spoke of the Bright, they had all the uncomplicated happiness of pod people.

At one point, one of the characters likens them to zombies. When you think about it, in a traditional zombie story, the cremation crews would have been the good guys, killing the infected for the greater good of the remaining healthy humans. But here we see it from the infected’s point of view. At what point are those human rights withdrawn?

There are some brutal deaths, both intentional and accidental, but instead of a gore fest they all matter. It’s a very people driven story and I did feel that it highlighted the pointless tragedy of it all.

Camp Wyndham that winter was neither Hogwarts nor the island in Lord of the Flies, after all, but a place of wandering, damaged orphans, kids who were willing to forego eating lunch so there was enough food for others.

The characters aren’t scared of referencing pop culture, books and so-forth, just like people probably would. You’ll probably be searching for a Bradbury link with the title and the opening quote… Maybe there’s a little of that pack mentality in both. Camp Wyndham must a reference to John and I think it shares some of its empathy with his “cosy catastrophes”.

I loved this book and I heartily recommend it to anyone who loves a good apocalypse or survival story. The Fireman is published by Gollancz and will be available in hardback from the 7th June 2016 and is available now in ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle has been on my shelves unread for years yet I’m not sure I would have picked it up if it weren’t for book group. Josh had recently started it and given up and I’d seen the Amazon adaptation (which I enjoyed and would recommend even if you didn’t get on with the book).

I think it really helped having an idea of the characters before I started. I can see how most of my book group (and Josh) struggled to get into it. There’s quite a few different characters and it can seem like they are not really connected. The adaptation is pretty different from the book but the characters are essentially the same people.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a book within a book. It is widely available in the Pacific States and the neutral Mountain States but banned in the Nazi ruled East Coast. It tells the story of an alternate history where the Allies won the war, although it isn’t quite the real history either.

There’s not some grand story arc and it’s not particularly dramatic, instead it’s about the lives of everyday people living in a world run by Nazis and Japanese. Frank is a Jew hiding in plain sight with a skill for metalwork and a business idea. Julianna left Frank and San Francisco for the peace of Colorado yet she yearns for a bit of adventure.

Robert Childan is an antiques dealer, specialising in items of Americana for his high profile Japanese customers. He is desperate for recognition, seeing the Japanese as superior and wanting to be accepted into their world. I liked the fact that everyday American items were considered collector’s items now that they weren’t being made. The America that once was has become a novelty.

Mr Tagomi was the character whose story seemed to have been messed with the least in the adaptation. He is a high ranking Japanese trade official, a Buddhist who at times struggles to reconcile his religion with this world he lives in. He crosses paths with Childan when he seeks a gift for a visiting Swedish official, who he believes has come to discuss plastics.

Most of the characters in the story consult the I Ching at some point. I don’t really know much about Taoism but I read the introduction in my edition (after finishing the novel of course) and it made me think that this is rather a clever book even if I didn’t understand all of it. There’s this idea in Tao that the world we perceive is just a façade to another one, perhaps like alternate dimensions.

Philip K. Dick actually used the I Ching to guide him in the plotting of this book. When he got to the point where a character consulted the oracle, he would throw coins and consult the I Ching for answers, using them to decide what the characters would do next. This might also explain its wandering structure, which won’t be for everybody.

I believe I enjoyed this book much more than my fellow book group members but I had a better idea of what to expect having read him before and also being very aware the adaptation was quite different in terms of plotting.

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Book Source: Purchased

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Incoming: Illumicrate Edition

Hopefully everyone's received their Illumicrates by now. I didn't want to share on Instagram when it arrived as it's really hard to avoid seeing things on there and it spoils the unboxing if you already know what's in it. Half the point of subscription boxes is the surprise.

I did nearly cancel my subscription; the previous box had Truthwitch in it which I'd already read, and I didn't love it enough to really want a finished copy. I felt a little like I might end up with a lot of duplicates... but I never got round to doing anything about it and I must say, the third box is the best yet. The book is When We Collided by Emery Lord, the first contemporary YA to be included and, on a purely practical level, a regular sized paperback. It's something I have seen around but not read so thumbs up so far. The box also included some postcards and a signed bookplate.


Next up is something practical (god, when did I get this boring?) but also fun; a plastic "what happens in book club stays in book club" mug which I will definitely use for camping and picnics.


Thursday, 19 May 2016

Prudence

She inspired, at even the best balls, a sensation of immanent dread. It was one of the reasons she was always at the top of all invitation lists. Dread had such an agreeable effect on on society's upper crust.

I’ll admit, I’m not up-to-date with Gail Carriger’s books, but Prudence is the first book in the Custard Protocol series, and whilst there are characters from the Parasol Protectorate series, it’s not the end of the world if you haven’t read everything. Rue’s very existence might be a bit of a spoiler, so stop reading now if you want to keep everything unsullied!

Prudence is a bit slow to get into, mostly because it is introducing a new set of characters and it takes a while to establish the reasoning behind the dirigible travels, which are the focus of this series. Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama is the daughter of Soulless Alexia Maccon (nee Tarabotti) and Alpha werewolf Lord Maccon, who has been raised under the care of vampire Lord Akeldama. With that kind of heritage, she’s hardly expected to be normal, in fact she’s unique. Unlike her mother’s powers, when Rue touches a supernatural she absorbs their powers, leaving them temporarily mortal.

Vampires were like Brussels sprouts - not for everyone and impossible to improve upon with sauce.

When Lord Akeldama need a new variety of tea securing, he sends Rue off to India to represent him in the dirigible, named The Spotted Custard, he had made especially for her. It’s painted a little like a ladybird and not very inconspicuous, the perfect thing for a secret mission! What better disguise than frippery. Of course she needs a crew, taking her best friend Primrose, who will make sure everyone has their tea and cake needs met, and a couple of bothersome young men she could do without, but her father thinks otherwise.

Rue had an abhorrence of pigeons. Some childhood encounter involving a stolen sausage roll was to blame.

Gail’s characters are so much fun that I didn’t mind so much the slow start. There’s plenty of descriptions of clothing and ridiculous hats, so if you’re more after the adventure, please stick with it. Once you get past the introductions it’s great and the second book falls straight into the story (more on that nearer publication date).

Rue and Primrose are a bit naïve and take a while to warm too. There’s a dash of sibling rivalry and some teasing morphing into flirting. Taking Victorian ladies to India could be problematic, but I think the book does manage to touch on the forceful nature of the British Empire and how it definitely wasn’t as welcome as some of society might have thought it.

Progressive is not only what England is. It is what we do unto others.

Oh yeah, and that ladybird has a Gatling gun…

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Book Source: Purchased

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Art of Being Normal

This is what I wrote:
I want to be a girl.

There’s been a lot of praise for the transgender content of The Art of Being Normal but I think it also deserves praise for depicting the class divide. David is from a pretty average YA background; middle class, living in a reasonable size house and provided with whatever he needs, be that material or emotional. Even if he is scared to tell his parents he wants to be a girl, there’s very little doubt in the reader’s mind, they would be accepting of him whoever he is. His mum is depicted as thinking he is gay and trying to let him know it's OK to tell her.

Leo, on the other hand, livings on a rough council estate, with it comes a prejudice he can’t escape. Everyone at his new school assumes him to be violent, because that’s just what all kids from his previous school are like, right? He lives in a small house with his single mother and his two sisters. His mother is often absent and there’s barely anything in the cupboards to give them a full meal. Leo takes on a lot of responsibility of looking after his little sister, something that is more common than we’d like to think amongst teens.

Because ‘normal’ kids don’t have six files’ worth of notes on them. ‘Normal’ kids don’t see therapists. ‘Normal’ kids don’t have mothers like mine, who tell you life isn’t fair with messed-up glee, like the unfairness of life is pretty much the only thing they know for sure. I’ve spent my whole life being told I’m the opposite of ‘normal’.

Leo is desperate to find his dad, knowing in his heart that it was all his mum’s fault for messing it up, look at the state of her after all, and he will be welcomed with open arms. As the story progresses, you realise his mum does care, has done a lot for him, but must also be living under a lot of stress. She’s not perfect, and it’s great to see that imperfect family dynamic in fiction.

David’s really sweet and puppy like. I’m glad there was the switch between narrators as you need something to balance him out. His story is a lot like that of many teenagers, whether transgender or cisgender, not fitting in and being bullied at school. He’s different and he’s picked on for that. How many of us are ‘normal’ anyway? What is being normal?

The part that really struck me was David’s measurements, the fear of becoming a man. I’ve seen much more in the media about transgender kids lately, and hormone blocking, but I had never thought how awful adolescence must be when your body is turning into the wrong sex. He looks for signs of his Adam’s apple showing, facial hair, and worst of all penis growth. He actively wishes his penis to be smaller, that’s not the attitude of a cisgender boy. I really felt for him.

Besides, who wants to be normal anyway? Here lies so-and-so. They were entirely normal.

I’ve used the pronouns and names given at the start of the book.

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Also reviewed @ Pretty Books | ShrinaAlpha




Book Source: Purchased

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray

I thought the artwork in Five Ghosts was excellent but the first volume didn’t really do it for my story and character wise. The series was recommended to me on the London Bookshop Crawl so I imagine it’s one that improves if you persevere. This felt too much like an introduction, where as other Image Comics first volumes have read have plunged me right into the story and wanting to read more.

Fabian Gray is an Indiana Jones type figure, an adventurer and treasure hunter. When he and his sister try to steal the Dreamstone, things go wrong leaving his sister in a coma and him haunted by five literary ghosts. There’s some Nazis too and each ghost gives him a test…I’m not entirely sure why. The tests are all over very quickly and I didn’t really get the point of it all. There’s probably a lot of mileage in literary ghosts but, to me, the ghosts could have been anyone.

Other than Sherlock Holmes, I wasn’t sure who the ghosts were meant to be either. A quick look at Wikipedia tells me: “Ghosts” referred to as "The Wizard", "The Archer", "The Detective", "The Samurai" and "The Vampire". It has been suggested these correspond to Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Miyamoto Musashi, and Count Dracula.

Anyway, I did really like the style of Chris Mooneyham's artwork, there’s some interesting use of colour palettes and a range of styles. Each episode has a vintage style comic cover (by Ben Templesmith) and there’s plenty of full page drawings, as always with Image, which stand up well on their own.


I would probably read a bit more if they turned up in a Humble Bundle, for instance, but I wouldn't go out my way to get more issues.

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Book Source: Purchased

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour

Amy hasn't been able to get behind the wheel of a car since the accident but her mother is moving her across the country, from California to the East Coast, and she needs someone to deliver their car. So she turns to the son of a family friend, Roger, who Amy vaguely remembers from when they were little. But, really, he's a complete stranger who she's going to have to spend days with, shut together in confined quarters. And Roger has his own ideas about the route, not exactly what Amy's mother had planned for them...

This was such a fun book, but with a little slice of serious at the core. I loved the road trip aspect, it kinda felt a little like a travel book at the same time, especially including places I probably wouldn’t read up on that much.

Throughout the pages, there are little scraps of their travels from Amy’s travel journal. Drawings and receipts that just adds an extra something to the book. Some of these even contain a hint of humour. It also includes Roger’s playlists. Usually I am not a huge fan of music in books but actually I recognised a fair bit and it wasn’t like it had huge amount of meaning to it. They have a certain vibe which was suitable for each leg but they didn’t spend too much time analysing it all. Of course, if you'd like to listen, there's a Spotify playlist available.

I liked that it wasn’t really a romance. Amy has bigger things on her mind than whether or not the boy sat in the driving seat is cute or not (though she does have eyes, obviously). Roger is clearly still obsessed with his ex, so much so that he completely derails the plan to go find her. The trip slowly draws her out and the growing friendship with Roger gives her a chance to work through things.

It’s made clear from the outset that Amy’s dad had died and there was some sort of accident. Amy is harbouring guilt in respect of this and as her travels trigger different memories, we learn what actually happened. It shows that grieving doesn’t mean you can’t be doing other things. The story is full of fun and adventure, even if she is sad inside. It’s possible to have both and I think that’s a wonderful message to have in a book. So often the central issue overrides everything else.

Whilst we didn't go on a road trip as such when we went to California, there's plenty that brought back memories. I especially liked the fact that Roger couldn't work out how to switch the headlights on. We spent ages trying to work it out in the rented Mustang and had to pull over. It wasn't where the manual said it was, that was for sure. Definitely one to read before embarking on your own road trip!

I know Morgan Matson has a new book out this year and I'm looking forward to reading more of her work (I think I've got plenty to catch up on).

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Book Source: Gift from the Other Ellie

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Incoming!

I've got about 20 boxes of books packed up and one and a half bookcases still to do so I've been trying to stick to ebooks lately. There's a few books not included here which I have bought, read, reviewed and packed since my last update in a surprising burst of efficiency.

Don't forget to enter my latest giveaway!


For Review:

The Last One by Alexandra Oliva (Penguin)
The Fireman by Joe Hill (Gollancz)
The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan (Puffin)
Imprudence by Gail Carriger (Orbit)
Smoke by Dan Vyleta (Orion)
Thin Air by Michelle Paver (Orion)
Acts of Love by Talulah Riley (Hodder)*


Bought:

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Prudence by Gail Carriger



*Unsolicited titles

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Shtum

When Emma and Ben agree to fake a break-up to help get their autistic son, Jonah, into the best school, father and son move in with Georg. Three generations of men; a son who can’t speak and a grandfather who won’t, and a father at breaking point.

After reading an article by Jem recently, I get the feeling this is a highly autobiographical novel. He has a son with autism, which adds a level of authenticity to the everyday tasks and hardships the characters go through.

It’s an emotionally tough and challenging read in places, although the prose flows easily and the pages turn quickly. Whilst Ben loves his son, the constant care is stressful and neither parent can live their life to fullest, let along hope for the future they wanted for their son. What do you do in those brief moments where you wish you didn’t have to deal with your child? The best they can do is get him into a school that meets his needs, a school that will cost the local authority a lot of money.

She knows what they mean - I can't cope and I want him gone. As soon as the thought enters my head I mentally bat it away, like fleeting thoughts of slitting my wrists or dining on paracetamol.

If caring for Jonah wasn’t enough, they must go through a tribunal to get him a place at a residential school, one where he won’t just be another child to pass through the system. Yet Georg, his grandfather, doesn’t want him sent away, he thinks he should stay with his family, not packed off for the convenience of Ben.

There’s definitely tension between Georg and Ben, but as the story progresses you see more and more why Ben isn’t as well liked as you might expect. It’s not just about Jonah but his own destructive nature. And Georg soon has his own troubles to think about, all culminating in an emotional ending.

Whilst Emma remains in the background, the narrative kept my opinion of her changing. She’s trying to do the best for her son, but then she’s selfish, and then the truth comes out, the real reason the family dynamic is so hard. It’s not what you might assume. It’s easy to think harshly on people without knowing their full stories, and no one is perfect in this family, the reader may very well dislike them at times, they all are very human and fallible. I can empathise with all of them by the end.

Words become meaningless if you don't tell your truth and they become weapons if you try to tell someone else theirs.

I’m not entirely convinced it needed the additional back story of Georg. It explains his determination for Jonah to not be sent away, but it felt a little contrived to me. It didn’t feel as intimate and real as the rest of the story.

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Book Source: Ninja Book Swap

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling

On the cusp of becoming a British citizen twenty years after Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson sets off across Britain once again. He partly muses on how things have changed but it’s not a rehashing of his previous book, instead he visits a new selection of places, and corrects the British Citizenship Test whilst he’s at it.

Bill’s travels aren’t really evenly distributed across the British Isles and he spends a lot of time on the South of England. Personally, I loved this as I felt a lot of the places were either familiar or I could quite easily visit them at the weekend. Even though Bill was less than complimentary on the state of Bournemouth, I couldn’t help thinking he has a point (I’m really not sure why it’s so popular apart from the beach). Though he may, or may not, be happy to know the hole where the IMAX was has now been developed with a weird leaf shelter and some spurts of water coming out the ground that makes you feel like it’s permanently flooded.
This was a garden growing on concrete. That is the most extraordinary fact about Britain. It wants to be a garden.

I also learned what the Rufus Stone was, having passed the sign for it many times and assumed it was just a boulder in the forest. Turns out it’s an obelisk (a sort of stone) and it has a story. I didn’t know Arthur Conan Doyle is buried in the New Forest or that most the Shelley family is buried down the road from my work.

Bill does come across as a grumpy old man but on many aspects, I am on his side. There’s plenty of monstrosities marring the once grand cities, towns and countryside and whilst I know we all have to live here and be practical, couldn’t we do it without building ugly things?

Butlin had invented the prisoner-of-war camp as holiday, and, this being Britain, people loved it.

He pretty much whizzes through Scotland on a train, with some brief thoughts about the highlands before he reaches his destination. There’s plenty of musing about train travel amongst the pages, which isn’t entirely irrelevant, but a bit more time taken in places would have been nice. Maybe he’s planning on returning to Scotland and has been saving it for another book…

The Road to Little Dribbling was, in equal measures, funny and interesting. Despite all his grumpiness, he comes across as genuinely fond of our little country. I’m pretty sure if you are a fan of Bill Bryson, you won’t be disappointed. I have seen a few people complain about his swearing but I don’t think it’s more than an average person uses and it does allow for a rather niche philosophy joke which kept me giggling for ages.

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Book Source: Purchased