Category Archives: Modern Fiction

Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

This novel has a really fantastic concept.  It is set none specifically sometime around the present and then takes us forward a few years into the future so we can see the effect of the changes the world has faced.  It begins as teenage girls all over the world begin developing a power, they can generate electricity from their hands which they can use as a weapon to give people electric shocks.  First it is just teenage girls and then they find they are able to awaken the power in older women and baby girls begin to be born with the power.  The novel follows a handful of characters from different parts of the world, mostly women but also one man, as they adjust to the new reality.

The PowerThe novel is obviously all about gender relations.  How would the world look if women not men were the physically stronger sex?  The idea suggested is that the root of male dominance is superior physical strength and that if this were taken away in all cases, not just in some cases as it is now (we all know some physically strong and tough women and some physically weak men but these tend to break the overall pattern), gender relations would be transformed and women would be the dominant gender in all parts of the planet.  It also suggests that it would alter gender behaviour and roles in ways not even directly related to physical strength or power.  The whole idea really makes you think!

In terms of weaknesses I felt once the concept had been introduced the novel really went off the boil.  I didn’t find any of the characters tremendously interesting and the middle section of the book became rather dull.  It picked up a bit at the end when there were quite a few exciting and harrowing action sequences as men in parts of the world decided to try and fight back against the new reality.

3.5/5

Zoe

 

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Book Review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent

This is the second novel in the trilogy and picks up right where Divergent left off.  So Tris, Four and their uneasy alliance are sort of on the run after the vicious attack by mind controlled Dauntless on Abnegation.

Their society is more divided and ill at ease with itself than ever as our heroes have to seek allies and shelter with other factions as well as turning to the factionless for help.

This is a great book.  It’s action packed and exciting as well as taking time to explore more of the themes of Tris’ strange world and to follow her struggles to recover from the guilt at having killed a friend to defend her family in the last book.

I would say a downside is that Tris’ behaviour is a little infuriating at times.  She is needlessly (in my opinion) secretive with Four, who has made his love for her clear.  But I can see why the author has her act this way and she is trying to show just how messed up Tris is by the trauma and losses of the last book – she’s very human, acting illogically and making mistakes.

It’s good to get to know other factions a little better too.  Both the readers and Tris get to see that there are many members of factions who don’t neatly fit into the personalities they have been assigned.

The novel ends with a wonderful big reveal and a tantalising cliff hanger that has me impatient to read the next book!

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian

I thought this was awful.  So awful that I only got to page 69 and felt I was wasting my time so abandoned it.

This book was a best seller so what was I missing?

The book is about a man (whose name I can’t remember) who gets stranded on Mars during a space mission.  The Book pretty much seems to be set in the present day.  A crew of about six people have landed on Mars and there is a storm and they have to leave in a hurry.  During the evacuation whats-his-name gets hit by debris and apparently killed so the crew sadly abandon his body rather than risk more lives.

But he’s not dead!

He comes round with an injury and makes his way to the buildings that have been placed on Mars over several missions.  There are only basic supplies as it wasn’t intended that anyone would stay there for any length of time, and there is no way to contact Earth.  He knows there will be another mission in four years that can save him but doesn’t have enough supplies to last anywhere near that long so if he wants to survive has to find ways to create food and water.

The next part of the book is a lot of detail about him working out his survival techniques.  It is all written in the first person in the form of mission log entries.  According to other reviews the science described about how you could survive in these conditions is excellent, all the calculations and facts have been well worked out by Andy Weir…but I don’t care!  It’s boring reading about how much water you need to grow potatoes and about soil nutrients and oxygen supplies.  Dull, dull, dull – at least in this context.

What I wanted to know is how Whats-His-Name is feeling.  What is he thinking?  Why is he so driven to ensure his survival?  What is there on Earth for him to go back to?  We don’t find out – at least not in the first 69 pages.  He records his very detailed logs in an unbelievably irritating tone, it sounds forced and as if he is trying too hard be glib and funny at all times – and failing miserably.  At no time does it come across as a realistic inner voice.  I think he is lucky he was stranded alone, if I had been stranded with him I would have throttled him to death on day one even if that meant being left alone with no clue as to how to grow potatoes.

After an interminable 50 or so pages of potato growing (some of which I admit I skipped) the action jumps to Earth where we find out how his former colleagues are responding to his supposed death.  This is boring too.  All the ‘characters’ speak with the same voice, they are completely interchangeable and all talk in short glib sentences that don’t sound like real dialogue.

So I quit.

It isn’t that I hate science or realistic details but I think they are pointless in a novel if there is no heart to the story and no characters whose fate you are engaged with.  Perhaps that comes later in but I needed at least a taste in the first 69 pages to keep me interested.

1/5

Zoe

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The Book of You by Claire Kendal

The book of you

This is a really frightening book, I’d say more horror than mystery.  So beware if you are easily frightening and a wimp (like me).  But if you are made of sterner stuff it is a pretty good read.

The main character is Clarissa, a woman definitely down on her luck.  Her husband has left her after years of unsuccessful fertility treatment, her career has stalled and she hasn’t really got any friends…and now she has found herself pursued by a scary stalker!  Her life is so rotten that she greets a jury service letter as a source of salvation, being on jury service will get her temporarily away from her stalker and her crappy job and she might even make some new friends.  But I am afraid her high hopes lead only to disappointment.

The villain of the piece is Rafe.  He works with Clarissa at the University of Bath and probably drugged and raped her after a party.  I say ‘probably’ as we only have it from Clarissa’s point of view and she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, he gave her a strange tasting glass of wine and she awoke the next morning naked in bed with him feeling sore and bruised.  She is confused and disoriented and doesn’t report it.  From this point on he acts like they have begun a relationship after a night of consensual sex.  He pesters her and sends her creepy presents and when she yells at him to leave her alone behaves as if they are having a harmless lover’s tiff.

At times you feel quite frustrated with Clarissa.  Why didn’t she report the rape to the police?  Why isn’t she taking this more seriously?  But at other times you feel sympathy.  She is a very vulnerable woman, possibly quite depressed, and she has confused and complicated emotions about what happened to her that night as many rape victims do.  Also Rafe is very convincing to the outside world, he is charming and successful at work and even convinces Clarissa’s oldest friend that he and Clarissa have been having a relationship and that he is nothing more than a caring and concerned boyfriend to the mentally disturbed Clarissa.  So Clarissa comes up with a plan, she will systematically collect and record evidence until she has enough to present the police with a strong case against Rafe.

The trial Clarissa is a juror for, far from being an escape, is a rape case that brings up painful memories of her own experiences and fears.  At the same time, outside the relative safety of the court, Rafe’s behaviour becomes increasingly menacing.  Will she gathered enough evidence to see him convicted and out of her life or has she underestimated the danger she is in?  Read this book to find out…if you dare!

A bit too violent and scary for my tastes.

3/5

Zoe

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Book Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This book has an interesting style.  It is fiction but is written as if it is true crime with the text made up primarily of witness accounts and trial documents and reports.  The crime in question is the murder of a Scottish crofter and his young son and daughter, the criminal is one of his neighbours, a 17-year-old boy, Roderick Macrae.  It is set in 1869 in the Highlands of Scotland.

Most of the book is an account written by Roderick (who freely admits his guilt) of the circumstances leading up to his crime.  It makes fascinating reading, not just because of the crime, but because of the picture it paints of life as a 19th century crofter.  People living as peasants long after the industrial revolution had swept the rest of the country.

The story also offers an element of mystery.  Not as to who did the crime, as that is pretty clear, but why.  Because he is so open about his guilt Roderick seems a reliable witness but aspects of his account don’t tally with evidence found in court documents.  Did he really kill the family driven by family pride after a prolonged disagreement as he claims or did he actually have baser motives?

It is a very interesting and well written book.  Mysterious and offers a glimpse into a world very different from modern Britain.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's Ark

This is the Booker prize winning novel on a very serious subject of the holocaust.  And I didn’t finish it.  I feel bad, like I was obliged to find it brilliant and moving as so many other people have.

The subject matter really is moving and the darkest subject there is.  The story has an element of hope too however.  It tells the story of Oscar Schindler a Czechoslovakian businessman living under Nazi rule during World War II.  He uses his wealth, power and influence to save as many Jews as he can.  The book was made into a film, retitled Schindler’s List, which won a record number of Oscars.  It is based on a true story and real people.

I guess with the subject matter it’s not the kind of book you expect to enjoy but I have to say I didn’t find it hugely moving or engaging either.  The style didn’t pull me in.  Keneally moves between short, often harrowing, stories of Jewish families before quickly moving on to another individual’s or group’s story.  The only constant character is Oscar, but I never really felt I ever really got to know him well either.  I think it is probably intentionally arranged like this, it would be easier for the reader to follow if we stuck with one group of characters but perhaps part of Keneally’s take is to show how many horrifying stories there were and not give any one the focus of the book.  There was one tale I particularly liked with elements of joy about a couple who fell in love and married while confined to a work camp, their friends and family help them court, marry and even attempt a wedding night all in secret without the guards finding them out – it was almost funny!  Then we left the couple after only six pages or so – I was left wanting to follow their story for good or ill.  Other books I have read about the Holocaust recently have been Diary of a Young Girl and The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas, these tales make the holocaust human and almost manageable by focusing on a small tight experience, Keneally leaves the holocaust vast and hard to imagine or relate to.  It’s admirable but it just wasn’t for me, I constantly found myself wishing I was reading a factual book instead or that it would start to take on a more conventional storytelling approach, I found myself having to be disciplined about picking it up and reading it was slow going until I eventually gave it up with about 100 pages to go.

I’m not sure if I failed or the book did.

2/5

Zoe

holocaust memorial

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Book Review: The Only Story by Julian Barnes

“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

This is how it starts, and I immediately knew, just by reading those words, that I will be witness to a beautiful and heartbreaking love story that will leave me, after the last page, with a heartsore. I was entirely right.

“Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.”
The_Only_Story
As a younger man, the narrator becomes entangled with an older woman, and their story is told in three parts. Interestingly, the perspectives change from first person, to second, to third, possibly reflecting the narrator’s maturing, and the distance he places between himself and his love story over time. As the ‘only’ story continues, many other facets of love emerge including commitment, sacrifice, and obsession to the point of addiction.

The author explains his choices to use these narration techniques better than I ever could. .“And first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realize that there are other persons, and other tenses. ”.

“The Only Story” is a story about a powerful love destined to fail, about hope, social conventions, shame, unspoken guilt, and loss. It is a beautifully written novel, as everything Barnes writes, but I do recognise that a slow moving plot and a deeply contemplative style is not everyone’s idea of a bedtime read.

“You realize how sympathy and antagonism can coexist. You are discovering how many seemingly incompatible emotions can thrive, side by side, in the same human heart.”

 

Georgia

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Book Review: The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

improb love

This book had a pretty good plot.  It concerns the rediscovery and sale of an 18th century French masterpiece called The Improbability of Love.  The novel opens on the night of the auction where we learn about all the fuss and attention of the sale and we also learn a little about the people buzzing round the painting; potential buyers and those hoping to profit directly or indirectly from the sale.  Then the novel jumps back 6 months to the initial discover of the painting in a junk shop then moves us through the identification of the painting and the discovery by certain characters of it’s very dark history and then back to where we opened on the night of the sale.  Along the way we have; romance, struggles with alcoholism, sex, greed, lies, a woman arrested and imprisoned for a crime she did not commit, Nazism, murder…and more!  Sounds like rollicking good read?  Well unfortunately it’s just really badly executed.

A major problem is that there are too many characters and most of the characters don’t play a part in the actual story.  We learn all about the backgrounds and wealth and…wardrobes of the incidental billionaires and millionaires hoping to purchase the painting but this knowledge doesn’t take us anywhere of achieve anything.  I guess Rothschild is trying to establish just how important the discovery of this painting is by showing us how many people are effected and involved but the problem with all her characters is that they are either A – totally boring, or B – totally over the top and not slightly believable or C – totally boring AND over the top and not slightly believable (mostly they are C).

Aside from all the bit parts we do have a couple of main characters at the heart of the tale.  Jesse and Annie are the innocent romantic leads unwittingly caught up in the chaos around the painting.  Annie is the young down at heel cook who buys the painting as a birthday present for a date who stands her up and Jesse is a struggling artist she bumps into in a gallery a little later who is helping her identify her mystery painting.  A bigger pair of sappy dull wet fish are difficult to imagine.  Reading about the development of their relationship and growing connection and attraction is the least sexy thing I have read since…Mein Kampf!  She is just a saintly goody two shoes with ‘victim’ written all over her (aside from discovering the painting she is nursing an alcoholic mother and her own broken heart from the end of a long term relationship) and he, well we don’t really know too much about him other than that he has floppy hair and a “slightly feminine mouth” and that he fell totally in love with Annie’s goodness and sweetness the second he laid eyes on her and will do anything to help (YUK!)

Most of the characters are mega rich, the leads are the only exception but are as about as convincing a picture of working class life as you’d find in a Richard Curtis script.  Annie comes to London after being dumped by her long term romantic and business partner in Devon.  She has no connections and no formal qualifications as she ran her own catering business with her older boyfriend from the age of 16, she has no references either as it would be a bit awkward asking her ex!  So what does she do when she arrives in London?  Find a room to rent in a shared property using Gumtree ?  Get a few zero hours shifts at a Sports Direct while getting a cleaning gig in the evening to pay the rent? NO!  She rents an entire one bedroom flat to herself (in London…in 2015…) and somehow gets a job as an assistant to a world famous film director – as you do!  The job is lowly but obviously flings her into the orbit of the rich and influential, her connection with the film director gets her a job as a chef with his wife, an art dealer, which then gets her catering gigs with the great and the good.  Honestly, rich people must think us down here are all mugs wasting our time complaining about minimum wage and job seeker’s allowance when apparently it’s that easy to go from nothing to being quite successful with only hard work, talent and goodness in your armoury.  It had the massive chip on my shoulder itching and throbbing painfully.

I considered quitting this book many times.  But the plot kept me in there as I was curious to find out what happened to the painting, but you know what they say about curiosity?  Don’t make the mistake I did, save yourself the pain and don’t get started.

 

1/5

Zoe

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Book Review:  All That Man Is by David Szalay

This is a great book.  It consists nine short stories about men.  It seems pretty random at first as the men are from all different countries, different classes and the stories are different; some funny, some sad some kind of just incidental.  After the first few though you realise that the age of the man goes up by a few years in each story, so I guess if you are looking for a theme this deals with the stages of life; the first main character is boy who has just finished his A-Levels and the last an old man facing declining health and the end of his life, in between you find young men exploring their sexuality, facing unwanted fatherhood, struggling to find career success, relationship breakdowns and disappointments  – life basically.  Some men are rich, some poor, some reasonably happy, others totally depressed – there was heaps of variety.

all that man is

I guess the downside of such a mix is that you are bound to relate to some stories and characters more than others.  My favourite was the second tale about a young French man who goes on an 18-30 style beach holiday to Cyprus on his own after his intended companion drops out last minute.  A bit of a saddo, he struggles to make friends when he gets there and ends up being taken under the wing of an obese mother and daughter from England.  Not cool!  I have never been a male French youngster but could really relate to the concerns, possibilities and awkwardness of youth that Szalay portrays.  This section was funny enough to have me laughing out loud and gasping with joyful shock during my commute.  It was also strangely touching about finding something rather nice in unexpected places – places that really are not cool!

After this classic the rest could only really go downhill unfortunately although I did still get a lot out of some of the other stories, my second favourite was probably the one about the young academic meeting up with his Polish girlfriend during a road trip and having to deal with her unplanned pregnancy.  In this tale I felt so sorry for both characters, one wants the child and one doesn’t and, in my opinion, neither one of them is ‘wrong’ but there is no compromise position and one of them is about to have their whole lives effected against their will.  They clearly care about each other but you can feel antagonism grow as he realises he may be forced into fatherhood he doesn’t want (an absent father is still a father) and she realises he is trying to persuade/bully her out of the motherhood she now craves.  It is very well written.

I also enjoyed the one about the poverty stricken British loser living with a few other oddballs in an unglamorous Croatian town remembering his glory days in the 1980s when he was briefly quite successful and owned a nice car.  He drops into every conversation the old car he used to own 30 years ago – and I can’t even remember the make as I have zero interest in car brands.

Overall though I would say I felt the stories were best when concerning young men.  They were more entertaining and rang truer than the later stories. I wondered if that is perhaps because I am still relatively young and can relate to the concerns of youth better than those of late-middle age and old age.  Or perhaps the same could be said of the author who is only a few years older than myself.

A very good read and easy to get into as the stories work stand alone so there is no effort involved remembering complicated plots or huge casts of characters – which (sorry to sound lazy) can be a relief if your reading time is made up of a few pages here and there on lunch breaks and commutes.

4/5

Zoe

Zoe

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Book Review:  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

doerr

This novel follows the stories of two young people growing up during the Second World War.  Marie-Laure is a blind girl living with her widowed father in Paris and Werner is an orphan boy growing up in an orphanage with his sister in a German mining town.

The book alternates with short chapters from each of their stories.  There are also time hops.  The book begins on a night of terrible peril for both characters towards the end of the war then jumps back a few years to tell us how the characters arrived at this point, then every now and then the author throws in another moment from this one night to sort of remind us where we are heading before jumping back to the more linear story of our characters.

hitler youth

Werner is still just a boy when he is called on to fight for Nazi Germany

Overall I did not feel this book worked, which is a shame as there were some good moments and themes within.  I loved the character of Werner and the dark journey he found himself on.  It really dealt well with the question often asked about the rise of Nazism ‘how did this happen?’ ‘why did so many people go along with this evil?’.

Poor Werner has a really bleak future as a child, no parents and the only possible future mapped out for him is a dangerous grim life toiling in the mines.  But he is exceptional bright and wins a place at an elite school run by Nazis.  It feels like an amazing opportunity and his sister is the only one with doubts that it is the right path for him.  He never actually decides to become a Nazi and early on his journey the marching, chanting and arm bands seem relatively harmless, just meaningless routines he must go along with to get a good education and the advantages it brings.  By the time the more sinister elements become apparent it is almost too late and would take a huge act of courage and rebellion from Werner to leave the path he has found himself on…and he is still just a boy.  Although I wished Werner would rebel I understood why he didn’t and had huge sympathy for him and his plight.

The only problem with the very compelling story is I kept having to leave it every few pages to read about Marie-Laure!  I felt the author seemed to prefer her journey and devoted many more pages to it than Werner’s.  I found her tale a little dull in comparison.  There was some interest in reading how she copes with her blindness in wartime and some tension as her father and her have to flee Paris to stay with relatives.  But she is just so good, and her father is good, and her uncle who she later stays with is good – there wasn’t any of the juicy moral conflict we got with Werner.

FOT1229728

Our characters face real danger as the Allied bombs rain down

Another issue with the book was I felt the climax of the book (although not the end of the story), which I referred to earlier, this one night of terrible peril when our main character’s stories merge together and each faces extreme danger – was badly handled.  Doerr tries to build up to it throughout the book by starting there and giving us regular reminders it is coming, then when it finally arrives for our characters he tries to rack up the tension further with very very short chapters, some less than a page, alternating between viewpoints and some covering just a few minutes of time.  This seems to go on forever, bouncing back and forth between them for page after page after page, I got to the ‘oh just get on with it!’ moment very quickly.  And, of course, when the climax comes it is bound to be an anti-climax after all that build up.  From there the novel sort of fizzles out and Doerr does that really annoying thing where he feels he has to tie up every possible lose end, going years and years into the future and ensuring the reader has no opportunity whatever to make their own minds up about any aspect of the fate of the characters.

I quite enjoyed the beginning and the middle sections but by the end I was sick of it and very glad to take it back to the library.

2/5

Zoe

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