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Book review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

This is the final instalment of the Divergent trilogy (there is another book, Four, but I believe this is a spin off not part of the main story).  The first novel Divergent introduced us to Tris and her strange home city that divides everyone in regimented factions, in Insurgent this society began to crumble, Allegiant takes the characters out of the city into the wider world for the first time.  Out there they discover some dramatic truths about their society, why it is closed off from the rest of the world, how the system of factions came to be and what it really means to be divergent.

Allegiant

I was disappointed with this book, not because it was totally terrible but it just didn’t live up to its predecessors.  It begins right after the end of the action in Insurgent, which got me off to a bad start… I left about a year between reading the two books and couldn’t remember what was going on!  The book isn’t generous with the reader in this respect, there is no handy reminder with the characters conveniently reflecting on everything that has just happened within the first few pages!  (So if you do want to read this I recommend you read it not too long after Insurgent.)  It is good that it gets straight into the action though, this is the book’s main strength, it is fast paced throughout.  I can’t tell you too much about what the action entails as it is full of major reveals and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

As to the books weaknesses – a main one was the way Roth switches the narration between Tris and Tobias.  I don’t remember her doing this in the first two.  It seems totally pointless as the two characters experience almost all the same things and their inner voices seem totally interchangeable.  This often confused me, I would pick up the book half way through a chapter and after reading for a bit come across something like ‘I pull Tris to me and kiss her hard’ and I’m thinking hang on I thought this was Tris, has she just kissed herself?  This happened frequently.

I also found aspects of the plot irritating and a bit lazy.  The aspect I am referring to is the ‘serums’ that the whole plot suddenly seems to depend on.  We already came into contact with the fear and truth serum; now there are memory, death and peace serums too.  It seems that most problems could be solved with an application of the correct serum and also perils caused to characters by being exposed to the wrong serum at the wrong time which could then only be overcome by developing an antidote to the said serum.  The science of the development of all these serums and antidotes was as vague as expected.  It felt that rather that deal with how the characters were behaving and looking for ways the plot could cleverly effect their actions you just squirt someone with a serum and get the result you need.  A bit disappointing.

There were some good moments though, a few surprising elements and scenes with real heart (just not enough!)

3/5

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: Divergent by Veronica Roth

This is an excellent book!  A novel aimed at young adults which is the first of an exciting trilogy.

divergent

The story is about Beatrice.  She lives in a very strange society which I believe is Chicago in the future (although I don’t think this is spelled out for certain).  In their society people live in ‘factions’, each faction has different attributes.  Candor are honest, Abnegation are selfless, Dauntless are brave, Amity are peaceful and Erudite are clever.  These factions perform different functions in society and mixing between the factions is minimal.  There is also a sixth group ‘the factionless’ these are people who live outside of society in extreme poverty because, for whatever reason, they were cast out of their factions – being factionless is seen as a terrible fate in Beatrice’s world.

At the age of 16 people have to choose which faction they wish to belong to.  Most people remain in the faction they were born into but this is not compulsory if you feel you do not fit it – leaving a faction requires a big sacrifice though as it will mean leaving your family behind for good.  To aid people in their decision they go through a complicated aptitude test which is supposed to reveal beyond doubt where they belong.

Beatrice is born in Abnegation and is torn in the run up to her decision because, although she loves her family, she doesn’t feel it is where she truly belongs.  But she is not sure she truly belongs in any of the other factions either!  She feels her personality is a mixture of different attributes (like a normal person to us!) in her world this is virtually unheard of as in is seen as vital that everyone fits in neatly to a fixed role.

Anyway, Beatrice makes her choice (I won’t spoil it for you) and begins the tough initiation process all teenagers have to go through before being accepted as full members of a faction.  The process is all the more tough for Beatrice as the whole time she has to hide the truth – that she does not fully fit in to any one faction.  Her uniqueness comes in handy however, as being slightly apart from the pack makes her more questioning which helps her spot something very dark brewing in the rigid and regimented culture she lives in.

This is a great story.  I found it very exciting and action packed.  I also loved it because of the parallels drawn with real teenage life.  OK we don’t have to choose a faction for life exactly but we are expected to know who we are and what we want to do with our lives at a very young age.  There is a lot of pressure to fit in and being a person who does not fit easily into an established mould can feel rather isolating – just like life is for Beatrice.

I am looking forward to seeing where the next two books take the characters and the rather sinister world they live in.

4.5/5

 

Zoe

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Book Review: Conspiracy by S.J. Parris

conspiracy

This is the fourth book in S.J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno series.

Giordano Bruno was a real person who lived in late 16th century Europe.  He was a disgraced monk who abandoned holy orders because of his ‘heretical’ ideas on philosophy and science.  He is probably most famous for his theories on an infinite universe.  Excommunicated by Rome he travelled Europe making his living (with varying levels of success) as a teacher and academic, finding favour at times with rich and powerful figures because of his great intelligence.

S.J. Parris takes these facts and then uses her imagination to turn Bruno into a sort of travelling sleuth who solves crimes on his travels and become embroiled in plots and conspiracies wherever he goes!  It is a great idea.

So far we have seen him in Oxford, London and Coventry dealing with the spies, religious radicals, murderers and plotters who were indeed abound in Elizabethan England.  This novel is in my opinion the most exciting yet and sees him over the channel in the Paris that oversaw the end of the Valois Dynasty.

Henry III

Henry III of France, one of many interesting characters in the novel based on real historical figures. 

It’s a great setting.  Set about 15 years after the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s day, when tens of thousands of Protestants were slaughters across France, we find a city taut with religious and political tension.  The last Valois King Henry III, although still relatively young, is childless and not in the best of health and his cousin and likely heir is a Protestant.  Will the King, whom most believe to be a homosexual, produce an heir with his long suffering wife?  Will a Protestant on the throne reopen the barely healed religious wounds?  Or will the Catholics find a way to force a Catholic succession with or without a legitimate Valois heir?

Bruno is drawn into  this conflict when an old friend of his is mysteriously murdered and the clues indicate that the man had been part of a conspiracy at the heart of the French court possibly involving a plot to assassinate the King!

The best thing about this novel is that it is really exciting, full of danger and peril.  It is also fun to learn more about the rather debauched French court which is run by the formidable Queen Mother Catherine De Medici.   As for criticisms I found moments a little too gory, some of the poor characters really suffer under torture, but this is probably just because I am a wuss and the scenes did reflect the bloody times and helped raise the peril levels for Bruno.  I also, in common with the other Bruno novels, felt the mystery itself to be a little weak.  Parris is excellent at creating compelling characters and settings but she is no Agatha Christie when it comes to creating an intriguing mystery.  At the ‘big reveal’ moment in each of the Bruno stories I have read so far I have felt a sense of disappointment at the solution of the mystery, a sort of “Oh, was that all”.  But overall a great read and they do say the journey can be more exciting than the destination!

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: 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:  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: Moonraker by Ian Fleming

This is a fantastic Bond book.  A classic in every way (and my personal favourite).

The story begins with Bond in London tied up in boring paperwork (yes paperwork!  Something they don’t show you in the films.  But he is a civil servant as well as a spy).  As there is not much action going on M asked for his help in a personal matter.  An eminent man, war hero and top industrialist, Sir Hugo Drax, is suspected of cheating at cards in M’s posh London club.  The scandal it could cause!  Bond, the gambling expert, is asked to teach him a lesson at the card table to put him off cheating and avoid a scandal.  This relatively mundane beginning leads unexpectedly to action and drama and the whole city of London under threat.

After successfully deterring Drax from cheating ever again Bond dismissed the affair as the quirk of a brilliant man and agrees to go down to Drax’s factory in Kent to help out with a security matter.  Drax is developing the Moonraker, a powerful weapon that will ensure Britain’s military supremacy.  The project is so important that Bond is happy to let bygones be bygones and work side by side with Drax, but poor Bond doesn’t realise Drax’s true intentions or recognise what a dangerous enemy he has made…

bond_moonraker

I like this novel so much as we get to see so many different sides to Bond and his world.  One thing that is missing is the jet-setting as this is the only novel where he doesn’t leave the UK, all the action is in London and Dover (how glamourous.  Not!)  But there is ‘glamour’ provided by the mysterious (well, mysterious to a working class woman living in 2018) world of the old-fashioned gentleman’s club where careers are made and broken, fortunes made and lost at the bridge table and copious amounts of very expensive French Brandy consumed.  It is a world so well constructed by Fleming that I could almost smell the cigar smoke even while reading the novel on an Italian beach!

It is also a great novel for action.  Bond is completely black and blue by the end of the adventure as he gets into so many scrapes!  A cliff explodes on top of him, he’s beaten to a pulp while tied to a chair, run off the road in his Bentley and gets sprayed by a high pressure hose while hiding in a metal pipe!  The long car chases are particularly exciting.

As a contrast to this there are wonderful quiet moments.  Seeing Bond bored at his desk thinking about what he’s going to have for lunch makes you feel like you are being shown life behind the scenes of our hero.  The card game at the beginning is also fantastically detailed and tense.  You almost feel the same tension as when his life is at stake even though all he is risking at the card table is pride and an awful lot of money.

The other characters are top class.  Drax is a wonderfully villainous villain, who does the ‘classic’ of telling Bond his entire backstory and plan before leaving him to an elaborate death!  And Gala, the Bond girl, is the epitome of what a Bond girl should be: beautiful, clever, sexy, brave and attracted to but not intimidated by our hero.  She’s an undercover police officer and a full player in the action, certainly no damsel in distress.

5/5 – perfect if you are looking for action and adventure.

 

Zoe

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Book Review: If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If you go away

I’m afraid this book has gone on to my small life is too short pile of unfinished books.  The book was highly recommended to me by a friend so clearly not everyone feels this way!

It was just so humdrum and dull (IMO).  I gave it a fair chance, I got to page 233 before I decided that I had no interest in finding out what happened to these characters and would quite easily shut the book and never think of them again (obviously I’m thinking of them now – but only because I’m writing the review).

The book gives us alternate chapters following our heroine then hero over the same time period.  Our heroine is Vivian a very beautiful (we’re told this repeatedly) and slim (which we’re told over and over again) debutant.  Slim, beautiful Vivian is a popular girl who hopes to make a good marriage and help raise her family’s flagging fortunes but then when she fears she is losing the attentions of the man she has set her sights on she has sex with him in an attempt to seal their relationship.  This is a shocking thing for a high born young woman do to in 1914 and, although it is not clear that the details of her indiscretion are widely known, her reputation is damaged so her family rush her into a hasty marriage much more lowly than they had hoped for.  Her husband is not cruel or anything but he is cold and unaffectionate so their marriage is rather unsatisfactory.  It gets worse for Vivian when war breaks out her husband goes to war and it’s decided she should relocate from London to their relatively modest country home in the midlands where she is very lonely and isolated.

Our hero, Howard’s, story runs concurrently.  He a handsome (we are told this repeatedly), tall and manly (we are told this again and again) playwright who has a promising career ahead of him.  But then war breaks out and Howard is pressured to sign up, he resists because he does not agree with war and instead goes to the trenches as a journalist.  There he sees the horrors of war first hand and becomes even more convinced of the futility of war.  He returns to England just as conscription is introduced.  He becomes a conscientious objector and is imprisoned because of this.

trenches

Howard witnesses the horrors of life in the trenches

At this point I felt the time was coming for our heroes to meet as Vivian had befriended Howard’s mother in the country and she had started to talk to Vivian about the plight of her son.  That’s when I decided I just couldn’t go on.

It’s hard to put my finger on why this was so rubbish.  I guess in a way it wasn’t terrible just so so, it seemed to have nothing to offer that hadn’t been done better elsewhere.  There have been better books about lonely neglected wives and much better books about the horrors of war.  The characters were very two dimensional with nothing about them that drew you in or made you feel an emotional link to their journeys.  I just thought they both sounded fairly inoffensive but dull and I couldn’t imagine having an interesting conversation with either of them (even though I’m sure they would have been very nice to look at!)

I’d really like to hear from anyone who strongly disagrees with me on this.  What is it about this that you liked so much?  Does something extraordinary happen in the second half to make it all worthwhile?!

2/5

Zoe

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