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The Humans
The Humans
by Matt Haig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Learn to love your life again., 14 Sep 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Humans (Paperback)
This is such a lovely book. Beautiful. Elegiac. Philosophical. And about as honest appraisal of the ridiculous lives us humans lead as you'll ever find in fiction. You need to read it, right now.

Actually, it's a hug of a book, a story that will resonate with everyone, a story of what it is to be human by someone who is dispassionate enough to really know. Starman meets the Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time x The Man Who Fell to Earth.

When Professor Andrew Martin solves an enormously complex algorithm that unlocks the secret of prime numbers, solving the Riemann equation that has been unresolved for years, he just has to die. And our nameless alien protagonist is sent to kill him across space and time, replacing him physically so as to use the unfortunate Professor's body to find out who else has learnt the secret of the Riemann equation so they too can be killed. This superior knowledge cannot be left in human hands, because, you see, the Riemann solution will enable humans, once enough of them have understood it, to advance so rapidly they'll be able to spread across the known Universe. Something the superior beings sending our assassin cannot allow to happen.

There's just one flaw in their plan. In order to blend in as a human, the alien assassin takes the form of one and begins to fall in love with our chaotic and ridiculous lives. Professor Andrew Martin, turns out, is a bit of a bastard. Emotionally distant from his wife and teenage son, Gulliver, a workaholic with no time for anyone but the pursuit of mathematical supremacy he has few friends and even fewer redeeming features. But as the alien settles into the man's skin the absurdity of our all too brief lives begins to intrigue it. And slowly, impossibly and against the express wishes of its superiors back across space and time, the assassin begins to do the impossible. It begins to feel emotions, experience joy and depression, yearning and love and actually, to enjoy being human.

As the alien becomes more and more deeply embroiled in human existence he doesn't want to leave and this leads him into inevitable trouble with the bug-eyed boys back home. The Humans is beautifully, sparingly written and there's a gem of wisdom and reflection on every page. It's a page turner too (I gobbled it in a day and a half this summer holiday) and it speaks deeply to us about what should and is important. As our alien sinks deeper and deeper into the human world he sees afresh what we have forgotten, how the very fleeting impossibility of our brief stint in the sun, makes it such a beautiful and amazing thing to be cherished.

This book will slap you round the face, mindfulness, philosophy, existentialism all wrapped up in a plot that drives us forward to a poignant and deeply reflective ending.

This is such a humane book, detailing our mistakes and pecadillos, lauding them actually, a exploration of our absurdities which will make you smile and cry, sometimes on the self-same page. Within its pages we turn into anthropologists of our own curious species and through these new eyes learn to see our world afresh.

Feeling down, despairing and bleak about the world (let's face it there's enough to be depressed about) read this honest, humane and deeply beautiful book. Poetry disguised as prose, wisdom disguised as popular fiction. The author has a wonderful voice; calm, gentle and so very kind its like music. Matt Haig is the very best kind of genius, one who makes us want to strive harder to live better lives, of us, among us, with us on this ultimately tragic trudge beneath the stars.

Brilliant.

A rare and thoroughly well deserved Five Stars (*****)


The Bunker Diary
The Bunker Diary
by Kevin Brooks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A challenging piece of art work, but not a story. Stopping isn't an ending., 1 Sep 2014
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This review is from: The Bunker Diary (Paperback)
Warning: Unusually for one of my reviews - contains spoilers. If you want to read this novel and don't want to know what happens then don't;

(1) - Read my review
(2) - Read any of the publicity about the award of the Carnegie Medal to this book
(3) - Read the book's blurb or title!!

“You were so busy thinking about whether you could do it, you forget to ask yourself whether you should!”

Dr Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movie.

Brooks is a great writer. But…

There’s been a lot written about this book. A Carnegie medal winner garnering as much acclaim as moral outrage. Both are misplaced I think. The moral outrage is mostly generated by people who haven’t even read the book. And a lot of it is just patronising; “oh protect the little children from, the dark…” kind of commentary. But equally the medal does seem to have been given to a controversial choice to make a splash. Great marketing for Brooks and Penguin. There is absolutely, definitely something that is daring and ground-breaking here. A masterpiece possibly, but actually, an unfinished one (I’ll come back to that later) The writing is compelling. There is a strong and powerful voice here. Kevin Brooks is a great writer. The scenario is compelling too. The characterisation is excellent and the protagonist is well drawn, believable, sympathetic. We are rooting for him within two pages. Poor Linus, poor, poor Linus.

The conceit is described perfectly by the title; these are the diaries of someone kidnapped and held against their will in an inescapable bunker. Linus is our voice in the darkness. He is kidnapped from Liverpool Street station where he’s been living rough on the street and wakes up in a six-roomed underground bunker. He’s on his own down there for a few days and then Jenny, a nine year old girl turns up. People arrive in the bunker via a lift which comes down every morning at 8am, mostly empty, sometimes with newcomers until the bunker reaches capacity. Six people. They’re all kidnapped in various ways, most chloroformed unconscious and bound in a wheelchair and placed in the lift. We never meet their kidnapper.

With Linus and Jenny there’s Anya (a twenty-something socialite), Fred (drug and alcohol addict) William Bird (banker type) and finally, the last to be kidnapped and join those incarcerated is Russell. So, two children - Jenny and Linus - four adults, Russell is the oldest, 70. This is notionally a book for Young Adults because Linus is the protagonist, but it is actually a book about the horror of being incarcerated in the dark without hope. And that’s the key, there is no hope. At some point, about halfway through, we begin to understand that there is going to be no escape, no solution to why they’ve been taken. Not a pretty book. Not a nice book. Actually, not a story at all really, more a study in misery and horror and nastiness. It’s like celebrity big brother or one of those Victorian freak shows, you don’t want to watch but prurience and open-jawed fascination keeps you going. But not a story. Resoundingly not a story (again I’ll come to that). Because stories require resolution. Not a happy ending, not always, not a nice smiley lobotomised ending, but, but definitely an ending. A story that doesn’t end is, actually, not a story at all. It is unfinished.

This is more art than story, more Kevin Brooks sticking forks in his narrative legs and then putting a bag over his head and wrapping stones around himself and then jumping into a well and then sinking down and down and down just to see what it’s like. It takes commitment and energy to write stuff this dark and I’m sure Kevin a lovely man, but you need to finish the book mate. Dark. Nasty. Horrific. A horror book. But not a fun horror book (if you now what I mean) like a Stephen King where it’s make-believe, supernatural, scary, spooky and horror-filled that is entertaining. This is a car crash viewed across the other carriage way, we shouldn’t look but there’s a piece of us that wants to. This is horror without the story, horror to the level of festishistic (have no problem with horror per se as long as it sits within a story).

It fits the definition of art most certainly, in that it challenges you. Makes you think; mostly actually, how can someone write this stuff? But a story, not really, because it’s like a severed limb, there isn’t shape we recognise at the end of it. Don’t read it would be my advice, it’s not pretty. There’s murder, human despicableness and deep, deep misery. I admire the skill and talent in this book, the man is clearly a master at what he does. But and it’s a big but…why? What is the point? Really. Hats off to Mr Brooks that he can be so nasty to his characters, and yes I know the world is horrible and nasty things happen, but I want a story that offers me something, not even something as twee as hope, but something. Six people in a bunker with little food and no hope. What do we think’s going to happen? We’re intelligent people. We are. Come on. Guess. I’ve asked ten people this question. They have all answered; “Sounds to me like they all die!” Home run. Well that’s this book. Unrelentingly horrible. And just when you think it can’t get any more horrible it then goes and gets worse. Life ends in tears. Life ends in the middle of sentences. Stories end with resolutions. Otherwise they’re not stories.

If I contrast this with Emma Donoghue’s equally well-regarded Room - again written in the first person by one of the incarcerated (a 5 yr old) - the Bunker Diaries and Kevin Brooks miss the point of fiction I think. Fiction is about a story, with a structure, with a resolution, it doesn’t have to be a happy ending (think Handmaid’s Tale or The Fault In Our Stars) but it does have to end in a manner than brings ends together in some fashion. Life is ragged and stops without an end sometimes, people die all the time in the middle of the sentence of their lives. And people in a Bunker can do this too, but we, the reader, need to be offered something more from a story than a sentence finishing in the middle. That might be art, but it is vicious and nasty and actually, a bit lazy. No resolution. Uh? Hey, didn’t you forget something? Our questions are not answered, we’re just left looking at a bloody, horrific scene endlessly. So, poor, poor Linus our protag.. And, whilst I deeply admire Kevin Brooks literary prowess and he certainly deserves the acclaim for all of his skills, please, not for this book. No. This book is like a punch in the face from a stranger who runs away and is never caught. Pointless, painful, shocking and utterly unnecessary.

In defending this book Kevin Brooks has said "Children don't need happy endings." Fine. Agree. Some of the best and most powerful stories don't have them. But children do need endings - resolutions. This book stops, it doesn't end. An avant-garde art work in Tate Modern that the painter "didn't finish" as an act of art, you know half a canvas or the left-hand side of of sculpture, they'd be art, they wouldn't be stories.

It will be a while before I pick up another Kevin Brooks book. Staring into bleakness and not blinking is certainly a skill he has in spades, but is it one we need actually? We need the gorgeous joy of a well-told story, not some kind of punch-me-in-the-stomach game of misery depiction that takes us down into the dark with no way out. The bunker prisoners didn’t even need to escape, Kevin, you can have all the suffering you like, but give us some kind of resolution, Margaret Atwood does it brilliantly in the Handmaid’s Tale without the emotional power of the trauma of the protagonist’s horrific experience being lost. Or have a look at Sara Mussi’s excellent Siege, as bleak, as gritty and as dark - but it still gives us a resolution; review for Siege is here. Bunker Diaries needs to go back to the writer. The note for Kevin from me would read.

Brilliant stuff so far. Superb writing. Great set-up. Could even win the Carnegie! Now; finish it. No, I don’t want happy or hopeful necessary but the reader must have a resolution for this to be a story. How, you ask? You’re the writer, use your imagination.

As Dr Ian Malcolm says, to reprise;

“You were so busy thinking about whether you could do it, you forget to ask yourself whether you should!”

PS - An interesting question is if there was a resolution beyond Linus’s horror would it have won the Carnegie? Possibly not. Which is interesting in its own right. Publicity over story-telling? Maybe. But does that mean publicity and art trump story-telling? This is art, it got me thinking and responding but the controversy of the Carnegie medal is around the lack of a story for me, not in moralising about dark and difficult fiction. Children’s fiction stories win Carnegie. This isn’t a finished story. Not yet.

But what do I know? Really.

** 2 Stars (not a story yet)


Echo Boy
Echo Boy
by Matt Haig
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sci-Fi themes we've seen before, but brought to life with an exhilarating freshness which is wonderful, 29 Aug 2014
This review is from: Echo Boy (Hardcover)
Echo Boy starts, actually, with a girl.

Audrey is part of a long line of excellent YA protagonists, she is sassy, opinionated and at the centre of a tragedy from the get-go. Audrey lives in the far future, several hundred years hence, when the screwed up atmosphere has turned northern England into a bog and where houses are built on stilts. Audrey is the niece of the world-famous Alex Castle, owner and entrepreneur of the global Castle Industries, supplier of all things technological, including robots and androids proto-humans called Echoes. Audrey’s father opposes much of his brother’s work. He writes vitriolic anti-tech opinion pieces decrying the ever increasing encroachment of androids on human-space. In fact the well-known rivalry of the Castle brothersis a news story on its own. When Audrey’s parents are murdered by a malfunctioning Echo, she has to go and live with her Uncle and slowly but surely uncovers the truth of what’s really going on.

In many respects the themes of this Sci-Fi YA are perennial. Fear of technology squeezing out our humanity, fear of the environmental collapse our technology causes, fear of what happens when we even leave our humanity to the machines, fear of the dystopia, de-humanising future to come. A kind of 2001 Space Odyssey meets I Robot meets Terminator. But leaving the exploration of the genealogy of this narrative there would be unfair, because there’s something philosophical and elegiac going on too, Matt Haig is a philosophical writer, a deep thinker and he’s asking young people questions about humanity, free will and what is right and wrong too.

I liked this, but not as much as I wanted to. The early part of the book was great, excellent inventive use of new tech and a great mystery in a dystopian, technology infested world. From the middle on though it began, in my very humble opinion, to suffer from a pudding-like problem. Not a soggy-bottom, but a saggy middle where a raft of competing and interesting ideas fight each other for primacy and the key human-android axis gets a little lost. The narrative is told from two perspectives, Audrey’s, in the first person (very well done) and Daniel, an Echo (equally well done). Both narratives are convincing and bring a depth and colour to the story-telling, providing corners and angles that a single first person narrative often doesn’t provide. In trying to understand why this book didn’t reach the heights I hoped for it I think it comes down in the end to just too many good ideas being stuffed into it. A nice problem to have perhaps, but I do wonder if several supporting bit part ideas were ditched whether the very strong Daniel-Audrey human-android angle would have been much, much more powerful.

A good strong piece of Sci-Fi story-telling taking an important idea deeper and wider, hampered in the end by too many foreground ideas getting in the way of the deeper theme expressing itself. If this had been the first of a series in this world of the future then I think the circuitous journey the narrative took would have been more justified. I’d love to book map this narrative, like we do at Golden Egg and I think there the issues I’ve identified would be revealed.

But, Mr Haig, if you inadvertently end up reading this via the vagaries of links and Twitter and the ever shortening degrees of separation provided by this connected world, then very good. I love your stuff, a review of The Humans, for example will follow soon. I am still glowing inside from that book’s impact on me :)

**** Four Stars.


Dances With Wolves [DVD] [1990]
Dances With Wolves [DVD] [1990]
Dvd ~ Kevin Costner
Price: £4.85

5.0 out of 5 stars The Western - Reinvented, 18 Aug 2014
In an occasional series I look back at films I have loved (to death) and muse on why with the vain hope that some of you will dust them off again and plunge right in all over again. They need to be re-watched. They're worth it.

This time; Dances with Wolves, brought to us by a very wise and brilliant young actor (at that time) called Kevin Costner (you've probably heard of him!)

NB: This was what turned Kevin Costner into gold dust for a few years (remember Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Costner was King Midas basically until his sparkly, shiny star reached its apogee with his untimely filmic demise in the utterly ridiculous and overblown (and over-budget) Waterworld. (Holds head in hands; Kevin what were you thinking!)

I fell in love with Dances With Wolves in 1990 and then recently again when I tried to force my 13 and 15 year old to watch it. Their response was the inauspicious; "It's a bit boring dad," as they vacated the sofa 32 minutes in. But I contend here Calum and Adam that you're just not quite ready for it yet and don't be surprised if it cycles round again sneakily one Friday Family Film Night soon.

Dances With Wolves is genius, a slim novel of 1988 vintage written by Michael Blake with his eyes on a possible screenplay prize, it was bought hook, line and sinker by Costner who yummed it up so much he starred, directed and drummed up the finance for it over the next few years. It became Costner’s labour of love and at the same time he re-invented the Western form for Hollywood so they could fall in love with it again in a post-modern way with a whole lot less stubble and a whole lot more human heart.

Dances With Wolves has Oscar written all over it and I fell head over in heels in love with it when I was a (still extremely naive and immature) twenty-two year old. Where to start then on this gorgeous-fest of love, hope, humanity and sheer cinematographical brilliance?

Is it with Timmons the hapless mule-train driver who first takes the naive and idealistic John Dunbar (the solider fresh from the horrors of the Civil War) that Costner plays out to the Frontier, a sea of prairie where so-called civilisation hasn't reached yet? (Poor Timmons dies brutally - and brilliantly - the victim of some Pawnee Indians tracking back to their home-lands after a patrol. His scalping is so visceral we can almost hear (at an appropriate distance) the skin unzipping from the skull!)

Or perhaps we should start with Kicking Bird (played by Graham Greene) the thoughtful and wise young brave who first visits the decimated Fort Sedgwick after John Dunbar first arrives.

Or perhaps it is simply the vast, swaying grasslands of the mid-west, an ocean of Buffalo for mile upon mile? A landscape the sky was invented for, a landscape to put us in our mortal place.

Or perhaps it's the sweeping John Barry soundtrack or incredible long, lugubrious shoots of the Dakota Badlands and the in-your-face wildernesss of a country as yet untamed.

At root the reason why so many of us love this film is the production values for the whole project, from cinematography through to the language coaching the Native American actors underwent so they spoke Lakota convincingly. Everything on this movie is sumptuous (except perhaps the budget, note to self Mr Costner) and it is strong and powerful theme of the story, revisited endlessly in mini-echoes throughout its three hour duration, that brings home such a resounding narrative success. Dances With Wolves works because the story is simple and straight as a Pawnee arrow and it strikes right to our hearts. It is about what we truly are, as individuals and as a species. It is about heart and head, family, connections and the wisdom of living together with tolerance and in harmony with our world. It is about the wind in our hair and the sun on our backs, it is about simply being as opposed to being something.

The story is a back-to-nature tale of John Dunbar's gradual re-education about the so-called Savages the great White Man is expunging from America’s heartland. It is an Alice Through The Looking Glass narrative where Dunbar very soon realises, whilst amongst the metaphorical wolves of the title, it is his own kind, White Man, who are the savages. The story of this film was totally ripped off in Avatar, same idea, just with eleven foot smurf aliens and some eye-popping CGI. What Dances With Wolves has in spades which its newer and bluer rip off didn’t (and I totally loved Avatar too) is that it helped reinforce a revisionist tack on the Great American West, actually much more like genocide than a heap of swaggering John Wayne gunslingers ever let on.

Of course the Native American life-style is romanticized in this film, the wars between tribes, the pointless politics and the diseases and famines of a neolithic society are all glossed over, but we can forgive all that. It's ultimately an extended apology for all the Cowboy and Indians nonsense that went gone before. The Wild in West was the White Man’s rapacious and violent land-grab and in Dances With Wolves we get to see that barbarism from the other end of the telescope. Not pretty or pleasant, but a truer account than most Westerns.

Go on, buy it again and re-watch it. It deepens our humanity and succeeds in upsetting me deeply every single time I watch it.

***** (Five Stars)


The Bone Season
The Bone Season
by Samantha Shannon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Overhyped and Over-here, the D-word I'm afraid - Disappointing!, 8 Aug 2014
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This review is from: The Bone Season (Paperback)
The Bone Season - Samantha Shannon

I have a deep respect for all writers so if you're Samantha Shannon please look away now. I am deeply impressed by the size and power of your imagination, but that's about it. Just writing a novel is an amazing achievement, getting one published even more so and securing, as Ms Shannon did south of the age of 30, a bidding war between publishers fighting over the right to sell it means you've already succeeded in ways many of us scribblers can only dream of. But this much trumpeted Harry Potter mantle carrier of a novel, The Bone Season, simply did not work for me. Sorry. It took me around fifty pages to work this out and I spent the next two hundred and fifty trying to work out why. If I wasn't a writer still crafting away to get my head round the gorgeous complexity of this audacious thing called story-telling I would have given up on this book long ago.

The Bone Season should be so very much better. Bloomsbury know their onions after all. The book is fired by a capacious imagination and Shannon can certainly write (there are some lovely crisp, clever sentences here). It is set in an alternate reality London stuffed with ninja psychics and people who can travel in and out of the spirit world like the rest of us can the morning shower. There's action and weirdness and creativity and originality and nasty villains and confusing rituals and...no emotional engagement whatsoever with Paige Mahoney our main protagonist. Paige is a dreamwalker, a very rare type of psychic and she, along with every other type of voyant (psychic) are hunted on her world and if caught, put in prison. This alternate reality Britain is under the tyranny of the Scion, a security force that keeps everyone in check. But Paige escapes the Scion and is transported to Oxford, a place everyone thought was destroyed, where she is used by the Rephaim, a powerful other-worldly race to train as solider to take on their deadly and mysterious foes. Anyway, I could go on but the convoluted spaghetti like taxonomy of endless voyants, psychics and general weirdmeisters in this book would boggle the eyes of even the most boggle-eyed nerds!

So, instead of exploring the kittens-have-been-at-the-wool mess of plot-lines and motorway junction box of a character map let's explore from my perspective on why this book just doesn't work as a reader experience. Get as many publishing kettle drums a pounding as you like - and poor Samantha Shannon had the notorious kiss of death of being trumpeted as the next J K Rowling - and gnash marketing teeth and wave look-at-this flags unless we can emotionally engage with the protagonist they may as well be a box of Weet-o-flakes. And at least with Weet-o-flakes you might get a little plastic toy in a promotional pack and as pappy and indigestible as they might be, Weet-o-flakes can possibly be improved by the addition of milk.

Paige's problem (she is 19 years old, has skills we never fully understand and a back story that is a convoluted and impenetrable to this particular reader as are the different levels of psychic portrayed in this book) is we never actually give a flying psychic half-nelson about what happens to her, live, die or get transported to the moon to sing to the Clangers - I really couldn't care. Paige

isn't Harry Potter or Catniss Everdene for one reason and one reason only, we never get under her skin, the emote with her, to sympathise and conceive of her predicament in a way that means we'd be able to cope with all manner of weird imaginative rantings. She's too busy being transported by an opaque and baffling plot to be weird or obtuse or fighting for her life or running from her death and we never as a result have a chance to emotionally connect with this spectacular and undoubtedly wonderful world Shannon is building. And without that and crucially, a theme that resonates through every chapter, building and building to the - and yes, you guessed it - requisitely complex denouement then our reader shoe-laces are tied together and the plot, character and setting do not lock together and turn the story-cogs, so instead we fall flat on our faces. And also this isn't a book for children, or Young Adults, it's a high-concept piece of extreme imaginative cleverness that never bothers to really engage it's alleged target audience which what matters to them. Heart and friends and an important cause and rights of passage and friendship and goodness in the face of the dark. Paige is a construct not a character and she left me so cold I needed a jumper.

I haven't met an actual child or Young Adult target reader whose read this book, I'm sure there are many out there, just lots of writers who have because it has been so over-hyped. There are apparently six more books to come but I cannot see myself going there, Paige is opaque, irritatingly complex and whilst undoubtedly brave I don't give a tarot card about what next for.

A rare and painful 1 star. Great imagination, world-class and jaw-dropping, but it wasn't my jaw that needed moving it was my heart.

* 1 Star.


Dominion
Dominion
by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

2.0 out of 5 stars Great concept, anodyne in the execution., 8 Aug 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Dominion (Paperback)
Dominion - C J Sansom (Published by Mantle 2012)

This is going to be a difficult review to get right because C J Sansom is both big and local (he lives somewhere in leafy Sussex) and in many respects I am, frankly, just not worthy. I loved the idea of this book and I had wanted to read it for a long time. And I still love the idea of the book, but like a long-planned but ill-researched holiday, the reality didn't quite match up to my expectations. Think excitedly Robert Harris, Fatherland, or George Orwell, 1984 and then think, oh dear, not like them at all actually.

The idea is great, juicy, clever and requires the kind of diligent attention-to-detail that Sansom is renowned for in his Sheldrake series. Set in 1952 in an alternate history version of London after the disaster of Dunkirk, the UKs made an uncomfortable peace with the Nazi regime. Churchill never became Prime Minister and things have gone all hell in a handcarty. Britain is part of a Pax Germania, under the German Dominion so able to govern itself, but with a bucket of oily Nazi influence behind the scenes. In this version of our history Beaverbrook is the PM, Churchill is the resistance leader on the run and Bernard Oswald Moseley (he of blackshirt and Nazi sympathies) is the Home Secretary. So far, so good, and as you can see, very historically juicy.

Our hero is a nondescript British civil servant who's mother was a Jew. David is as dull and repressed as many a British hero in fiction down the ages. Strong resonances here with much of our fictional heritage, we're after all told to write things that are either refreshingly different or homely and familiar! This was as familiar and homely as Penelope Wilton in her best cardigan. There's tragedy in David life, he and his wife Sarah lost their little boy in a tragic accident in their home and this has led to their marriage becoming little more than house-sharing. Into this deep frozen relationship the fires of rebellion are kindled in David as his natural antipathy to the way the country is falling under the influence of the Nazi apologists links with knowledge of what the Nazis have done to the Jews. David lives in fear of being outed as a Jew and rounded up with other British Jews into concentration camps (this process of liquidation is just under way as the story opens). So David becomes a spy for the resistance, his job as a civil servant giving him access to top secret papers in the Dominion Office that will be of help to the rebels. And, without giving away any spoilers (I'll never do that in my reviews) the plot follows the twists and turns of David's work as a spy and the mission he's given trying smuggle an old school friend who has sensitive information out to the Americans.

The diligence and attention-to-detail of this historical narrative is, well, diligent and details are indeed very well attended to. Everything has been thought through and CJ has had so much fun spinning the fine web of alternate history, imagining what might have happened to who, when, what and how. It all seems eminently plausible and the smog-ridden London of 1952 is brilliantly evoked. The background is impeccably detailed, the film set as it were, waiting for the drama personae and the plot to come exploding out into the beautifully constructed surroundings. And this is where I had trouble, the characters were extremely familiar, comforting for many readers, but way to samey for me. And whilst this alternative history is certainly politically and philosophically interesting, it felt way too samey as well. Read a surfeit of thriller fiction set in the 1950s and it would be the same. The words slipped in easily enough and so did the story, so good job CJ but it so much more Daily Mail than Guardian in terms of the complexity of the story sitting above such a beautifully constructed conceit.

I wanted visceral and real, what I got was familiar and actually, a little hackneyed, even down to the Whoops-Mr-Rothschild-where's-your-apples-and-pears cockney accent of the working class Londoners encountered in the story. So, I read it to the end, but it became a chore as David was so anodyne as to not really be of interest and even the supposed love interest with a spicy Eastern European hardened femme fatale was well, pretty uninteresting actually. Suitable for the kind of stiff-shirted folk who like their fiction to observe class boundaries and play it safe which is such a shame considering the scope CJ's diligent research provided in terms of the potential of this story idea. The characters were two dimensional pastiches walking around in a rich, three dimensional world. The massive complexifest of the historical backdrop was, I felt, totally wasted by a very pedestrian and unoriginal spy-flick plot-line. Yawn!

(** Two stars)

Sorry CJ, I am, of course, not worthy and my opinion doesn't really matter a hill of beans to a writer who has done so very well. Story-telling for the best-selling white-bread, sell them high and cheap market from such promising seeds. But good luck to you Sir, you clearly know your onions as do your publishers as you sell so many books.


Thirteen Reasons Why
Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.24

3.0 out of 5 stars Self-Obsession in Overdrive, 4 Aug 2014
This review is from: Thirteen Reasons Why (Paperback)
Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher (Published by RazorBill, imprint of Penguin Books)

A young adult title that did so incredibly well I needed to have a read and find out why. I listened to this on Audiobook, which made it an even more intense and intimate experience. A story, as it turned out, way out of my normal reading comfort zone. I'm a geek now and at school if there was a social intrigue and shenanigans going on, it wasn't anywhere near me.

The narrative is told from the first person perspective and the author, Jay Asher, does a very good job of getting us inside the head of the narrator. The language, the cadence, the rhythm and tone bring a great verisimilitude to the character who telling the story. In the great traditions of first person narrative, epitomised by Stephen King's Christine and Conan Doyle's Holmes, the narrator is involved in the story but not the main actor, describing events from the side-lines. And just like Christine and Sherlock Holmes, the narrator is embroiled emotionally in the unfolding events in a manner which brings intrigue and emotional engagement right to the forefront of the reader's experience.

This book did very well indeed, there is an option for a movie, they're are even rumours of who's cast in particular roles and it has gone like wild-fire through the female student population across several continents. Jay Asher writes well, cleanly, always in character and he clearly knows his America High School onions as the experiences he describes seem to have the bitter shine of actual personal experience, although, I hope not the up close and personal relationship that our narrator, Clay, has with suicide. There are never any spoilers in my reviews so telling you that Clay is narrating the sad demise of a girl he knew at school called Hannah Baker who has killed herself is not actually going to ruin anything, that kind of thing you can pick up from the book jacket.

And here, this generally positive review about the book's clear and present resonance with its target audience curdles into something that might simply be a sign of me getting old and worrying too much about the mental-health of young people. This is obsessively dark and self-indulgent fiction about Hannah's dark journey to make the decision to kill herself. The narrative begins as set of suicide tapes recorded by Hannah before her death arrive on Clay's doorstep one morning. Jolly, eh? In these tapes Hannah's explains, quietly, sarcastically and diligently, the reasons why she decided to end her life. The tapes have been sent to the people she believes are responsible for her death.

I didn't enjoy this read but not for the obvious reason that it wasn't written to be enjoyable. I didn't enjoy it because deified perhaps the most unedifying aspect of adolescence, the bit we need them to get over as quickly as possible so they become sufferable human beings (I realise I may be a voice in the wilderness here and am in danger of offending both my own target audience as a writer and everyone who loved this book). That unedifying aspect is the black-jacketed, hair hanging in the fringe woe-is-me self-pitying self-importance of being a teenager in the 21st century. And at the risk of really sounding like my mother (sorry mum but you were absolutely right about this) the teenage woes and worries of the well-fed, well-looked-after and worried rich in 21st America do not actually scrap the surface of the depths of human tragic experience around the world. Children are dying of preventable diseases, being blown up, recruited into armies, abused, trafficked and here we experience how the
fairly ordinary slights and minor issues of low level adolescent nastiness tip a clearly vulnerable girl over the edge. Of course this woe-is-me attitude is not confined to teenagers in the West, many of their parents suffer it too, people for whom a broken nail or a traffic jam can cause them to collapse emotionally. We calibrate our suffering scale wrongly in the West and my objection to this book is more philosophical than literary. My problem with it is it acts as an apologist for the mental stance that leads girls like Hannah Baker down the dark path to suicide in the first place. Self-preoccupation and self-obsession give this book its narrative gravity, its suck Hannah and Clay in and every other teenager caught this story's web. And frankly, it shouldn't. Being so pre-occupied with oneself is one of the many precursor mind-states that begins the dolly-step journey to suicide. Why is it that young men still make up the bulk of the suicide statistics, because so many of them lack the imagination to see a different way exists beyond simply flexing their pecs and being the very best. Really. We all need to get over ourselves to lead really useful lives, and the sooner we do that and engage with what we can bring to the world to make it a better place then the sooner we will be happier. This book had a chance to do that through Clay's generally supportive and wise self-reflections on Hannah's predicament, but it totally misses that opportunity to push back against the self-piteous whine of people pickled in

spending way too much time thinking about themselves.

Thirteen Reasons Why makes woe out of tiny, unimportant things. I know the point is for sensitive teenagers sliding down the slippery slope into depression, loneliness and then the serious mental health issues that take them in the direction of suicide that these tiny things are by definition massive. I know this, I experience it everyday in my work and I am deeply, deeply sympathetic to those children and parents who are suffering. But that is the problem I had with this book, it turned the small, minor infarctions that strike any life, the dirty looks, the nasty pranks, the ignorance and negative banter that blight any adolescence experience of school, into trauma with a capital T. And then it builds those infarctions into a narrative that charts, through Hannah's own often laconic words, a girl's gradual decision to end her own life. The deification of minor woes into defcon five ones works within the context of Hannah's experience but the whole book fails to mount an adequate challenge to this basic category error in thinking. There is a much healthier, more wholesome and ultimately recuperative way of dealing with the s*** that happens. Hannah is a tragic figure and a pathetic one too, in the true sense of that word and the more parochial modern sense as well. She is full of pathos, but she is also the epitome of resilient-less-ness, a kind of soppy self-indulgence that sees the labelling of naturally difficult human experiences as syndromes and conditions. Hannah suffers depression and through a series of unintended consequences constructs as self-piteous narrative where she plays her own tragic heroine.

As Clay listens to her story unfolding onto the tape he doesn't, in my own rather opinionated view, do enough to challenge her own whiny-at-times narrative. Hannah's death is absolutely a tragedy and one the people around her are upset and angry about, but it is precisely Hannah's misplaced focus on her own self-importance that means that the path to suicide opens up after such minor issues in the first place. Yes she is important, precious and has so much to live for, but thinking that everything that happened to her was maliciously directed at her is the category error that so many upset and sad people make. She had a choice to interpret what was happening, she made the sad and depressed choice based on a self-indulgent focus on her own importance. And I wanted Clay to represent an alternative view better. Children are naive about the world and need help to calibrate their experiences in terms of

trauma. The death of your goldfish aged five is a trauma because it is hopefully our first taste of death. I am inspired on many days of my working week by the strong-minded and resilient young person who bounce back from seemingly insurmountable difficulties, problems that would floor many adults. Clay ends up drawn into Hannah's particular version of reality and he simply feels guilty about what happened to her. He does get angry at her sometimes as he listens to her lonesome voice on an old Sony Walkman (I remember when they were the latest thing) but in the end he capitulates to her world-view that the tough things that happened were personal and there was an inevitability about her suicide. Hannah's death was actually (ouch) Hannah's fault. She made those choices. Now that is bleak and controversial I know, but Thirteen Reasons Why doesn't make that point strongly enough and it is playing with emotional fire and I worry for the self-obsessed, self-indulgent hormone fuelled readers who get drawn into the darkness here. Trauma with a capital T is out there and will strike but is it really, really represented in the minor micro-political actions of a peer group as confused about the world as she is. Trauma much more real and gritty is presented to young adult audience by books like The Fault In Our Stars or Echo Boy or Maggot Moon.

Perhaps, reflecting on the length and depth of this review we can absolutely say that Thirteen Reasons Why raises some very important issues and perhaps it should be a set text in schools so those issues can be discussed in detail in a manner that enables a critical analysis of how our own choices and sense of perspective can help act as a psychological immune system to the absolutely inevitable difficulties we will face in life.

Anyway, here endeth the rant.

(*** Three stars)


Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom [DVD]
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom [DVD]
Dvd ~ Idris Elba
Offered by Discs4all
Price: £9.77

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More Bio Than Pic, 3 Aug 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom (2013) directed by Justin Chadwick

A biopic that was more bio than pic. The great man’s life is of course inspiring enough without needing much drama added, but I was again reminded in watching this that real life is much messier than stories. Mandela’s story is already more mythologised than understood and this film didn’t really do much to add detail beyond the patina of saintliness the great man has. Whilst is showed the horror of apartheid, the Soweto massacre for example, grittily enough, it glossed over some of the more humanising elements of Mandela’s story.

Mandela was portrayed as a legend in his own life-time but the terrible misery of those days in prison, the hopelessness and the pain he must have suffered weren’t well conveyed. In their place we saw an almost inhumanly serene Mandela, being all Yoda and Buddhist-like, which of course he certainly became in later days, but his low points, his humanity, was lost in this portrayal. The fires of bitter experience which forged his ultimately pragmatic decision to focus on forgiveness and reconciliation and renounce the armed struggle were not well conveyed in this film, which was mostly about adding gloss to an already shiny memorial (it was rushed out within weeks of the announcement of the man's death.)

For my generation Mandela was a mysterious figure, glimpsed via the images on colourful posters of him at his 1960s trial until he quite literally walked to freedom in February 1990. I remember watching it on TV and being aware that this was the pavement of history landing loudly in front of my eyes. The complex machinations around Winnie Mandela and the notorious football team and necklace burnings are covered briefly in this film, but it is so desperate to give a generous and supportive account of the man that again I think opportunities were lost.

In the end it was entertaining and informative about one of the most important and iconic struggles of the 20th century. Mandela did become a legend in his own life-time and he did have such amazing Gandhi-like vision of how to forge a new South Africa from the hatred and violence of apartheid. A true visionary and a perfect example of what a human can accomplish when driven so passionately by their dreams that they embody them everyday, no matter what personal sacrifices they have to suffer. This film though unnecessarily sanitised an already very saintly man, a screenplay with an eye to being a definitive and glossy history rather than a portrayal of the human beneath those smiling, benevolent eyes.

(** Two Stars)


More Than This
More Than This
by Patrick Ness
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars An almost perfect mystery., 18 May 2014
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This review is from: More Than This (Paperback)
More Than This by Patrick Ness (2013) published by Walker Books

Brilliant.

Simply brilliant.

If you need an object lesson into how to feed your reader a big, fat, juicy mystery that just grows and grows into an obsession then read this book. We absolutely need to know what the hell is going on. But it is so much more than a mystery. As usual a story branded as Young Adult could very easily be re-branded speculative fiction. Patrick Ness is some kind a genius, a kind-hearted, realistic, clever and humane genius who challenges assumptions and suspends our disbelief with such a verve for character and voice that we're breathless at the verisimilitude of the world he has created. And like all truly great stories we don't want to leave it.

No spoilers here, so I won't say much about the story at all because the mystery is so delicious and strange that if I give any hints beyond the general I will disturb your total enjoyment of it. But, a word to the wise, you won't guess it, not in a million years because the heart of the mystery continues through to the very last paragraph. An utterly awesome read.

Seth dies. He dies horrifically, drowning in the sea. The books starts beautifully with a hook sentence so vicious it stays with you for the whole ride. It tugs you, that sentence, sliding you straight into to an opening death sequence as lovingly described as it is horrific.

"Here is the boy, drowning."

And yet, Seth wakes some time later in a new, empty and very disturbing world. It seems to be a version of his own earlier life, it seems to be both dream and reality, memory and future. It seems to be so many things. And, hooked by that first sentence and the scintillating narrative that follows, we flick and kick and struggle as we try to work out what the hell is going on. In this new and disturbing reality where nothing is as it seems Seth meets Regine and Tomasz, fellow refugees in this dark never, never land beyond death and together they run, fight and hide from the mysterious Driver, a man-like thing in a metallic suit who pursues them through the empty, dust-choked streets.

More Than This is science-fiction, fantasy, philosophy and human interest. More Than This explores deep philosophical issues, sticking rigidly and beautifully to its theme. It tackles important and controversial subjects, domestic violence, suicide, our obsession with the on-line world and homophobia.

But more than this (did you see what I did there?) it is a fantastic mystery story which bowls along at an exquisite pace. It is an example of an experience that is only possible in books. It transforms you, like sticking your head in the bucket of some else's life. I listened to this on Audiobook and got through it in four days flat. My black labradors were pleased, their walks longer and my family were pleased because I did over and above my regulation chores.

This is poetry disguised as prose at times, achingly sorrowful in places and full of action both in mind and body. The journey Seth takes you on as he discovers what the hell is going on will bring you right back to deep questions about your own approach to life.

Patrick Ness has won two Carnegie medals for Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls, if he doesn't get one for this it will be a tragedy. I hope your chest is wide enough Patrick. Well done to all concerned. Fiction at its very best.

Go on, go buy it now, start it today and I guarantee you won't be able to put it down.

Are you sitting comfortably..

"Here is the boy, drowning..."

***** (Five stars)


Serenity [DVD] [2005]
Serenity [DVD] [2005]
Dvd ~ Nathan Fillion
Offered by streetsahead
Price: £3.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crackling Sci-FI, 17 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Serenity [DVD] [2005] (DVD)
Firefly gets the big screen treatment with a bigger budget and much more bang for those bucks! Here Whedon's story-telling prowess expands to fill the available narrative space, losing nothing in tautness and surprises, but gaining a depth and perspicacity that is at times breath-taking. This is a movie that will have the nerd inside you whooping, a bucket-list of filmic experiences that's a roll-call of what every inner eight year old would demand from a sci-fi hit since the genre was invented. We've got a twisty-turny plot, great characters, a surfeit of surprises packing more punch than a steroid-taking kangaroo and lots and lots of cool fighting. The dialogue crackles here, self-effacing, funny, self-referential but never over-blown or tacky, Nathan Fillion's good-hearted captain the archetypal lovable rogue.

Arriving late with my placards to the Bring Back Firefly campaign Serenity the movie (Serenity's the name for Capt Mal Reynolds Firefly class cruiser) provides some kind of closure to space opera with so much richness it is still such a shame there'll be no more. Here we learn the dark secrets of the Alliance and of the odd and ever-so-slightly annoying River, genetically morphed sister to Sean Maher's fugitive doctor who've been running from the evil government, aided by Mal and his crew for the whole of the TV series. We also discover the awful truth behind the Reavers, the vampiric savages who terrorise even Serenity's generally fearless crew. This is TV worth sitting down for, different, sassy, clever, witty, fast-paced and the opposite of patronising and predictable.

Whedon's done very well for himself since of course, helming the spectacularly successful Avengers Assemble and it's sequel out in 2015 and whilst every now and then there are Firefly rumours flying about the twitterverse, we know it's all over now. A very special idea, superbly executed, at bottom, delivered to us with a love for story, character and pace that respected its audience more than almost anything else I've seen on TV in recent years, with the exception of the BBC's Sherlock.

Superb. A rare DVD is our house, this one's not going on Ebay.

***** Five stars

If you haven't discovered Firefly read my here review. TV worth staying in for.


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