Profile for Joanne Sheppard > Reviews

Personal Profile

Content by Joanne Sheppard
Top Reviewer Ranking: 661
Helpful Votes: 1138

Learn more about Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
Joanne Sheppard (England)
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   

Show:  
Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20
pixel
Only Ever Yours
Only Ever Yours
by Louise O'Neill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Nightmarish futuristic satire, 25 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Only Ever Yours (Paperback)
Aimed at a young adult audience (although judging from the content I would assume the older end of that market) Only Ever Yours is a nightmarish futuristic satire on society’s obsession with women’s looks and roles – think a sinister hybrid of The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale and Mean Girls with a touch of The Stepford Wives.

16-year-old narrator Freida and her friends have spent most of their lives in a repressive boarding school, where they’re taught every day not to show undue emotion (denounced as female hysteria), not to challenge men and, above all, to be beautiful. Hours are spent selecting outfits, applying makeup and working out in the gym. Meals are chosen from buffets full of low-carb, zero calorie options – with the tastier foods only appearing at the taboo ‘Fatgirl’ table. Outside lessons the ‘eves’, as they are known, are isolated from one other physically but allowed to communicate through censored internet access and social networking apps. Perhaps worst of all, they are groomed to compete – to judge themselves against one another, to critique each other’s looks, and achieve official rankings according to their appearance.

Only the highest-ranked eves will be chosen as ‘companions’ for elite young men and to bear them sons. The rest will become ‘concubines’ in state-owned brothels, or ‘chastities’ – shaven-headed celibates who will guide future eves through their education, reminding them constantly of their inherent inferiority to men in a society so patriarchal that its leader really is known as The Father. I've given the girls' names upper case letters here, purely for ease of reading, but in the book women aren't even given that privilege - only the men are considered worthy of capital letters. Often, the eves aren't named at all - merely numbered.

Some of the details - Zones instead of countries, an oppressive Big Brother style dictator, weird genetically engineered foods, and so on – did sometimes give the world of Only Ever Yours something of a dystopia-by-numbers feel. Much of the plot, in which Freida finds herself betraying her former best friend Isabel in order to forge a dangerous alliance with queen bitch Megan, is also relatively formulaic and a long-standing teen fiction set-up. Moreover, I felt we didn't really see enough of Freida and Isabel as friends to get much sense of Isabel as a character in her own right or of the intensity of their relationship.

However, the satire is bitingly sharp throughout and there are many moments of genuine horror. Many of the most powerful moments actually come from small details and casual asides – what begins as a mortifying anecdote about an eve prescribed too many weight-control laxatives who continues to run on the gym’s treadmill even as she soils herself is suddenly rendered bleakly horrific when it transpires the girl was six years old. O’Neill is also excellent when it comes to highlighting the inherent racism of modern beauty standards, and the intense, crippling insecurity that grips Freida every day is evoked with painful clarity.

Despite the exaggerated setting, there is much in Only Ever Yours which rings true even today – the use of social media to bully and scrutinise, the constant sharing and critiquing of images and the endless obsessing over youth and fertility and the insistence on categorising women as wives, whores or spinsters are all too familiar. The ‘Inheritants’ – boys from the social elite who are allowed to choose themselves an eve as their companion – are a boorish bunch with an arrogant sense of entitlement, privileged young men with attitudes that are all too familiar. It's the uncanny plausibility of the world Louise O'Neill has created that it makes it so chilling.

The intensity of Freida's suppressed emotions, her powerlessness and the relentlessness pressures of her peculiarly artificial environment, make Only Ever Yours a tense and somewhat exhausting read, but one I'd highly recommend, particularly for any teenager who - like the girls in the book - thinks 'feminist' is a dirty word.


The Girl With All The Gifts
The Girl With All The Gifts
Price: £3.66

5.0 out of 5 stars Horror with a heart, 24 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I’ll be honest: I'm a bit over zombies. Zombie films, fiction and even TV programmes have enjoyed huge popularity in recent years, and although there have been plenty of interesting reinventions of the genre, I do feel like I’ve read and seen it all. That made me a little bit reluctant to pick up MR Carey’s critically acclaimed bestseller The Girl With All The Gifts, but as critics have rightly pointed out, there is more to this book than the walking dead.

The Girl With All The Gifts opens with Melanie, an exceptionally gifted 10-year-old, being taken for lessons with the rest of her class, all of whom live in bare cells with a single picture attached to the wall with mysteriously scarce Blu-Tack. When they’re taken to their classroom, they’re strapped into chairs at gunpoint by soldiers. And the few people allowed contact with them are doused in bitter chemicals that block their human scent.

Melanie and her classmates, then, are not like other children – but crucially, neither are they like the infected, cannibalistic zombies, or ‘hungries’ who have overrun the country. Somehow, Melanie has retained not only sentience but also a startling intellect, despite the infection, and this makes her immensely valuable to what little remains of the government.

This naturally raises all sorts of interesting questions and moral dilemmas, all of which are played out through the interactions of the the small band of characters forced together by an incident that occurs relatively early on in the story.

At the heart of the novel there is the intense and deeply touching bond between Melanie and her teacher, Miss Justineau, whose kindness and humanity stands out to such a degree that Melanie – with no other parental figure in her life – develops an unshakeable, charmingly uncomplicated love and admiration. But there’s also Sergeant Parks, an aggressive man hardened to the point of cruelty by horrific experiences and the immense burden of responsibility, and Caroline Caldwell, the research scientist whose one great goal is to find out exactly what’s going on in Melanie’s infected brain. Finally, there’s Private Gallagher, who doesn’t even remember life before ‘breakdown’, and is barely more than a boy himself.

I’ve seen others suggest that this ‘isn’t really a horror novel'. I would disagree; I think it absolutely is. Post-Breakdown Britain has all the hallmarks of a horror fiction post-apocalyptic dystopia, the primary plot is one of survival and there is plenty of high-octane zombie action; there are also many scenes which are extremely grisly. It’s more accurate to say that it isn’t only a horror novel, and the tenderness within it is beautifully well-executed and appealing.

The characters themselves are mostly very well-drawn, and develop convincingly, even when they take an unexpected turn - my favourite character by the end of the book was not the person I thought it would be at the start, and almost felt like an unexpected bonus bestowed upon us by the author.

The only character I felt was a little two-dimensional was Dr Caldwell, who did tip over, Frankenstein-style, into the stereotype of the scientist driven mad by a desire for discovery and greatness. However, the moral question raised by her story arc is a complex one, and her presence in the novel would be valuable even for this alone. Miss Justineau is a delight, but despite Melanie’s hero-worship of her, remains fallible and realistic throughout. Melanie herself, who as a precocious ten-year-old could easily have been irritating company, has a determination and loyalty about her that is charming and uncomplicated. At the same time, despite her love of Miss Justineau becoming her driving force for most of the novel, Melanie also has a pragmatic rationalism that counterpoints her fundamentally sweet nature.

This is a book about a civilisation in its gruesome death throes, and in that regard, it does have a bleakness about it and there are times when the horror seems as if it will become relentless. There is also, however, a thread of hope and redemption that runs throughout the story, and an overall it’s a far more optimistic read than you’d expect, given the subject matter. It is, to use a cliché, an emotional rollercoaster, with moments of gentle melancholy, heart-pounding horror, intense sadness and humour borne of both darkness and innocence.


Disclaimer
Disclaimer
by Renée Knight
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping plot-driven psychological thriller, 15 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Disclaimer (Hardcover)
There's been an awful lot of social media hype about Disclaimer, a twist-laden thriller of bitterness and obsession - lots of comparisons to Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train and so on - and while it's a generally more straightforward novel than, say, Notes On A Scandal, it certainly delivers on tension. It's one of those books where we're constantly asked to question what we've assumed to be truths about the characters, and as such, it's far from easy to put down.

Catherine Ravenscroft is a successful documentary maker whose only child, Nicholas, has just flown the nest, apparently with some reluctance. A couple of weeks after Catherine and her husband Robert downsize to a smaller property, Catherine finds a book on her bedside table entitled The Perfect Stranger. And it's only when she idly begins to read that she realises with terror that the book is all about her - and could not only reveal her darkest secret, with a sinister, vindictive bias.

Increasingly, I've noticed that it's become de rigueur for novels of this genre to alternate between different points of view, and Disclaimer follows this model - primarily, we read about the insidious influence of the book (which details a shameful incident in Catherine's past that she's long kept hidden from Robert) from Catherine herself and from its writer, whose life was irrevocably damaged by the incident in question and has only recently become aware of Catherine's role in it.

Catherine herself is a smart, capable woman, we're led to believe, while her tormentor Stephen Brigstocke is lonely, bitter and struggling to come to terms with bereavement. Both types are fairly familiar in this type of fiction, and most of my enjoyment of Disclaimer came very much from its well-constructed plot rather than directly from its characters. This isn't to say that the characters aren't believable - I just felt as if I'd read about them before.

It is, however, interesting to watch them both disintegrate as events unfold. I wasn't convinced, at first, by Nick, who at 25 seems more like a sullen teenager, but as the story progressed I eventually came to understand why his situation and behaviour were entirely credible.

Disclaimer is also a book about family relationships: between husbands and wives, and parents and children. The tension between what we think we know of our loved ones and what they've hidden from us - or what we've chosen not to see - is always a solid grounding for fiction, and works brilliantly here. Some of the revelations faced not just by Catherine and Stephen but by their respective families are startlingly painful, and the characters' reactions are convincingly handled.

I have seen Disclaimer described (by the utterly delightful writer of women's fiction, Marian Keyes) as 'grippy' and she is absolutely right; this is one of those books that you'll want to tear through in as few sittings as possible. If you read this on a train journey and arrive at your destination before you've finished, you'll slightly wish you'd been delayed.


The Enchanted
The Enchanted
by Rene Denfeld
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, harrowing but poetic debut, 13 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Enchanted (Paperback)
Rene Denfeld's debut novel The Enchanted is set in a US prison. Awaiting execution for an unspecified crime, the narrator is unnamed until the very end of the book. During his many years of isolation and silence - he is apparently mute - he has come to accept both his environment and his likely fate. Years of living in an environment where a rare glimpse of the sky through a raised window in an interview room is something to be clung to as a tiny positive, combined with what appears to be some form of mental illness, has given the narrator a peculiar, magical-realist perspective on the prison: the building, its routines and its inmates and staff.

There's York, a prisoner whose case is currently under review by a Death Row investigator called The Lady; there's the Lady herself, and her efforts to find enough mitigating information on York to have his sentence reduced from death to life without parole. There's a priest who has recently left the Catholic church and is struggling with guilt of his own. There's the Warden, who oversees executions while his wife is dying at home, and Conroy, the corrupt officer. There's also the 'white-haired boy' - a 16-year-old serving two years for car theft, his story fast becomes every bit as harrowing as that of the prisoners on Death Row.

One of many oddities about the narration is that we are told in detail about things to which the narrator couldn't possibly know - not just things that happen in parts of the prison to which he doesn't go, but events outside too: the Lady's visits to York's aunt and doctor, for example, during which she uncovers the horrific details of his childhood. Are we to see the narrator as a fantasist who constructs his own truths and realities in his head - he also tells us of the 'flibber-gibbets' that crawl over the ashes of the dead in the prison crematorium, and of horses that gallop through the prison when an execution takes place - or has he become some sort of omniscient, almost legendary creature himself in the 'enchanted' underground warren of Death Row cells?

Rene Denfeld is herself a Death Row investigator, and her novel does not shy away from the grim realities of the prisoners' backgrounds, which are almost inevitably deeply impoverished and full of appalling abuse and neglect. None of this is presented as an excuse for a prisoner's crime - the Lady's childhood was also shockingly traumatic, and yet she has clearly taken a very different path from the men whose executions she seeks to stop - but it would be absurd to suggest that it isn't a contributing factor, and it's hard to finish The Enchanted without a nagging sense of guilt that we live in a society in which a child could possibly lead such a life. The prison, too, is simply a microcosm of the outside, where abuses are ignored, corruption is rife and basic human needs - rudimentary nutrition, for example; the prisoners are fed primarily on food that is literally rotting - go unfulfilled.

The Enchanted is a remarkably insightful, astute and powerful depiction of the American penal system and of the strange plight of people who spend decades locked in tiny cells with little or nothing to occupy them but their own, inevitably troubled thoughts. Denfeld's writing is full of poetry and wisdom, and of small but powerful details that build an all-too-clear picture of the novel's setting and subject matter. It's an uncomfortable read, even sickening at times, yet there are also oddly life-affirming moments.


The Ice Twins
The Ice Twins
by S. K. Tremayne
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Suspense-packed psychological thriller, 6 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Ice Twins (Hardcover)
We all know that sinister children are a favourite motif of horror and psychological thriller writers, and we all know that if there's one thing scarier than a sinister child, it's sinister twin children. In The Ice Twins, SK Tremayne makes a pair of identical twin girls with a dark secret the focus of the entire plot.

Sarah and Angus, a well-off, hitherto remarkably smug middle-class couple, are planning to move to a all-but-derelict lighthouse-keeper's cottage on a remote Scottish island of the coast of the Isle of Skye, inherited from Angus' grandmother. Their move is partly because they are facing bankruptcy and can use the money from the sale of their London home to renovate and sell the cottage at a profit, but they have another motive: a fresh start after the sudden death of one of their twin daughters, Lydia, in an accident a year previously.

Despite the barely-habitable state of the cottage, accessible only by dinghy for most of the day or a difficult walk across mudflats at low tide, Sarah feels positive about the move - until Kirstie, their surviving seven-year-old daughter, suddenly makes an astonishing claim. She isn't Kirstie at all. She's Lydia.

Could it really be that Angus and Sarah have been mourning the wrong twin all along? Or is Kirstie so bereft by the loss of Lydia that she is becoming delusional? Or, as Sarah watches her daughter talking in Kirstie and Lydia's 'twin language' to an unseen presence, is something even more disturbing going on?

The biggest strength of The Ice Twins is its clever premise, which needless to say is the perfect foundation for a gripping psychological thriller. It is not only packed with suspense but also genuinely unsettling at times, full of uncertainty. Plus, the Hebridean setting is beautifully and accurately described, giving the story an atmospheric backdrop. I know this part of the world very well, and the author gets it absolutely right.

The novel is narrated primarily in the first person by Sarah, with a few sections in the third person fro Angus' point of view. The unreliability of Sarah as a narrator is hinted at throughout, and I'm not sure if we're actually supposed to like her or not (I disliked her almost instantly and continued to do so throughout, although I don't think that necessarily mattered). Both Angus and Sarah do have a touch of the identikit about them; it's their situation, not them or even their relationship, that is interesting. I would have liked a little more depth in both characters.

I have another issue with this book, although it's difficult to discuss it in any meaningful way without giving away the end: all I will say is that it's a problem I have with a lot of books in this genre and that it relates to stereotyping of women and their emotional responses to trauma. Sort it out, please, writers of twist-in-the-tale psychological thrillers.*

Overall, though, The Ice Twins is an easy, entertaining, creepy, extremely gripping page-turner that most people would find hard to put down.


The Loney
The Loney
Price: £4.68

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant literary folk horror that stands out a mile from the crowd, 4 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Loney (Kindle Edition)
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley was first published by Tartarus, a small independent publisher specialising in limited editions of literary supernatural fiction, and is currently (as I write this review in March 2015) only more widely available as an e-book. It appears, however, to get a 'proper' release in hardback in August, and I sincerely hope it then goes on to become a mainstream paperback, because it's brilliant.

The Loney is a bleak, largely deserted stretch of flat, rural coastline in Lancashire, where a group of devout Catholics from the congregation of a London church travel every Easter on a sort of retreat, their priest in tow. Among them are the Smith family and their teenage sons, the younger of whom narrates the story. The older, Hanny, has significant learning difficulties and is entirely mute - and it's Hanny for whom the Smiths travel to The Loney every year, in the hope that he will be 'cured' at a small local shrine. Accompanying them are Mr and Mrs Belderboss, Miss Bunce, employed as housekeeper to the parish priest, her fiance David, and finally Father Bernard, who has recently taken over as a parish priest from Mr Belderboss's late brother. Father Wilfred.

It soon becomes clear that there is something very strange about The Loney - the sands are notoriously treacherous, the house in which the group are staying has an odd and unsettling history, and their arrival coincides with that of a peculiar couple and a very young, heavily pregnant girl, who move into a long-empty house only accessible at low tide. I don't think it's an accident that the group are from the church of St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

Plenty of what goes on is the familiar stuff of British folk horror - weird objects are found, local people are threatening or fearful by turns, and the very landscape itself seems to have a draining effect on the mental and emotional state of the group. The story of the retreat is interspersed with flashbacks to the events leading up to the death of Father Wilfred, whose sudden deterioration of health began shortly after the previous year's trip.

However, while The Loney is atmospheric, eerie and unsettling, and becomes increasingly so (albeit slowly) as the novel progresses, this is far more than a horror novel. It deserves to be reviewed as mainstream literary fiction, and would easily hold its own on the shortlists of literary prizes. It is a novel about faith, guilt, jealousy and sacrifice, among other things. It is remarkably observant, sometimes amusingly so, and at times deeply sad. Like many books and films of its type, it compares religious ritual to other, darker forms of superstition and magic, but it is perhaps more interesting in its portrayal of the different ways the group adheres to Catholic doctrine. Mrs Smith, desperate for Hanny to be able to communicate, clings to religious ritual as the only means she knows of keeping up hope that he will learn to speak, yet her constant concerns over the strict observation of Lent and timetabled prayers appears to be closer to obsessive-compulsive disorder than faith. It's actually Father Bernard, recently arrived from a challenging stint in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, who is the most relaxed Catholic of them all - and it's also kind, reasonable, capable Father Bernard who saves The Loney from being an extended diatribe against the Catholic church.

It's also a sensitive portrait of the relationship between the two brothers, Hanny and the unnamed narrator. As Father Bernard observes, Hanny seems perfectly happy as he is; it's his mother whose undeniable love for him is channelled into a conviction that he would be better off if he could speak. Nobody understands this better than the narrator, devoted to protecting and understanding Hanny in a way that later in the novel. when we revisit them both in middle age, becomes uncomfortably poignant.


A Dance With Dragons: Part 2 After the Feast (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
A Dance With Dragons: Part 2 After the Feast (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Return to form, 30 Mar. 2015
Having found minor faults with A Feast for Crows and with the first volume in A Dance With Dragons, I feel that this second volume (and the last existing volume in the whole series, as we await the still unspecified publication date of The Winds of Winter) seems like a return to form for George RR Martin. Although clearly Martin is never going to be a master of brevity, this volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series does feel tighter and pacier than either of the two volumes that precede it, and most excitingly of all, it finally brings together the two story arcs of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons Part 1 and is able to move beyond them, so there is a sense of progress and a feeling that the labyrinthine plot of this vast, uncompromising epic is finally driving forward again after an awful lot of meandering. That's not to say that anything is really resolved - it isn't - but there are some outstanding chapters and some fascinating character developments.

If I have a criticism, it's that the violence of the saga is increasing in frequency and, where it once felt necessary as a means of giving the reader a sense of the danger and brutality of the pseudo-mediaeval worlds of Essos and Westeros, and was used to signify particular elements of certain characters, it is now starting to feel gratuitous and is also increasingly sadistic, as if the author is constantly trying to outdo himself. I'm not squeamish and this doesn't faze me, but it does become a little repetitive, and it doesn't add a great deal to the story or the characters - it's much more effective and has far more of an impact when it comes as a surprise.

This book has left me excited about The Winds of Winter (whenever they choose to blow...) and has rekindled the enthusiasm that had started to flag ever so slightly. I confess that I still fear that George RR Martin has no real idea how the series will conclude, or if he does, how he will ever manage to wrap it up when it takes him thousands of pages to cover each and every plot line - as we now know that the TV series will conclude long before the books, we can only hope this will help give him a clear focus! Overall, reading these books has been a brilliant experience.


A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
Price: £3.66

4.0 out of 5 stars Better than its predecessor, and the tension is building, 30 Mar. 2015
As with the previous instalment, A Feast For Crows, this first volume of the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series could do with an edit: there is plenty here that would have benefited from being struck out with a red pen. However, I still rattled through it at a fair old pace and I do think it's a better book than its predecessor. Whereas Feast for Crows focused on Kings Landing and the south, A Dance With Dragons Part 1 is centred largely around the north and on Daenerys' fortunes in Essos, where she is currently queen of Mereen and under constant threat from disgruntled slave-owners in the cities sacked by her as she builds her own army. We also catch up, finally, with Tyrion Lannister, as well as Jon Snow, the wildlings and perhaps most importantly, Stannis Baratheon - plus, there is the repulsive Ramsay Bolton and his captive, Theon Greyjoy. Whereas the previous volume seemed to focus on a gradual regaining of stability, this book gives us much more of a sense of trouble brewing - and that can only be a good thing for readers, as building conflict always makes for the strongest story arcs in this series. Most of the events take place concurrently with those of A Feast for Crows, although the next book then brings both narratives back together once again to move forward beyond them.


A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)
A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars A great read, but more editorial discipline required!, 30 Mar. 2015
It's at this point in the Song of Ice and Fire series that I think George RR Martin could have done with a more stringent editor. At this point in what is already a remarkably rambling epic, there are so many point-of-view characters that Martin apparently felt unable to deal with them all in one volume, and has therefore all but postponed the narrative threads of some of them entirely - yet at the same time, has introduced new characters to whom it's a little difficult to get attached at this late stage. The events in Dorne and the Iron Islands are fascinating, yet it's hard to focus on them when characters we've been loyal too for many thousands of pages previously are entirely ignored.

All that said, the Kings Landing chapters are absolutely outstanding and the new characters certainly do give us a richer understanding of Westeros and its ever-complex history, and the nuances of its many alliances, grudges and political scheming. I can't say I was especially convinced by Arya's storyline - as a character, she is more interesting when she has more to do, and I can't quite get to grips with her being as obviously out place as she is once she leaves Westeros. On the other hand, her sister Sansa has developed into a young woman of far more strength and cunning than I would ever have expected, and Cersei Lannister appears to be descending - remarkably convincingly - into a complex spiral of Macbeth-style paranoia that will surely be her downfall. Fantastic stuff.


A Storm of Swords, Part 2: Blood and Gold (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)
A Storm of Swords, Part 2: Blood and Gold (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Strongest instalment yet?, 30 Mar. 2015
Despite the immense length of this book (this is only the second half) I found that I raced through it with remarkable speed, which is a testament to George RR Martin's skill as a storyteller. If anything, this is the strongest instalment yet in the increasingly unwieldy, uncompromising saga that is A Song of Ice and Fire. There are some jaw-dropping chapters here in which the fortunes not just of characters but of entire families and alliances, are reversed in the blink of an eye.


Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20