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Sara Taylor – The Shore

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Broad horizons. Land’s end.

Publisher: William Heinemann (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-434-02309-7
First Published: 19th March 2015
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2014
Rating: 5/5

Chloe’s glad to hear Cabel’s dead. He tried to hurt her sister. The girls live with their Dad in a small house; they aren’t as well off as their ancestors. But the ancestors didn’t have great lives either.

It’s easier to carry on the summary in this way: The book sports a ‘fractured narrative’ (a term Taylor uses herself), a style in which the author looks at one person’s life as a short story, then looks at one of their relatives, and so on so that you end up zipping from the twentieth century back to the nineteenth and into the future, learning about the various branches of the same family tree. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.

The Shore is a fantastic book. From the first chapter – the first story – it pulls you in and whilst there are dips every now and then it soon draws you back, yes, not unlike the tide.

Taylor’s writing is lovely. She uses a variety of persons and tenses, ensuring each story is different, and whilst every chapter boasts its inevitable literary style, the characters are varied. The world building is naturally limited in space – most of the book is set in the same place – but unlimited in scope. Taylor aptly describes her settings but there’s space to put your own mark on it; much of the beauty of this book is in its potential for numerous visuals. (And for the most part it doesn’t matter how you see the setting as although there is history in the book, other genres are more important, for example, fantasy.) What’s not so varied are the themes; this is part of the book’s concept. Underlying almost every one are a few particular ideas: to have or not to have children, to do what is right or not, to drink or not to drink, to stay or not to stay – the same basic themes run throughout.

Most poignant of these is surely the question of children. It’s a question that isn’t in every single story – some of the chapters are about children themselves so it wouldn’t be appropriate – but individual agency and the right to choose, most particularly in the sense that throughout history women have had that mother, home-maker role to play, are very important to the text. A lot of the women in this book are happy to have children, but many of them are not so keen. The second group are most often victims of abuse. You also have a few members of the family tree who know how to use herbs to prevent pregnancies and the stories surrounding them are full of neighbours coming to their door for help. It’s a study of choice, the ability or not to choose, the extremes of either choice, and history.

Always in the background, or in the foreground, abuse. It’s often the same characters who happen to feature, whether in person or in reference, and one in particular who has an affect on a number of people. The Shore can be hard to read on occasion; Taylor doesn’t shy away from telling the details. And the cycle continues; Taylor shows the classic concept of traits, decisions, in this case abuse, passing down the family tree however in this case it’s not quite the stereotype – it misses generations, it comes in from another branch, and so forth.

The book presents itself as your average nostalgic read, one of those books that is quite comfortable in its telling if not its content, the sort of book about American life that can draw non-Americans to it due to the setting being so different. There’s a hint of magic in this book, there are paranormal elements, and there’s some science fiction. It’s these three elements that stop the book from dipping too far (in the way I suggested earlier) because there comes a point where everything starts to come together, when things you didn’t know you needed to know about, things you didn’t know anything about, all get twisted up into that very satisfying literary notion, that feeling that causes the recently coined phrase ‘you guys, this book!’ Taylor doesn’t just deliver a gratifying literary experience, she delivers a gratifying literary experience with bonus points. And she plays with the concept of religion in an interesting way.

There are a few houses in this book, but two are more important than the others. These houses are as much characters in their own right as Manderley and are a further factor that unites the already tangled family members. The houses keep the family grounded in their history; they couldn’t leave forever even if they wanted to.

The Shore is exceptional. It’s written well, it’s planned well, it’s executed well – it’s everything well. It’s a subtle thrill that bowls you over mentally, intellectually, without requiring you jump up and down about it, though you surely will.

I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.

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Sarah Govett – The Territory

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To pass with flying colours…

Publisher: Firefly Press
Pages: 202
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-08018-4
First Published: 2015
Date Reviewed: 24th July 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

It’s 2059. The world has largely flooded and there is very little land left. In Britain the Ministry deals with the population problem by making 15-year-olds sit exams – those who achieve high marks get to stay, those who don’t are sent to the Wetlands where there are few resources and disease is rife. It’s a death sentence. Wealthy and/or influential parents can pay to upgrade their children, set them up with the technology that streams information straight into the brain, and many do. But Noa’s parents didn’t. A ‘norm’, she spends her time revising and hanging out with her friends whilst she still can; Jack is good at art but may fail science, and Daisy is an average student with little support. But then there’s Raf, the ‘freakoid’ surgically-enhanced new kid who isn’t like the others.

The Territory is an ambitious and very ‘current’ young adult novel that looks at the way exams impact students in the context of a dystopian society. Comparable to The Hunger Games on certain levels, the book marks the start of a trilogy, the beginning of a bold journey for Govett. The book sports appeal for both teenagers and adults – teenagers are more likely to accept the language, adults more likely to enjoy the political elements.

Let’s get the characters and language out of the way first. Noa isn’t at all likeable. She’s irritating; she judges people based on their appearance (this can be argued to be fair considering exams and social standing are everything – it’s the sheer number of times she does it that is the issue); she uses offensive language on every other page (“mental”, “psycho”, “denser” – again understandable where intellect is of utmost importance, it’s just the repetitiveness of it that’s uncomfortable and off-putting). Her use of language is seemingly at odds with her education, at least in the context of our day.

But, and this is a big but – this is Govett’s point. Noa is average, an average teenager, as likely to cause offence as any other, as likely to be nice or nasty as any other (and Noa isn’t heartless, she’s far from it). She’s cited as clever but there’s the ongoing question of whether or not she’s clever enough to be saved. Govett’s point is thus – why shouldn’t Noa, who stands for the average school-aged child, be free to live happily? Why shouldn’t she be saved, why should she be placed behind a person who has had every advantage? In this way Govett questions our present, real, society, and the importance we put on status, on exams; she questions elitism and the barriers placed in front of disadvantaged children that effectively hinder their progress. And so Govett has taken her questions and woven a dystopian tale around them.

Going back to the language and Noa, the language is something your typical adult reader, and likely many younger readers, too, are going to have to work around, to get past if they can. Noa’s language is almost too colloquial – there are words here I know I’ve never heard of that may or may not be made up (this is the future and language is always evolving) – and there are many capitalised words and exclamation points. The book is written in the first person in what seems to be a diary – at least it reads like a diary.

The second thing that needs to be worked around, by the reader for them to enjoy the book, is Noa’s attitude, specifically the way she expresses herself and her emotions. Noa is sarcastic and favours humour, which is obviously at odds with the situation but makes sense when you consider she probably needs to let off steam. What doesn’t work so well is the distance between her and the reader. You can draw parallels with the way Katniss can come across as uncaring until you peel back the layers and realise she is suffering from PTSD, but unlike Collins’s trilogy, The Territory‘s lack of stated emotion has a negative impact on the world building.

Govett has obviously spent a good while on the world-building; most questions are answered and the only big mystery that remains by the end refers to the Wetlands. This itself is quite fine because it’s evident that you’re going to be visiting the Wetlands at some point and any amount of experience with dystopian fiction is enough to alert you to the fact it’s likely the Wetlands aren’t cut and dried (excuse the pun) much in the same way you don’t hear about District 13 or any other dystopian underworld right at the beginning. The problem is that there is too much focus on language – an obvious focus on getting the language right to the detriment of the world-building. You are told much, and see a little, but more could have been made of what is said. Being in Noa’s head limits your knowledge and her seeming lack of care, her distance, means it’s difficult to care yourself.

As you can see it’s a trade in and trade off – The Territory is undeniably excellent for what it does, says, presents and asks. It includes most everything it needed to to attract the reader and it does keep you wanting to read. But it could have used more outward emotion, detailing, and immersion in the world.

The promise at the end is that the second book will be full of action and there’s no reason to think otherwise. The Territory is very much the set-up book and where the political elements are put into place. It’s a book that’s worth the read so long as you keep in mind that there are two levels to it and you remember which one is yours. (This itself is not something that limits or detracts from the novel.)

I’ve met the author.

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H G Wells – The Time Machine

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Perfection, utopia, would be our undoing.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1895
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Gathering together various types of people, the time traveller tells them of his plans for a time machine and later his experiences of the year 802701.

The Time Machine was the first science fiction book to feature a machine for time travel. It’s short without seeming so, brimming with messages, and, almost shockingly, impossible to read without taking the author into account. It’s also a very, very, good book.

Told in the same way as More’s Utopia, The Time Machine is the report of a person who was at both gatherings and who provides the details and dialogues from those evenings. This means that you get both a first-hand account and the benefit of various opinions (even if they may not actually be benefits in the literal sense). You do not witness the time traveller’s adventures for yourself, however the story is engrossing all the same as Wells spares no details.

The messages at the heart of the story are about the future of humanity (the moral, emotional, sympathetic kind) and humanity as a society. Also studied is the eradication of the world’s woes, intelligence, and any sort of work. Wells, a socialist, looks at an extreme version of communism and speaks of the shocking consequences, but later draws back a little. It is interesting to note how the time traveller’s perceptions change the longer he spends in the future and how easily he fears a secondary people perhaps, simply, because he just happened to meet the others first. It’s ironic to watch how a man so bent on moving into the future suddenly realises he should have stayed in his own time – it begs the question of whether time travel should remain a fantasy.

There are no aliens in the book, no wars or fights for survival. The book is rather unique except for the very end of the journey. It’s the case that you may have read a lot of futuristic science fiction, but you won’t have come across anything quite like this.

Of special note is the conversation leading up to the time travel discussion during which Wells looks at philosophy, physics, mathematics. Questions are asked, interesting answers as well as supposedly true (I’m no scientist) answers provided, and even if your takeaway will be the future, the physics makes interesting reading.

There is fun to be had in the conversation. The Medical Man says ‘our ancestors had no great tolerance for anachronisms’ which he might as well have extended to the present day. Someone points out that investments could be made in the past and the rewards reaped in the present. And there is the fine point made that we already travel in time when we remember past events from our lives.

The Time Machine delves into the future only to long for the past. It portrays a possibility that is as relevant to consider today as it was in the year the book was written, and it looks at the way misunderstandings can occur, even between people who do not exist. It is an excellent work that provides much food for thought and much to study and all this for only a couple of hours of your time – you could visit and return from 802701 in less.

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Suzanne Collins – Mockingjay

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The beginning of the beginning.

Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 436
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-407-10937-4
First Published: 24th August 2010
Date Reviewed: 3rd August 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Katniss was rescued, Gale helped her mother and Prim to safety, and now everyone who could flee has left District 12. District 13 is more controlling than they would’ve thought, but it’s a lot better than the torture Peeta is almost certainly facing. The president of 13 believes that now is the time, even if they’ve Katniss when they’d prefer Peeta.

Mockingjay is the final book of The Hunger Games trilogy and is a tough call. On one hand the difference between this and the previous books is welcome – we couldn’t really have yet another Hunger Games because Collins was admittedly pushing her luck somewhat in Catching Fire. (I think Alice’s comment sums it up well, for all I enjoyed that book.) On the other hand the book being so different means that you will possibly find it less interesting or at the very least not what you were expecting. For starters Mockingjay takes Peeta away from us for a long time. This of course affects everything and whilst the remainder and his treatment are realistic, the mood is changed.

The pace is still there and if you rushed through the first two you’ll likely rush through Mockingjay, but whereas the first two were fast because you wanted to know what would happen and because the books pulled you along, here the pace is only down to the first point. Mockingjay is fast because having read the others you just want to find out how it will end.

This lack of interest (it’s a perfectly fine amount of interest when considered on its own; very lacking when placed in the context of the trilogy) is in part to do with the inevitable comparisons with other dystopian novels and films. The rebels that are everywhere, the underground city not unlike Zion from The Matrix, the samey-ness of love triangles that Collins books had previously just about stayed away from. The book is been-there-done-that. It’s like any sci-fi video game and whilst there were comparisons to Battle Royale before, this time the comparisons are numerous.

I’m not going to discuss the ending in any way as I have too much to say to fit in a review (a further thoughts post is forthcoming), but I will point out that many people will be disappointed. I actually think it’s better to know that disappointment is a possibility because you may then like it more.

The issue with Mockingjay is that it doesn’t satisfy. You want a final book to be triumphant whether it ends well or not and this one just isn’t the send off it could’ve been.

As said, however, the book is good on its own. Katniss remains the reluctant heroine and the battles are strong. The mental workouts are good, more for Katniss than the reader this time, but Collins does run with the thought of ‘remember who the enemy is’, keeping Katniss focused on what’s most important. The prelude to the end is really very good and it could be argued that it’s even better for the ambiguous finale. In essence, there is an ending but the part you truly want to know about is left unanswered. This is important – Collins leaves it up to you. Perhaps you’ll decide that ultimately who the true enemy was isn’t what matters, and if so you’ll see another layer to the story.

District 13 is controlling, necessarily so – but it’s edging close to the control in Panem. This is also something to think about. In order for there to be freedom, some liberties must be given up – this Collins says… or does she? Certainly the start of the end suggests that no matter what, those in Panem will never free.

There are cameras in this one as there were in Catching Fire; the cameras of the rebels. Collins shows that even those doing the reporting are often part of the war, suggesting that it’s more important to actively take on a role – a hero may be considered best safe, but that won’t offer the best outcome.

Mockingjay is very good, it’s just not excellent. And in many ways, Katniss does not get to choose.

Read it – you should end the series – but be aware of the issues.

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Suzanne Collins – Catching Fire

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Having struck the match…

Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 437
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-407-10936-7
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2014
Rating: 5/5

Katniss and Peeta, free of the games, moved into District 12’s Victor’s Village. Three people now take ‘pride of pride’ in the exclusive neighbourhood, but it was never going to last. President Snow sees Katniss as the catalyst in the rebellion just as everyone else does – excepting the girl herself. But Snow isn’t worried. As far as the Capitol’s concerned, the rebellion will soon be over because the Quarter Quell is about to begin and there’s always a twist…

Catching Fire is the awesome second book in Collins’s trilogy and whilst repetitive (somewhat expectedly) the book is on a par with the first: no holds barred; quick pace; a writing style that makes you want to skip meals so that you can read on.

Due to the similarities, let’s focus first on the differences. There are new characters, including a new master gamesmaker, and a whole set of tributes to get to know. (In this book there is more of an emphasis on getting to know the tributes, and for good reason.) Of course there is the furthering of the rebellion of which our strong, brave, but still naïve heroine finds herself the projected leader.

This naïveity first began in The Hunger Games, however this time it is more frustrating than understandable, the reverse of what it was. Not too frustrating – it won’t put you off reading – but enough that you wish Katniss would just get with the times, as it were. She’s reluctant, she doesn’t believe she’s the best person for the job, and as the novel’s told from her perspective the reader can understand this. But as she’s inspired others and wants to be part of the rebellion it’s hard not to wish she would have more confidence and desire.

Honestly, however, beyond that there’s little to dislike or consider in terms of whether it works or not. There is another Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell, and your expectations as to what it is and who will be entered will be met. Perhaps you may feel that Collins could’ve been more original, but it’s hard to deny that another games wasn’t a good idea. There is something that could technically be considered a cop-out at the end, however the Quarter Quell is on the whole a success for the book. The games are different in setting, colour scheme, costume, you name it, it’s only the goal and the manipulation that remains the same. And as if the last games weren’t bad enough, Collins attempts to make this one worse. The tributes are a new set of people altogether and at first glance you may think it a lesser evil, but the author is at pains to show you that it’s not. The hideous injustice doesn’t end with children here.

New also is the war and the place the war originates from. If the previous book was about the Capitol and emphasised how bad it was, Catching Fire hones in on all the things you aren’t supposed to know about what remains and has been kept secret.

You will still forget the evil, maybe not so much because this time you’ve come prepared, knowing Collins will manipulate you as the Capitol manipulates its residents, but it will happen. However what you will see is a stronger attempt to right the wrong, a better display of rebellion than the aborted nightlock poisoning (that is to say the display here is easier to set in motion and not quite as drastic, all things considered). You will be with the tributes, at one with almost all of them, as they work their way through the games. The careers are still there, but the difference in who they are means that even they are not quite as straightforward as last time.

Collins hasn’t let us down and it’s clear that she’s a writer to continue watching long after the games are over, long after they are hopefully over for good.

The odds are in your favour; Catching Fire is excellent.

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