Monthly Archives: May 2013

WHEN SHE WOKE by Hillary Jordan

Ridiculously excited to be blogging on train using new (to me) word press app and wending way to Hay on Wye for 5 days of books and conversation. Just hope the books I discover are half as good as WHEN SHE WOKE…..
Hannah is a chrome, which means she had had her skin colour genetically altered to reflect her status as a criminal. Convicted of murder, she must spend the entirety of her sentence – 15 years – as a Red. Other chromes are variously blue, yellow or green depending on their misdemeanours.
The futuristic world Jordan has created is one of the most credible I have come across – its not hugely dissimilar to our present but drought, some technological advances and a fertility crisis have all left their mark, mainly in the shape of reduced civil liberties and the expansion of the far Christian Right. Reading this, as I was, just a few days after the appalling murder of a soldier in Woolwich and witnessing the subsequent increase in attacks on mosques and Muslims, this imagined future is particularly chilling. But, like the people responding to the EDL with cups of tea and displays of community togetherness to counter their hate, Hannah finds there are many in her world fighting back – be it politically, by advocating religion based on love and inclusiveness or just by way of simple acts of kindness.
Chromes are outcasts and Hannah is especially a target because her crime was to “murder” her unborn child. In a very public trial she refuses to name either the father or the abortionist, bringing her to the attention of an underground feminist movement called the Novembrists who offer her the chance of escaping her past, including her red skin. The price she must pay, however, is to leave behind her family and the man she loves. A book about personal choice, self determination, awakenings and the importance of freedom from doctrine of any kind, WHEN SHE WOKE has elements of both ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT and THE HANDMAID’S TALE about it. The structure is biblical – there’s the wilderness and transfiguration for example – and the religious and futuristic are beautifully woven together to create a fictional future that is less obviously dystopian than in other books of this genre – and all the more disturbing as a result. Yet the power of humanity as a positive force, of love and of good shine through. I kept expecting the central male character to betray Hannah’s loyalty, for example, but he surprised me. Even the ending is satisfying – and made me realise how much I dislike an ambiguous ending like that in THE OTHER HAND. WHEN SHE WOKE is possibly the best book I have read all year.

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HOUR GAME by David Baldacci

A few months ago my neighbours were renovating their flat. I found this, along with another book and various other exciting things, in their skip, so rescued it. The only other David Baldacci book I have read I came across similarly by accident (it was left in a holiday cottage) and although I wouldn’t go out a buy one, this is a decent thriller that keeps you turning the pages. Michelle and Sean are a formidable duo of private detectives brought in to help investigate a robbery at the home of Remy and Bob Battle, Wrightsburg’s wealthiest couple. It soon becomes clear there might be a link between this burglary and a series of gruesome copy cat murders rocking the town. As the detectives dig deeper they find all kinds of secrets, whilst struggling to prevent their own emotions about potential suspects getting in the way of solving the crimes. There’s various attempts made on their lives and, as the body count mounts, it becomes clear that anyone connected to the case is in enormous danger. The twists and turns, blind alleys and red herrings mean this is classic Agatha Christie fare, with some American high-speed car chases, guns and grisly details thrown in for good measure. I didn’t know whodunit until just before it was revealed and even then there’s more to keep you guessing and hold your attention. HOUR GAME is not especially well written but it’s not pretending to be great literature – and as a thrilling easy read, this easily passes the test.

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THE HUNDRED YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT OF THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED by Jonas Jonasson

I defy anyone not to enjoy this book. It made me smile from the opening passage onwards and some scenes are real laugh out loud moments. We meet hundred year old Allan as he is fleeing his own birthday party and the events that unfold take in burglary, an escaped elephant, a large quantity of misprinted bibles, an ever larger quantity of alcohol, two bungled murder investigations, two buses (only one of which is especially significant), a Thai bride and a collection of colourful characters who join Allan in what could be his very last adventure. Through flashbacks of his life to this point, we quickly learn that his current escapades are not a patch on the things Allan has got up to in the last century however. From a small town in Sweden he has traversed the world, befriending everyone from Chairman Mao to President Truman. Despite his avowed refusal to engage with either politics or religion, Allan seems to have played a part in most of the significant historical events of the last 100 years, largely due to upholding the philosophy he learned at an early age from his mother: “things are what they are, and whatever will be will be”. This, coupled with a penchant for vodka, an ability to blow things up, a nose for a square meal, and a very simple moral code, gets Allan out of various scrapes – and inevitably straight into new ones. Life affirming, joyful and testimony to the idea that you are only as old as you feel, this is a fabulous read.

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FUSE by Julianna Baggott

I finished this book very early one morning (woken by the birds) and during the day I kept looking forward to reading it after work, then realising I wouldn’t be…it’s like that, it draws you in and it’s difficult to leave. As teenage fiction goes, the previous book in this series, PURE, was good but I think this is even better – and have high hopes for the finale. There are a few new characters but the story remains centred on half siblings Prussia and Partridge, and their friends Lyda, Bradwell, El Capitan and Hastings. The powerful forces in the Dome are using dirty tricks to lure back Partridge, son of their leader. Blackmailed into undergoing surgery to modify his memory, Partridge has to put his faith in undercover rebels if he is to stand a chance of ever revealing the truth about the world outside and the Detonations that created it. But they want him to kill his father and Partridge doesn’t want to become a murderer too. Prussia, one of the Wretches left on the outside,  is on a mission to make sense of her mother’s legacy, with the help of clues and coded messages that her mother’s allies put in place long ago to protect her scientific research into the secret of eternal life. Determined to prevent the information from getting into the wrong hands, Prussia sets off on a journey fraught with danger and the prospect of no return.

Both Prussia and Partridge grow up in FUSE, emotionally and physically. They learn what it’s like to be in love, to have others depend on you and to put their safety at risk for you – with all the consequences. They have to make terrible adult choices, with nursery rhymes and chants used as a backdrop to remind us that they are, nevertheless, still children. And in common with much of this genre, it’s their apparently childish traits that shine through and provide hope in what’s a bleak and barbaric world – trust, kindness, an ability to live for the moment, open-mindedness to new ideas and possibilities, steadfast loyalty and a determination that something better is possible. It could all feel very tired and familiar yet Baggott’s writing keeps it fresh and exciting, as do the strong, credible characters and the unusual futuristic-nostalgic world she has created. Great stuff. Really great stuff. And well worth being woken early in the morning by the birds for.

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THE ICE PEOPLE by Maggie Gee

Set in the mid 21st century in a world in which climate change has caused extreme warming that’s now giving way to a new ice age, this is the story of Saul, Sarah and their son Luke. Saul and Sarah meet and fall passionately in love but as the climate cools so does their relationship. They struggle with infertility and the various ways the world around them is changing, including growing animosity between men and women, but finally conceive Luke artificially, a pale delicate child who becomes the focus of their growing discontent. When Sarah takes Luke away to an all women commune and Saul realises that the only hope of survival is to flee the encroaching ice, he hatches a plan to kidnap his son, take him to Ghana and lay claim to an ancestral birth right passed down from Saul’s father’s father. The journey they make across Europe brings Saul and Luke closer together but Africa is not the young boy’s choice – Saul, like Sarah, wants to inflict his own version of the future on Luke, so when the boy sees an opportunity to break free, he grasps it firmly.

In common with much of the dystopian science fiction I read, the world that Maggie Gee has created is the real stand out element of this novel. It’s a vision that sharply emphasises the difference between men and women and in which traditional roles are turned upside down and challenged. The men in THE ICE PEOPLE who are denied fatherhood, seek solace in the craze for Doves, feathered child like robots who clean up, chat and flatter you. These child/mother/wife replacements are deeply disturbing and  the very sterile experience of nurturing is only fulfilling for a time. As Saul himself discovers, they are no replacement for human love and affection, hence the growth of men’s clubs to echo the women’s groups that have sprung up. Sarah is a leading figure in one of these groups, which wins political control with its strong earth mother philosophy, yet that too is held up as flawed and unfulfilling, particularly as Gee poses some challenging questions about what happens to sons who grow up in such a community.

Saul is the story teller, a talent that has temporarily saved him from death along with his ability to look after flocks of Doves, but his time is running out and as THE ICE PEOPLE ends, so too does his usefulness. It’s a comment on the power of the story and yet Saul doesn’t know who will read his words, or if any one is ready to listen to what’s essentially a plea to future generations to learn from he and Sarah’s mistakes.

As I turned the last page of this book, carbon dioxide levels in our earth’s atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million, for the first time in 3 millions years. THE ICE PEOPLE is just a story but the science behind it is fact. So like Saul, I am left wondering what kind of future we are telling and if there will be anyone left to listen to the words.

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THE DIVIDE by Nicholas Evans

THE DIVIDE opens with two skiers finding the dead body of a young woman embedded in ice. The police don’t take long to identify her as Abbie Cooper, a murder suspect who has been on the run for months following various acts of eco-terrorism. It closes with her family – estranged parents Ben and Sarah, and brother Josh – finally laying to rest both her body and the events that led to Abbie’s death.  I have not come across many mainstream writers who have managed to create credible fictional eco activists but Evans’ efforts aren’t bad. His writing is loaded with an obvious love for the natural world and his understanding of the damage being done by mining companies, for example, is well researched. But the stunning landscape and environmental politics are really just a backdrop to a story about human relationships – and the damage that individuals are capable of doing to those whom they obviously love.

 The disintegration of Ben and Sarah Cooper’s marriage takes centre stage and is depicted with an insight that encompasses everything from the everyday petty to the tragedy of betrayal – taking in the inevitable pointing of the finger of blame along the way. Yet as the story unfolds and we learn how golden girl Abbie meets her death, Evans makes clear that what connects and divides people is strong, complex and unpredictable. As a result, THE DIVIDE is full of moral ambiguity. Time and again we see characters struggle with the truth, their motivations and the consequences of their actions, whilst conflicting principles or situational perspectives are finely balanced. A thriller in the conventional sense, there’s genuine tension from a desire to see some of the emotional fall out of events resolved too.

I have read this novel about 5 times now and on every occasion a different bit of it speaks to me – and makes me cry. Lots. This time it was the powerful mother-daughter relationship that set me off, especially as Abbie prepares to leave home and head for University. I stayed up into the early hours one morning as I approached the end too, unable to stop the tears or turning the pages. If it wasn’t for this I’d recommend THE DIVIDE for a long journey or the beach – but it’s probably best read somewhere more private. You have been warned.

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