Monthly Archives: September 2013

INSURGENT by Veronica Roth

Sequel to DIVERGENT, this feels like the middle book in a trilogy, and by that I mean it keeps the narrative going but suffers from being neither new or climactic. On the other hand, there’s lots of combat fighting, plenty of soul searching and more treachery, faction switching and deception than you could imagine. Tris remains at the centre of the story but,  plagued by guilt at the loss of her parents and friends, her loyalty to the system of factions is severely tested and as the book ends she uncovers some of the truth about her status as a Divergent. Her transformation from an angry young girl to a slightly less angry young woman is well done and undoubtedly appealing to the book’s target teenage audience, and there are a few interesting attempts to explore the way groups of people can function, but if I am honest some of the book dragged a bit. However, Roth has created a dystopia that manages to stand up by itself, and a series of strong evolving characters, so INSURGENT kept my interest piqued sufficiently that I am looking forward to the final book in the series, ALLEGIANT, due out in mid October.


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ALIF THE UNSEEN by G Willow Wilson

This is the book I had hoped The Mirage by Matt Ruff would be, but wasn’t. It’s magical, political, clever but accessible, modern and at the same time woven through with ancient wisdom and knowledge. The central character is Alif, a computer hacker who has his heart broken by a girl named Intisar, who turns out to be promised in marriage to “The Hand”, self styled repressor of free speech and hunter down of software coders, bloggers and anyone challenging the status quo. When Alif develops computer programme that will cut him off forever from Intisar, he unwittingly stumbles upon something of immense power that, coupled with a copy of a mysterious book entitled The Thousand and One Days,  brings him into direct conflict with The Hand.  Alif is forced to turn fugitive and, helped by his neighbour Dina, enters another world, marked by djinn spirits, old magic and tales heavy with meaning. But he soon learns that hiding away won’t stop The Hand, so Alif decides to fight back in the only way he knows how, with computers.

I regularly look to literature to help me make sense of recent history, searching for a perspective that feels missing from the news or commentary, even if I cannot put my finger on just what it might be. More often than not I am disappointed.  I didn’t go looking for what I found in ALIF THE UNSEEN though, with its backdrop of the Arab Spring, and the discovery was therefore all the more pleasurable for it. Genies and vampires rub shoulders with politics and technology, yet somehow it works like a dream. This is a rare thing – a  book that creeps up on you and does what all good stories do; make you think about the human condition.

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Most Douglas Kennedy books I have read seem to ultimately be about the same thing: lots of bad stuff happens to someone but they overcome and emerge a better stronger person. This is no exception. It’s the story of an American foreign corespondent, Sally, who falls head over heels for a British colleague, Tony, falls pregnant and comes to settle in London with him. A troubled pregnancy, the difficulties of adjusting to life in a new city, giving up an exciting career and an increasingly emotionally remote husband are just the start of her troubles. Severe post natal depression and the realisation that the man she married has been using her all along follow and Sally is forced to fight a prolonged custody battle for her son. She does overcome and is all the stronger for it but I couldn’t help feeling a bit frustrated at Sally’s naivety, which didn’t really ring true, especially given all her apparent professional experience in the field. Nevertheless, if you can get beyond that it’s a heartbreaking story, with the charting of Sally’s mental breakdown and the feelings of guilt she feels about her perceived failures as a mother especially well done. There’s also some nice touches about London that as a local I appreciated. Kennedy does know better than most how to tug on your heart strings and he also excels at tying up lose ends so it’s very satisfying from that perspective. Yet despite the overcoming and happy ending this is actually quite a bleak comment on human nature, so be prepared to feel a bit beaten up and hung out to dry when you reach the end!

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This is a beautifully written book – at times the language is almost worthy of Jane Austen and the pacing is perfect. The story of what happens when a family struggling to save their country estate receives some surprise ghostly visitors who have been caught up in a train crash, each character is delightful and the dialogue is witty. Gorgeous, forceful Emerald banters with her scurrilous brother Clove, whilst both idolise and despair of their glamorous but selfish mother, Charlotte who “floats” in and out of rooms and “sings” rather than speaks. Their much younger sibling, Smudge, wears her nightie to dinner and is preoccupied with a “grand undertaking” that provides the novel with its climax. Also gathered in the house are Emerald’s would be suitor and two childhood friends, all of whom add depth  and more than a little frisson to the mix.  Jones captures the eccentricity of a very particular kind of Britishness with warmth and humour, whilst gently poking fun at its obsession with class, manners and respectability. In fact the only thing that detracted from my enjoyment of THE UNINVITED GUESTS was the supernatural element. I am not averse to a good ghost story but it all seemed a bit unnecessary, out of place and forced here, whilst not even being particularly menacing either. I have loved this writer’s previous novels and much of what appealed is evident here too but I very much hope in future she sticks to the real world.

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THE SMOKE JUMPER by Nicholas Evans

I really enjoyed this. It’s nothing special but the story tugs on your heart strings, the people are the kind you can imagine knowing (they are believable and try to do the right thing), and it’s written in such a way as to keep you turning the pages. It’s also the kind of novel that seems to embody the description of epic, spanning as it does a wide range of human emotions, happenings and different parts of the world. Best friends Connor and Ed share a love of smoke jumping – parachuting into the heart of forest fires in a quest to bring them under control. Both also happen to fall in love with the same woman, Julia. And so begins a story in which each make enormous sacrifices and difficult choices, in which each finds out what it means to compromise, and in which what it means to love someone is tested to its limits. Corny at times but vividly told, THE SMOKE JUMPER made me cry, made me laugh and made me think hard about embracing rather than regretting what happens, be it by accident or design. Evans’ books have a tendency to touch me deeply and this one is no exception.

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