Monthly Archives: March 2014

BURN by Julianna Baggott

Oh dear, another book three of a trilogy that fails to live up to the promise of books one (PURE) and two (FUSE). That ends far too abruptly. That doesn’t neatly tie up all the loose ends and doesn’t reduce me to sentimental tears of joy that everything comes good in the end, even after so much pain and loss.

BURN is a cracking read until the end though, as Partridge is left to lead the inhabitants of the Dome, and his half sister Pressia to find ways to bring about peace between the Wretches on the outside and the Pures inside. Her innocent optimism is sharply challenged, in particular by Bradwell, who refuses to contemplate being made Pure and teaches Pressia to love the scars and damage left by the Detonations. El Capitan and Helmud, the fused brothers, are just as driven by thoughts of revenge as Bradwell, but their relationship with one another allows them to compromise in ways he cannot begin to contemplate. Lyda, pregnant with Partridge’s baby, rails against the prison that is the Dome and learns that some sacrifices cannot be made, no matter how much you love somebody. Partridge, loyal to the end, is used and manipulated by everyone – he inhabits his own special kind of hell, never knowing who to trust and endlessly tormented by his past.

There’s less monster horror than in the previous instalments – it’s more cloned babies suspended in test tubes. BURN conveys the awfulness of life inside the Dome, of life controlled to within an inch of itself, of the dangers of too much power and physical might. It also raises interesting questions about the moral aspects of science and research – of what happens when it gets into the “wrong” hands and the consequences of messing about with things we don’t fully understand. There’s a powerful sense of survival of the fittest not being something you can engineer, and of emotional literacy and co-operation playing crucial roles. As with all dystopian literature, it asks what kind of world we want to inhabit. So as the story reaches its climax, the siblings, whose choices have saved or destroyed lives from the outset, must decide how best to use the power they alone wield in order to create a future that ends the divisions of the present.

And that’s when the let down comes. That’s when we get a whole other book squeezed into the final few pages. The complex moral dilemmas “resolved” by unsatisfactory throw away vignettes. The complete failure to touch me. I want hope and you really have to hunt it down here. I want peace, and there’s no guarantees. I want to know things will be better, not worse.  Not clichés, just a soaring feeling about humanity. This isn’t supposed to be real life, it’s fiction, escapism, so is that really too much to ask for? Apparently so.

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THE BOOK OF SALT by Monique Truong

The story of a Vietnamese kitchen boy turned cook, this is the kind of book that keeps you turning the pages because of the thrill of reading exquisite writing, rather than out of a sense of “what happens next?” Which is not to say the plot isn’t gripping, it’s just that Truong’s use of language is something very special. Banished from his family home when his cruel, alcoholic father discovers that Binh is having an affair with a male chef at the French Governor’s House, the young boy boarded the first ship that would take him. We pick up his story when he’s spent 5 years working in Paris as the chef for Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice Toklas, and is now contemplating heading back to Vietnam. Betrayal and exile are themes that run through a tale that weaves backward and forwards in time, as Binh tells us about the men he has fallen in love with and the dishes he has prepared.  The salt of the kitchen, of sweat, of tears and of the sea infuses his memories, and also gives us the title of a short story by Stein, that is the cause of yet more regret for Binh.  The detail is precise and sumptuous, Stein and Toklas acutely observed, and 1930s Paris – or at least some aspects of it – brought vividly alive. Binh himself is a fascinating character, not always honest with himself, nor with the reader either. As a result, turning the last page we are left none the wiser about what choices he will make for his future, although we do better understand the guilt and desires that pull Binh in different directions. Whilst in some books this would irritate me, here it’s part of the charm, part of what gives the novel its flavour. Food, love and sublime writing – what’s not to like?

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THE GONE AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway

I speed read this book a few years ago, on the recommendation of a friend who knows the author’s wife and also revealed the identity of his father (John Le Carre). It immediately became one of my favourite books for its humour (it takes a lot to make me laugh but this had me chuckling out loud on the train), its intelligence and its pure wackiness. So it was with some trepidation that I revisited THE GONE AWAY WORLD – what if I didn’t like it anymore? What if all I recollected with such pleasure had, if you will, gone away? Thankfully, I had no need for concern. It’s every bit as genius, hilarious and profound as I remembered. And far better than anything John le Carre has ever written, in my humble opinion.

The Go Away War has changed the face of the earth forever. Terrible weapons have disappeared vast swathes of the planet, mutating and giving life to people’s secrets, dreams and the contents of their imaginations. The only safe territory is that within spitting distance of the Jorgmund Pipe, which pumps out a substance called FOX that protects the world’s inhabitants from the scary Stuff. Now the Pipe is on fire and the Haulage and Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County, (corporate HQ the Nameless bar, CEO Sally J Culpepper, presiding) have been called upon to extinguish said fire. What follows is a rip roaring adventure peppered with ninjas, a mime troupe, a sheikh or two, a truck called Annabelle, killer bees, corporate pencil necks, political dissidents, pirates and the trustiest band of friends our hero could ever want. What follows is also a deeply touching story of self discovery, of romance and of betrayal. With more tangents and twists than you’d think possible, THE GONE AWAY WORLD is riotous, terrifying and outrageously good. I couldn’t possibly capture all that happens and all that it means in  one short review, nor would I want to. You have to read it yourself, go there yourself and feel it yourself. I want different things from books at different points but this one is damn near perfect at any time. The pleasure I found first time around hadn’t gone away – in fact it’s got even greater.

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KISS ME FIRST by Lottie Moggach

kiss me first by lottie moggach

This is a really unusual book and if I’d just seen the title I’d probably have never picked it up. But a billboard on the tube piqued my interest and I downloaded onto my Kindle. The story revolves around 2 women: beautiful, worldly, unstable Tess who has decided to end her life and wants to protect her family from the decision, and Leila the solitary, thoughtful and somewhat vulnerable and unreliable narrator, who is going to impersonate Tess after her suicide in order to create the illusion she’s still alive. The women are put in touch via a man called Adrian who runs an online philosophy forum, through which he identifies and approaches Leila, long time carer for a mother with MS who has recently died, as someone who will be sympathetic to Tess’s cry for help. Leila and Tess soon develop a virtual relationship based on Leila gathering enough information about Tess to successfully adopt her online persona once Tess is dead.  Leila approaches her task methodically and obsessively. She reads every text message and email Tess has sent or received, catalogues her receipts and grills her about her tastes, choices and beliefs. The seemingly never ending project does end when one day Tess announces she’s set a date for her suicide.  Finally, Leila will see whether the carefully thought through future she has imagined and researched for Tess will pass muster. At first it does but soon Leila starts to live through Tess and even to impose her own personality in some of the interactions with Tess’s friends. This causes particular problems when she starts to fall for Connor, an ex boyfriend of Tess’s who wants to rekindle the relationship. The two flirt and banter by email but whilst Connor thinks it’s Tess he’s communicating with, Leila is rationalising the possibility that if Connor is told Tess is dead and it’s Leila who he’s been talking too he will transfer his affections.  Leila soon crosses a forbidden line and engineers a face to face encounter with Connor, potentially jeopardising her and Tess’s carefully laid plans. But the deception the two women have cooked up is threatened from elsewhere too, as the truth about Adrian’s reasons for putting them in touch are thrown into question, taking Leila on a journey to Spain to discover whether Tess really did kill herself.

KISS ME FIRST is told with the benefit of hindsight and Moggach’s language perfectly captures the reasoning and perspectives of someone with Aspergic tendencies, like Leila’s. The two female characters are portrayed warmly and sympathetically, despite their many flaws, and Leila’s growing self awareness as the story progresses is handled very well. So too are the ethical dilemmas around assisted suicide and the idea that knowing everything about someone isn’t the same as knowing them. A cautionary tale in some respects and a comment on the dangers of trusting who or what people seem online, the book’s ultimately about real life relationships, their power over us and their honesty as compared to the edited highlights most of us share online. KISS ME FIRST closes a bit abruptly and with some loose ends but for me these actually work (and I don’t think they’re there because a follow up is planned, at least I hope not) because they fit neatly with the premise of the book – that the virtual world gives us one more place to hide if we want to.

Unsettling, uncompromising and unputdownable, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was its title.

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MADDADDAM by Margaret Attwood

maddaddam by margaret attwood

The final book in a trilogy that also features with Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam sees the various threads of the previous two books brought together as we learn whether those who have survived Crake’s plague can live alongside the genetically modified people, plants and animals that have been unleashed. The story centres around Toby, one of Gods Gardeners, and Zeb and his messed up relationships with his “brother” Addam One and Crake. Part looking back, part building a new present, MaddAddam is at times dark, at times hilariously funny and always pure Attwood genius. It’s clever, terrifyingly so on occasion, and the dystopia she has created is incredible in its detail and prescience. The way that facts and stories are transformed into myths is especially interesting, as central to how a new society comes into being and Attwood uses the innocent Crakers to great effect here, as well as their relationship with Jimmy the Snowman who is their oracle.

However, there’s much that doesn’t quite add up here. Attwood’s telling of the events that lead to the apocalyptic waterless flood place the blame squarely at the feet of humankind’s propensity to become fixated on power and wealth. In her post-Apocalyptic world, the emphasis is on co-operation, on learning from our past mistakes and on the potential for engineering out some of our worst traits. In fact, she suggests that a new utopia can emerge from the dystopia, that successful mating between the Crakers and the humans promises a future where collective well being is paramount and in which an ecological balance is preserved. But this neglects to account for so many other factors – nobody knows, for example, the long term impact of the new species on the planet –  whilst the reduction of all the women to child bearers and the elevation of the men to brawn with penises is at odds with the strong feminism of Attwood’s other novels. It’s too simplistic to equate the arrival of a new born baby with the promise of a better future, when very little suggests that’s likely.

So whilst I enjoyed reading MADDADDAM enormously, I feel a little let down. Perhaps it needs revisiting properly as the final book of a trilogy ie I need to read all 3 in close succession, but I cannot help but be disappointed that for all Atwood’s amazing vision, story telling and wit, she has tried too hard to provide answers and has succeeded only in raising a whole new set of other questions.

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