Friday, 7 June 2019

Origin - Dan Brown


Image result for dan brown originPublisher: Penguin


Published: 2017


Pages
: 538


Review:

Here I am again, shamelessly reading another Dan Brown thriller. I think I’ve read all his books and while I wouldn’t call myself a fan his books never fail to entertain. Origin is another solid attempt by Dan Brown and it hits all the marks you would expect from a Robert Langdon Book. Religious sects, symbology classical art and literature, a life or death chase around a European city and also some sort of scientific leap that may or may not be real all are hallmarks of the adventures of Robert Langdon, symbologist/Indiana Jones.



Origin takes us to a new country, Spain, which I don’t think we’ve been to with Mr Langdon, as he mostly brings us to Italy. In Bilbao and Barcelona we see the confluence of art, god and meticulous human planning and balance, which it sort of metaphorical in this book if you can try and find metaphor in a Dan Brown novel. Brown explores the idea of artificial intelligence through Edmond Kirsch, a genius computer scientist and the linchpin of the novel as he announces a discovery that will change the world and destroy and hope that mankind may find in religion. The ideas in this book are based around some pretty loose computer science that Brown must have found hypothesised in some obscure article or journal and decided to use it to kill god. It’s an interesting thought experiment, given that this technology exists what would it be used to discover? But I wouldn’t cite Origin as a source for a research paper.



The plot, which is what I read this books for, was actually pretty good. On the whole it wasn’t surprising (shocker:the beautiful woman who accompanies Langdon on his quest accidentally falls in love with him) but there were a few plot points that surprised me and kept me on my toes.



The aspect that interested me the most was the idea of do we really need faith? Obviously I don’t need to explain that religion is so ingrained in our cultures and physches that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But what if a discovery happened that caused everyone to lose faith in their God, what would the world be like? This resonated with me particularly as I read it in the lead up of the Pope’s visit to Ireland. I concluded we’d be fine without God, but that’s just my opinion. An interesting twist Brown added to the book was the ‘Atheist Terrorist’, who commits acts of terror against the faithful. To the best of my knowledge this is not a thing, but as we all know there are extremists in every camp and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became one.



Origin received a fair bit of criticism from the Roman Catholic community, criticism that Brown is no stranger to. However, it would be unfair to say that Origin targets the Catholic church.Its villain is the Palmarians, a catholic illuminati style splinter group that the RC church does not under any circumstance associate with. I know this for a fact as when we covered cults in religion class in my catholic school, we were shown a documentary about the palmarians and were told they were very bad indeed. The Palmarians are a perfect Dan Brown villain, creepy, culty and mysterious but with historic ties to one of the most recognised, influential and oldest of the worlds organisations.



All in all pretty good, a solid attempt by Dan Brown if very formulaic.



Three stars ***

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Girls - Emma Cline



Image result for the girls emma cline uk cover
Publisher: Chatto Windus

Published: 2016

Pages: 357

Review:

This was not the book I expected it to be, but maybe that’s a good thing. I’m not a cult enthusiast like some potential readers may be. My interest is purely based on what Karen and Georgia of My Favorite Murder fame have fed to me. So I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I think it might have been a bit more wacky and psychedelic than the actual gritty and just downright depressing narrative I ended up with. Even though it wasn’t what I expected, it was still pretty good in an oh-no-what’s-happening kind of a way.

Based on my limited knowledge of cults and their history I think the one depicted by Emma Cline was heavily inspired by the Charles Manson cult, and the murders it’s members committed. Russell, the enigmatic and charismatic leader, is an aspiring singer songwriter. He has amassed a cult (literally) following of young fans, mostly girls, who truly believe Russell is destined for great things and will change the world with his music. Cline expertly documents how quickly adoration and obsession can spiral into complete obedience and truly destructive behaviors.

Though this book may have been sold to me as a gory, dramatic cult story, I thought it could equally be re-branded as a coming of age, sexual awakening story. Our protagonist, Evie, is a preteen when the cult comes to town and she becomes obsessed with one of Russell's girls, the mysterious and beautiful Suzanne. As the story unfolds, Evie tries to untangle her feelings for Suzanne. Are they those of complete admiration and jealousy? Or are they deeper feelings of attraction, or even love? Evie has a plethora of first sexual experiences, ranging from participatory and enjoyable to non-consensual and abusive. Through her eyes we see her try to come to terms with the trauma and pleasure that comes with them, as she figures out herself and what she wants. We can contrast Evie’s relationship with Suzanne with her relationship with Connie, a childhood friend. Evie is a pretty awful friend to Connie, abandoning her as soon as something more exciting, more grown up comes along. In comparison, her relationship with Suzanne is obsessive and all-consuming. She would probably do anything for Suzanne.


Evie’s experiences are not unique, the novel contains quite a bit of unsettling sexual abuse. But interestingly, in light of the #metoo movement, it’s nothing that would hold up in a court of law as rape. None of the girls are held against their will, they don’t scream, struggle or fight back. None of Evie’s assaults have the hallmarks of what a court would perceive of lack of consent. But to call them consensual would be a gross misrepresentation, and wouldn’t take into account the power balance and the pressure the girls were under to sexual gratify the men. In a way it reminded me of the sex in Louise O’Neill’s Almost Love, in which she describes women being complicit in their own degradation. The girls in Russell’s cult take part in sex and allow themselves to me abused because they feel that that’s the only way they will be allowed to stay where they feel they belong. They put up with the abuse and mistreated because they feel the will be cast out if they don’t. They feel they have no alternative. This is all without even mentioning that a lot of the girls abused by Russell are underage, and that’s statutory rape no doubt about it.


As in her description of sexual abuse, Cline doesn’t shy away from exploring the power men have over women. She explores it to various different degrees through different relationships. Russell has total control over Suzanne. She would do anything for his approval and love, and ultimately murders for him.(This isn’t a spoiler it’s mentioned in pretty much the first chapter so I’m not sorry.) Evie’s parents and Evie’s father and his girlfriend also have a really unhealthy power imbalance in their relationships. Evie’s mother puts up with her husband cheating on her, and when he eventually leaves her for his girlfriend she completely loses herself. Taram and Evie’s father have a slightly more equal relationship, putting the age difference and the fact he’s her boss aside, in that Taram seems less likely to put up with Evie’s fathers shit.


All thematic features aside, my favourite aspect of this book was the aesthetic that Cline creates in the North California setting. I feel like the cover is perfectly done to represent this vibe. The blue, blue sky, the orange and yellow lens flare and the almost dusty, grainy quality of the photograph all screams a stifling hot California summer. Cline really captures the oppressive, lazy quality of the heat and it permeates the mood of the narrative. This story couldn’t have played out anywhere else but an abandoned ranch in the hills of north California. This setting is in striking contrast to the violent and disturbing aspects of the narrative. It’s jarring to imaging such vile acts taking place in the lazy heat. Some of the descriptions are not for the faint of heart and I found myself speedreading some sections willing them to be over. If you're not one for grisly depictions of violence, there are parts of this book you will find distressing.

All in all I thought The Girls was an interesting, realistic and gritty depiction of obsession, abuse and power and is worth a read if you have a strong stomach.


Four Stars ****

Friday, 14 September 2018

Crazy Rich Asians -Kevin Kwan



Published: 2014


Publisher: Anchor


Pages: 527


Review:


I picked up Crazy Rich Asians after seeing the trailer and feeling intrigued. It struck me as kind of Singaporean Gossip Girl, and I loved GG so I was keen to dive right in.




I’ll get my pet peeves out of the way at the beginning because it’s all praise after this. Sometimes this book reads like Vogue, there are constant descriptions of what the characters wear and who it was designed by. And I just don’t care. I understand that Kwan was using it to illustrate how fashion is used to distinguish the elite and how their obsession with wealth manifests itself in their obsession with clothing, but he could have dialed it down and still got his point across. Also I felt like there might have been too many characters, introduced extremely briefly, all kind of similar to each other (there are about 500 aunts and I couldn’t keep them straight)




Other than that I really liked this novel. Kwan has done such a good job of creating some really realistic and surprisingly relatable characters. I don’t know anyone as rich as the characters in this book, but I know some fairly rich ones who are pretty intolerable so I can only imagine what people who are set to inherit a couple hundred mil are like. But not all of the Singaporean Chinese are terrible people, obviously, some of them handle their extreme wealth with grace and subtlety.




Kwan explores the way that wealth affects these people and their relationships. Nick, Eddie and Astrid are three cousins, almost as rich as either, who grew up together and turned out very differently. Nick is well adjusted, has a really healthy relationship with his girlfriend, our protagonist, Rachel (apart from lying by omission about his horrifically rich family). Astrid, a socialite and It girl, is married to the man she loves but her wealth but considerable strain on their relationship. Eddie is obsessed with his wealth, how much of it he has, how he can show it off and why his parents won’t, and ends up at odds with his relatively down to earth wife, Fiona.




Crazy Rich Asians is very interesting class study about how people with this extreme wealth behave and a fascinating insight into the strata of Asian society, something I knew nothing about. I found it intriguing that the families with the most wealth often go to great lengths to hide it, which seems extremely at odds with the behavior of their peers. (See:every rich person since the beginning of time). But much like the British landed gentry, a class system I’m much more familiar with, they are extremely snobby and condescending towards other social groups (especially the mainland Chinese and anyone with ‘new money’). Their social circle is rife with ‘inbreeding’, as it’s considered improper to marry outside of the Singaporean Chinese class. After all, the money must be kept in the family.




Crazy Rich Asians gives a unique perspective on Asian society that is never represented in the media and it’s characters defy most if not all of the stereotypes that Asian people are often saddled with in the media.




Four Stars ****

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Power - Naomi Alderman


Image result for the power naomi alderman
Published 2016
Publisher Penguin Fiction


Blurb

What if the power to hurt were in women's hands?

Suddenly - tomorrow or the day after - teenage girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman's
 









Review

The question I kept asking myself as I read The Power was “Is this a feminist book?”. It was certainly sold to me as one, though as it unfolded, the narrative turned out to be a lot more complex than the female empowerment I expected.

If you wanted to read this as a misandrist handbook you probably could. Over the course of the novel as we see societal power shift from men to women, the women become even more ruthless and cruel than we expect from “the weaker sex”. This is the central point of the novel, there is nothing inherently evil about the group that holds the power, but power corrupts it’s holder. In this way this novel is more of a thought experiment than a story, what would happen if the power structures in society shifted to favour the women? Is there anything inherently peaceful about women, or is it there lack of power that allows them to take the compassionate, gentle role in society. Do women only behave this way as a foil for men, and is the submissive group always considered peaceful? The narrative illustrates that it’s quite easy to argue the “superiority” of one gender once that gender holds the power, of course they are better, because they wouldn’t have all the power if they weren’t? The “Power” eventually leads gendered violence against men. By exploring rape, Alderman examines the theory that rape is less about sexual desire, and more a display of power, dominance and a way of oppressing and controlling the weaker group.

Aldermen also explores who intersex individuals fit into this new power structure. The skein is considered a secondary sex characteristic and boys that are born with skeins and girls that are born without are shunned by society.

Alderman also uses some unusual ways to drive home the huge cultural shift that occurs before and after the cataclysm. The correspondence between “Naomi” and “Neil” ,book ending the narrative, about the book he’s writing is jarring. We are not used to hearing women talk to men in this way, the condescending language that Naomi uses when critiquing his work is usually reserved for women in the workplace. The novel is also dotted with drawings of found artifacts, thought to be used by women and girls training their power.

As interesting and thought provoking as the book is, it does require the reader to suspend their disbelief for a few key points. The skein made absolutely no scientific sense to me. How does it work? Where does it comes from? Why did women lose this power and why did it come back? The voice in Allie’s head also really frustrated me. What was it her mom, the Mother, mental illness? If this was cleared up in the book, I must have missed it.

“The Power” is unlike any other book I’ve read. By taking societal norms and flipping them it creates an unnerving and disconcerting narrative exploring gender violence and dominance. It’s no “The Handmaid’s Tale” but is a worthy member of the modern feminist canon.

Four Stars ****

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

One - Sarah Crossan

Published: 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 430

Blurb:

Grace and Tippi. Tippi and Grace. Two sisters. Two hearts. Two dreams. Two lives. But one body.

Grace and Tippi are conjoined twins, joined at the waist, defying the odds of survival for sixteen years. They share everything, and they are everything to each other. They would never imagine being apart. For them, that would be the real tragedy.
But something is happening to them. Something they hoped would never happen. And Grace doesn’t want to admit it. Not even to Tippi.
How long can they hide from the truth—how long before they must face the most impossible choice of their lives?


Review:

One by Sarah Crossan follows the story of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace as they attend school for the first time and take their first steps in the “real” world.


If you’re reading this, you probably already know One is written in free verse. As someone who is deeply suspicious of poetry, especially something as “pretentious” as free verse, I had my misgivings about this book. But never fear, this book is beautifully written and the free verse doesn’t take away from the story at all, it even adds to it. However, it makes the book look at lot longer than it actually is, and you will find yourself flying through it much faster than you thought you would. It turns out that I was really wrong about free verse, and I wouldn't hesitate to pick another book by Crossan or in a similar style.


My favourite thing about One was Grace and Tippi’s relationship. I’ve read books about twins before, but there is something different about the relationship of conjoined twins. Grace and Tippi have spent literally every second of their lives together, and it shows through the unique bond they have. They have a relationship that is completely unimaginable to the rest of us, and Crossan does very good job of explaining the bond in a thoroughly touching way.


Family is a huge theme in this book, and Crossan deals very well witht he effect the twins condition has on the rest of the family, and how their own problems and experiences are eclipsed by Grace and Tippi’s. The girls’ mother works tremendously hard to support the girls and the rest of the family, while their father’s drinking begins to tear his marriage and their family apart. Crossan also addresses the effect the girls have on Dragon, their little sister, her health issues and eating disorder. The girls’ condition has a huge affect on the family over time, and though it’snot their fault, they begin to resent themselves for it.


In a similar vein to The Fault in Our Stars , Grace and Tippi have to deal with the prospect of death from an early age. Their whole lives they have been told that they won’t survive much longer, and like Hazel, Augustus and Isaac in TFiOS they approach it with a dark sense of humour that most of the other characters don’t seem to understand, even going so far as to plan their funerals.


I found the way the television crew and the reporter, Caroline, dealt with the girls and their situation very interesting. We've all seen documentaries that brutally exploit people like Tippi and Grace for entertainment value, but Caroline and her co-workers were extremely respectful in their dealings with the twins. It was a huge contrast to the way the general public and people around the girls reacted to them, which was mostly with fear and disgust.


However, this book left me with a lot more questions than answers. Grace and Tippi have very different personalities, how is this possible when they have exactly the same DNA and and environmental upbringing. Biologically speaking, they are the same person, coming from a single embryo that didn't separate fully, but at what point does one person become two? And how did they end up with such different personalities.

I would highly recommend One to practically everyone. It is a quick, yet heart wrenching read, and a wonderful introduction to free verse writing. One is a YA book about love, without being about romance. It will break your heart, and stay with you long after you've put it down.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Scorch Trials - James Dashner ( The Maze Runner #2)

Publisher: Chicken House
Published: 2013 ( first published January 2011)
Pages:

Blurb:

Solving the Maze was supposed to be the end. No more puzzles. No more variables. And no more running. Thomas was sure that escape meant he and the Gladers would get their lives back. But no one really knew what sort of life they were going back to.

In the Maze, life was easy. They had food, and shelter, and safety... until Teresa triggered the end. In the world outside the Maze, however, the end was triggered long ago.

Burned by sun flares and baked by a new, brutal climate, the earth is a wasteland. Government has disintegrated—and with it, order—and now Cranks, people covered in festering wounds and driven to murderous insanity by the infectious disease known as the Flare, roam the crumbling cities hunting for their next victim... and meal.

The Gladers are far from finished with running. Instead of freedom, they find themselves faced with another trial. They must cross the Scorch, the most burned-out section of the world, and arrive at a safe haven in two weeks. And WICKED has made sure to adjust the variables and stack the odds against them.

Thomas can only wonder—does he hold the secret of freedom somewhere in his mind? Or will he forever be at the mercy of WICKED?

Review:

I read The Scorch Trials a full year after The Maze Runner in anticipation of the new film, and I couldn’t really remember where we left off, but I did remember being mildly impressed by the madcap plot Dashner had written. It turns out that I actually preferred The Scorch Trials to The Maze Runner, for various reasons that I’ll go into in a bit.


The Scorch Trials begins as we rejoin Thomas and the other gladers in some sort of holding facility after being rescued from the maze, and to be honest, it just gets weirder from then on in. The plot is actually mental, like, it’s completely ridiculous and I was surprised by how little that bothered me. If you thought the circumstance of the Hunger Games were farfetched , then this will probably be a little much for you. The whole plot is wrapped up in dubious science and horrendously unlikely circumstance, so if you can’t suspend your disbelief, you probably won’t enjoy this book. I’m not going to go into the plot because I feel it’s the most important part of the book and I don’t want to spoil it for you. The storyline is absolutely gripping, and I didn’t want to put it down at all. Unlike in the first book, Dashner manages to keep up a good pace and no part of this book drags.


However, one of the annoying aspects of the book were the extremely short chapters that were generally bookended by Thomas passing out and waking up again. Thomas does an awful lot of passing out/falling asleep, and it becomes a little tedious.


In this book we learn a lot more about the world Thomas and the Gladers inhabit, WICKED and the flare, but I still felt we were left with more questions than answers. I really am looking forward to having all my questions answered in the final book.


I would recommend this book to readers between 12 and seventeen, because I think I would have enjoyed them the most between those ages. Unlike so many trilogies, I feel like Dashner actually has a story that is worth taking three books to tell, so The Scorch Trials manages to avoid the dreaded book two dip in quality and substance.


Four Stars ****

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

I'll Give You the Sun - Jandy Nelson

Pages: 427
Publisher: Walker Books
Published: April 2015

Blurb:

From the author of The Sky Is Every­where, a radiant novel that will leave you laughing and crying - all at once. For fans of John Green, Gayle Forman and Lauren Oliver. Jude and her twin Noah were incredibly close - until a tragedy drove them apart, and now they are barely speaking. Then Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy as well as a captivating new mentor, both of whom may just need her as much as she needs them. What the twins don't realize is that each of them has only half the story and if they can just find their way back to one another, they have a chance to remake their world.


Review:

I’ll Give You the Sun is the second book I’ve read by Nelson, The Sky is Everywhere being the first. Now I couldn’t tell you what happened in TSiE I read it so long ago, but I remember the absolute adoration I felt for the book and that I recommended it to all my friends. So going into this one I knew I’d love it.


Stylistically, I’ll Give You the Sun is not something I would usually read. I read a review in which it was described as “death by artistic metaphor” and I can see how they got this impression. In any other narrative, this style wouldn’t work. But Noah and Jude are artists, and they don’t see the world in the same way I do. They see the world in colour and movement and light, like a living painting, a living sculpture. I found that this was a really effective method to get into the headspace of an artist, something I’ve never been able to experience before. It was a really unique reading experience, and instead of being annoyed by it, or just tolerating it, I absolutely loved it. If you’re not usually into that flowery kind of prose, still give it a chance, you might like it.


The book is divided into both Noah and Jude’s point of view, Noah’s POV from age thirteen and Jude’s POV from age sixteen. Both halves have very distinct voices, I never once got them mixed up like a sometimes do with other split POV narratives. They’re both excellent, but I personally preferred Noah’s sections.


Another feature of the writing I loved were Noah and Jude’s little additions to the prose. Noah constantly paints in his head, and throughout the text Nelson scatters in the names of the portraits and self portraits he imagines. It’s such a creative and effective way to give another insight into how Noah is feeling. Jude’s text is littered from little excerpts from the twins’ grandmother’s ‘bible’, a book of superstition and witchcraft-like-spells, written by both Jude and Grandma Sweetwine. The narrative is hugely influenced by fairytale and folklore, which gave a strange but fascinating magical realism to the text. I wasn’t a huge fan of the prophecy aspect, but I see how it added to the plot and the overall feel of the book.


The book primarily deals with relationships, both romantic and familial. I was surprised by how small a part Jude and Noah’s romantic relationships played in the book, considering that is what the blurb and summary focussed on. Nelson focusses on the codependent relationship between the twins, and how they fall out and become almost estranged. Jealousy and sibling rivalry play a huge part in the breakdown of Jude and Noah’s relationship, and shows how damaging this competition can be to familial relationships. Parent-child relationships are also very important, and Nelson explores the different bonds between father, mother, son and daughter.


Nelson also deals beautifully with grief and bereavement, and how those left behind tend to blame themselves for the death of a loved one. All the characters deal with grief in different ways, some more self destructive than others, but we also see the different ways people can come back from a colossal loss.  


Both Jude and Noah deal with their identity over the course of the narrative. Noah really struggles to come to terms with her sexuality, what it means for his future and how others will perceive him once they find out. Jude struggles with whether or not she is “that girl”, and the strain it puts on her relationship with her mother. This was my least favourite part of the book. I feel Nelson blames Jude’s promiscuous behaviour on her desire to aggravate to mother, and Jude feels like the universe punished her for her behaviour, and then decides to boycott boys in order to make things right. This made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I may have misunderstood. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.


I’ll Give You the Sun is a beautiful novel, and I would thoroughly recommend it to everyone. I was thoroughly engrossed by it, and I’m still thinking about it two weeks after I finished it.

Five Stars