Monday 26 August 2019

THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read one of Margaret Atwood's dystopian books before, Oryx and Crake, and liked it, though, like thousands of others, I was inspired to read this after watching the TV series.

In a Nutshell: Dystopian, set in an imaginary former America, in the 1980s

If you're one of the five people in the world who haven't seen the TV series,
much of America has become 'Gilead', ruled by Christian fundamentalists and cut off from the rest of the world; this is the story of one of the 'handmaids', rare fertile girls forced to bear children for high profile couples after sterility has become commonplace.

The story is told in the first person by 'Offred', though in the book we never have her real name confirmed, or that of her child.  It is slow in pace, especially at first, but this does, of course, reflect the pace of her life.  I did wonder, during the first few chapters, if anyone reading the story without having seen the series might take a while to appreciate it or even understand what is going on, as the world in which 'Offred' now lives is revealed to the reader only gradually.  I adored this book, all the way through, and couldn't read it fast enough, though I did feel frustrated by the lack of explanation - but when it comes, half way through, it is all the more shocking to find out how the 'normal' world became Gilead.

Although written in 1984, the story is chillingly prescient; Offred talks of the false flag* operations, designed to create fear within the people, so that they will not complain when their privacy and liberty is taken away ... then there is the lack of paper money, with transactions made only via 'Compubank'; another withdrawal of privacy and removal of a person's ability to stay anonymous.

Even though the people are kept relatively safe, they are fed, and have comfort and adequate medical attention, it is the the removal of liberty and the ability to communicate, and the ever-present, underlying threat should one not comply with all rules, that makes this the worse sort of horror story.

Obviously the TV show has ratings to think about, and so the story develops differently; viewers will want some happiness and resolution for June/Offred, some reconciliation, and a 'personal journey' for her, in which she grows, positively - but this was written in a time before heroines were required to be kick-ass.  The end is left open for almost all the characters... but after it finishes there is a great addition to the book that rounds it off in a different way: a transcript of a lecture given in the year 2195, talking about all that is known about the Gileadean era, much of it from Offred's account.  

Good news for those who, like me, can't get enough of either the book or the telly version - the long-awaited follow-up, The Testaments is out on September 10th.  

*...countries organize attacks on themselves and make the attacks appear to be by enemy nations or terrorists, thus giving the nation that was supposedly attacked a pretext for domestic repression and military aggression.

Saturday 24 August 2019

ENTERTAINING MR PEPYS by Deborah Swift @swiftstory

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Deborah Swift is one of my favourite authors, and she very kindly offered me a review copy, but I've bought it on pre-order anyway!

In a Nutshell: 17th century historical fiction, set in London.

What an excellent trilogy this is!  Three books set in the Restoration era London of Samuel Pepys, with him as a secondary character. I think #2 is still my favourite (actually one of my favourite books of the past ten years), but I loved this one too.

This is the story of Mary Elizabeth 'Bird' Knepp, a young woman stuck in a ghastly prison of a marriage, until one day she goes to the theatre, and knows straight away that this is where she is meant to be.  But this is no drudgery-to-diamonds historical romance, despite her flirtations with Pepys; it's 17th century London at its most filthy, squalid and hungry.  Each time I read one of Ms Swift's books set in London during this time, I think 'I really must read Pepys's diary - I really AM going to, this time!

The book is not just about Bird, but also Livvy, her Dutch maid, living in England at a time when being Dutch is almost as bad as being Catholic.  Then there is Stefan, a young theatre player who realises something about himself when he is no longer allowed to play female parts - and Christopher Knepp, Bird's taciturn husband.  There are some other wonderful secondary characters, too, such as Knepp's cantankerous old mother, and Bird's horribly superficial father - and 17th century theatre itself; such a vivid, fascinating picture is painted.

The climax of covers the last twenty per cent, with the Great Fire of London - I was utterly gripped all the way through; it brought the horror of those days to life in the way that no other account I've read ever has.

The books intertwine but are complete stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.  They're SO worth reading; I read this in three days because I didn't want to put it down.  Do give this series ago - you'll feel as if you're in Pepys's London with the turn of every page.  Honestly.

Monday 19 August 2019

LIPSTICK by Peter Davey @PedroYevad

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Twitter

In a Nutshell: Infidelity and mystery in glorious French locations

This is a book to download for a beach read, for anyone who hasn't gone on holiday yet!

Antoine Cassernet has it all; a prestigious banking career, good looks, a beautiful wife, three children, homes in Paris and the Normandy countryside, and a string of lovers.  Then he becomes entangled with unstable film producer Madeleine de la Cruz, and his perfect life is thrown into disarray. 

I loved the settings of this book, and am sure that the author must be familiar with several of them, as the exotic French feel of the story seemed so real, not one borne of research.  A novel based around multiple marital infidelities, there is a slightly tongue-in-cheek essence to to the whole story that I enjoyed.  As far as the mystery is concerned, I had suspicions about the outcome early on, having read a couple of books years ago along similar lines, but then my thoughts were led down several different alleys and I changed my mind - many times.  Suffice to say that the characters are keeping many secrets, and they come out gradually, one after another, to reveal complicated layers of motivation.

I will tempt you further by saying that the cover doesn't do the book justice; the author's skillful pen conjures up such an appealing picture of Parisian jet set glamour and French country houses in the summer, and I would love to see some of that reflected on the cover.  It's an easy, fun read - recommended!

Wednesday 14 August 2019

FAT BOY by Joseph Cobb

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Contemporary drama, humour, sometimes dark.

Fat Boy was not what I expected from the blurb - it's actually an experimental sort of structure, more a series of short stories, poems and scenarios than a novel, though they do tie up later.

The setting is mostly the English West Country, though it may not be one you recognise, with its humorous and fantastical characters.

Joseph Cobb clearly has much creativity and a good eye for the absurd, leaning towards observational humour.  I think this book has potential, though it needs further editing.  There are many delightful turns of phrase, amusing metaphors, funny situations and comic book characters, but some areas felt a little 'first draft', with lazily structured sentences and rambling paragraphs that simply needed more attention.  The book as a whole comes over as somewhat haphazard, as if the author's many imaginative ideas have been splashed across the pages without much thought for cohesion; I couldn't work out, at first, what I was supposed to be reading; was this a book of short stories?  Was Chapter 2 related to Chapter 1?  I even looked at other reviews to see if it was just me, but they were all one-liners, so didn't afford any insight. Chapter 3 was written in poetry format, about yet more characters who appeared again later in the book.  The poems were amusing and well put together, for the most part.

To sum up, I'd say that that Fat Boy has much to commend it, but I would recommend further redrafting to tighten it up, and perhaps the assistance of an experienced content editor to streamline and cut the superfluous, thus highlighting its strengths.

Thursday 1 August 2019

KILL CODE by Clive Fleury #RBRT

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Climate change, dystopian, set on the west coast of the US 

At some time in the relatively near future, climate change has affected the world in such a way that those who can afford good food and fresh water live in protected zones, with the majority of the population struggling to survive.  Hogan Duran is a former cop scratching a living, until he is given the opportunity of a lifetime with the NSC - the all-powerful National Security Council.  

I loved the first 40% of this book.  The world-building was terrific, and I was engrossed.  When Hogan gets his life-changing opportunity, he and many other candidates are put through a 'last man standing' series of tests, which was also a real page-turner; this part was great, original and gripping.  Later, there is a jaw drop of a twist when he discovers that his experiences are not as they seem....

The second half of the book is mostly taken up with action scenes and daring escapes, as some of supposed 'goodies' come up against the Krails, a rebel biker gang.  Here, I found that my interest wandered; I rarely find that action in books works anything like as well as it does on screen; there is too much explanation of 'this happened then that happened', and much of it seemed like the stuff of superheroes rather than a man who has been undernourished for years.  I was also unconvinced by the escape in the last third of the book, when the all-seeing people in charge suddenly seemed not so all-seeing after all, enabling Duran and his friends to do all they did.

I thought the characterisation of Duran was extremely well done in the first half of the book; I could really see him.  However, I often find in action books written by men that the women are just men with a female name, or a one-dimensional kick-ass heroine fantasy who is naked as often as the story will permit; Ruby was never more than a word on a page for me.  Also, the plot delves in and out of virtual reality, which was sometimes confusing.  

I liked the ending, and may possibly check out the next in the series because I like the premise, but I'd have preferred it if the book had concentrated more on the characters and less on the outlandish action plot of the second half.