Under The Skin by Michel Faber: Book Review

Under The SkinMichel Faber’s debut novel Under The Skin is a reviewer’s nightmare, because it’s one of those books that you cannot really adequately cover without giving too much away. The book defies all categorisation, masquerading as a thriller, science-fiction and horror all at once. There are also elements of allegory and satire woven throughout. Suffice to say, as far as the plot is concerned, it is about a woman called Isserly who is obsessed with driving around the Scottish highlands and picking up well-muscled male hitchhikers. What starts out as a run-of-the-mill sexed-up thriller soon descends into a malebolge of unsettling and repugnant horrors that stole my sleep and left me unnerved for days.

The first half of the book – where revelations are slowly drip-fed to the reader – is the strongest. Michel Faber does a fantastic job of ratcheting up the suspense and the ever-permeating sense of dread by revealing just enough to send the reader’s imagination running wild without fully satisfying their questions. This makes Under The Skin compulsively readable, despite the repetitive events of Isserly’s daily grind; find a hitchhiker, pick him up, find a hitchhiker, pick him up…

Comparatively, the latter half of the novel does not maintain this momentum. Climaxing roughly in the middle with a truly horrific midnight hunt in the dark, after this I had the facts necessary to piece together enough of the truth that my interest waned. A couple of latter attempts on Michel Faber’s part to gross me out failed, and whilst some of the debate surrounding speciesism, classicism and what makes us human were truly interesting, it didn’t quite seem to fit with the ambiguously eerie and unsettling beginning and had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It is also worth noting that if you – like me – are the kind of reader who looks up words they don’t understand, there are a couple of made-up words thrown in here that I would advise you not to investigate; words like ‘icpathua’ and ‘vodsel’. Never forget that the web is dark and full of spoilers…

The Woman
Scarlett Johansson stars as Isserly’s equivalent – The Woman – in Under The Skin (2013)

Despite these quite major sticking points, I really did enjoy Under The Skin. There’s definitely no other book like it, and its opaque ambiguity and downright weirdness is what makes it simultaneously so fascinating and frustrating to read.

Shortly after I finished reading Under The Skin, I watched the 2013 film of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson. I thought the film – which is only a very loose adaption of the book – was just as good, if not better; a fantastic transition from page to screen. Honestly, I would recommend both, so if you cannot bring yourself to read the book based on my rating, it’s definitely worth checking out the film.

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Michel Faber and Under The Skin (2013), please visit the below links:

http://www.canongate.tv/authors/michelfaber
http://undertheskinmovie.com/

 

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Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb: Book Review

Fool's QuestFool’s Quest is the second book in Robin Hobb’s latest epic fantasy trilogy, Fitz and the Fool. It is the eighth book told from the perspective of protagonist FitzChivalry Farseer, and the fifteenth book in the Realm of the Elderlings series as a whole (excluding the novellas and short stories). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the work of Robin Hobb, I highly recommend that before you read another word of this review, you go away and read all preceding books in the Realm of the Elderlings series, including The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles (though please do not be put off by The Rain Wild Chronicles‘ far inferior quality). Each book is of a rather mighty and intimidating size, but I can assure you that you will become so engrossed in Hobb’s exquisite characters and beautifully engaging writing that you will soon be finished in no time! You can thank me later.

Fitz has been reunited with the Fool at last, albeit under devastatingly violent and harrowing circumstances. Whilst a blissfully oblivious Fitz attempts to heal his friend within the confines of Buckkeep Castle and dissuade him from his quest for vengeance, his daughter Bee has been abducted by the mysterious Servants and their hired Chalcedean mercenaries, who believe her to be the long-awaited ‘Unexpected Son’ of the Fool’s prophecies. With Withywoods in disarray and a drastic political upheaval at Buckkeep Castle that will likely have every long-term Robin Hobb reader punching the air for joy, Fitz has much to contend with if he wishes to get Bee back. It may also mean that he will be forced to take up the Fool’s quest for vengeance after all…

The title is somewhat misleading, as said quest does not actually begin until the Third Act of the narrative. Similarly, the plot (like many of Robin Hobb’s previous works) is a slow-burner, the focus firmly upon the characters’ fears, loves and motivations. Despite huge chunks of seemingly nothing happening (Fitz continues to agonise endlessly over his decisions), these passages are rarely ever boring to read, and do not feel unnecessary. This is testimony to Hobb’s excellent grasp of wordsmithery. Her writing is as sprawlingly beautiful as ever, with the power to illicit incredible amounts of feeling and emotion in her readers with the simplest but most devastating of sentences. As a veteran reader, it is simply breathtaking when you take a step back and realise exactly how much has changed and developed since Assassin’s Apprentice, when Fitz was still Nameless the Dog Boy, the Skill badly practised, the Wit utterly forbidden and dragons nowhere to be found.

Despite this, things do sag in the middle when the reader is forced with Fitz to wait an age before any action can be taken to rescue Bee. Whilst this frustration is echoed within Fitz himself and encourages the reader to empathise with his position, it makes for some pretty exhausting reading. Real effort must be made to continue wading through the sheer hopelessness of the situation, particularly when combined with the dramatic irony that the reader knows precisely the danger that Bee is in. Whilst some might argue that this as a writing strength, personally it just got on my nerves, especially with so little pay-off in terms of story/quest progression. Those of you who have read my 1/5 star review of Blood Of Dragons on Goodreads (click here) will perhaps have some idea of my disappointment when things come to a head in the city of Kelsingra of all places.

On the subject of Bee (whose point-of-view chapters were such a pleasant surprise in Fool’s Assassin) her appearances are far fewer here. She has perhaps maybe five point-of-view chapters in total, and all of them are much, much shorter than a standard Fitz chapter. Given how much I loved Bee’s narrative voice in Fool’s Assassin, this did not bother me anywhere near as much as I thought it would; it was lovely to spend so much time in Fitz’s head again. Unbelievably stupid and hellishly frustrating he may be, one cannot help but love him as a character; we as readers have been through so much with him already.

All in all, this is a typical middle-of-the-trilogy Robin Hobb book, which is to say that it is not her best, but still excellent. The groundwork has been laid, the catalyst has been set in motion, the emotional fallout from the first book’s events have been dealt with, and there is a promise of great and exciting things to come in the conclusion – Assassin’s Fate – due out later this year. I simply cannot wait!

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


 

Disclaimer: For some reason, I found this review really, really difficult to write, so apologies that it is so long-coming and not up to my usual standard.

For more information on Robin Hobb and the Realm of the Elderlings, please visit her official website:

http://www.robinhobb.com/

The Fox And The Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith: Book Review

Coralie Bickford-Smith|The Fox and the Star Coralie Bickford-Smith, the designer behind Penguin Classics’ clothbound reissues, is the author of debut children’s novel The Fox And The Star. The Fox And The Star has been making lots of noise in recent weeks due to its being named Waterstone’s Book of the Year 2015. In fact, this was the reason why I bought it (despite my being decidedly older than its target demographic of 3-5 years old), as I have yet to be disappointed by the winners of these awards since the accolade was first launched in 2011.

Like its Penguin Classics cousins, The Fox And The Star is beautifully presented and designed to be collectible. I can just imagine a young child receiving this as a gift, perhaps with a signed bookplate in it to treasure and keep forever. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, at once simplistic and at the same time ornate – reminiscient of the tiled artwork of the Penguin Classics. The blocky colour scheme also contrasts very nicely with the intricate patterns meaning that the pages are not too busy. Children will love discerning the rabbits hidden amidst the grass, hunting for Fox in the wood and following the words around the page. The writing itself is quite understated for such a gorgeously presented book, but it is a small complaint and I strongly suspect children will be more concerned with the pictures, story and messages than the writing style.

On that note, The Fox And The Star’s strengths lie in its universal message and timelessness. By hinging all of Fox’s happiness on the existence of Star, only for Star to then go out, the reader is able to interpret the meaning of this in a multitude of powerful ways. Perhaps Star represents a person, so a grieving Fox must learn how to continue on without them. Perhaps Star represents Fox’s happiness itself, so when Fox spirals into a pit of depression, he must learn how to regain confidence again. Or perhaps the Star represents innocence and the Fox must now learn to stand up on his own four feet. All of these are rather heavy concepts to present to a child, but it is executed in a subtle, uplifting manner, so as to arm the child for the inevitable disappointments, griefs and sadnesses that await them in later life. As an adult reader, I was also able to pick up some of the story’s darker implications, like Fox hiding underground so still as to appear dead, and then being approached by beetles hoping to feast upon his ‘dead’ body. The best kind of children’s books are the ones that you can go back and read at different stages of your life and discover, recognise or relate to something new every time.

A lovely, beautiful little book that looks great on my bookshelf, and just keeps giving every time I read it. An ideal gift for any child in the run-up to Christmas.

Verdict: 4/5 stars

S.E. Berrow

 


For more information on Coralie Bickford-Smith and The Fox And The Star, please visit her official website:

http://cb-smith.com/

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: Book Review

The Miniaturist coverThe Miniaturist is the much-hyped debut novel of the very talented Jessie Burton. Subject to a publishing bidding war before it was even released to near-universal acclaim in 2014, it eventually went on to be crowned Waterstone’s Book of the Year just in time for Christmas. As a result, the book was reprinted in a simply gorgeous cloth-bound cover with a pretty gold ribbon-bookmark. To be entirely honest, I didn’t think a story about a dollhouse set in 17th century Amsterdam sounded terribly exciting. I feared that the writing would be stuffy and dull. Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for pretty collectible books, so I bought it anyway and just left it on my shelves until I ran out of other things to read.

I was right about one thing. A story about a dollhouse in 17th century Amsterdam probably wouldn’t have been terribly exciting. It’s therefore a very good thing that The Miniaturist is not really about a dollhouse. It’s not even about the elusive titular Miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror the protagonist’s life in disconcertingly prophetic ways. It is about the dollhouse’s owner, eighteen-year-old Petranella Oortman who, after having grown up in the quiet countryside, must now adapt to vibrant city-living following her marriage to the wealthy, charismatic merchant, Johannes Brandt. Upon arriving in Amsterdam however, with no one but her pet parakeet Peeboo for company, Nella is greeted not by Brandt, but by his sharp-tongued deliberately cagey sister, Marin. It isn’t long before Nella deduces that the Brandts are keeping one or two very big, very dark, dangerous secrets from her. When Nella discovers precisely what those secrets are… well. Soon the canals of Amsterdam – a city as morally backward as it is commercially vibrant and progressive – begin to flow with blood instead of water.

The Miniaturist
Jessie Burton

Simply put this book is absolutely gripping and beautifully executed, from its gorgeous clothbound cover to its sharp, concise and evocative writing. Jessie Burton does not fall into the trap of telling her story in an outdated, laboured fashion, as many other historical-fiction writers are prone to do. The descriptions of Amsterdam are stunning, inserted subtly into the most unexpected places to achieve great effect. For example, one of the book’s very first lines is, ‘Words flow like water in Amsterdam’, which not only conjures images of the canals but also cleverly foreshadows the spilling of secrets and the foreboding nature of water. The plot is tight and surprisingly violent, completely subverting my expectations; I was not able to guess at a single revelation. The times when I actually knew what was going to happen, I was filled with such dread that I willed myself to be wrong. Every single character, from the naïve newly-wed Nella to the quiet, anguished servant Otto, are crafted as meticulously and realistically as the Miniaturist’s dolls. Johannes Brandt’s sister Marin in particular – so stoic and fierce in her religious fervour and hypocrisy – was an absolute tour-de-force of a character, completely unpredictable, and I loved her.

Petranella Oortman's dollhouse
Petranella Oortman’s Cabinet House, on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

It’s interesting to note whilst we’re on the subject of characters that although Jessie Burton was inspired by the magnificent cabinet house owned by a real person called Petranella Oortman (who really was married to a merchant called Johannes Brandt in 17th century Amsterdam), everything she writes about their their lives – including their familial relations – is completely and utterly made-up. I found this very odd, and I’m not sure it was a very ethical thing to do (particularly where Johannes Brandt is concerned). I do not think the story would have suffered from a few simple name changes.

Any issues I had with this however, along with the ambiguous abilities of the Miniaturist, paled in comparison to everything else I enjoyed about this book. I didn’t want it to end, but at the same time couldn’t stop myself from reading, so emotionally invested was I in the fates of the characters. By the time I had turned the final page, I was at a complete loss, not only in terms of what I’d just read but also in terms of what on earth I was going to read next. The fact that this is a debut novel makes Jessie Burton’s achievement all the more impressive. I loved this book. Thoroughly recommended.

Verdict: 5/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist, please visit her official website:

http://www.jessieburton.co.uk/

Social Engineer by Ian Sutherland: Book Review

Ian Sutherland | Social EngineerEarlier this year I had the privilege of reading Ian Sutherland’s first novel in his Deep Web Thriller series, Invasion of Privacy; a slick modern thriller centred around ‘white-hat’ computer hacker, Brody Taylor, who finds himself caught up in a hunt for a serial killer. Crime is not exactly my go-to genre, but Invasion of Privacy was undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read this year. So to have then received an email inviting me to download a prequel 60-page novella, Social Engineer – for free nonetheless – I was only too happy to oblige, and excited to read more about Brody’s exploits. You can read my 5 star review of Invasion of Privacy on Goodreads here.

Ostensibly, Social Engineer has been written as an introduction to Brody’s character as well as his motivations, hacking techniques and day-to-day existence shrouded in a web of secrecy and lies, whilst trying to make a go of a relationship with an animal rights protester. The hope is that the reader will then go on to read the full-length novel, but those who have read the novel first, such as myself, Social Engineer is a nice little bonus story worth reading. Because the very nature of a novella dictates that Social Engineer cannot possibly be as informative or as in depth as Invasion of Privacy, it makes it all the more impressive that Ian Sutherland manages to cram so much in.

Brody’s character in the space of less than 100 pages succeeds in coming across as believable, consistent, intelligent and likeable, despite also being a self-confessed compulsive liar who walks a fine line between what is legal and what is not. The idea to pitch a much-needed, ground-breaking scientific discovery – in this case a cure for Alzheimer’s – against horrific but perhaps necessary animal testing (the latter of which was skilfully and subtly handled by the author) only helps to emphasise this blurring of black and white morality, which again I find impressive for a short story; to actually go so far as to include symbolism and social commentary with such a low page count. The writing is good, with no typos or formatting errors (important in a self-published work like this one). The story itself is tight with a solid beginning, middle and an open-ended, but very satisfying conclusion. The plot meanwhile is a little predictable, especially if you have read Invasion of Privacy first. Likewise, if you do read Invasion of Privacy after Social Engineer, expect to find yourself treading over old ground with the first Brody-centred chapter, the opening setting of which is very similar to this novella.

So, if you are looking for a (very) quick, pacey little Crime read with the potential to introduce you to something clever and more involved, and wish to support deserving, talented indie authors, I thoroughly recommend that you give Ian Sutherland’s Social Engineer a go. Hopefully you’ll pick up Invasion of Privacy afterwards too and enjoy it as much as I did.

Verdict: 4/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on the Deep Web Thriller series and Ian Sutherland, please visit his official website:

http://ianhsutherland.com/

 

The Whispers In The Walls by Sophie Cleverly: Book Review

Sophie Cleverly | The Whispers In The WallsThe Whispers in the Walls is the second instalment of Sophie Cleverly’s Scarlet & Ivy series, set in 1935 within the forbidding walls of Rookwood; a boarding school for girls. Clever but reserved Ivy Grey – protagonist of The Lost Twin – is back and I couldn’t be happier to read her voice again, but this time her more vociferous twin Scarlet is firmly in tow, with her own point of view chapters and distinctive presence on the page.

For those of you who have not read The Lost Twin and are in the mood for a tightly-written, good old fashioned boarding-school gothic mystery (I rated it 5 stars out of 5 on Goodreads), I highly recommend that you do so before you a) pick up The Whispers in the Walls and b) continue reading this review. The book is middle-grade reading-level and aimed at children aged 8-12.

The basic premise of The Whispers In The Walls is that in spite of events that occurred in The Lost Twin, Scarlet and Ivy Grey are forced by their gutless father and manipulative stepmother to return to Rookwood, only to discover that Miss Fox’s reign of terror is not yet over. Instead it is to continue – and worse – under the iron rod of Headmaster Bartholomew, whose eyes are fixed firmly on troublemaking Scarlet following a spate of thefts. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following her stint in the asylum and determined to regain Ivy’s trust, Scarlet sets out to prove her innocence, which leads to a startling and sinister discovery hidden deep within Rookwood’s walls.

The major development between the first book and this one is that the story is no longer narrated solely by Ivy. The twins alternate first-person point of view chapters with their names at the top of each one, which I must confess I didn’t like as much. Even via the diary entries in The Lost Twin, one got a sense of Scarlet’s domineering, obstinate nature. Now that she has been given free reign in The Whispers In The Walls, she rather overshadows Ivy. I thought that this was a shame, especially since Ivy coming into her own was such an important theme in The Lost Twin. Also, because the twins are often occupying the same space, talking with the same people and doing similar things, I sometimes got confused as to which twin’s point of view I was actually reading at the time, and often had to go back and check. I couldn’t help but wonder if the story could not have been told just as well, if not better, had the author just stuck with one twin’s point of view. That being said, Scarlet is a great character; her selfish bullheadedness, particularly where poor Ivy is concerned, is in equal parts endearing as it is frustrating. A part of me really does wish that we had learned more about what she endured at the asylum via some form of exposition scene with Ivy, but then I suppose Sophie Cleverly is limited to what she can include in a children’s book. In terms of other ‘new’ characters we are not introduced to many  (Vile Violet indirectly featured in The Lost Twin via Scarlet’s diary entries). I was very fond of the distractible librarian Catastrophe Jones however, and hope she crops up again in the next book.

Like The Lost Twin, mystery fogs the pages, and I found myself not being able to entirely predict for a moment what was going to happen next. Here I think is where Sophie Cleverly excels. She’s very good at throwing out red herrings and directing your suspicions elsewhere, and even if you do kind of half-guess the outcome, there’s always something else waiting in the wings to take you by surprise. The ending in particular was a bit of a curveball and promises further intrigue in the next book, however it was a bit of a shame that The Whispers In The Walls story felt unresolved as a result of this cliffhanger.

There were also a couple of moments in here that stretched the realms of believability beyond what I was prepared to accept – such as a teacher beating a student enough to break her arm without incurring some form of formal investigation, or students wandering around the school in the middle of the night amidst a draconian crackdown without bumping into a single patrol. The fact that Headmaster Bartholomew was also able to continue Miss Fox’s deception successfully – that Scarlet never left Rookwood – was a bit much. Miss Fox’s deception was contained between only herself and Ivy, whilst Headmaster Bartholomew’s deception relies not only upon several members of staff but also several of the students to play along. I feel like everyone went along with this a little too quietly, especially Scarlet and Ivy themselves, who did not even have the motivation to remain at Rookwood. There were a few incidents like this throughout the book that took me out of the story a little bit, meaning that I did not immerse myself in it quite as much as I would have liked to.

All in all, as is probably evident by my constant comparisons, I did not enjoy The Whispers In The Walls anywhere near as much as I did The Lost Twin. I suspect this might be because nothing much has really changed aside from the introduction of Scarlet’s narrative voice, which, as I mentioned above, I’m not sure really worked. I don’t think anything new was tried here, and some of the things that I really love about the Scarlet & Ivy series – such as the resourceful, intelligent characters, playground politics, the ballet studio, untrustworthy and inept adults and the nostalgic boarding-school atmosphere – were executed better in the The Lost Twin than they were here. However, I am still very much looking forward to the release of the third book in the series, The Dance In The Dark, and I still like Scarlet, Ivy and Sophie Cleverly’s crisp, pacy writing style very much indeed.

Verdict: 2/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information about Sophie Cleverly and the Scarlet & Ivy series, please visit her official website here:

http://www.hapfairy.co.uk/

Sophie also runs a music blog centred around my favourite genre, Symphonic Metal:

http://hapfairy.blogspot.co.uk/

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Book Review

Ernest Cline | Ready Player OneIn his USA Today article published 21 August 2011, Don Oldenburg praised Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One as ‘Willy Wonka meets The Matrix‘. As strange and mismatched a comparison this first sounds, I actually think Oldenburg got it pretty bang on, with one glaring exception: if you’ve ever read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash the following will sound rather familiar to you…

Eighteen-year-old Wade Watts is your typical modern-day antisocial genius teenager. Having become painfully aware of the injustices of living in a modern world ruled by corporations where people live in slum-like compounds known as ‘the stacks’, Wade shuns reality in favour of a fully rendered virtual utopia known as the OASIS – kind of like a cross between the internet and an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game).

Now here’s where things get interesting. The creator of the OASIS, one 1980s-obsessed James Halliday, hid an Easter Egg inside the game’s programming. Upon his death, he announces that whomever finds said Egg will inherit not only the OASIS, but also Halliday’s multi-billion dollar fortune (that’s the Willy Wonka part). Wade, like many other Egg hunters (or gunters as they are known in the novel) has completely devoted his miserable existence to immersing himself in the OASIS and the life and loves of James Halliday. Still, years go by with no success, and it becomes increasingly likely that Halliday may have taken the secret to his grave after all…

And then Wade stumbles upon the first clue.

Pacman Level 256As someone who grew up in the 90s rather than the 80s, I was a little bit apprehensive going into this book, thinking perhaps I wouldn’t get any of the in-jokes or understand all the references. I soon discovered however that these fears were completely unfounded, as the 1980s were actually a pretty pervasive era, and I actually know far more about them than I first thought. It helps that Ernest Cline doesn’t just stick to the 1980s, but also incorporates other milestones and phenomena of ‘geek’ culture – The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, The Matrix, World of Warcraft, Playstation, Xbox, blogging, vlogging, YouTube gaming etc. – to make the book feel more current. On top of that, Wade (i.e. Cline) was always there to hold my hand and explain some of the more obscure background details, or at the very least point me in the right direction of an appropriate internet search (I had particular fun looking up the intricacies of level 256 on Pacman – see right).

Whilst Ready Player One makes an attempt at high concept (like The Matrix) and social commentary (like Snow Crash), what it actually is is more of an excellent, rollicking soft sci-fi love letter to the history of video games, computer engineering and geek culture, with a dash of adventure, high stakes and romance thrown in for good measure. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and there are no grey areas in between. The main protagonist, Wade Watts, is pretty much the best at everything he does (I sincerely doubt the plausibility of some his claims to have watched/played/read so many films/games/books x amount of times), and whilst his supreme knowledge can sometimes come across as over the top and arrogant, the reader knows he is merely acting as a mouthpiece for the author’s own loves and obsessions to guide us through the story. The plot may be predictable, but it still manages to be engaging and thrilling, and whilst the writing is quite dense, it is very visual and easy to follow.

Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that there is nothing new in Ready Player One. It’s all been done before, but that’s the point. The aim of the book is not to intellectually challenge, but to thoroughly entertain, and to resonate with every nostalgic bone in your body. In this, it succeeds brilliantly.

Verdict: 4/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Ernest Cline, please visit his official website:

http://www.ernestcline.com/

Also, because I really do think the two books are very similar and because I absolutely love it, check out Neal Stephenson’s website and Snow Crash in the ‘Books’ section whilst you’re at it too:

http://www.nealstephenson.com/