Cinder by Marissa Meyer: Book Review

CinderThis one had been on my ‘to read’ list for a while, largely due to its futuristic concept of a cyborg Cinderella. Instead of the dainty little ash girl we are so familiar with, the Cinderella of this story (Linh Cinder) is a strong-minded and intelligent mechanic. She is also the ward of a jealous and neglectful stepmother who, along with her daughters, is dependent on Cinder to make cash. Cinder also happens to be a cyborg – a human with mechanically enhanced limbs and brain interface – and is thus seen as a second-class citizen by most inhabitants of New Beijing.

When delving into faerietale retellings, I expect to read something completely different and unique whilst still maintaining a sense of the familiarity and spirit of the original. In this sense, Cinder succeeds. Unfortunately, a few of the ideas are not developed enough. Why, for example, are cyborgs seen as second-class citizens when they’re effectively just humans who have been injured and patched up by science? This is never explained. How have the Lunars come to be so powerful and why do they want to go to war with Earth? Also, despite being set in China (where the earliest known version of the tale originates), there is very little evidence of Chinese culture and customs here; it all seems very westernised, in a manner that doesn’t seem realistic despite being set a significant way into the future. The plot is also incredibly predictable, to the point that you can guess the ending within about ten pages (and I’m not talking about the traditional storyline here).

Nevertheless I’m really intrigued by the concept and considering that this is very obviously part of a series (entitled The Lunar Chronicles), the world and ideas contained herein may yet be developed further in future books. I fully intend to read the follow-up, Scarlet, when I eventually manage to get my hands on it.

Verdict: 2/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Marissa Meyer, Cinder and The Lunar Chronicles please check out the author’s website:

http://www.marissameyer.com/

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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/

 

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/

Anniversaries, Corvidae and FIfty Shades of Grey

I’ve had a really lovely weekend. Yesterday was mine and the boyfriend’s one year anniversary. To celebrate, we went out for a Leggara pizza at Pizza Express, followed by a trip to Cineworld to see The Martian. The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir (which I reviewed on my Goodreads here), is about an astronaut named Mark Watney and his struggle to survive on Mars after he is separated from his crew during a violent storm and left behind. The film was excellent – as good as the book, I would say – and I would thoroughly recommend it to everyone!

I have a few gifts to show off from the boyfriend: a beautiful pot of red roses (my favourite flower); a box of chocolates; an absolutely gorgeous necklace called ‘A Murder of Crows’ by one of my favourite companies, Alchemy Gothic; and – hilariously – a copy of E.L. James’ erotica novel, GREY.

Anniversary Gifts A Murder of Crows

This latter gift was a bit of a light-hearted one as I mentioned back in June when it was released that I wanted to read it in order to have an opinion on it. I don’t believe you can truly say a book is good or bad until you have read it yourself, plus I like to be in a knowledgeable position when people start talking about books. I did the same when Fifty Shades of Grey came out, because people were talking about it a lot. Incidentally you can also read my review for Fifty Shades of Grey here (hint: I didn’t entirely dislike it, but it’s worth noting that I never finished the series).

Love you, Mark, my darling ♥ Thank you so much… This year has been incredible, and has gone by so fast!

Breverton's Nautical CuriositiesSomething else I’ve also been doing this weekend… ~*~WRITING!~*~ However, I’ve not been writing the book I was working on whilst on my Annual Writing Retreat with K.F. Goodacre (Salt). Instead I have picked up my magnum opus again; my enormous historical fantasy epic, The Mayor.

Essentially what happened was, whilst out shopping in Spitalfields for my own anniversary gifts, I found this — quite frankly amazing — book called Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities. Alll I had to do was flick through it and my brain became suddenly awash with ideas and inspiration. Love for my characters and a burning desire to tell their story came rushing back, so I bought it, brought it home and attacked my Scrivener file this afternoon with avengeance! I really recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in the Age of Sail and the Golden Age of Pirates like I do. It has everything in it from myths and legends of the sea, to shipping terminology, information on famous pirates and naval slang. The author, historian Terry Breverton, has a couple of other really interesting-looking books too. His Facebook page is here if you want to take a gander (he doesn’t seem to have an official website).

Until next time,

S.E. Berrow


For more information on both The Martian book and film, please follow the below links:

http://www.andyweirauthor.com/
http://www.themartianmovie.co.uk/

For more information on E.L. James and her fourth book in the Fifty Shades of Grey series, GREY visit:

http://www.eljamesauthor.com/

‘A Murder of Crows’ necklace by Alchemy Gothic England:

http://www.alchemyengland.com/necklaces/793-a-murder-of-crows.html

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi: Book Review

Taiye Selasi | Ghana Must GoThere was one particularly telling line in Taiye Selasi’s essay Bye-Bye, Barbar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?) – included within my copy of this book as a Waterstone’s exclusive – that I think sums up the themes and messages of Ghana Must Go quite succinctly:

“There is a brain drain back home. Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at the Medicine Bar on Thursdays… When will the scattered tribes return? When will the talent repatriate?”

Ghana Must Go – the title referring to both the expulsion of Ghanaian immigrants from Nigeria in 1983 as a result of a boom and bust in the oil industry, and the distinctive white, red and blue travel bags they used to transport their belongings – tells the story of the Sai family; prime examples of the Afropolitans Taiye Selasi expounds in her essay. Surgeon Kweku and his florist wife Fola – having emigrated from Ghana and Nigeria respectively – live with their son Olu, twins Taiwo and Kehinde and daughter Sadie in Brookline, Boston. After years of hard work and dedication, Kweku and Fola are now wealthy, privileged and successful, their children intelligent, talented and going-places…. until Kweku is wrongfully dismissed and blows all his finances on an unsuccessful attempt to sue Beth Israel Hospital. Too ashamed to face his family, he abandons them and flees home to Ghana. From there, the tribe falls apart and scatters across the world, irreparably broken and unable to fit in anywhere. Only when the estranged Kweku suddenly dies are the Sais forced back together again. Will they be able to heal their various scars and reconcile their differences as they make their way back to Ghana?

I picked up Ghana Must Go purely because at the time I fancied something decidedly out of my comfort zone; generally speaking I avoid literary fiction if I can help it, especially the contemporary kind, and on top of that I was interested in reading about a culture that I am otherwise not familiar with. I thought it would be interesting to read about an immigrant family – and a successful one at that – during a time when immigration in England is being so hotly debated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘literary’ aspects of this book were the main things I disliked about it. Taiye Selasi’s writing style is at times incredibly beautiful and poetic, but more often than not felt extremely overwrought and irritatingly self-aware. On the opening page for example, it takes a whole paragraph and multiple, repetitive similes to describe how heavily a woman sleeps. One sentence– “She sleeps like a child” – would have served just as poetically well. This trend continues for the rest of the book. I did settle into the rhythm of the prose eventually, but it was hard work slogging my way through so much superfluous text.

Ghana Must Go bags
The distinctive pattern on the ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags has become a symbol of the Ghanaians’ exile from Nigeria. It has also been used by fashion houses in the designs of skirts, jackets and shoes.

Another thing I noticed as a non-US reader was that whilst the descriptions of Ghana, Nigeria and its inhabitants were sublime, the descriptions of America were extremely limited. It took me a long time and a perusal of Google Maps to work out that Brookline and Brooklyn were in fact two completely different locations, and that Brookline is about a 3-4 hours’ drive away from New York. Clearly Taiye Selasi is writing about Africa from an American author’s perspective, and it was confusing to me as a reader.

Despite these not-insignificant flaws, Ghana Must Go has many strengths that helped me to get past the laborious writing style. The deceptively simple story of a dysfunctional family overcoming everyday hardships is really quite gripping, told in a historical-present tense that enables Taiye Selasi to squeeze decades of family history into a mere few days: the time it takes for Kweku to die, for his family find out, and for them to fly out to Ghana in order to attend his funeral. The theme of social displacement, whilst being the kind that is wholly unique to immigrants and minorities, is not an entirely alien concept for any reader to relate to, and so it is very easy to empathise with the Sais’ plight. The characters are also very well-developed (the brave independent Fola and poor smothered Sadie being my particular favourites). Occasionally they make decisions that are not fully explained and consequently feel unrealistic (I’m still baffled as to exactly why Kweku gave up and abandoned his family completely, or why Fola sent the twins to Nigeria to live with a brother she knew nothing about), but then I suppose that is life. Sometimes we make horrendous decisions that we don’t think through properly. Sometimes we do things without meaning to that have an enormous entropic impact on the rest of our lives.

All in all, Ghana Must Go is a surprisingly dense family-centred drama with a lot to say and a lot going for it, but I myself did not personally find too enjoyable. Taiye Selasi’s writing style is a little like Marmite; you’ll either love it, or you’ll hate it. Now, having satisfied my curiosity with regard to literary fiction, I’m pleased to be moving on to something else.

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go and her other works, including essays and short stories, please visit her website:

http://www.taiyeselasi.com/