‘The End of Men’ – Christina Sweeney-Baird

Invited to read this by the publishers Harper Collins, and I was really excited to be asked to participate in a group discussion of this upcoming release. The book arrived, I read the letter from the author and then I found myself reluctant to get started.

Being brutally honest the thought of reading a book about a fast-spreading virus that had such an extreme impact on the world felt all a little too close for comfort. How could I expect myself to have a rational reading experience, not bringing my own current experience to bear? Two days before the discussion I wondered whether I’d have to ‘fess up’ and admit to not reading it.

The day before the discussion I picked it up, felt my heart sink as we watch our doctor deal with the first case and then found myself immersed in it. While the discussion of the pandemic and its impact is bound to resonate with our current situation, I was genuinely surprised by how absorbed I became in these stories.

The description of the virus was fast, but the emotional impact on people was evident. There were some scenes I read with my heart in my mouth, holding back a dreadful sense of emptiness. The anthropologist reflecting on the experience was fascinating and it was a bold choice to focus on such a large timescale and such a broad scope of characters.

Perhaps to be expected, some elements of the story were more easy to read than others. Initially I found it hard to keep track of who was speaking and though it would have been bleak to gain little sense of resolution, some parts felt rushed because of the need to take us through to the end.

I can’t wait to see what others make of this.

 

‘Bearmouth’ – Liz Hyder

Bearmouth was one of the books recommended to my students by our 2020 Book PenPal, Holly Race, so I couldn’t resist reading it before I passed my copy round to those interested.

When I began reading I, like a number of other readers, took time to adjust to the phonetic style of writing used to mimic our main character’s voice. Initially this meant the reading felt slower than I’d like, but it certainly became one of the features of the book that I really enjoyed. The voice of Newt changed as they developed in confidence, and I enjoyed seeing the shifting patterns of language as they grew in awareness of the world around them.

Our first encounter with Newt was intriguing. We are told, very early on, that Newt is ‘not a boy nor yet a wimmin’ and though this becomes important later, it is their life in the Bearmouth mine that grips us. Newt has worked in the mine for many years, and is looked after by his team. There’s a grim sense of camaraderie to the team as they risk their lives on a daily basis to dig for coal, and to earn a living for others.

From the outset Newt points out the harshness of their life underground. We quickly come to realise the superstitions that bind these men and boys, and the injustice that they face on a daily basis as someone else controls their every move.

As the story progressed we learn more about Newt and their unease surrounding the appearance of a new boy, Devlin. With the arrival of the new face comes a sense of growing awareness of the injustice of their existence, and a slow-burning plan to change things.

While most of the reviews I’ve read of this focus on the writing style, I was also struck by the brutality of their lives underground and the grudging acceptance of death in its many guises. There are a couple of scenes that I think I will need to advise some of my students of and give them the decision as to whether or not to read, but I feel the situation that prompts Newt to develop a social conscience is sympathetically presented and Hyder should be applauded for not shying away from the less salubrious elements of their lives.

Throughout the book I was rooting for some form of happy ending and though this is rather more ambiguous than you might like in a stand-alone read, I felt our ending offered enough to leave me satisfied with Newt’s choices and their consequences.

 

‘Sweet Harmony’ – Claire North

In Sweet Harmony North has created a monster, a monster I initially felt some empathy for but who – ultimately – learns nothing from her situation.

A succinct yet damning indictment of our obsession with youth, physical health and the ‘quick fix’ solution. Sweet Harmony tells the story of one very normal woman living in a world where everything can be fixed…at a price.

Harmony has upgrade after upgrade to keep her body looking its best. Nothing needs to be worked at in the traditional sense and all is good, if you can pay for it. Our only clue that something is not right is that Harmony has a spot…and before we know it we see the full truth of her situation exposed.

Faced with spiralling debt we see Harmony slowly shutting down. Around her, difficult choices have to be made. The reaction to her plight when she shares it shows the casual callousness that we seem to take for granted in so many circumstances.

Until the closing stages part of me felt Harmony was a victim, and I felt sympathy of sorts for her predicament. However, the decision she makes at the end made me feel that she was rather more complicit in her demise than I’d been prepared to accept. I closed the story feeling somewhat tainted, angry that such a situation could come about but also miserable to recognise so much of the mindset prevalent in the book as being all around us now.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication.

‘Some Laneys Died’ – Brooke Skipstone

Thank you to NetGalley and publishers, Skipstone, for granting me access to a most puzzling read that had me scratching my head in equal confusion and wonder.

Having finished, I’m still not entirely sure I’ve grasped some of the finer points of the concept. I found myself reading, then having to pause to actually digest what I’d read and try to work it out/link to what I already knew. I would liken reading this to me trying to solve a Rubik’s cube…I know there’s a knack to it whereby everything flows seamlessly, but I work in fits and starts without really getting anywhere, then by a freak occurrence something will slot into place and it’s done.

When I started reading I wondered what was true and what was in our character Laney’s imagination. She writes stories about alternate universes where different characters sharing her name experience different things. She interacts with people who reference events she thought were dreams which seem to have really taken place. Piece by piece she starts to realise some of these events are merging. This idea of alternate universes and time frames may make more sense to students of maths or physics.

The story as such is not a pleasant one. Laney reads a story about two skeletons found in the woods, dated to a time that she recalls finding her father having sex with an old girlfriend. She is fascinated by what she recalls of that incident and is convinced that the skeletons are the bodies of her and her twin sister (a twin who doesn’t exist in the story we start) who were killed by a sadistic pair of brothers – one of whom is friends with her now. The Laney we follow is switching experiences/times in order to hunt the person who in another time/place killed her and tortured then killed her sister.

For every choice there’s a range of possibilities. Watching Laney try to manipulate her experiences was intriguing. I confess to not always following Laney’s thought process, and the book seemed to give some conflicting messages about addiction and sexuality, but as a whole it was a read I’d recommend.

‘Cut Off’ – Adrianne Finlay

Mind-bending stuff, that really forces you to consider the possibilities for some of the technology that surrounds us everyday – but which also makes me more than a little paranoid about what kinds of things could be researched without us being aware of it.

From the moment I read about Cut Off I was excited to read it – and it more than lived up to my expectations. Its main focus is, we’re told, a new kind of reality TV show. Our contestants – all desperate to win the prize of a million dollars -are abandoned on an island and the aim is to survive. At any point they can ‘tap out’ and leave, but the winner will have to prove themselves first. While this might seem fairly standard fare, for this show there is immersive technology that means viewers can feel like they’re experiencing the same things as the contestants.

The book opens in fairly typical territory. We’re introduced to River, Trip, Cam and Liza who appear to be the only four contestants around. Strange things have been happening – and there appears to be no power. There’s a growing sense of unease as the contestants start to realise that the technology to rescue them is no longer working, and there’s a very real chance that nobody is coming to save them. All too soon it’s clear that this survival game could be more important than anything they thought they were signing up for.

As it stood, there were a range of possibilities for what was going on with the contestants. It didn’t stray too far from what I expected at first. Their journey across the island, as they try to work out what to do next, made it increasingly obvious that we were in a far stranger world than any we might have conjured for ourselves. Once we started to unpick what was happening and we were given some ideas about the background to their situation, I was getting definite ‘we’re not in Kansas, anymore’ vibes.

It’s important not to give too many details away, as this is a journey you need to live with the characters. Each character had their own motivation for being on the show, and as we learn about them we come to understand a little more of the world around them. The characters were, in their own way, flawed but each of them was able to offer something to keep the reader engaged with them.

‘Devolution’ – Max Brooks

As the ash and chaos from Mount Rainier’s eruption swirled and finally settled, the story of the Greenloop massacre has passed unnoticed, unexamined… until now. But the journals of resident Kate Holland, recovered from the town’s bloody wreckage, capture a tale too harrowing – and too earth-shattering in its implications – to be forgotten.

Whatever we might think of the legends, it’s impossible not to be fascinated by the stories. I really didn’t quite know where this book would go, but it was a story I was curious to read once I’d heard about it.

The premise is quite straightforward…the author has found journals belonging to Kate Holland, a young woman who moved into Greenloop (a remote hi-tech village) that tells us about the aftermath of a volcanic eruption and the residents’ attempts to survive. She is missing, so nobody knows exactly what happened, but her journals tell us that the group were found by Bigfoot.

Whatever your view of this legend, the idea of an undiscovered animal race is fascinating. Much of our fascination with such a creature comes with our need to work out our place in society and to consider how we could interact with such a group.

What I learnt from this is to be careful what you wish for, and to think carefully about the skills you have before you go and live somewhere so remote. You never know what you’re capable of until you are forced into the position of need.

As we watch Kate, her partner Dan and the other residents come to the realisation that they’re no longer top of the food chain there’s a distinctly menacing feel to this. Gruesome at times, it explores just how far we are prepared to go to survive.

Of course it would have been nice to have a rounded-off story but I liked the way this was done. Scary – absolutely – but very very interesting.

 

‘Bloom’ – Kenneth Oppel

The last book I read by Kenneth Oppel was Inkling, so this was quite a different experience but similarly engaging.

Our story takes place on a small island, and our main focus is three younger characters who are somewhat isolated from their peers. We have fostered Seth, Anaya who is allergic to everything and Petra who is allergic to water. We are not quite sure what unites these three at first, but when the rain comes we start to get little clues that there might be more going on than we might have ever dreamed of.

With the rain comes new plants…black vines that grow rapidly and spread pollen that causes extreme allergies in anyone coming into contact with them. Before too long the vines are taking over and we have a worldwide state of emergency. Something has to be done, but we see that nobody really knows what to do when they’re facing something they’ve never dealt with before (the parallels with the current situation regarding Covid-19 make this all the more terrifying). The only thing we do learn quite early on is that Seth, Anaya and Petra are seemingly immune to these plants.

What we get is a rather slow start but the tension is quickly ramped up once we find out a little more about the plants. Oppel creates a drama-filled experience and an awful lot gets thrown into the mix, but it works.

It was great to see the bond develop between the three characters, and there were positives in terms of the initial threat. They come out on top. But the chilling ending serves as a reminder that we’re dealing with something new…something that might have more to come…what will the people of Earth do when the second wave hits? I can’t wait to find out.

 

‘Supernova (Renegades 3)’ – Marissa Meyer

A fitting end to this superhero series, where we get a lot of what we expected but not everything is as straightforward as it seems.

Picking up after the events of book two, Nova is all too aware that it is only a matter of time before her double identity is revealed. While she is in love with Adrian and has come to respect the Renegades, the years preparing her have ensured she is hard to sway from her intended course of action. Determined to rescue Ace, Nova takes greater chances and there were times where I wondered if this was really the same girl we’d seen through the previous two books.

Regardless of our views on Nova’s behaviour, she is plunged into the thick of the action here. Some are determined to make her pay for her actions, but there are others prepared to look beyond what they’ve been told – who think there’s a chance of a different approach.

Nova is placed in some difficult circumstances here. Not everyone behaves honourably, and yet there’s support for Nova where we might not have foreseen it. If you’re in this for the action you won’t be disappointed, and there was a clear attempt to answer some of the questions we’ve had about these characters and their lives.

You need to know that not everyone survives. Everyone is changed, in some way. And there’s a wonderful reveal at the end – which we had been given little clues about – that hints there could be more to come.

 

‘Girls with Razor Hearts’ – Suzanne Young

Girls with Razor Hearts focuses on our group, led by Mena, after they leave their elite school, determined to bring down Innovations. We know they’re capable of extreme violence, but get the impression it’s something that happens as a consequence of the way they’re treated rather than an innate character trait.

The girls find an old student, and they are given help to enrol in a new high school as they attempt to bring down the company that made them by going after the investors.

The story focuses on their experiences in this everyday high school, and their reaction to the commonplace misogyny in evidence. We see boys being trained for their powerful roles, and the girls being primed for their role on the sidelines.

Things don’t quite go to plan. There’s always a sense of someone being just that one step ahead – which I presume sets us up well for part three. The girls are great in their love for and support of one another. They mean well, but it seems the odds are stacked against them which is a rather cynical message to convey.

 

‘The Last One’ – Alexandra Oliva

When I first agreed to buddy read this a while ago it sounded like a novel idea, experimenting with the concept of post-apocalyptic events and tying it in with the excitement surrounding social media. The idea of a group of reality TV contestants taking part in a survival show, and being unaware of the fact that the outside world they left was no more, sounded so extreme that I was imagining a thrilling read. However, recent world events and the issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic lent this read an eerie sense of foreboding. At times I had to steel myself to continue, gripped but not in a way I was necessarily enjoying.

At the beginning there were clues that things were going to change in ways we were not imagining. While we got to see all the characters and their interactions everything was tempered somewhat by the filter of our main character, Zoo.
I got rather frustrated by the presentation of the characters on occasion. The attempt to pigeon-hole people and force their actions to fit a preconceived notion of how they would be seen by others meant I felt a lot of events were written about in order to present a particular slant.

Where the story really picked up was once we followed Zoo through her time following her surviving whatever she had experienced. She emerges from the woods in a dazed state. She can’t see. When she meets young Brennan she is convinced he is merely part of the crew. All her experiences in her mind form part of the test she has agreed to.

Yes, a little more background to the scenario would have been good. Understanding how this occurred might have been helpful, but the isolation Zoo has experienced does mean the detachment and lack of information makes sense. A bleak ending may have been appropriate, but I actually felt heartened by the potentially hopeful resolution to this story.

Now, as Boris Johnson has just announced a lockdown in Britain with immediate effect this seems like an apt time to find something a little cheerier to dip into…