Review: The Girl With All The Gifts

The Girl With All The Gifts

Title: The Girl With All The Gifts
Author: M.R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Year originally published:  2014

Melanie is a very smart little girl. She loves classical mythology and her teacher, Miss Justineau. She’s a normal child. Except that the guards muzzle and shackle her to her desk when they drop her off in the classroom. They make her take stinging chemical showers once a week. They serve her bowls of wriggling grubs for her weekly meal. Oh – and Melanie completely loses her cool when she smells human flesh.

The Girl With All The Gifts is based around a fantastic concept. These are zombies, but not as we know them. Some rules apply – hapless humans are still zombie-fied by fatal bites from so-called ‘hungries’. But this time, not all the zombies are mindless. Neither are they infected via traditional means, that is by a bacterial strain or a virus, but – and this is brilliant – by a variant of the Cordyceps fungus. I first learned about Cordyceps on David Attenborough’s BBC series Planet Earth (which is, by the way, really worth a watch). As you’ll see in this short clip, the fungus invades and takes over the body of the insect to propagate itself further. It’s ingenious. Carey utilises the same chilling idea in his novel to rationalise the zombie epidemic, and the result is fascinating. The idea of human-controlling fungus is one I’ve seen before with the sentient morel in Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, but Carey develops this and, dare I say, betters it. I actually spent the novel hoping for more malevolent fungus developments, and was extremely pleased with the conclusion of the novel.

It is not only the rationale behind the formation and drive of the zombies that feels well designed. The structure of the novel is beautifully planned out so that the exposition is revealed to us little by little, making for some wonderfully ominous twists; Carey does this by writing the first half from Melanie’s limited perspective, allowing us to gradually learn about the frightening situation that mankind has found itself in. As well as experimenting with established tropes of zombie horror, Carey also plays with well-known literary relationships; for instance, the rapport between Miss Justineau and Melanie bears resemblance to that between Miss Honey and Matilda – a pair transplanted into the most horrific of circumstances.

My verdict:
This is a brilliantly creepy, well-thought-out take on the classic zombie horror. The Girl With All The Gifts is a truly compelling read. Eerie and heartbreaking, it’s up there with The Secret History as one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, and has already taken its place among my favourite horror novels.

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Review: The Road

Cormac McCarthy The Road

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Publisher: Picador
Year originally published: 2006

Even though it’s been half a month since my last review, I’ve been reading a crazy amount. Blame my new official ‘unemployed’ status (having graduated at the end of June) for the glut of new blood on my bookshelf and in my Kindle.

On The Road had been on my TBR list for a good year or so, but while in the throes of finals, I couldn’t quite bear to put myself through the misery of struggling through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Because, when boiled down to its very base elements, that is what The Road is. A father and a son – deliberately nameless, referred to only as ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’, but no less memorable for their lack of names – fight to stay alive in a burned landscape where self-immolations and cannibalism have become an everyday reality. Throughout the novel we see men and women – whether organised bands of thugs or individuals acting out of desperation – snatch and devour children and imprison fellow humans as a food source. Inevitably, the very pursuit of survival and its means renders such people inhuman. The boy and the man come into contact with these monsters as well as barely-living shells of former people constantly while on the Road, on their journey south in search of food, and warmer climes. The man tries to shield his son from numerous atrocities, adamant that they are ‘the good guys’, and intent on instilling moral codes in his son even in this horrifying world. This all raises the question of whether in the face of such desolation, it is preferable to embrace the means of survival, even if it means sacrificing one’s soul – or to continue to preserve one’s humanity, even if it means death.

My verdict:
This may be a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it definitely isn’t the type you’d find lurking on the YA shelves in your local bookshop. The Road is grim. Yet it’s exactly the story’s unwaveringly bleak tone which continued to draw me in. Here is a novel that, while set in a nightmare world, focuses on the all-encompassing relationship between father and son. While the desecration of the landscape they inhabit may be unfamiliar to us, the all-pervading message is clear. Every character the father and son meet, like them – and like us – will die in the end. It is this dose of devastating realism which hit home hardest for me. One day, I might have to accept it.

Review: The Art of Baking Blind

The Art of Baking Blind Sarah Vaughan

Title: The Art of Baking Blind
Author: Sarah Vaughan
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year originally published: 2014

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a paperback proof of The Art of Baking Blind when I won a Goodreads giveaway back in May. Finally, exams and May Week behind me, I settled down to read it on a blisteringly hot morning in June, seated under the arches of bustling Borough Market. The aforementioned market is a notorious foodie destination that has rightfully gained worldwide fame thanks to the variety and quality of food on offer at its various stalls. One of these is Bread Ahead, which I’ve raved about countless times on my lifestyle blog. Its tables are laden with delectable pastries, nut-encrusted gooey brownies, sturdy-looking loaves and, most delightful of all, the doughnuts filled with light whipped crème pâtissière, crafted with a secret recipe that made Gellatly famous during his days at St. John Bread & Wine.

It was in this culinary setting that I ploughed through the first half of the book – the perfect place to read about a baking competition in the style of The Great British Bake Off. Vaughan introduces five competing amateur bakers to us, each with their own personal drama. Interwoven among these plotlines is the tale of Kathleen Eaden, a cookery writer from the 60s in the mould of Isabella Beeton of Mrs. Beeton’s Cookbook Fame, and whose success each competitor hopes to replicate; the cookery competition is entitled ‘The Search for the New Mrs. Eaden’. Although Mrs. Eaden’s writing presents an idealised view of domestic life, it turns out that her life was never plain sailing, with her repeated – and tragic – efforts to conceive reminding me of The Help. This revelation conveys a message to both the contestants and reader: ‘While perfection might be possible in baking, in life, well, it’s impossible.’ Amen to that.

My verdict: 3/5
Vaughan has created some truly intriguing characters in this novel, but the problem with having five main characters (six, if you count Kathleen) is that some have necessarily been given a great deal more focus than others. The result was that, like a child at an overpopulated birthday party, I was left feeling like I’d missed out on a slice of cake big enough to curb my appetite. Kathleen and Jenny’s stories were compelling enough, though, to have me reading avidly all the way to the end. Like the contestants’ lives, the story is not perfect, but it’s a commendable debut from Vaughan. The Art of Baking Blind will be published on July 3 – perfect for getting us into the spirit for the next season of The Great British Bakeoff in August!

Review: The Secret History

Donna Tartt The Secret History

Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Penguin
Year originally published: 1992

‘I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?’

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a 20-year old from the West Coast studying at an elite Vermont college. In entering an exclusive Greek class, Richard gains social access to a group of highly enigmatic students and must masquerade as an oil heir in the hopes of retaining their friendship. Yet in trying to fit in with the group, Richard steadily becomes entangled within a dark drama that spreads like a stain from the very first page of the novel.

I picked The Secret History up directly after finishing exams, figuring that my last month as an undergrad would be the perfect time to read it. I approached it initially thinking that it would be a heavy, perhaps even slightly dry read, but after ten pages I was hooked. Like the narrator, I steadily became obsessed with both the novel’s characters and narrative. So many elements of the plot chimed with me, particularly its players. The captivating supervisor with an encyclopaedic knowledge and the erudite Henry who spent his childhood in the pursuit of learning obscure languages and literature seemed very familiar to me, as if lifted straight from the Cambridge colleges. The story is liberally sprinkled with erudite references to poetry and ancient Greek aphorisms, so makes for a fascinatingly didactic read. Also enthralling was the way in which the reader is invited to unravel multiple narrative knots – firstly, the motive behind the murder we are confronted with in the first couple of paragraphs, and secondly, the temporal setting of the novel, which seems to fluctuate from 30s to late 60s to 80s. Not only is Tartt’s narrative intriguing – her prose is electrifying. Even in scenes that might otherwise be considered mundane, Tartt’s writing is poetic enough to lift her novel to great heights. I particularly enjoyed the following description of unseasonal weather: ‘A November stillness was settling like a deadly oxymoron on the April landscape.’ With writing as good as this, it’s no wonder that the book has been described as a modern classic.

My verdict: 5/5
A solid five stars for The Secret History from me. This is a book I see myself returning to time and time again. It’s already dog-eared and well-loved, and I can’t wait to move on to The Goldfinch next. I know that this novel has seen twenty-two years of praise and cult following, but I can’t help but further extol it. The Secret History is a timeless triumph.

Review: The Three

Sarah Lotz The Three Title: The Three
Author: Sarah Lotz
Publisher: Hodder
Year originally published: 2014

I’d pegged The Three as my post-finals reward months ago. The concept sounded fantastic, and the narrative of four planes being brought down on one day eerily similar to the tragic news of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane. I couldn’t stop tweeting about how excited I was after reading the Kindle excerpt. Suffice to say that my expectations were riding extremely high indeed.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. I am an art historian, after all – my sole academic purpose over the past four years has been to judge books by their covers. Or paintings…by their canvases. Whatever. The UK version of the cover is great. Dark and slightly waxy to the touch, it features a plane hovering ominously over four tally marks. Three of the four are bloodred, further accentuated with photographs of three young children in each (the eponymous Three), while the fourth is dark. Not to spoil, but I do love a cover that hints at the narrative within. Four planes have crashed almost simultaneously on 12 January 2012, a date that comes to be known as Black Thursday, etched into the minds of the men and women who inhabit this world just as 9/11 is seared into ours. Yet, inexplicably, three children survive – one from a flight that crashes in the Aokigahara suicide forest in Japan, one from a plane swallowed up by the Florida Everglades, and one who has clung to shrapnel off the coast of Portugal. A media frenzy quickly develops, labelling the children as ‘The Three’.

The form of the novel follows a structure similar to Max Brooks’ World War Z. That is, conventional first person narrative comes together with blog posts, transcribed Dictaphone recordings and Skype interviews, instant messages and forum posts. This mixture of reports meshes together to form Lotz’s book within a book, a novel published by fictional journalist Elspeth Martins, entitled From Crash to Conspiracy. The collated reports are drawn from global sources (the planes having crashed in Europe, America, Africa and Asia) and I think Lotz carries off the Babel-like cacophony of international voices extraordinarily well. Her knack for the South African voice in accounts peppered with Afrikaans discloses her own nationality, but the Japanese elements seem equally authentic, with reference to the hikikomori phenomenon, the ‘2chan’ forum and the Aokigahara forest, the latter which I’d only ever seen before in a video on Vice. It’s clear that Lotz has put a lot of research into this novel, which is fantastic for me as a reader.

Although the narrative would ostensibly seem to focus on the enigma and possible horror surrounding the child survivors, I think it does more to highlight the repugnance of humanity. In the wake of the crashes, conspiracy theorists and fundamental Christian groups seize on the event as a way of manipulating the public for their own political ends. Meanwhile, Elspeth Martins herself is revealed to be an unreliable source, accused of cherry-picking the most sensational quotes and anecdotes from her sources when constructing her novel, which calls the credibility of the accounts themselves into question. Indeed, the questions at the heart of this story are never really fully answered, and throughout the novel I found myself, like the characters, constantly speculating as to whether the source of Black Thursday and its child survivors was supernatural or the result of human delusions and paranoia. The conclusions we are brought to at the novel’s close, however, are deeply chilling – enough to disturb my dreams the night I finished the book.

My verdict: 4.5/5 This book falls just short of five stars for me because given that I had been building this book up during my literature-starved months of finals revision, it was inevitable that it couldn’t quite live up to the standards I’d imposed on it. And yet the standards it did reach were incredibly high. Lotz has expertly woven a chorus of voices together to form a tapestry that reflects on the state of humanity in the 21st century, from its dependence on the Internet as a means of communication to the fame-hungry who employ tragic events as a means to grabbing their fifteen minutes. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – a cluster of fictional catastrophes and ensuing paranoia was just the ticket for post-examination escapism. One word of warning: do not take this book on a plane!

Book Lover’s Tag

I’ve spotted this tag on quite a few book blogs I’ve been following, and have decided to jump on the bookwagon. Here goes…

Do you remember how you developed a love for reading?

Sadly I didn’t have an exciting epiphany as a moody teenager or anything. I was a book-lover pretty much from the first day I learned to read. By Reception (aged 5) I’d read most of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories, and proceeded to read my way through anything and everything I could get my hands on. In most of my childhood memories I’m begging my parents to take me to bookshops, reading my way through the children’s section in the local library or reading under the covers after lights out…No wonder I needed glasses so quickly.

Where do you usually read?

My favourites and regular spots are the classics I’m afraid: tucked up in bed or while trundling along on public transport. Reading on the Tube is especially great – it’s a fantastic way to fill up those empty commuting minutes that might otherwise be spent on Twitter. I used to love reading in the bath as a child but keeping my hands dry was a challenge!

Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once?

During school I’d often be reading three or four books at once – probably down to my terrible attention span. Then while at university I’ve often had to juggle several academic books with a ‘leisure’ book every week. I haven’t been able to read for pleasure for a good few weeks now as I’ve been working towards my finals, but I know that when I’m done with exams I’ll be devoting hours to one book at a time. It’s going to be such a luxury.

What is your favourite genre?

Hmmm, it really depends on my mood. I went through a horror, specifically zombie-related phase in 2013 (yup). I think I’ll always be a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, though.

What genre will you not read?

I honestly wouldn’t rule anything out. I used to think I wouldn’t be a fan of chick-lit, but it’s turned out to be a real comfort in the face of hard academic course books. I cried my eyes out over The Notebook over Easter, admit that I love anything Sophie Kinsella, and have lined up a few good chick-lit reads to demolish on my new Kindle over summer.

Do you have a favourite book? 

Like genres, I very much go through phases with favourites. In the past I’ve obsessed over Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series (especially Nana), Dante’s Inferno, Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, all the Haruki Murakami novels. I suppose my favourite book from 2013 was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. An all-time favourite is probably Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. So many life lessons to be gained from that book.

What is the biggest book you’ve ever read?

Er, maybe Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? If the Lord of the Rings trilogy counts as a single book, then that. I’m going to have to read War and Peace/Anna Karenina/The Goldfinch/The Luminaries. The problem with those types of tomes is that they’re eminently difficult to take on the Tube…

What was the last book you bought?

I bought 4 books in one go last week in anticipation of post-exam reading – Sandman volume 5, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Hugh Howey’s Dust and Sarah Lotz’s The Three. I already have the former three in a sealed box in my bedroom (so I can’t get at them – it’s all about restraint!) and will be getting my hands on The Three once it’s been released on the 22nd. I really can’t wait to read them.

Which do you prefer: library books or buying books?

Definitely buying books. I love being able to keep books after I’ve read them so I can fetch them down and consult them at any time. I’m building what will one day be an epic library, you see. Official libraries do have their charm though, and there’s really nothing like wandering round dusty stacks and thumbing through library books.

What are you reading now?

Disappointingly I’m not reading anything new at the moment. Just reams and reams of revision notes, and sometimes for breaks I allow myself a few pages of Gaiman’s Sandman, or scanlated manga. Bring on the 31st!

Well, this has been a great exercise in midnight procrastination (which I am, of course, well versed in already). Your go!

All images taken from Pinterest.

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The Post-Exams TBR List

May 31st. If I had an old-school wall calendar, that date would be circled in bright red felt tip. Sadly, it features only as a slightly feeble entry in my Google Calendar. Not quite so evocative. May 31st, since you ask (you didn’t, but never mind) will be my first full day of freedom from everything University related – lectures, supervisions, seminars, essays, my dissertation, and exams. I fully intend to spend it encased in a social media-free bubble, reading to my heart’s content. May 30th is my last examination date, but I presume I’ll either be too passed out from mental exhaustion or from post-exam bubbles (as it’s the tradition at Cambridge to mercilessly spray finalists after the last exam with cheap bottles of cava) to do anything remotely resembling reading.

Recreational reading doesn’t look to be on the cards at all, in fact, until that hallowed date. Yes, I started this blog at a silly time…

Without further ado, I wanted to share the five books that I’m most eagerly anticipating reading once I’m free.

1) The Three (Sarah Lotz)
So first up, we have The Three. I’ve been excited about this ever since I saw Hodder’s Twitter posts announcing it a few months ago, but then a couple of days ago they released a sampler of the novel as a free Kindle ebook via Amazon. I’m now approximately one thousand times more ramped up about The Three than previously, and I’m almost glad that I have revision and exams to plug the gap between now and the release date on May 22nd. The premise is that four planes crash more or less simultaneously around the world, but three children miraculously survive, seemingly unscathed. The free sampler doesn’t confirm exactly what role these children are going to play, but my guess is that they’re extremely dangerous. And creepy. Promising stuff.


2) Dust (Hugh Howey)
So I said that I probably won’t have time to do any fun reading in this peak finals period. But let’s be honest here. I bought Shift, the second instalment of the Wool trilogy, in a moment of weakness at Forbidden Planet last week, and I really doubt I’ll get through the next month without reading it during my breaks. I’ve written about how much I enjoyed Wool, which I devoured in one day flat. So I’m really looking forward to cracking open Dust and escaping from thoughts about results (ack) into a subterranean world racked by poisoned air and terrible secrets.

3) On Beauty (Zadie Smith)
I found a hardback copy of On Beauty in the secondhand section of Heffers in Cambridge last term. It was like discovering buried treasure. On Beauty is the second hardback that’s been on my TBR list that I’ve picked up there for £2, the first being Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. I like how Smith often roots her narratives in northwest London, particularly the borough of Brent, where I’ve grown up, and I loved reading White Teeth, so I have high expectations regarding On Beauty!

4) The Sign of Four (Arthur Conan Doyle)
I finally started reading the Sherlock Holmes series in Michaelmas term. I’m a late bloomer, I know. I think I read The Hound of the Baskervilles in primary school, but it’s all a bit hazy now. Anyway. The Study In Scarlet was not at all what I expected, having followed the slick Sherlock BBC adaptation and the Sherlock Holmes Robert Downey Jr. movies religiously. Slick and fast-paced it may not be, but I enjoyed what I read, particularly the Mormon side plot. I’ve heard that The Sign of Four is even better than its predecessor. *Rubs hands gleefully*

5) Sandman Volume V: A Game of You (Neil Gaiman)
I love the Sandman series, and I reckon I’ve been pretty restrained in reading them really. Let’s compare: I read the entirety of The Walking Dead (published so far, that is) in the space of about a week, but it was like binge-eating. Albeit binge-eating zombies, as opposed to eating a nice pack of Doritos too quickly. Anyway, with Sandman I’ve been buying the series one volume at a time and allowing myself one day to savour each, which always feels so much more virtuous.

Other books currently vying for attention on my gigantic TBR list: The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway), The Girl With All The Gifts (M.R. Carey), Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan), It (Stephen King), Lexicon (Max Barry).

May 31st cannot come soon enough.

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