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!

Review: The Fault In Our Stars

The Fault In Our Stars

Title: The Fault In Our Stars
Author: John Green
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year originally published: 2012

I’m sure that The Fault In Our Stars hasn’t escaped your attention. You’re probably sick of Stars-related reviews. It’s just one of those books that can’t help but permeate the sphere of one’s consciousness. It’s been riding high in the bestsellers’ list for weeks and weeks. It’s been displayed in prime position in just about every bookshop I’ve walked into in the last few months. Oh, and it’s reached saturation point on the blogs I read, even making that rare jump from reviews on the book blogs to lifestyle and even beauty blogs. In short, it was solidly on my TBR list, and my expectations were high.

The question is, were they met? Well, it’s pretty hard not to love the book. I instantly identified with the main character, Hazel, who seemingly has all the traits I saw in myself when I, too, was an angsty adolescent. She flips out at her nervously helicoptering mum. She runs off with a gorgeous boy even when her parents advise her against it. She prefers literature to real life: she’d rather sit on a bench and read her newly purchased novel at the mall than chat with her best friend. But there’s one thing that sets Hazel quite apart from that group of rebellious, bookish sixteen-year olds of which I was once a firm member. She’s got terminal cancer.

But hold on a second before you dismiss The Fault In Our Stars as a depressing cancer novel. The Fault In Our Stars is not merely about cancer. It’s about grabbing the gift of life while you have it, about enjoying every moment you’ve got, because let’s face it – we spend our lives dying, always unsure how long exactly we’ve got. Hazel is like a bud in the novel, tightly closing in on herself because she’s afraid of her grenade-like potential, convinced that the fewer people she surrounds herself with, the smaller the radius of the shrapnel blast that will inevitably happen when she ‘bites it’. It’s only with the appearance of athletic, totally fanciable Augustus that she slowly starts to open up and shake off the dependent traits that cancer has fostered in her character, which is wonderful to read. It’s rare to see such palpable character development – or, conversely, to see such physical change in characters over the course of a novel – and I’m sure that it’s this character growth that had me sobbing so hard at the end of the book.

My verdict: 4/5
The Fault In Our Stars is eminently readable, and should be read, I think, by all members of my generation. We’re at that age where everything seems conquerable and life seems to stretch on endlessly ahead of us; we feel constantly invincible. Reading this book made me profoundly aware of my own mortality, especially as the characters were a good six years younger than me. I’ve definitely read books that are written much more elegantly, with more thrilling plots, but this is not the point here. For me, this was a story about celebrating the relationships that you’ve built up, being grateful for good health, and savouring every moment you’ve got. I’m excited for the film – but I’d better bring a big packet of Kleenex.

Review: Wool

Hugh Howey - Wool

Title: Wool
Author: Hugh Howey
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year originally published: 2013

Wool was my prize from a treasure hunt around London, the result of piecing together and deciphering clues hidden in galleries, churches and museums, all set up by my decidedly superior bibliophile friend Emily. After hours of roving around the city, I found Emily in the café in Foyles, and was presented with a £10 book token. Of course, I had to spend it right there and then. I raced through the bookshop and immediately racked up a giant pile of new discoveries as well as items from my TBR list. Studying blurbs wildly, I picked up Wool. Did it measure up to the dystopian list I had in my head? A ruined and hostile landscape. Check. A future few have been unlucky to survive. Check. A community in a giant underground silo. Oooh, check. The next Hunger Games. Right, where’s the checkout?

The unlucky few are the people we’re locked up in the silo with, and on the whole they’re a likeable bunch. That is, until the dire truth about their living situation begins to emerge. Yet in the face of this gut-wrenchingly awful news, some remain admirably steadfast. I was impressed with Howey’s choice of protagonist, Jules. Yes, she fits into the YA/dystopian romance paradigm of gutsy-yet-beautiful heroine dominant in trilogies like The Hunger GamesDivergent, Matched and Delirium, but Jules stands out from that pack for one reason: She’s not an adolescent. It’s hugely refreshing to see Howey subverting the cult of youth to pick a 34-year old heroine who happens to have a bit of a crush on a 25-year old. And what? Age does not matter in the silo, and neither should it matter in our world. Which leads me to a little bugbear I have against most dystopian YA: Reading about seventeen-year old girls saving the world can only inspire me to a certain point. As a twenty-something female about to enter the non-academic world of work, I want to read about real women with years of experience, heartbreak and loss under their belts, taking on positions of leadership and doing a damn good job of it.

Naturally, I must now get my hands on Shift and Dust, having enjoyed Wool so much. Joyously, Howey decided to release the trilogy over the course of 2013, instead of tortuously drawing out the process of waiting for each installment, A Song of Ice and Fire style (c’mon, George R.R. Martin, where’s The Winds of Winter?) I can only hope they don’t suffer from what I like to call ‘trilogy syndrome’: the second book, the ‘filler’, provides background information to the events of the first book and essentially provides a fictional bridge between the action of the first and third installments’; the third book supplies us with a narrative dénouement, while resolving a love triangle of which we’d already guessed the outcome, way back in book one. In my experience, the second and third books are inevitably doomed to be weaker in terms of both plot and writing, which is saddening. But trilogy syndrome be damned. Wool was so engaging that my real problem at the moment is whether to do some work on my dissertation or read the next two books over the weekend…

My verdict: 5/5
I devoured Wool in a single day. It’s one of those books that’ll make you almost miss your train stop, that’ll be sitting open on your knees as you shovel your lunch into your mouth, that you’ll burn the midnight oil with, disregarding all sense of a proper bedtime. I wasn’t a social or functional human being in the one day that I sacrificed for Wool, and I don’t mind one bit. Yet losing myself in a book so completely did have slightly tunnel-vision repercussions – it wasn’t until my boyfriend was asking about the significance of the title that I finally got it. Wool refers to the wool of the cleaners, but also the wool that’s been pulled over the silo inhabitants’ eyes. Genius.