“Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2014)

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“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.”

When the weather gets gloomy and cold, it’s often best to take yourself off to somewhere warm, even if just in a book. I made my way El Paso, Texas in the 1980s to escape some of the British January chill. There, I found a story that was much more than I expected.

Angel Aristotle Mendoza – known as Ari – is in many ways your average fifteen-year-old, swallowed up by self-doubt, confusion and family troubles. His brother is in prison and his father is a Vietnam war veteran: neither of these things are ever discussed. At the local swimming pool one day, he meets Dante, a fellow Mexican-American teenager who teaches Ari to swim. Ari has never had a proper friend before, and the two are soon inseparable, spending all their time together laughing and playing games.

As Ari’s self-imposed walls begin to crumble, their bond seems unshakeable, and on one rainy summer’s day, Ari saves Dante’s life, breaking three of his limbs in the process. Unable to speak about his heroic act, Ari closes down again, and Dante has to move away to Chicago with his parents for the rest of the year. When he returns, however, both boys have been changed and they wonder if their friendship can continue as they change from boys to men…

A friend of mine recommended me this and said she loved it. I generally trust her opinion on books, so went for it and was very pleased I did. I’ve long struggled with getting into much young adult stuff, but there’s something quite wonderful and wise about this. The relationships between the boys and their parents are particularly endearing. Ari gets on with his mum, but struggles with his father who is clearly suffering from PTSD. The shadow of his brother hangs heavy over them all, and there isn’t even a picture of him up in the house. It’s almost as if he never existed, but Ari can’t open up the communication channels to ask why or even what he’s in prison for, as it all happened when he was very young. Dante, on the other hand, is an only child and has a very open and affectionate relationship with his parents, which Ari is jealous of.

A lot of emphasis is also played on the two boys identities as Mexicans. According to Wikipedia, 80.7% of the city’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino, and given the city sits right on the Rio Grande with Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city, right on the other side, this is obviously an important aspect to them. Many of the other characters are also of Mexican extraction, allowing for a very diverse novel that paints a world that I’m not familiar with. Sáenz however builds a fascinating and beautiful little world, with characters who feel very real and good company. The relationship between Ari and Dante is, for the most part, kept somewhat ambigious. Ari is the sole narrator, but he’s so used to burying his feelings that he’s even capable of burying them from us.

A charming and beautiful novel about growing up and the hidden trauma that so many carry around with them.

Looking for something different to read that bursts genre and shakes up the status quo of storytelling? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available now at Amazon and Waterstones! If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

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“Scythe” by Neal Shusterman (2016)

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“The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.”

Death is the ultimate certainty. While some scientists believe that the first person who will live to be over 150 is already alive right now, the time will come eventually. Many books, especially novels, have been written on the subject and I think despite many of us having a primal fear of death, we also have a curious fascination with it. But what if there was no more death? What would happen to the world? In this novel, Neal Shusterman explores the concept.

Once upon a time on Earth, people got sick or injured and died. But that hasn’t happened for hundreds of years, now. When the Cloud evolved into the hyper-intelligent Thunderhead, it learnt what was best for humanity and took over the running of the planet, dismantling governments and corporations and leaving people with equality, health, happiness and eternal life. For once in fiction, its motives were genuine. But there were a group of humans who decided that there still needed to be a small measure of population control in place, thus the scythes were born.

Selected at a young age for training, you can only become an apprentice scythe if you have absolutely no desire to kill, or “glean” as it’s now known. When Citra and Rowan both independently stand up to Scythe Faraday and question his methods, they are both employed as his assistants and begin to learn the art of killcraft, as well as the ins and outs of the Scythedom, the one group of people that the Thunderhead has no jurisdiction over as they act above the law. Bound to their studies, the two of them begin to learn the ways of the scythe, despite their own protests. Choosing who to glean is just the start.

But then, at a conclave of all the MidMerican scythes, attention is thrust upon them and there is some debate as to whether a scythe can take on two assistants. The choice is made – Faraday can have two assistants, but only one will gain the robe and ring of a scythe … and their first task will be to glean the other…

I was obviously curious enough about this book to make the purchase, but as someone who is somewhat wary of Young Adult fiction, I wasn’t sure whether it would turn out well or be disappointing. On the sliding scale, however, I’d pop this higher than The Hunger Games (to which is appears to be frequently compared) but maybe not quite as good as the Chaos Walking trilogy. The world is richly developed and the lore and history behind it is explained to us by the use of diary entries from various scythes, it being one of their rules that they must keep a journal. This is a world where death still happens regularly from accidents, but unless you’ve been gleaned officially by a scythe, you are taken to a reanimation centre and brought back to life. Death here is merely a hassle, not an ending, but people still fear it and crave the blessing of the scythes for immunity. The Thunderhead may have done away with politicians and crime, but corruption still exists here, as it seems to wherever there are humans. The scythes are treated as above the law, and the Thunderhead cannot interfere with them.

The concepts here are great fun, despite the darkness at the heart of the novel, and I enjoy a future where no one knows what murder is as death isn’t seen as a crime, and that because people are broadly speaking on an equal footing, there’s no need for theft and so on. Even religion has faded away in a world not obsessed with the afterlife, and instead been replaced by tonal cults, who worship sounds and smells.

The characters that inhabit this story are intriguing too, and while it’s quite obvious from the outset which way it’s going to go, there are a number of surprises along the way that kept me hooked. As I said, one of the first rules of becoming a scythe is that you must have absolutely no desire to do it, as anyone who enjoys killing would be wrong for the role. Scythes are respected and admired, as well as feared, and each has their own methods by which they glean. Interestingly, gleanings are not always bloodless and kind – you are just as likely to be beheaded, stabbed or shot than you are poisoned or drowned. Scythes must work to a quota that vaguely relates to the death rates in the Age of Mortality.

Really, I’m a sucker for great worldbuilding and Shusterman has that here in spades. The ending sets up for the rest of the series, and I’ve already put the sequel in my basket on Amazon. I look forward to returning to these characters.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and failed relationships, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You” by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2015)

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“4 Conflicting Parts of Himself Darren Jacobs Attempts to Ignore as He Tries to Ask a Particular Eleventh-Grade Girl for a Really Big Favor on Friday, April 25, at 10:38 a.m.”

I’m one of those people who loves lists. I write lists for everything – books I’ve read, films I need to watch, things to buy, errands to run. I’m also one of those who adds things to lists just to cross them off to make myself look productive. Every list I write begins “Write list”, simply so I can cross that off immediately. However, I can’t say that it had ever crossed my mind to write a novel entirely in lists. It’s too late now anyway – Todd Hasak-Lowy has beaten me to it.

Darren Jacobs is your average, awkward fifteen-year-old living in Chicago. He’s had a terrible year, with his parents divorcing, his brother moving away to university, and his best friend leaving the state. He’s also still hopelessly single. Things reach a head when Darren learns that the reason for his parents divorce is that his father is gay. Unwilling to deal with the fallout, or put up with the long drive to Ann Arbor to visit his brother Nate with his dad, Darren instead approaches one of the cool girls at school, Zoey Lovell, and asks if she’ll give him a ride to the bus station so he can go alone.

It’s only when the bus stops along the route that Darren discovers Zoey came along too, and the two unlikely companions find themselves with Darren’s cool brother Nate exploring the drug-laden world of university. Darren isn’t sure if Zoey is now is girlfriend, or even if she wants to be, and when she disappears, he starts to wonder if any of it ever happened. That one daring weekend, however, will have consequences for everyone that make it clear it really unfolded…

Were it not for the unique style of this novel, I think I would have been far less generous in my thoughts about it. Without the structure of everything being written in lists, it’s your classic “awkward American teenager meets a manic pixie dream girl and joins a band” sort of thing, although not without charm. Zoey doesn’t interest me much as we’ve seen her type too many times before, but I am fond of the Jacobs family, particularly Nate, the older brother. Yes, he’s something of a cliche too, but I find him and his relationship with Darren particularly engaging. I can’t recall off the top of my head many stories that focus on sibling relationships – and even fewer on positive ones – so that makes a nice change.

The novel’s real charm, of course, comes from the unique trait of it being written solely in lists. They run the gamut of listing emotions, memories, dialogue and reasons for things happening to simply rings of a telephone, fingers, letters and items in a bag. One page simply has “5 Months That Have Passed” and listing them, rather than just saying “Five months passed…”, another lists “8 Best Things Darren Ever Built out of Legos, in Chronological Order”. In this style, we jump back and forth through the timeline and learn about Darren and his world in an interesting, if somewhat academic way. It’s very easy to read though, and while I’m not sure it would work for most genres or stories, it fits perfectly here. The lists themselves are not referenced until towards the end when there is a comment about whether the lists we give ourselves in life are good or bad, so even though the book is entirely lists, they never feel intrusive.

An intriguing take on story structure that saves and enhances a tale we’ve, admittedly, probably read before.

“Railsea” by China Miéville (2012)

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“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.”

It’s almost a shame that I used up my introduction spiel about trains for a film last year, when it would’ve served me well here. Never mind. Most books that give a prominent role to trains feature just the one. Something magical and impressive that captures the imagination. China Miéville, however, goes a little further than that, and envisions a world entirely populated by trains. Welcome to the Railsea.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an assistant doctor aboard the Medes, a moletrain. He is new to the Railsea, but is now sure to spend the rest of his life touring the rails, hunting for giant moles, in particular the great southern modlywarpe, and getting to know the other riders of the rails. In this world, there are no oceans, just endless plains laced with endless tracks. Every kind of train patrols them, from huge iron wartrains to wooden trains with sails. There are those made of salvage, those running on steam, and even one-man traincycles that people use to get around the islands.

While on a hunt, Sham and his crew stumble across a wrecked train and set about searching it for salvage. Inside, Sham instead finds a camera. The flatographs it shows, however, reveal something far more interesting than holiday snaps. There are images of children from a distant country, rare salvage, and most bizarrely of all, potential evidence that the Railsea does indeed end. Captivated by the image of a single rail leading out to darkness, Sham convinces Captian Naphi to put aside her hunt for Mocker-Jack, the great white mole, and seek out the people in the flatographs, and then, perhaps, find the edge of the world.

But rumour travels quickly on the rails, and soon Sham is in peril, as salvagers, pirates, monsters and molers all seek him out. What he and his crew discover may change not only his own fate, but that of the entire Railsea.

I’ve read Miéville a few times before, and he’s continually proved himself to have an imagination beyond anything one could reasonable expect from a writer. Aiming to write a novel in every genre, here he turns his attention to the great adventure tales. Indeed, the whole novel can be seen as a parody of, or homage to, Moby-Dick, particularly with the Captain’s obsession with hunting down the ivory-coloured mole that took her arm. This is expanded to be part of the lore, as most captains have what they call their “philosophy” – a particular creature that stole a limb from them, and they commit their lives to finding and killing the beast. Indeed, the creatures of this world are perhaps the most fascinating aspect. With no oceans, lakes or rivers, the ground itself takes up the reins for producing enormous and terrifying beasts. Most everything that we know on Earth to live in the ground lives here, although often far larger and more bloodthirsty than we would remember. Moles grow huge, but so do badgers, naked mole rats, rabbits, earthworms, termites, antlions, burrowing owls and earwigs. These animals have never been so scary.

Miéville also works magic with the setting itself. A world where ships are replaced by trains might seem quite simple, but the level of detail included is wonderful. Trains are limited in their travelling patterns by rails, unlike ships which can steer any which way, but there are still plenty of parallels. Trains are besieged by railgulls, and many of them still have crows nests aboard. The moletrains work mostly like whaling ships, and there are pirates here too, just like in adventure tales set on the open waves. Some job titles change – there is a trainswain rather than a coxswain – and they still sing shanties, although with slightly different lyrics, such as the classic, “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Brakesman?” The world is full and while we still see nothing like all of it, you know that it’s all there.

The book also keeps a level of uncertainty as to when and where the book is set. At first it seems like it might be another world distinct from our own, but there are mentions of the society having been going for a very long time – there is an awful lot of salvage, some of which looks like contemporary technology – and there are obscure references to things that appear to have been passed down through folklore, such as a brief mention of the god Railhater Beeching. It also seems that the planet has been visited by beings from other worlds before now, so if it is Earth, it’s a very distant future one with little water.

Although the book at times chugs along slower than the London to Brighton train on Southern rail, by the end it’s a Japanese bullet train and the ending itself contains a laugh-out-loud moment that makes it all worthwhile. It ends on a note of promise, and I almost wish I could have kept on following Sham on his adventures. It’s not my favourite Miéville story, but it’s still a pretty remarkable read.

“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” by J. K. Rowling (2016)

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cursed childThe eighth story. Nineteen years later.

Not much compels me to stop one book in favour of another, but the newest installment in the Harry Potter series dropping onto the doormat will do that to a person. So, here it is. Merlin knows when I’ll ever get tickets to see it, so reading it is the next best thing. This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write, so let’s just crack on. First, the plot.

No. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you anything.

So, now how did I feel about it? You’re asking a very big question there. I guess primarily, I can’t believe that despite the fact the theatre has been previewing the show for months, and the sheer amount of people involved in it, absolutely nothing leaked. Maybe friends told friends, but the Internet in general managed to keep very quiet.

The one thing I will say is that the opening scene replays the epilogue from Deathly Hallows, so there aren’t really any surprises there. But then it carries on and we get the first new dialogue from these characters since 2007 and I got the most ridiculous goosebumps. You forget in between readings that these stories are magical. It takes a moment to get used to reading it in script form rather than as a novel, but I think I understand why it works as a play. Two plays, in fact. There’s a lot here, and to compress it would be a disaster.

The face (and hair) of one struggling with the state of finishing Cursed Child.

The face (and hair) of one who is struggling with his Cursed Child feelings.

The play somehow is nothing at all like I expected, and yet everything I knew it would be. And you can take that in any way you see fit. I’m trying to work out if I liked it, and I think I did, but there’s a lot in here that requires a lot of processing. It seemingly changes a few of the rules that Rowling had previously established, and added something that I don’t think any of us really expected. And even that feels like saying too much.

Many of the characters we know and love are present and correct. Some of them changed somewhat with time, but their cores remain in tact. The children are great, and occasionally you could have guessed what was going to happen with some of them, but there are some surprises present too. There are, however, some absences that are particularly notable. One old favourite is mentioned, but another has been scrubbed entirely from the text. I know they can’t name everyone, but, well, come on. Sadder still is the reveal of a couple of deaths we’ve missed in the last nineteen years.

My brain keeps playing with the question, “But did you like it?” All I can think is that the staging and casting must be the best the West End has ever seen, as I’ve not seen a single complaint from anyone who happens to have seen the show. It’s magical, but it lacks something. It feels too late, maybe. A sort of, “be careful what you wish for” scenario. We all wanted more from Harry, and now we’ve got it, but is it quite what we hoped we’d get? Already I’ve seen polls on Twitter where people are debating whether to consider this addition canonical or not.

I sound negative, and I’m not really. The emotional wallops are very real and Rowling’s world stands the test of time for its depth, breadth and sheer power. I think it’s just because I’ve read it in three hours. I need to go back through, slower, and get to grips with it. That can be a summer project. I may even return to these pages to give a second review. But for now, I leave you with the most wishy-washy vague thing I’ve ever written.

Read it yourself and form your own opinion. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment or find me on Twitter, @fellfromfiction. For now though, I need to go and sort myself and my thoughts out.

Mischief managed.

“Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins (2010)

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mocking“I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather.”

Trilogies are funny things. You have to try and get the balance right and have every story be equally weighted in how good they are and try not to finish everything up before you hit the end, but also not throwing in so many plot points that they end up getting unfinished at the end. Some people do it very well.

But here, with the usual warning that there are numerous spoilers ahead for the series – and in this case, I’m completely just going to give away the ending because it merits discussion – and a heavy heart, I begin my review of Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy.

The last book ended with Katniss, Peeta and a few other tributes being rescued from the Hunger Games arena by a rebel faction who are determined to end this torture and take down President Snow, the Nero-like leader of Panem. This one opens a while later with Katniss exploring the ashen remains of District 12, her former home, before being told that the rebels want her as their Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion against Snow and the Capitol. She is less than keen, and with all the other changes in her life, she wants to just try and forget that any of it happened, which is impossible. She now lives in District 13, entirely underground, and her friend – the boy she possibly loves – Peeta keeps appearing on television, being used as a mouthpiece by the Capitol, but clearly having undergone torture and worse.

Katniss decides to become the Mockingjay and is sent out to other districts to meet people and show support. Just the sight of her can be enough to make people think that all hope is not yet lost and they can and will win. Once the districts have fallen, it will be time to take the war to the Capitol itself and see that President Snow is executed. But it’s not that simple, as the leader of the rebels, President Coin, seems to have her own agenda, and it’s one that Katniss is not best pleased with. It all hangs on Katniss being the hero that everyone else wants.

So, I put up with the flaws of the first two books, but this one was really just a disappointment. Most of the action that drives the story – Peeta’s torture, the ongoing challenge to take down the districts, Katniss’s trial at the end – all take place off screen. It seems to go from having one or two districts aiding the rebels to all of them doing so with barely any time at all, and with Katniss only visiting District 8 on the page for any length of time. She spends the vast majority of her time moaning and griping, not sure whether she loves Peeta or Gale, and leaving me not understanding why either of them would even want to be with her.

Haymitch; one of the redeeming features of the series

In short, I think I just found it hard to care about any of them by this point. Yes, I understand that they wanted to end the Hunger Games and a full-scale revolution was was probably going to be the only way to do that, but it seems strange that after seventy-five years of accepting those games without any real qualm, suddenly everyone was prepared to start disobeying the Capitol, a force that has long been shown to have incredible power. Even if they do get their resources from the other districts, they still had more firepower and strategic ability to stop any revolution before it occurred, right? Maybe I missed something.

I also do have to discuss two bits that happen right near the end. Firstly, once Snow has been captured and the Capitol is at the mercy of the rebels, the remaining seven victors are called to place a vote. They must decide whether, as punishment, they will host their own Hunger Games using the children of Capitol residents as tributes. Shockingly, they vote yes, apparently not having learnt a single thing about the past and instead going for petty revenge. Oh sure, maybe Katniss and Haymitch were playing a different game by voting for it, knowing that it was the only way to convince President Coin that they were on her side, but the whole thing seems a bit ridiculous.

And then you’ve got the epilogue (referred to by a couple of my friends as the “crapilogue”), which is two pages long, revealing what happened twenty years later. It ends so abruptly at the bottom of a page that I didn’t even realise it was the end of the book and turned over to continue to find the acknowledgements. Meanwhile in those two pages, Katniss is stripped of all her strength, independence and volition when it turns out that Peeta wore her down for fifteen years about having children, something she’d always said she didn’t want. So while she ends the book with severe PTSD and generally being a mess, she still then has to become a mother because the boy she finally chose (only because the other never came home) nags her into it. That doesn’t seem like something the Katniss that Collins had been building up for the last three books would do. Bah.

The thing is, the best parts of the series are the bits taking place inside the Hunger Games arenas, and with that gone, so too is most of my interest. Oh sure, they try and get something similar going by having booby-trapped pods lace the streets of the Capitol once the rebels break in, but that doesn’t seem to make any sense anyway, and it’s just not the same. Also, Effie has all but vanished and I like her. Everyone warned me that the third book was a let down, and they were right.

So it’s a disappointing ending for the trilogy. If you haven’t yet embarked on it, it might be worth just sticking with the first one and not bothering to carry on. You could probably write your own ending that would be better than this. Ah well, another trilogy down.

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins (2009)

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Catching-fire“I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air.”

Writing about sequels and trilogies is hard because anything you say will undoubtedly be laced with spoilers. It’s like if you read the blurbs on the backs of progressive books in a series, you can work out much of what is going to happens. Blurbs, it seems, automatically fix cliffhangers.

But I give my usual warning anyway that if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, spoilers to that book start immediately below, so you can catch up with my review of that here, or just thunder on through.

So Katniss has survived the Hunger Games and is now back home, her and her people showered with gifts, this being the prize for winning the Games, but she’s not happy. As far as the world is concerned, she’s meant to be wildly in love with fellow combatant Peeta. However, she’s now sure that she loves her best friend Gale, only they barely get any time to spend together anymore. On top of that, there’s the never-ending nightmares about her time in the arena.

Out of the blue, Katniss receives a visit from President Snow, the leader of Panem, who is silently furious. Katniss’s tiny act of rebellion against the Capitol last year (to have both her and Peeta crowned winners of the Games) has led to murmurings of uprisings in various districts around the country. Should anything come of them, Snow suggests, it will be Katniss and those she loves that suffer the greatest punishments.

With the threat lingering over her head, Katniss and Peeta begin the Victory Tour of Panem and as other districts become more restless, and Katniss’ own District 12 suddenly becomes a lot more militant, she begins to worry exactly to what extent Snow’s rage will stretch. And then it becomes clear. He’s going to get rid of her in the smartest way possible – he’s sending her back into the Games…

OK, so I still don’t like Katniss, which is a shame, because I like most of the supporting cast. Peeta, Haymitch, Effie and Cinna, the latter of whom gets precious little page time in this one, are all great, and I’m even fond of the Games participants, all of whom are previous champions. Johanna is clearly a bit mental and I think she’s great. The two nerds from the electronics district are endearing, and Finnick, a born fisherman, is very interesting, as is the eighty-year-old Mags.

In terms of plot, the pacing is all over the place. The book takes forever to get going, with large sections given over to Katniss worrying. She seems to not be a particularly active protagonist, merely instead letting things happen to her, although she generally handles herself very well in whatever situation. Too well, sometimes. For example, it’s mentioned early on about a secret lake that she used to swim in, and then the arena later on is mostly water, giving her an advantage she shouldn’t have had. The stuff during the Games is the best bit, and then the final chapter or two races through so much exposition, you can’t help but feel that Collins was coming up against her deadline and her publisher had said, “By the way, we want a third one too, so can you throw in a couple of plot hooks there?”

The writing, actually, isn’t bad. Collins is a good writer, but that’s not always the same as being a good storyteller. The best bits about these books are the times set inside the Hunger Games arena, and everything else is just fluff. That’s where the good story comes in, but it takes so long to get there this time, and a lot of the training set up feels so familiar from the last book that it’s not especially interesting.

So it’s OK, but it’s not as good as the first one, and everyone I’ve spoken to says that the third book is terrible (although, inexplicably, also claim that the film versions are the best) but I think I’m going to have to read it just for the sake of completion, although I think I can see exactly where it’s going. Collins will have to pull of a spectacular twist, here.

This is the ultimate difficult second novel. I will be interested to see if it can be saved, although my hopes are not high.

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