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Review: ‘I See You’ by Clare Mackintosh

I See You by Clare MackintoshI had heard such wonderful things about Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go (which I have yet to read), that I jumped at the opportunity to read I See You which promised a just as interesting premise, and had been described as “an edge-of-your-seat, page-turning psychological thriller”.  A quarter of the way through the book, and I was still waiting for something to happen.

Instead of a thrilling, fast paced jaunt through a dark underworld I was treated to long passages about boring police procedure, parenting problems, financial accounting and misogynistic bosses.  Every character was hinting at something, but nothing really progressed or went anywhere.  I didn’t care who was hungry and who had skipped dinner; the entire first quarter read like a boring treatise on everyday life.  I found myself skim reading just to get it over and done with.

The pace certainly doesn’t pick up much as the narrative progresses.  There was no sense of impending dread, no excitement, no tragedy. The characters lacked depth and I felt myself completely unable to engage in their lives. Everyone felt like caricatures of their archetypes. Teenagers with ‘you wouldn’t understand man’ attitudes, unfulfilled housewives, philandering ex-husbands, struggling writers and troubled cops with tragic pasts and rogue ways who take issue with authority. The victims were nothing but faceless plot elements, something that I abhor in crime writing. I should feel sympathy for the victims, and sadness at their misfortunes, but instead, they were just names with no voice. There was nothing new in I See You, and nothing that made me desperate to read on or invest myself in the characters’ lives.

But worst of all? It was predictable! Everything followed on rails to a formula that was all too familiar. There were an appropriate number of red herrings from the 3/4 mark so you knew who to eliminate as a suspect. When the antagonist surfaced they were given little to no legitimate and believable reason and ability for the crime, and the final plot twist was given away by a rather jimmied in explanation of a particular character near the end of the novel. This explanation (without giving anything away) highlighted a certain skill set making the ‘surprise’ ending exceedingly unsurprising, while also managing to invalidate some of the descriptions of the character earlier in the book.

I really wanted to like I See You. I might even still try I Let You Go. You can’t become such an overnight sensation if you have nothing going for you. Maybe I just started with the wrong book?  I did see a talented writer buried beneath all the formula. Clare Mackintosh ‘s dialogue was convincing and her prose was fluent and interesting to read in and of itself. But for me the plot never came to life. It didn’t build, it lacked depth and the characters weren’t particularly likeable or interesting. I didn’t hang on the story, desperate to read on and know what happened. I didn’t sound out the words in my head or savour them. Instead, I speed read the book in a day. It was just good enough for me to want to finish it, but not good enough for me to care that I had.

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Review: ‘The Fireman’ by Joe Hill

The Fireman by Joe HillJoe Hill’s new novel The Fireman is a strong addition to Hill’s already fantastic bibliography.  It took a number of different formulas that had already been tried and tested in the horror genre and melded them together to make something poignant, throwing in pop culture references that don’t seem to fit and yet only add to the strength of the novel.  What should be a grim and depressing slog through a plague ridden post-apocalyptic wasteland is instead turned in to a novel of hope, strength and the power of community.

The Fireman jumps straight in to the action.  The plague known as Dragonscale, which causes its sufferers to spontaneously burst in to flame, is already well under way when the book begins.  We get to know the characters in the reality that they inhabit while still getting a sense of their characters, without any unnecessary build up or exposition.  We immediately know who our protagonists are and the kind of people we’re dealing with, all without them ever being caricatures of their archetypes.  Each character has a struggle that they must overcome, and even the antagonists are agonisingly human in their misguided beliefs and mental instabilities.  There are good characters and bad characters, but one gets the sense that if the story had been told from the other side those roles could so easily have been reversed.  The titular Fireman is certainly no prince charming, and yet he is a character with such hidden depth and sarcastic wit that we can’t help but relate.  Nurse Willowes herself is a strong female character, fiercely protective, proud and yet equally aware of her own flaws.  Even the peripheral characters have enough depth and back story to make us care about them and relate to their struggles.

The way Hill deals with relationships in The Fireman is quite unique, and individual to each case.  He shows marriage in both its positive and negative aspects.  He doesn’t dwell on sweeping romantic gestures and instead shows romance as organic and often mundane, but beautiful in the every day things that make up a relationship.  He shows how relationships can create strength but also weakness, how it can bind but also tear apart.  The characters remain individuals and unique as part of their relationships, whether they be romantic, communal or familial and ultimately it the actions of individuals that can make or break the ties that bind us.  The Dragonscale itself plays an interesting part in the portrayal of these relationships, responding to human connection in a way that gave the book the unique depth that it has.

This novel is so much more than its genre would suggest.  Hill is the master of humanising the supernatural and using it in such a way as to draw attention to ourselves and our own reality. The Fireman reads like a perfect blend of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Shirley Jackson’s The LotteryThe Walking Dead and Adam Nevill’s The Ritual,  all interspersed with Hill’s signature wit and humanity.  The Fireman isn’t neat, there are no perfectly tied up conclusions, people can be cruel and life unfair, but through it all the novel is full of hope and sympathy.  A perfect novel for an imperfect world.

 

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Review: ‘The City of Mirrors’ by Justin Cronin

City of Mirrors by Justin CroninThe problem with a book that has its release date pushed back as often as The City of Mirrors, the third book in Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy, is that expectations naturally run very, very high.  Anticipation builds, disappointment is rife with every setback and fans will fall in to two camps, those who re-read the first two books in anticipation with every release date, and those who will just try and hope the characters were memorable enough for them to enjoy the book a few years on.

For those reading The City of Mirrors after a few years hiatus, get ready to be a little disappointed.  I could remember the basic plot points of The Passage and The Twelve, but the details and characters were a little lost on me.  There is very little individual development in this book and it relies heavily on a good knowledge of the books that came before; which is why the years between release really did this novel a disservice.  I might have enjoyed it more had I re-read the first two, but I guess now I’ll never know.  Ultimately The City of Mirrors was quite a major disappointment.

The main issue I had with The City of Mirrors was that everything was just so…convenient.  Back story was told in long exposition, characters found happy endings (deserved or not) through lengthy and numerous dream scenes, there was an element of the fantastical/supernatural which served to conveniently drive the integral plot forward, and for the first time ever we had a stereotyped vampire character, rather than the unique virals of the series.  There was also a lot less of the time jumping and found documents that made the first two novels so fascinating.  It really felt like Cronin was just conveniently trying to tie up loose ends, which he certainly did, but it just didn’t make for the riveting reading I was so desperately hoping for.

The one bit of The City of Mirrors that did stand out for me however was the epilogue.  It introduced new characters with surprising depth, and returned to the tried and true formula of found documents intertwined with narrative.  If the epilogue had been peppered throughout the novel, the same way that the time jumps were used in the first two novels, I think it would have been a far more interesting read.  Even Fanning’s back story, for which we waited so eagerly, could have benefited from some of the same treatment.  In the epilogue I saw what the novel should have been but failed to deliver.

If you’ve read the rest of The Passage Trilogy it’s definitely worth picking up The City of Mirrors.  The story ends in a satisfactory way, and rounds out the plot which will make every completionist happy.  For a book that took this long to come out though I definitely expected a little bit more.

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Review: ‘Sleeping Giants’ by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain NeuvelOn paper Sylvain Neuvel’s  Sleeping Giants was brilliant. In execution, not so much. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it went wrong, but it just felt somehow lacking. The book centres around the discovery of a large hand after a young girl falls in to a hole and is found nestled in its palm. It follows the process of recovering the rest of the body parts, covering the politics of ownership and the history of the figure itself.

Epistolary style is difficult for even the most talented of writers. Neuvel has a strong basis for its use, but it didn’t read as realistic. With the exception of a very few, the documents were primarily a collection of transcribed interviews by a shadowy protagonist who seems to be the puppet master of the piece. The way he speaks however simply isn’t natural or realistic. He asks questions to further the plot and develop character, but they are questions which simply wouldn’t be relevant or realistic in that particular context. Why would he be asking about personal relationships rather than say, a psychologist?

Despite these unrealistically probing questions attempting to create a sense of character, it was not particularly effective in this. The characters of the scientists and pilots involved in the recovery operations and subsequent study of the mysterious figure were shallow and two dimensional. I felt no sense of kinship, interest or empathy with any of them. The only character I had any strong feeling toward was a scientist whom I assume was meant to act as the antagonist, but this was simply because the way she was written was so utterly annoying that I didn’t like reading about her. Her inclusion in the project at the later stages defied logic. She was almost a caricature of an evil scientist.

I still enjoyed this novel, because conceptually it was brilliant. I just really wanted more out of it. I’ll read the rest of the series when it’s released because I can see a lot of potential in this book. Let’s hope book two is a bit more polished and believable than this installment.

 

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Review: ‘Outlander’ by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander by Diana GabalonBy complete accident, due to a mis-clicking incident while I was making my lunch, I happened to see the first episode of Outlander on Netflix a few days ago.  It was not something that had appealed to me as I’d heard the novel was a bit of a sweeping romance which is not the kind of genre I usually go in for, but I watched the whole episode and ended up completely hooked.  I couldn’t stop watching.  I finished the whole first series in three days and was blown away by its scope and content. 

Was it a sweeping romance?  Sure it was, but it was so much more than that.  Here I had finally found a show that was not afraid to tackle big issues like accountability, assault, both physical and sexual of both genders, and for me, the biggest and most impressive feat, really delving in to the psychological implications that come with each of these, regardless of gender and sexuality. The very last episode absolutely blew me away with it’s violence and tragedy, and its willingness to show the psychological impact and vulnerabilities in the aftermath of sexual assault when all too often your body will respond physically when your mind, soul and spirit could not be more unwilling. 

With a television show that managed to do so much in only 16 episodes I figured I simply had to read the book that inspired it.  The books are always more detailed so I couldn’t wait to pick it up and give it a go.  Last night I hit 52% and put it down in disgust.  Where was the strong, independent Claire who is finding her feet in a world she doesn’t understand?  Where was the powerful but vulnerable Jamie who easily navigates the dangers of his existence while still finding himself as the leader of his clan?  They didn’t exist.  Instead I was given a first person Claire who’s selfishness and arrogance abounded at every turn, a Jamie who really was a sadistic brute, and worst of all, a Captain Randall who’s behaviour was purely antagonistic, until he showed homosexual proclivities at which point he was viewed with abject disgust.

I read as far as Claire’s beating at the hand of her husband and then put down the book, never to be picked up again.  Instead of strong characters with personality and depth I was treated to a series of female denigrations which Claire accepts after very little fight, a complete lack of depth to any of the characters beyond their gender and sexual stereotypes and a general feel of patriarchal dominance which I just couldn’t get past.

Very rarely does a different medium so vastly improve on its source content, but in the case of Outlander I can say with absolute certainty that the Starz series is a vast improvement.  I can’t judge the book too harshly as the basic plot is the same and the series couldn’t exist without it.  What I must say is kudos to the writers at Starz and their ability to take two dimensional, stereotyped characters and create something with so much depth and feeling.

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