**spoiler alert** Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows.**spoiler alert** Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows. In the morning, they come into her cell and strap her into a wheelchair while aiming guns at her; they even strap her head in place. Then she is wheeled into a windowless classroom along with over twenty other children, all strapped into wheelchairs. They have several teachers, but Melanie's favourite is Miss Justineau, who tells them stories from Greek mythology. The only difference is on Sundays, when they are wheeled into the shower room and given a chemical bath, and then a plate of grubs to eat.
Melanie, like all the other children in the underground military base, is special. She's a fully cognisant zombie - or "hungry", as they're called. Infected with the fungas just as much as any other hungry, she has retained her intellect - and her emotions, not that the lead scientist on base, Dr Caldwell, believes she possesses any. Melanie is special: she's brighter than any of the other children, and as she discovers, she's able to control her hunger.
While Helen Justineau humanises the children and reports her observations, Sergeant Parks collects them from the hungry-infested deserted urban centres, and Dr Caroline Caldwell dissects them, hoping to understand the fungus and find a way to beat it. Twenty years is all it's been since the Breakdown - there are men on Parks' team who are too young to know about life before then. Now there are those living in the city of Beacon, south of London, and those who take their chances in hungry territory: Junkers.
When an attack on the base catches them all by surprise and forces them to flee, Melanie finds herself with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks, the dreaded Dr Caldwell, and a young private, Gallagher, as they try to make their way back to Beacon. Along the way trust and loyalty will be sorely tested, and motivations questioned. Above all, though, little Melanie must re-learn her understanding of the world and her place in it, and what it means to be human in this new world.
The Girl with all the Gifts began as a short story called "Iphigenia in Aulis" which he wrote for an anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner, and is already in the works as a screenplay (it has a very clear and definite movie feel to it - you can really see it as a film). MR Carey - who usually writes as Mike Carey - writes for DC and Marvel (he's the current writer of X-Men and the Ultimate Fantastic Four, and wrote Hellblazer and Lucifer, as well as a comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Speculative Fiction of various genres is clearly something he's good at, and in his new novel those strengths - of being able to paint a scene quickly and succinctly, of being able to create tension and develop characters without losing (or giving in to) genre tropes - really shines through. Granted, the use of present tense doesn't add anything to the narrative, but it wasn't too distracting.
On the back cover, author Jenny Colgan drew a connection between this book and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and - especially in the first part - that parallel is very apt (and one of the reasons that prompted me to get this). As in Ishiguro's creepy and intense novel, Melanie and her unusual peers are considered less than human, with the adults refusing to notice any signs that might undermine their belief - their need to believe - that they have anything in common. To believe in an inherent humanity in these children would mean they couldn't do what they do to them - not without feeling guilty or less than human, themselves. This is akin to the colonising attitudes of Europeans in the Americas, Australia and Africa, but we certainly do it already towards, say, the disabled or mentally ill, and homeless people, to name a few.
I've said before that I'm not a fan of zombie stories; I've read a few and seen a few movies and two things always put me off or make me feel downright depressed: that zombies are inherently uninteresting because they are mindless and have only one goal; and that you can't win against zombies. If you survive, it's only temporary. Bleak, very bleak stuff. Even the comedies are bleak, at heart. MR Carey has created a distinctly fresh zombie story, and in the process animated some interest in them for me. He has skilfully retained the elements of gory horror and apocalyptic survival, created some interesting and diverse characters to traverse the landscape, and provided a very satisfying yet chilling ending to this standalone novel. More importantly, though, is that you quickly get the sense this isn't your run-of-the-mill zombie story. Zombies are a way of telling a more important story, one that delves deep into human nature in all its variants, and looks sharply at the things we hold dear and what we're willing to do to avoid change, destruction or ultimate death.
We get to know Melanie well in The Girl with all the Gifts, and quickly come to sympathise with her and feel a need to love and protect her - things she yearns for without really understanding it. Miss Justineau feels it too, though she's also repulsed by it; at least at first. It isn't hard to see where the genius of Carey's creation lies: I can't think of any other zombie story where zombie children play such a huge part. Certainly, I don't think we could bare to watch a zombie movie where a rotting child gets their head smashed in. Zombie or not, that's just too repellent. At first I thought this might bear a few too many similarities with Justin Cronin's The Passage (I've read that Carey hadn't read Cronin's books until after The Girl was published), but thankfully the only things they have in common is a little girl being a central character in an apocalyptic world.
The atmosphere is just right, neither overdone nor lacking in tension. Twenty years isn't a very long time, but it's long enough for desolation to set in, long enough for the people who knew what it was like before to be turning philosophical, and short enough that they're still letting themselves belief they can change it, fix it, get back the way of life they once took for granted. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. There's a nice tone of bleakness, especially from Sergeant Parks, while Dr Caldwell is so driven and single-minded that she's become the Mad Scientist character.
So that old stuff is literally priceless. Parks gets that. They're trying to find a way to remake the world twenty years after it fell apart, and the goodies that the grab-bag patrols bring home are ... well, they're a rope bridge over a bottomless canyon. They're the only way of getting from this besieged here to a there where everything is back in good order.
But he feels like they lost their way somewhere. When they found the first of the weird kids, and some grunt who'd obviously never heard about curiosity and the cat called in a fucking observation report.
Nice going, soldier. Because you couldn't keep from observing, the grab-baggers suddenly got a whole slew of new orders. Bring us one of those kids. Let's take a good long look at him/her/it.
And the techies looked, and then the scientists looked, and they got the itch to kill a few cats, too. Hungries with human reactions? Human behaviours? Human-level brain functions? Hungries who can do something besides run and feed? And they're running naked and feral through the streets of the inner cities, right alongside the regular variety? What's the deal? [pp.70-71]
Visually, it's very arresting, especially with that element of nature taking over running through it. It's not quite Day of the Triffids, but when you see fungal trees growing out of hungries' (dead-dead) bodies, it definitely feels very alien and wrong. And horrific. That after everything, and despite our insistence in our own superiority, humans - and only humans - have been felled by a fungus. It almost makes you want to giggle. One thing that does always bother me, about this and other zombie stories, but especially this one (because of the ending), is what zombies are supposed to live on, long-term. Without the surviving population of non-zombie humans, they've got no food source. It goes against all we know of life, nature, survival, the food chain, etc. It's just something that bugs me while I'm reading zombie stories, like having some lump digging into your thigh when you sit on the ground.
I found The Girl with all the Gifts to be riveting, disturbing and, overall, entertaining while still being provocative and insightful....more
The War has been raging for as long as anyone can remember. The secret, endless War between two opposing sides - one good, one evil. Neither side knowThe War has been raging for as long as anyone can remember. The secret, endless War between two opposing sides - one good, one evil. Neither side knows which one is which; it is kill or be killed in an illusory conflict in which assassination is the weapon of choice.
When she was seventeen, Maria was pulled into this secret War, and they killed her lover and stole her child. Now they are telling her to go home. To ignore what she knows is going on in the shadows all around her. They tell Maria to forget all she's lost. The trouble is, something simply can't be forgotten.
That is the publisher's blurb that instantly drew me into reading these books - first Children of Paranoia, which was intense, gripping and thought-provoking, and now the sequel, Children of the Underground. It's like that blurb was written just for me. It hit all my buttons, and I just HAD to read the books. And what a great impulsive decision that was!
The first book was Joe's story, the journal he kept to explain everything to Maria, whom he fell in love with. Joe is gone, taken from Maria in the tragic, violent climax of Children of Paranoia - and so is their child. According to the rules of the War, any child born to a parent who is underage (Maria was seventeen) is to be handed over to the other side to raise - to essentially become the enemy. They did what they could to escape this rule, this cruel fate, but They are everywhere, in all facets of society across the globe, and there is no hiding from Them.
Maria was not born into the War, and she never married Joe - she is still considered a civilian. Untouchable. And under-estimated. She is determined to get her baby, Christopher, back, to protect him from this senseless War that seeks to claim him as yet another victim who had no choice. Armed with very few clues from Joe's journal, Maria sets out to locate Michael, Joe's other friend and, like him, a skilled assassin (they call them Soldiers) in the War. Michael has dropped out of the War - as he puts it, he hasn't quit, he's just stopped taking orders. But out on the island off the Jersey shore where he always loved to spend downtime, the enemy keeps coming for him.
With Michael's help, Maria has an extra lead: the Underground, something she hadn't even known existed. There are others who've tried to escape the War, and the Underground helps set them up with new identities. But why should they help Maria? After all, Christopher is safe. Until he's eighteen, no one can touch him. And locating the information of where he is is hard enough, let alone the task of getting to it. But there is no one so determined as a mother out to protect her baby, and as Christopher's first birthday approaches - a milestone that would likely mean he'll forget the sound of his mother's voice - Maria is driven to do whatever is necessary to locate him, and save him.
First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed this. Children of the Underground follows seamlessly on from the first book and has all the power and intensity and suspense of its predecessor. New layers are added, and the world in which the War takes place - our world, but also the War itself - broadens and deepens as we learn more about it, much more than Joe ever knew. There is the Underground, who help people escape the War but have no interest in doing anything that will help end the War; and there are also the Rebels, who split from the Underground because they decided they couldn't sit by and watch everyone die without fighting to stop it.
We learn about the Rebels through some alternating chapters that break up Maria's narrative, a young woman called Addy and a civilian teenager called Evan. Evan got caught up in a raid by accident, but They have now made him into a terrorist - all because he and Addy were the only ones to have escaped. All the Rebel bases in California were raided, by SWAT teams no less, the victims disguised as terrorists in the media, and Addy has nowhere to turn but her old friends in the Underground - if they are still there, if they will welcome her.
What we don't learn for quite some time is when these scenes are taking place - past, present, future? I'll leave that for you to discover, as to reveal it now would be to give too much away. I'll just say that it sets up the third (and final?) book admirably.
Where I was slightly disappointed by Children of the Underground was with Maria herself. I really liked Maria in the first book, but I found that what made her a distinct character somewhat evaporated in her own narrative. Certainly, her circumstances have changed and she's not the person she once was. But actually I think it is a simple and unfortunate case of Shane writing her in much the same voice and style as Joe. Both are told as the characters write their journals - Joe for Maria, Maria for Christopher - and this is convincingly done. The writing doesn't get flowery, or too descriptive, though it's certainly better written than the majority of us would write a journal! It wasn't that, it was that Maria's own personality seemed to be missing.
I can make lots of justifications for the way this is written - she's in an extreme situation, she's changed a lot in order to survive, and so on. And it's true: the War makes everyone paranoid, and there's no room for laughter or nostalgia in that. I couldn't help but want to see glimpses of some other side of Maria, though, some evidence that a part of the old Maria had survived. A, dare I say it, more feminine side. But overall, I admired Shane's skill in depicting her, how she'd changed, how relentless and even ruthless she became - as seen in those scenes towards the end, which I can't describe because I don't want to give it away. I suppose what I was really feeling was sadness that the girl Joe first met, who made jokes and flirted and was full of life and vitality and promise, had been scraped away, replaced by a woman who is all hard edges and paranoia and determination. And that, in turn, made me nostalgic for the Maria I first met. (It's great to have the chance to talk myself through these readerly feelings to get to the nuggets of my reactions, and I hope you don't mind me not editing this to remove my thought processes.)
Her most distinctive character trait was the strength of her love and mothering instincts towards Christopher, and that side of her I could completely relate to - as the mother of a young toddler (not yet 2), the thought of someone taking my baby away to be raised by some other family and, after his eighteenth birthday, killed for no bloody reason, makes my gut clench and my blood boil. I felt ill thinking of it, which is great because the best books are ones that really make you feel, and it's something I always want from a book, no matter what the emotion is. When Maria's story began, I had no idea how she could possibly accomplish her aim of getting him back. The War is impenetrable, or so it seems, and ultra secretive, and she had no contacts. There's also the sense of a looming deadline, a sense of urgency, that propels the novel forward with gut-clenching suspense.
But considering Maria was writing her journal for her son, I would have expected - and wanted, myself - to learn more about Maria. If she was writing it partly in the expectation that she wouldn't ever get to tell him any of this herself, later, then wouldn't she have wanted to tell him his maternal history? I wanted to learn more about Maria, about her life before she met Joe, but also what's going through her mind. I've read books that get bogged down with repetitive self-reflection and introspection, to the point where I get completely fed up; then there are other stories that just don't have enough. This would be one of those. There was some, of course, but not enough to really help me connect with her. She still comes across as strong, intelligent, and caught in a life-changing (and totally horrific) situation as she becomes like the very people she is trying to save her son from.
Another part of Maria that seemed to get lost was her Canadian roots. As far as I remember from the first book, she's from Ontario and was going to university in Montreal when Joe met her. I liked this detail about her, but it seemed to have been discarded somewhere along the way. Also, a small side note, but when she mentions spending summers at her parents' cottage in Maine, I felt a bit incredulous. I've lived in Ontario for over 7 years now, and no one here has a cottage in Maine. Ontario IS cottage country! The Kawarthas, Muskoka, Georgian Bay, everywhere - a cottage is for weekend getaways as much as longer holidays, and everyone either has a place here, knows someone who does that they can use, or rents one. I found myself very sceptical on this point. (I had to look it up - Maine is east of Quebec, in a part of the U.S. that looks like it should be Canada. So not too far-fetched if her family lived near the border, but from Ontario...!?)
In the end, I had to put aside my yearning to really know Maria and read this as the suspenseful, violent thriller that it is. The characters are starting to unravel a bit - that's the sense I get - in their unwavering determination to believe in the War. It sustains them, and it gives their lives - and their deaths - hope and meaning. Without it, they're just senseless murderers. The mechanics behind it all are starting to show, too, and they're looking decidedly ugly and scarily inhumane.
When I read the first book, I read the War as an analogy for those conflicts across tenuous borders that occur all over the world. Reading the second book, I was thinking more of gangs. Especially as kids keep getting shot here in Toronto, and it is all just as senseless and stupid and useless as the War in this story. It makes your heart ache. I have no idea how Shane will conclude this, where he will take it, but I am absolutely along for the ride. This is an unforgettable series that takes you right down into the dark, cruel depths of the human heart juxtaposed against the unflinching determination behind a mother's love.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
Imagine a typical day in your life. You get up, get dressed, go to work or school. You take your kids to the park, make dinner, visit friends, learn sImagine a typical day in your life. You get up, get dressed, go to work or school. You take your kids to the park, make dinner, visit friends, learn salsa dancing. Now imagine that all around you, hidden beneath the ordinariness of life, is a War, an invisible War but a War nonetheless. You have no idea, but all those unexplained deaths? Assumed suicides? Shootings, stabbings, car accidents - they're not accidental, nor are they mindless. They're certainly not unexplained, just not to you.
There is a War being raged across the globe, and Joshua is a Soldier in this War. At twenty-five, he's already had so many kills he's stopped counting them. Sent wherever he's needed by Intelligence, given a file on his next target, he kills and then moves on. And why? Because it's a War. It's been going on for as long as anyone involved knows about. Everyone born into the War - and those who married into it - have lost numerous family members, on both sides. But it's not chaos. It's very deliberate and controlled, and everyone follows three main rules: no killing civilians; no killing anyone under the age of eighteen; and if you have a baby before you're eighteen, it's to be handed to the other side. It becomes the enemy.
Joshua has never questioned the War. He's lost everyone in his family except for his mother: his father, killed in a supposed car accident that was no accident; his beloved uncle, whisked away by men at the mall when he looked away (he was only eight); and his sister Jessica was killed when men came to the house as she was babysitting him. They weren't killed because they were Soldiers as Joshua is now. They were killed because they were part of the War, and as everyone knows, the War can only be won by beating the other side.
Who is the other side? They are the enemy. They are evil. They must be evil, because if they aren't than Joshua's side is, and no one thinks they're evil. How did it start? No one knows, though there are stories. All they know is that they must keep fighting or the other side will win.
It is while on a mission in Montreal to take out a pharmaceutical businessman that Joshua meets Maria, a student at McGill University, and falls in love. It changes everything, gives him something other than the War to live for - and Maria isn't part of it. She's a civilian, and as Joshua discovers after learning that she's pregnant, she's also only seventeen, fast-tracked through the school system. Now they're on the run, hunted by both sides: his because baby, if born, has to be turned over to the other side, and the enemy because Joshua has been given up to them, all the information on his kills released. Everyone is after them, these people could be anyone, where can they go? You can't just leave the War. You can't say you don't want to be a part of it anymore. Protecting Maria and their unborn child now becomes Joshua's whole life, but trying to leave the War turns out to be more dangerous than living within it.
This book floored me, it's so good. It's just my kind of book: speculative, chilling, thought-provoking, psychological, tense, gripping, climactic, tragic. Written as a kind of journal of his life - or his life from a certain, recent point - Joshua writes his story directly to Maria, for her to read. I don't think that revealing the baby part of the plot is a spoiler because there is an epigraph at the very beginning that reveals it - for myself, I had already read the blurb for the second book and knew what happens at the end of this one, and that knowledge only added to the incredible layer of tension and tangible threat that rests heavily over the story, making it feel very real. I wanted to share some of that with you, though not all of it - if you want to know, then just read about the sequel, Children of the Underground.
The novel, Joshua's story as told in his own words, opens with a murder. He details his assassination of a woman, a mother of two young children, right outside her house after she returns from work. This whole scene damn near broke my heart. One of the chilling lines is how she doesn't fight him, because she knows she has to die. But these people, all of them, are stuck in their own self-inflicted bubble: there is no reason, no justification, for any of these deaths, but if they admit the truth to themselves then they also have to face the fact that they've been gleefully killing innocent people. Aside from the Soldiers, there are people in Intelligence who gather information and tell the Soldiers who to kill, and manage all the money and weapons and so on (they are not just incredibly well organised but also scarily well funded); the rest live normal lives, going about their business, working regular jobs, having children - the only difference is that they can be killed at any time, once they're over the age of eighteen.
You'd think that the plausibility of it all would sink the novel, that your skepticism and disbelief as a reader would make it fall apart. But the truly scary thing about it is just how plausible it really is. You don't know the inner workings, and you certainly don't know the Why of it anymore than they do, which puts you exactly in Joshua's perspective. The difference is that we are thinkers, critics, analysts, questioners, debaters. We like to think that if we were to learn about this at sixteen, as they do, that we wouldn't just buy into it, that we would demand answers and demand the right to opt out. Except that, for these kids, the War is already personal. They've grown up suspicious. They've already lost so many family members that they're simmering with anger and all it takes is a prod in the right direction, a face to aim their hatred at. The justification that "they are the enemy, they're evil, if we don't keep fighting then they'll win" is flimsy at best, and yet it becomes rhetoric, propaganda, and to question it is to question all the pain, all the loss, all the sacrifices people have already endured. You would be a traitor, a betrayer. They do question it, of course they do, especially because they've never been given a real reason for the War, but in the way of human minds, they talk themselves into a justification that they can live with.
"So, we kill them because they're evil, just like we were taught when we were kids? That's what you're getting at?" "Fuck, man. Do you doubt it?" Jared asked me the question and then he stared at me. If he could have found the doubt inside of me, he would have pulled it out and strangled it to death. "I don't know," I replied. "You really believe that they're evil?" Jared looked out over the waves breaking on the beach. "Well, it's either them or us." I was sick of hearing that, Maria. I was sick of hearing that it was either them or us. I was sick of hearing that it was kill or be killed. Even then, even before I met you, that didn't make sense to me anymore. That's not what Jared was saying, though. What Jared was saying, I had to believe. "So that's it? That's your purpose? Them or us? First to kill is the last to survive? I can't find any meaning in that." "That's not what I said, Joe," Jared replied. His eyes were tight. "Don't twist my words. You asked me if I still believed that they're evil. Yes. Yes, I do. I have no doubt and I have no doubt because there's just too much death for everyone to escape judgement. So it's either them or us, Joe. I'm not saying that it's kill or be killed. I'm saying that either they're evil or we are, because there ain't no way that everyone here is innocent. And I know for damn sure that I'm not evil, Joe. And I know that you're not evil either." He pointed his beer toward me. "I know you. I've known you since before you knew about this War. I'm certain that they're evil because I know that you're not." I had to believe it, Maria. I didn't have any choice. He had to be right. If he was wrong, I was lost. "There's not going to be peace until we win this." [pp.56-57]
That's a long quote to include here I know, but I felt the need to share it all to show the way their logic works. And this is where the truth of the novel shines: the fact is that on both sides of a conflict, everyone believes that they're in the right and the other side is wrong, evil even. Take any war. People don't fight unless they believe in what they're fighting for. The Nazis didn't see themselves as evil: they believed they were fighting evil and making their world a better place (I'm simplifying but work with me here). We just happened to strongly disagree in their vision. It's just that, in a war, innocence (or good and evil, if you believe in it) gets twisted, and the only way regular people can do things they would otherwise be repulsed by is by absolving themselves of responsibility. Jared's words speak to this ability humans have of convincing ourselves that when fighting for a "greater good", killing is necessary. And in war, it's not murder is it.
With a severely black-and-white set-up as this, the story fits well into its American setting, but I can see it working elsewhere too. What really had my brain ticking over - perhaps due to all those cheesy American movies I've seen that inspire thoughts of this - was putting up my own hypotheses. I've no idea what could start this - could be something quite simple and small, in the beginning - but it's almost irrelevant at this point. One thought that occurred to me, though it has holes, is that there aren't actually two sides, but one large group split in two by the Powers That Be (who are unknown), put to fighting each other. That would be devastating, but I don't think that would hold up. The truth is, that both sides are identical. Each is told that the other is the enemy, is evil. Each holds the other to blame, they just don't know it. It's sociopathic, this War. And no one seems to understand or realise that it just can't be won.
Joshua does start to question things a bit, but he's a product of his upbringing and training and the War is his whole life. When Maria tries to express her utter skepticism and disbelief over the whole thing, he reverts to type and just claims that she can't understand because she hasn't experienced it. And that is the way these things go. While reading the book, I kept thinking how analogous it is, representative of conflicts such as Israel and Palestine. When I described the story to my husband, he mentioned another one: Ireland and Northern Ireland. I've always struggled to really get into the headspace of people engaged in these kinds of conflicts because I can't help but see it as a bigger picture, but reading Joshua's story I was able to develop the empathy needed to see how it happens, and how hard - how impossible - it is to end it.
The ending, reading it as a mother of a toddler, was really hard on me. I knew it was coming but that didn't lessen the blow - or block out the details. I just can't imagine what Maria could possibly do next, because even though this War is underground and no one knows about it who isn't a part of it, they're everywhere and so well organised and so secretive, and Maria has nothing: no money, no allies, no leverage. I am so so glad I have the next book ready and waiting for me! I'm glad that she carries the story on in the next book, as we only get to see her through Joe's eyes in this first book and while I liked her a lot and she was well fleshed out, her thoughts remained silent.
For all the action and the violence - and there is graphic violence in this novel, just to warn you if you need it - it's a surprisingly quiet and very tense story. Hanging over it is this growing weight of paranoia - the characters have it, it keeps them alive they say, and you start to get it too. I didn't trust anyone, I expected the worst, and the weight of this endless suspicion wears you down. I love a book where you really live in the world as its described, as the characters live it, and that was very true of Children of Paranoia. I'm just amazed anyone in this War can sleep at night, knowing that after they turn eighteen, anyone can come from them at any time, always when they least expect it. How can you live with that? Ha, spoken by someone who's never lived in a war zone. People adapt. People continue to live as close to a normal life as they can, because what else can you do? And in this War, to give up would be the same as letting the other side win.
Children of Paranoia is intense and gripping and had me glued to the page. A new favourite....more
While their mother recovers from serious burns in a hospital bed in Arizona, thirteen year old Augie and her half-brother, P.J., are being looked afteWhile their mother recovers from serious burns in a hospital bed in Arizona, thirteen year old Augie and her half-brother, P.J., are being looked after by their grandfather, Will, in small-town Broken Branch, Iowa. Their grandmother is with their mother, Holly; it's been decades since Holly has seen her parents, when she left home as a teenager, eager to escape the stifling small-town environment and her parents' cattle farm that she blamed for all her ills. It is the Friday before March break, and Augie and P.J. are looking forward to flying out to see their mother. But when an armed gunman with unknown motives enters their school, causing an immediate lockdown and general panic, everyone starts to wonder whether they'll see their loved ones again.
In Mrs Oliver's grade three classroom, where P.J. sits with fifteen other eight-year-olds, Evelyn Oliver has plenty of time for reflection: to regret wearing a horrendously decorated denim dress one of her students made for her on what could be the last day of her life, and to remember her past, including her first marriage and how she met her current husband, Cal, a tall man with wise words who keeps her grounded. She's been a teacher for several decades years, and in the face of many crises she's always stayed calm, but never before has she had a man with a gun walk into her classroom, threatening the lives of everyone in it.
Meg Barrett, a police officer in Broken Branch, can't help but feel relieved that she let her eight-year-old daughter, Maria, start her holiday a day early. Safely out of the way with her ex-husband, Tim, Meg is able to focus on the hostage situation at the school, and as various locals, many with children at the school, tell her their theories for who could be responsible, she checks them out. Pestered by phone calls and text messages from a former lover and dodgy journalist, Stuart, Meg reflects on how she came to live in this small town, and Stuart's betrayal.
In her hospital bed across the country, Holly Thwaite is kept in ignorance of what's happening at her children's new school. With her face, arms and hands badly burned from a kitchen fire, she has her mother's calm presence and her own thoughts for company. Meanwhile, her father Will Thwaite is just as anxious as everyone else about his grandchildren, and with little information at hand about what's actually going on inside the school, it's easy to imagine the worst. When some of the children manage to escape, Augie decides to remain behind, determined not to leave without her brother.
As the characters move along their separate trajectories towards a final deadly confrontation, the truth is far from what anyone expected.
Told from the perspectives of multiple characters (Holly, Augie, Will, Meg and Mrs Oliver), Gudenkauf is able to cover a lot of ground and share the contrasting, often conflicting, viewpoints of Inside vs. Outside. The chapters are short, giving it a fast, snappy pace, and go back and forth in time as the characters reflect on their own lives, filling in back-story. Augie and Holly tell theirs in first person present tense, while the other three perspectives are told in third person past tense. I tend to find this a little odd and a bit, well, gimmicky. I like consistency, and I didn't feel that there was any real need to have two characters tell their side of the story in present tense, or even first-person narration for that matter. Present tense is designed to add a sense of immediacy and unpredictability to a story, putting you in the here-and-now, but it's often mis-used and if you write it in the same way as you'd write in past tense, as too many writers do, it doesn't work at all. In contrast, ironically, past tense tends to have a stronger sense of immediacy - it all comes down to how you write in it. It's one thing to have multiple narrators, but when you start switching up the narrative style as well, things start to get needlessly messy.
I liked the story, but this wasn't a book that worked for me. It had too much of a telly-movie feel (that's "made for TV" in American-speak), an almost cheesy, Friday-night low-budget flick thing happening. It's partly the subject matter, the plotting, the style and also the format. I connect much better with books when I read them in their physical form, not on an e-reader. That's not Gudenkauf's fault, and I try hard not to let that affect how I read, but it does.
The other problem was expectations. The story opens with a very charged chapter from Holly's perspective, which is actually a chapter from towards the end of the book, repeated at the front to draw you in. It introduces us to a badly burned woman in a hospital, who receives a phone call from her daughter, Augie, who tells her there is a gunman in the school, he has P.J., she is locked in a closet, and then there is the sound of gunshots and Holly screaming. This leads you to expect a very tense, show-down kind of story, something with action and nail-biting chills even. (It also somehow put the idea into my head, perhaps because of the way Augie said the gunman had P.J., that this was a personal thing against Holly. A red herring or just me?) What the story actually is is a more gentle, gradual piecing-together of the lives of certain people in this town. The short chapters somehow clash with this reflective narration, making it hard at times for me to settle into the story. I never knew which way I was going to be pulled next.
But the characters were interesting, and their stories well fleshed-out. Really, the drama of the gunman is just an excuse to explore their lives and mend some bridges. On the mystery side, I guessed the gunman about two-thirds in, because the red herrings were too obvious, but I had no idea what the motive could be. It did seem a little far-fetched, but then people who take guns into schools and threaten small children are not going to be all that rational, are they.
The action takes place over just the one day, but because the characters spend so much time recalling the past, it feels like a much longer span of time. Every time we dipped into the past, it slowed the action in the present down, but to be honest, there wasn't much real action happening in the present anyway. Tension was a bit forced, by having the short chapters and revolving perspectives, and by switching point-of-view at the peak of action. This upset a more natural flow to the story and again made me feel like I was watching a movie on TV, and having to endure ad breaks.
I liked Will Thwaite, Augie's grandfather, a lot. He reminded me a bit of old farmers back home (I grew up on a Tasmanian sheep farm); in contrast, I didn't like Holly much at all. She was still so immature, after all these years, still thinking the same way she had when she left home as a teenager. I felt so, so sorry for P.J., who doesn't know who his father is (neither does Holly) and who just wants to be loved. It always breaks my heart a little when fictional children suffer because of poor adult decisions. The characters kept me reading, and I did want to know what would happen, because it certainly wasn't obvious. In a way, the lack of drama made it more realistic, but there was still a sense of cheap drama to it, perhaps in the way it was told. And perhaps I just don't care as much for these breezy-type books, that do a lot of telling and not so much showing.
Overall, an enjoyable book as long as you don't expect a different kind of story! Reading some reviews beforehand would probably help.
My thanks to Harlequin for a copy of this book....more
Now here's a book that went from an intriguing premise, to gripping me at the first page, to totally taking over my mind - it's definitely going to beNow here's a book that went from an intriguing premise, to gripping me at the first page, to totally taking over my mind - it's definitely going to be one of the best books I've read this year, I can tell you that now. I read this back in March and itched to write a review straight away, but made myself wait till it was next in line - I wish I hadn't now, because my thoughts were so buzzing at the time it would have made a more interesting and energetic review!
It's also a tricky one to review, or summarise, because part of the allure and the utter absorption is in the gradual reveal of the truth, in the not-knowing, in the speculation right from the beginning. So I can't tell you what it's really about, only give you much the same outline the blurb does (which, as I re-read it now, knowing the true story, is actually quite cleverly written in the way it acts upon our assumptions - playing with language is key to this novel, but I'll get to that). Which was enough to pull me in, but others might pass it by due to lack of information.
This is the story of Isserley, who drives back and forth along the Scottish highways looking for hitchhikers. Male, large, preferably unattached hitchhikers. With scars and large hands, her tiny petite frame is topped off by a pair of obviously enhanced breasts that are prominently on display. As she probes her male hitchhikers with casual questions and gets them talking, she quickly assesses whether anyone would really notice - or care - if they suddenly disappeared.
If that doesn't make you wonder about what Isserley's deal is, then you probably wouldn't care for the book. For me, the notion of a woman driving around looking for male hitchhikers to kidnap, is definitely an intriguing one - if Isserley were male, looking for young women, we'd know exactly what to think. But a tiny woman who seems nervous no matter how many times she does this...? I didn't know what to think, and that was part of the initial fun. As the story unfolds and more and more clues are carefully, smoothly revealed, my mind went nuts coming up with theories. Normally, I never make an effort to predict where a story is going - I love the reveal in the hands of a skilled writer, and I don't see reading as a race to be right and outwit the author. I certainly didn't want to outwit Faber; I loved the excitement, the not-knowing, the guessing and revising of said guesses, as the truth became apparent. And "excitement" is just the word for it: it was more fun than being on a roller-coaster! I got a kind of adrenaline rush and found it extremely hard to put the book down, even after the truth came out.
Even after every last truth is out, that's only half the book - by then you're hopefully hooked and in an odd way, sympathetic - at least, I was. I had no trouble identifying with Isserley, if I can use that word. I love being confronted in fiction, and having assumptions turned on their head. While the second half is quite different from the first - and I can't use the genre name I'd like to because that would be leading! - it was equally, if vastly differently, fascinating. I itched to know more and more, and without a doubt by the end I was sympathetic, despite it all. And that only adds to my fascination, because on a reasonable level, I shouldn't be. (Then again, I even found Humbert Humbert strangely sympathetic - in a disturbing way - in Lolita. I actually enjoy being pulled out of my comfort zone, seeing a different perspective - even if it's ultimately "wrong" - and trying to understand a different way of thinking.)
Not being able to "reveal" what's really going on in the novel does make it hard to talk about all the things this book makes me so eager to discuss, especially language. I'm chaffing at the bit here! Under the Skin is such an intelligent novel, hugely thought-provoking and fascinating. I loved the way Faber used language to present an alien - to us - perspective, a different view of things, and turn our own comfort zone, assumptions and sense of righteousness on their head. I've read Fantasy novels (with blends of Sci-Fi) that do the same kind of thing, and they're some of my favourite books in the genre (sadly there aren't many of those around; most are disappointingly generic). For instance, the play on the words "human" and "animal" are hugely confronting and rather mind-bending, and really highlight the power of words, language and our ownership of them.
I wish I could go into it in more details but always when I write reviews I'm conscious of wanting to give others the opportunity to experience books the way I do, to start a book with a sense of anticipation and wonder and let the story tell itself, rather than have a reviewer's words tell them what to think and expect. So as much as I want to keep talking about this fantastic book - which, I must emphasise, is truly weird and not everyone's cup of tea - I will stop here....more