Review of ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma DonoghueI’ve just finished ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue and it was outstanding.  I couldn’t imagine quite how a whole book written from the point of view of a five year old boy would read, but the character of Jack is so engaging and so funny that you want to stay with him, through good times and (very) bad.  The novel uses one of my favourite techniques, that of the unreliable narrator (‘Engleby’ by Sebastian Faulks also has an unreliable narrator).  It’s a tricky feat to pull off; you must be able to describe what is going on for the reader through the misunderstandings of the narrator.  Through Jack’s thoughts and stories about his mother we get a marvellous picture of an amazing woman who brings up her son while incarcerated by a kidnapper.  She creates an imaginary world for him that he believes is real, and for the first half of the book objects like Wardrobe and Rug are hugely important friends for Jack and almost become extra characters in the book.  Jack describes games he and his mother play and most are educational or fun, like Phys Ed.  But then there are games like Scream, which is just another play session for Jack, but we realise with horror that this is one of the ways Ma is signalling, with less and less hope, for help.

Donoghue creates an entirely new universe for Jack, and for us, and when he finally emerges into the Outside we feel just like him – scared, blinking, and confused, seeing the world with new eyes.  This is the skill of ‘Room’, and of literature as a whole.  To take us elsewhere and return us with a new way of seeing.

I’ve just visited to see the interactive plan of Room.  It was quite odd seeing it for real and I actually feel quite shocked because in a very small and virtual way I’ve spent time there…

Writers’ Notes

  • There’s so much I can learn about writing from this book, but the main thing that really stands out is the voice of the narrator.  Jack is so engaging that you just want to spend time with him in his world, even though that world is, for us, horrendous.
  • Donoghue approaches her subject from a fresh, original viewpoint, taking us right inside Jack’s tiny world.
  • Minor characters such as Grandma and Steppa are wonderfully drawn.  They are very human with their own agendas, their efforts to do right and their faults.
  • I love how Donogue can describe momentous things with just a few words.  When Ma stares, or puts her head in her hands, or her eyes go shiny – we understand, without needing to be told more.  With the right words you can write little but say so much.

Review of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

I first heard of Incarceron at the 2010 Winchester Writers’ Conference at a seminar about Young Adult Dystopian fiction.  The premise, a futuristic prison suspended from a keychain, sounded intriguing, and it was the first book that I paid to download on my new Kindle.

IncarIncarceronceron is an absolute joy to read.  It is a winning combination of fantasy, science fiction, elements of horror and the hint of a love story.  The world Catherine Fisher has created is dense and rich with myth; a ravaged moon, a fake world of false protocol and suspended development, and, most amazing of all, a new world created to house half the population: a prison that will nurture and reform its inmates and create a paradise.

But, like all good fictional paradises, Incarceron becomes evil.  A theme in the book is whether the corruption of the prison is caused by itself or by the nature of its inmates – mankind itself.  What is freedom?  Are we imprisoned in our own natures?  Or are we always prisoners of society, no matter if we are inside or out?

The book takes two main strands: it follows Finn, a young prisoner suffering from fits and amnesia, as he attempts to find the mythical exit into the Outside; and Claudia, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, betrothed to a posing prince and, together with her tutor Jared, determined to find out the truth about her father’s work and what happened to the previous prince Giles, who died in mysterious circumstances.  No prizes for guessing who she thinks Giles could be, but there are plenty of genuine surprises along the way as Finn and his companions negotiate an increasingly traumatic and dangerous journey while Claudia risks everything to prove that Prince Giles was imprisoned and should be the rightful heir.

I can’t do justice the book by describing the plot.  The action positively fizzes with drama.  But what makes it really special is the unforgettable characters, especially Finn himself and his oathbrother Keiro, a flawed but magnetic character you can’t help but admire.  The gentle tutor Jared, working quietly against the system, is also a wonderful creation.  And of course the prison itself, Incarceron, is probably one of the most original characters in recent fantasy fiction.

The sequel, Sapphique, brings the story to a nailbiting finale.  Filming of Incarceron will be starting shortly with Taylor Lautner from the Twilight films playing Finn.  My advice is to read the books quickly and experience the real Incarceron for yourself.

Writers’ Notes

In each book I read from now on I will be making notes of how I can learn from the author and improve my own writing.  Catherine Fisher’s work is a brilliant example of how to get everything pitch perfect.

  • Characters – each is an individual with their own flaws.  They act in a way that is true to themselves while still managing to surprise us.  Fisher often places them in situations that challenge them and it is satisfying to watch them react in character as they try to adapt.
  • USP – Incarceron is a wonderfully inventive creation – a living prison gone awry.
  • Worldbuilding – Fisher has created two worlds: the world Inside and the world Outside.  As the books progress we see that the two are not so different after all.  She has created a history and a set of myths but does not fully explain either; instead hints and quotes gradually reveal more about the two worlds.
  • Suspense – the books are full of action and surprise.  Survival is never certain and loyalties are put to the test.  There are no ‘dead spaces’; every incident serves the plot.

Kindle experience

As this was my first e-book experience, I thought I should add a bit about what it was like.  I feel the method suited the book perfectly, being a mixture of new technology attempting to recreate the experience of the old.  My only criticisms are that the formatting was sometimes slightly out, with the odd line finishing half way across the page, and also in the sequel, Sapphique, most of the text appeared in italics until after I had read it, which was a shame as length italics can be irritating, and there were genuine small areas of italics at the beginning of chapters which no longer stood out.  Whether that is a problem with the book or my own settings I am not sure.

Review of ‘Monsters of Men’ (Chaos Walking Book 3) by Patrick Ness

Anyone like me who has just finished the last book of Patrick Ness’s amazing Chaos Walking trilogy will no doubt be experiencing the same symptoms: shock, sadness and a sigh of satisfaction at the perfect ending to what has been a long and exhilarating journey.

Monsters of Men by Patrick NessChaos Walking began with the prizewinning The Knife of Never Letting Go, which introduced us to New World, a freshly colonised planet where a ‘virus’ causes the thoughts of men and animals to be audible to all.  Only women are immune.  The tension caused by this phenomenon results in horrific events.

The story is told in two voices: Todd, a boy settler who is running away, and Viola, the only survivor of a crashed scout ship.  Both are distinctive and real, especially Todd’s raw, uneducated voice which adds to the edgy, urban feel of the books despite their fantasy/SF setting.

Another distinctive feature of the books is the use of different typefaces for the ‘noise’ or audible thoughts of the men and animals, and also occasionally for sounds.  It is rather refreshing to see BOOM! written in giant letters on the page!  The effect aids the reader’s immersion into this strange place and is a graphical reminder of the confusion and, sometimes, madness, that is caused by hearing people’s innermost thoughts.

The villain of the books is Mayor Prentiss, a corrupt leader who at first pursues Todd but then tries to take him under his wing.  Like Todd, we are never quite sure whether the Mayor is telling the truth, and whether he is being cruel to be kind or has been completely corrupted.  The Mayor becomes more and more violent and the action in the book becomes more extreme until by book three we are in the middle of full scale war between two strands of settlers, and then between the settlers and the indigenous people of New World, the Spackle.

Book three also introduces Spackle 1017, or ‘The Return’, as he is known to his people, as a third voice in the narrative.  This is well handled and it was fascinating to see how Ness has built up the community of this telepathic alien race, but I couldn’t help racing through it just to get back to what Todd and Viola were doing.  I also found the battle scenes rather long initially; there is a lot of pressing forwards and retreating, winning and losing, rather than progressing with the plot.

However, half way through I was well and truly gripped.  All I could do was read and read, gobbling up the pages.  Would the Mayor change?  Had he poisoned the women?  Would Viola survive?  Could 1017 ever recover from his terrible experiences?  And could Todd and Viola finally save the current and future inhabitants of New World from total self annihilation?

The ending was perfect, the tone full of wonder, hope and sadness.  Readers, from young adult upwards, should approach the series with a sense of adventure, a brave heart and a strong stomach.  Explosions, attempted genocide, torture, suicide, mind control, murder, love, death, war, peace… Chaos Walking shows humanity at its most extreme.  A fascinating achievement.

Review of Skulduggery Pleasant – Dark Days by Derek Landy

I promised recently to review Skulduggery Pleasant – The Faceless Ones.  Well, time has moved in and I was lucky enough to receive MORE book tokens (thank you, thank you, thank you!) and so I returned to Waterstones to see the best bookshop assistant in the world and get the next book in the series – Dark Days.

Skulduggery Pleasant - Dark DaysFor anyone not familiar with the Skulduggery Pleasant series, each book is a separate adventure but also a continuation of the relationship between the deadpan skeleton detective and Stephanie aka Valkyrie Cain, the teenager who just loves kicking the hell out of zombies, vampires and even more undesirable beings.  In this, the fourth book, Valkyrie spends just a few short pages at home, despite the news that her parents are expecting another child.  She is determined to save the world from present and prophesied evil, and is more than adequate for the task with the help of Skulduggery, Tanith the buxom swordswoman, Ghastly Bespoke the disfigured tailor, China Sorrows the irresistible magical librarian, and various other brilliantly imagined and deftly named characters.  Valkyrie discovers the pains of first love, but also a hint of her possible future destiny – it’s not nice, of course.  Landy doesn’t do nice.   He does action, horror and dark humour – but never nice.  Even when Skulduggery is rescued from eternal torment as the plaything of the Faceless Ones, it takes until almost the end of the book for him to hug Stephanie and say thank you.

Landy takes a risk with this book, as the first ninety pages do not feature Skulduggery at all, and it does feel a little flat until Skulduggery and Stephanie are reunited.  However, after this the magic seems to return and the tension builds as the baddies unite to form a Revenger’s Club and… well, get revenge.  On Stephanie, on the Sanctuary (the seat of power in the magic underworld) and on 80,00 spectators at Ireland’s Croke Park stadium, just to make a point.  As usual there’s some great fight scenes including a chase through a basement of vampires.  There is also a deeper threat running through the story; a being called Darquesse is coming and if you thought things were bad for Stephanie now they are going to get worse – much worse.

Even though it still delivers a punch, the formula has become a little familiar and I imagine that as the fourth book it will only attract readers who have enjoyed the other three.  I admire Landy’s reluctance to include backstory from the previous books but it can sometimes be confusing to remember which villain is which and what their powers are.  And I would have liked Stephanie’s homelife to feature more so I could see how she still manages to juggle life in her two worlds.  Despite these reservations I still thoroughly enjoyed the read, and the stunning discovery Stephanie makes at the end took me completely by surprise, so I’ll definitely be continuing on Valkyrie’s journey.  My 12 year old son has started the first book so it will be interesting to see if he keeps up with the series too.

Review of The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt attracted me at once with its creepy cover showing a sinister wooden doll pointing at a card marked ‘Lies’ while another one marked ‘Truth’ lies beside it.  Essentially it is a breath-snatching chase through a fantasy land where life is hard, people are cruel and dangerous and a toymaker can cut up animals and put their hearts in his creations.

The ToymakerThe two main characters, magician’s helper Mathias and maid Katta, spend most of the book on the run from a vicious, murderous dwarf and his master Leiter, who is searching for a piece of paper that belonged to Mathias’s supposed grandfather.  Their escapes are narrow and both suffer terribly through the book.  There are few sympathetic characters apart from the children; adults are selfish, manipulative and frequently violent.  Without giving too much away, the book ends with the death of one of the main characters.  Taking these points into consideration, I won’t be passing it on to my twelve year old son to read as I think he would find it too distressing, although horror fans of that age will probably lap it up the gory details.

My other concern with this book is the way it ends.  Research online does not reveal it is the start of a series and yet that is exactly how it reads.  There is a late plot development which reveals the real reason behind the chase, but to me it feels too late and so it is unconvincing if this book is to stand alone.  I also feel the title is misleading; again, unless it is the start of a series, the Toymaker does not play much part in the actual story.  I would like to have found out more about Marguerite, the doll who can tell truth from lies, and again she is given prominence on the cover but takes a small part in the actual tale.  I was left feeling frustrated that the plot had really just begun and I was being pushed back out of the story.

The author writes beautifully and he has a real sense for the macabre; the atmosphere is chilling and the escape scenes nail-bitingly thrilling.  A longer book with a resolution, or packaging of the book as the first in a series, would make the experience more complete – although I would still only recommend it for children with a strong stomach and the emotional maturity to cope with a traumatic ending.