Tuesday’s Reviews – The Fireman by Joe Hill

books, death, post-apocalyptic, reviews, Stephen King, well written

I’ve been ill the last few days so have basically been in bed since Sunday. Until today I’d barely spoken to another human being and have simply had the people on Netflix to keep me company. I’d love to say that I used my time to get some reading done but, I was so tired, I found it difficult to concentrate on the words on the page. I’m only a few chapters into The 7th Function of Language but I’m really looking forward to getting further. One of my most anticipated works for 2017. Hopefully, I’ll get my reading groove back and finish it soon. God know’s it’s taking me long enough to get to the end of novels these days. Although, I have finally finished another book and it only took me about 3 weeks. That still feels like far too long but it was a bloody long book. It average out as 40 pages a day, which still doesn’t feel like enough to me. How do people get into the habit of reading? I always find myself getting into a Netflix spiral and realising it’s far too late to start reading. And I don’t read at work because there are always too many people in the staff room. Anyway, the fact is I finished something and that is reason to celebrate. I always have another book to review and I’ve decided I need to include more book reviews on this blog. I am a badass Motherbooker after all.

You know, I feel kind of bad for Joe Hill. Not only has he, in only 3 novels, set himself up to be a big name in the future of horror fiction but he has done so having Stephen King as his father. You can imagine how often his books are compared to the ones his dad has released. I have even found myself guilty of describing this book as his version of The Stand. It’s a stupid and really unhelpful way to do as, despite sharing genes, the two have very different styles. Both are hugely talented writers but take on the horror genre in their own way. Hill is approaching from a more modern and creative way than the classic style his father has always favoured. So, this will be the last time that I mention King in this review. Well, hopefully the last time. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.

I have had my eye on The Fireman for a while now but, having seen how fucking huge the hardback is, I kept putting it off. Still, I needed something to read on my way back from London and only had my Kindle. It was the one eBook that I really wanted to read and I’m glad I did. Despite being an epic novel, The Fireman hardly ever felt like much of slog. It is based around the fantastic premise that a spore has been created that eventually causes people to die when they spontaneously burst into flame. It’s a horrifying idea that quickly leads to an utter breakdown of society. Those infected with ‘dragonscale’, as it is universally known, find themselves covered in black and gold markings making it impossible to hide. The rest of society become scared and eventually “cremation crews” start rounding up and disposing of the unclean. Those who are infected must do everything they can to survive… at least until they set on fire anyway.

The story follows a twenty-something nurse, Harper, who tries to use her talents to help people at the start of the outbreak. She is a kind, caring and sweet young woman who is a bit too obsessed with Mary Poppins and Disney films. She is happily married to Jakob, a writer, until the moment she first spots evidence of the spore. Instead of ending her life as she and Jakob had initially agreed to, Harper chooses to survive once she learns she is pregnant. Unfortunately, Jakob  has succumbed to the hysteria that has also infected society and decides Harper must die. Thankfully, the heroic Fireman, a mythical figure who has gained a reputation for saving the infected, gets Harper to the safety of a commune for the infected. But she finds herself getting herself into more danger as she gets closer to her due date.

The Fireman is one of those frustrating novels that gets you hooked on how well written and exciting the premise is. Hill manages to create the massive effects of the apocalypse in a quick and efficient way. He approaches it in a way that “normal” people probably would and shows us the horrors using public figures and celebrities. It’s easy to understand the enormity of the issue when you see JK Rowling getting shot, George Clooney bursting into flames and the White House burning down. The The only problem is, the rest of the novel tends to crawl along as the scope of what Hill is trying gets a bit out of control. Part of me loves that he doesn’t follow the traditional post-apocalyptic theme and spends a lot of time staying in one place. However, it could be a bit tighter and the ending could have been a little less obvious. Fairly early on, you know where the novel is going to end up but it takes so fucking long to get there.

Which would be fine if the characters were compelling enough to make it easy to ignore. Hill masterfully juggles a whole host of players in his line-up but none of them really make much of an impact. The titular Fireman has his moments but you never quite see why he deserves everyone’s love and respect. Then there’s Harper who quickly becomes an annoying parody and is far too repetitive. I spent most of the time wishing she could stand up for herself and show some real fire. She is a follower despite how much she tries to be a leader. I find it highly unlikely that she would have survived the situations she finds herself in. She, like Hill, is too preoccupied with her pop culture references to always grasp the true nature of the apocalypse in front of her.

However, I ultimately enjoyed The Fireman and, despite a fairly underwhelming ending, I enjoyed the lack of neat conclusion. Compared to something like The Road, Hill manages to give us constant glimpses of hope and love even in the end of days. There is always a glimmer of light along the way but that doesn’t mean that there should be a contrived and final ending. He is Stephen King’s son after all…. ah fuck.

Tuesday’s Reviews: The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion

books, fucking funny, meh, reviews, romance, well written

I read The Rosie Project about a year ago I think and I did quite like it. I wasn’t sure I would because a girl at work who really doesn’t have the same reading tastes as I do was raving about it. It turned out to be a pretty adorable romantic-comedy. However, I wasn’t exactly sure about it’s representation of Asperger’s. I liked that it showed the potential for love and typical relationships but also felt it was kind of romanticised. In the same way the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope irritatingly draws up this image of a wild and free young woman who will turn a young man’s life upside down, The Rosie Project presented Autism as another thing women should be adding to their lists of desires in a mate; like it was something up there with good sense of humour or ability to put the toilet seat down. I understand that Autism doesn’t mean a person can live a “normal” life but I felt that it was treated more like a quirk than a real issue. Whilst The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time explored the consequences of Asperger’s The Rosie Project just used it as a gimmick. So I never read the sequel. However, I was intrigued enough by Simsion’s writing to be excited by his first non-Don Tilman related novel: The Best of Adam Sharp. It took me a while to get through because I’m easily distracted and useless but I’ve finally done it.

The Best of Adam Sharp introduces us to Adam Sharp, a middle-aged database expert whose real passion is the piano. He has settled into a comfortable but unremarkable relationship with Claire and the pair live quite happily in their childless existence. Until a blast from Adam’s past stirs up some feelings he’d pushed to one side. 20 odd years earlier, Adam was consulting in Australia and, somehow, managed to meet aspiring actress Angelina Brown. They end up having a short-lived but passionate love affair until the pair went their separate ways. Cut to the present day when a single-word email reminds Adam of what he’s been missing all of these years.

I picked this novel up without hesitation because I like the themes the narrative is based around. Looking back into your own past and wondering about how different your life could have been is something everyone without the luxury of youth and limited responsibility can understand. Regret and the idea of lost love are universal themes so it seemed that Simsion would be on safe ground. Surely, if his writing in The Rosie Project was anything to go by, he’d be able to bring some humour and fresh insight into the equation. Which, to be fair, he does. This is an often shrewd and funny look at the life of a middle-aged man who has some big questions to ask himself.

The Best of Adam Sharp is not a quaint and happy little read full of nice and good people. This is a long and drawn out story about people who make morally questionable decisions all the time. The characters here feel more real than the ones we meet in The Rosie Project but you will find yourself loving them less. I’ve seen a lot of GoodReads reviews of this book criticising the awful characters which is super irritating. Real people are dicks. It’s much more interesting to read about these character than the non-existent kind who never do or think anything selfish. They are, in the style the author has created in his previous 2 books, very well written and developed. We learn a fair amount about these characters and what makes them tick. You won’t always agree with them but, at least, you’ll understand them.

My major issue with the novel is the narrative structure and pacing. The first half of the story flits back and forth between Adam’s present life and his past with Angelina in Australia. I’ve never been a fan of these time splits and, here more than ever, it feels kind of grating and unsettling. However, it is in these sections that the narrative itself flies. We learn more about the characters and the mapping out of Adam’s two key relationships is beautifully realised. The way Adam relates his memories to the music he was influenced by at the time presents a fantastic theme throughout the book. What Simsion does remarkably well here is understand the deep impact music, and indeed all culture, has on a person’s life.

The novel reaches decidedly shaky ground during the second half when, after plenty of soul-searching, Adam goes to stay with his ex and her husband in France. The plot here gets decidedly dicey and falls well into what I can only refer to as soap-opera scenarios. These scenes are definitely the weakest of them all and it feels a little laboured and unnecessary at times. However, it leads to a fantastic finale where the themes finally come together and we all get the payoff we deserve. A lot of people who loved The Rosie Project won’t love this book because it isn’t all hearts and flowers. It deals with a lot of “grown-up issues” in a darker and more adult way. It tackles difficult questions about regret, desire and love. It introduces us to a flawed man who needs to find the right balance between the love he hears about in songs and the kind of connection that works in the real world. It’s not perfect but it’s a fantastic read.

Tuesday’s Reviews – The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

animation, books, debut novel, friendship, reviews, well written, women

Way back on New Year’s Eve 2016 I posted my list of most anticipated novels of 2017. On them was this debut novel by Kayla Rae Whitaker about two female friends and business partners. It sounded amazing and the reviews suggested it was something to pay attention to. I bought it not long after it’s release at the end of January but didn’t actually start reading it until well into February. At first I sailed through it and couldn’t get enough. I was on holiday so had time to indulge myself and read chapters at a time without any real worries. However, those of you paying attention to my recent That’s What She Read rundowns will know that it took me a long time to finish the novel. The last few chapters just took me ages to get through but I’m happy to say that I finally got to the end last week. It was a great day and I can now get on to one of the many other books that have been piling up for weeks. As I have not watched anything new this week and because I haven’t done a good old fashioned book reviews in ages, today’s review is going to be a rather terrible overview of this book. Apologies in advance.

The Animators is a novel that is concerned with relationships; or at least with one specific relationship. It tracks the first meeting of Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught and follows their journey from art school students to the creators of a surprise hit film and beyond. Sharon and Mel are both from the rural south and have difficult family histories. They also both share an intense passion for weird and trippy cartoons, having spent their childhoods escaping reality in front of their television screens. As we have so often seen before, their pain is channelled into a more creative stream as they discover a love of drawing. After meeting in class, the two women form an intense friendship and, thanks to their combined talent and compatible personality traits, form an unstoppable working partnership. Mel is the front woman; the showman who gets the ideas started, enjoys the party and flakes out on the responsibilities. She is the fun loving one who would rather spend her nights combining drugs, alcohol and loose women than preparing for panel talks or interviews. Sharon is the sensible one who worries about things and tries desperately to get her friend to stick to the schedule.

Skipping over their formative years, we catch up with the pair as their first feature length animation, based on Mel’s childhood years, has become a smash hit and everyone wants a piece of them. Everything looks set in place for the duo to become stars until a series of personal tragedies befall both women and they find their relationship challenged to breaking point. Although, somewhere within the chaos comes the inspiration for their next project. When Sharon remembers a childhood trauma that had long stayed hidden, Mel pushes her to confront her demons and examine herself and the choices she has made. The novel asks the questions ‘how can you move past a harrowing experience before you possess the maturity to understand and process it? Sharon begins to understand that for much of her life she has been running from the darkness she uncovered as a child and, using her creativity, plans to find the light in amongst it all.

Depsite taking me a fucking age to finish, The Animators is a really well written book. Whitaker has a great ability to write realistic and readable dialogue and she has created a beautiful friendship between two complex and interesting women. She takes an idea that has been used before (the road to fame and the inevitable soul searching that comes with it) but gives it a new spin by filling it with damaged and recognisable women. The characters of Mel and Sharon are both perfect. It offers a genuine dynamic between two modern women where neither are forced to live up to the expected ideals of femininity. The two women are comfortable around each other in a way that you don’t often seen represented accurately. It is a tender but difficult relationship that, as a reader, you can’t help but adore and worry about.

However, there are some aspects of Whitaker’s novel that highlight the naivety as a debut novelist. There is a lot going on in this novel and the author attempts to deal with a variety of issues. Quite frankly, she tries to do too much and doesn’t quite pull it off. Motifs and messages are repeated several times so you kind of feel as though you’re being beaten around the head with the moral of the tale. Sometimes things start to feel disconnected and subplots are given greater focus than they deserve. Just when you think everything has been thrown at this book already, the writer comes back with something new. There are times when the pace drags and it becomes something of a slog. It is a testament to Whitaker’s writing that you want to carry on regardless. It’s not a problem but an age old trap that so many first time novels fall into. Whitaker’s story just about has the strength to pull itself out before the narrative comes to an end.

My major gripe for this novel, however, is the constant need to describe sequences of animation in great detail. I understand that the art in question plays a key role in the story and the lives of the characters. However, there is something discomforting and unappealing about reading vast descriptions explaining what’s going on in both real and imagined animated films. I understand that Whitaker (as well as her two protagonists) are both animation nerds but it felt kind of unnecessary to share an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of cartoons. That’s almost a Simon Pegg level of showing off.

Still, I really enjoyed The Animators. It was a great read by a new writer. It was a confident, funny and intelligent debut that has only made me excited to read more by Whitaker in the future. To say that it had flaws is not a problem. If trying too hard and being too eager to please is something to get worked up about then there is something wrong with us. I mean really, if you edited down some of the middle section to make it a little less indulgent then I’d definitely be more than happy.