Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book review: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Sometimes the answers we’re looking for and that which we hope for lies in the very thing we fear the most.

Disclaimer:
A shortened version of this review also appears on Women24.com, a South African women's lifestyle website where I manage, amongst other things, an online books section.


The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (Orbit)
M.R. Carey’s Girl with All the Gifts is one of the most thought-provoking and gut-wrenching dystopian thrillers I’ve read this year so far.

It’s a novel that explores the heart of a rag-tag group of people and their will to survive in a world shot to hell and it’s a book that pushes boundaries in terms of the ethics versus science debate.

It’s literature that is at once filled with beauty, while at the same time highlights the shabby condition of humanity - both physically and emotionally.

Mostly though, it’s a book that at its core is filled with so much heart and is so beautifully written, that you’ll be haunted by its contents for years to come.

The Girl with All the Gifts is the story of Melanie.

Melanie is a precocious little girl.  She’s clever, insatiably curious and is, by all rights, as normal as they come.

Except that she’s not.

You see, when’s she collected from the cell she resides in, she’s strapped in by two men, while the leader, Sergeant Parks, points a gun at a head. She accepts this even if she doesn’t quite understand it.

She even jokes that she won’t bite.

And while there is a revelation that is on the edge of waiting to be revealed, what Melanie doesn’t realise is that she actually can bite, and that given the right circumstances it seems to only be inevitable that she will.

Will she survive the condition that she lives with? Or will she succumb to the relentless hunger and emotionally brainlessness that plague others of her kind?

I first received an early review copy of The Girl with All the Gifts towards the end of last year. 

The tagline on the cover (the final cover doesn’t have this line on the front jacket) read as follows: “Melanie has a gift for us all. But it’s a secret.”

Now with a line like that, it’s hard not to be intrigued. When I read the blurb, I was even more sold on the concept.

With a deliberately vague description in the summary, I pretty much went into this book without really knowing what to expect.

When I closed the last page of the book, I came out feeling haunted by the events, but also strangely sad and uplifted at the same time.

In short, The Girl with All the Gifts is a book that I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.

Beautifully descriptive, while being simultaneously stark and bleak, this book is a zombie novel with so much beauty and heart amidst all the desolation.

Forget all the previous ones you’ve read – this book takes on the ethics of experimenting on live subjects and manages to evoke a sense of kinship with the high functioning non-humans, of which Melanie just so happens to be one.

In this book, the characters we get to know are as follows:

- Melanie: one of the many children being held at a military base – a kind of human battery farm if you will),

- Sergeant Eddie Parks: one of the main leaders in charge of patrolling the base and ensuring that everything runs smoothly), 

- Helen Justineau: the teacher whom Melanie comes to love, and

-Caroline Caldwell:  the ruthless scientist who, while searching for a cure for the zombie plague, doesn’t hesitate to use the highly-functioning “hungries” as experiments  to further her research).

- Kieren Gallagher: right hand to Sergeant Parks 

When a breach of the military control results in complete and utter chaos, this rag-tag team find themselves escaping into the wilderness in search of safety.

Of course, given that they’re in a post-apocalyptic world that’s been overtaken by a zombie plague, the concept of safety is a luxury. 

With very little food, weapons and having to deal with Melanie, whom they don’t trust given her nature, their journey to finding a safe harbour is fraught with tension, inevitable clashes and moments of deep despair.

In spite of this, what follows is an interesting journey, one that will have you cheering wholeheartedly for Melanie, high-fiving the take-no-crap-from-anyone Helen Justineau, reluctantly respecting the eminently practical Sergeant Parks, feeling sympathy for the green-as-grass Gallagher, while outright loathing Dr Caldwell. 

Melanie is a little darling of a girl.

She’s tough, resourceful and falls under the incredibly high-functioning scale of hungries (low scale being the ones who have no capability to feel any human emotion and only respond to scent triggers that alert them to prey).

Melanie is a girl who needs to eat flesh, but doesn’t want to. And it’s this that sets her apart, even though Parks, Gallagher and Caldwell are wary of her.

Her relationship with Helen is an added dynamic that humanises her and results in her being fiercely protective of Justineau in the midst of the worst kind of danger.

It takes a while but she eventually manages to reach an understanding with both Parks and Gallagher.

Caldwell on the other hand, is one of the most infuriating characters in this book. While I found myself with a modicum of understanding for the research work she wanted to do, my feelings were tempered by her selfish, ruthless and calculated coldness.

Her desire to get her hands on Melanie, at times, overrode her desire for everyone’s safety. 

There’s an interesting mythological element that plays a huge part in the conclusion of the book. It’s something that at first seems so insignificant when mentioned, but makes for an interesting twist at the end.

With that said, I really could go on and on about this book, but in the end, this is a book that needs to be experienced, and not read via review osmosis.
 

Do yourself a favour – pick it up. It might just become your new favourite book. I know it certainly is mine.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Guest review: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

In which my boss and erstwhile boss team up to review the latest book from Caitlin Moran (They’re both huge fans. Ahem, Sam, Lili? While you’re at it, can one of you please return the book so that I can read it?).

Disclaimer: Please note that this review first appeared on Women24.com. 

If you haven’t read Caitlin Moran yet, brace yourself, because it’s time. And if you already love Caitlin Moran, you’ll love How to Build a Girl. 

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (Ebury)

If you love Caitlin Moran you'll love How to Build a Girl. I do, and I did.

The problem is – as is often the problem with columnists turned novelists – it’s a stretch to call it a novel.

A chubby girl growing up on a British housing estate, in a huge, funny family prone to drink and dependant on social benefits?

A girl who, donning a ridiculous top hat, then breaks into the London music reviewing scene?

The similarities to Moran’s own life are impossible to miss and in some areas it feels as if Caitlin just changed her own name to Johanna.

The novel so closely follows the path of her own life, that you feel the only substantive change she really made was to brush up her family memories with snappier dialogue and perhaps a little extra paternal drinking.

That said, it’s a warm, lovely read. As a chubby, smart, angst-ridden but practical chick myself… there are few things cooler than relating completely to the women in the books I read. Which is why Moran is such a fucking icon.

- Sam Wilson


Like Sam, I adore Moran. She’s smart, she’s cool, she’s wickedly open about taboo topics like female masturbation and promiscuity, and reading her generous, snappy, warm prose is like having a conversation with your best friend.

Her first book, How to be a Woman, was a delight from start to finish. In her semi-biographical (she calls it a work of fiction, but there are extreme similarities to her own life – either way, it’s rollicking) novel she tackles growing up and, oh how I hate this phrase: coming of age.

Reviewer’s have likened it to a female Portnoy’s Complaint (mostly, I think because of all the masturbation) and many are praising her for writing so openly, and so warmly about the specific challenges that girls face when they grow up.

In How to Build a Girl Moran tells the story of Johanna, a fat, funny teenager growing up in Wolverhampton estate housing with her large, rowdy family.

Johanna realises that her life is not up to snuff and decides to build a new persona. Teaching herself to drink, smoke, wear funny clothes, and experiment with sex, Johanna soon finds that maybe building a girl is not that simple.

- Lili Radloff

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book talk: 7 Things I wish non-readers would stop saying to readers

To us bibliophiles, books are the thing that make us happiest. For a few hours, the world we become immersed in, takes us away from the everyday stresses of life. We become the characters in the book.

We live the lives they live and we experience the world through their eyes. And then real people intervene.


But not only do they interrupt our actual reading, (which in itself is very annoying to readers), they interrupt in ways that can be even more infuriating.

It’s time for them to stop.

So I did the only thing a kind book lover can do. I made a list of the things you need to stop telling (or asking) us, along with answers to your burning questions.


In no particular order, here they are:

1. Why do you read so much?
 


Because reading fuels the imagination, is the best form of escapism and provides us with the cheapest means of travel.

It’s also our way of switching off from the world when our grasp on reality is on the verge of disintegrating altogether.

And tell me you don’t want or need an escape from all the depressing news you see on a day-to-day basis? I don’t know about you, but reading keeps me from breaking down when everything becomes too much. 


2. Don’t you have a social life?
 


I do actually. I just don’t have one where you’re in it.  Also, what makes you think we don’t have lives?

We live several thousand, while you only live one.


To quote my writer friend, @hellioncat: “My social life takes me to grand balls, to thieves' dens, to brothels, to hell and the future and past. I'm sorted, thanks.”  


Believe it or not, I was asked this question while I was browsing for books AT THE LIBRARY.


To be fair, the rather obtuse person who asked me this was trying to sell me some wares of some sort.
 
I mean no literature lover would ask a fellow book addict this question, right? 

3. You have too many books. Why don’t you just give some away?
 

Never, ever say this to a bibliophile.


Firstly, you’re making the assumption that we don’t donate our books (which we do). Secondly, I bought most of my books, so I get to decide whether or not I should keep them or give them away.


My money. My books. 


4. How do you manage to read books that are so lengthy?
 


Oh, that’s easy. I turn the pages and read page by page, right until I’ve run out of book to read.  Frankly, for most readers, the case is the lengthier the read, the better.

It means we get to stay in the book universe that much longer. 


5. So, I bet you read because you have way too much time on your hands
 


Actually, many of us don’t. We simply make time. Just like you make time to do the things that you love. 

6. Didn’t you already read that book?
 


Yes I did. But I want to read it again. So what? Don’t you like doing things you love over and over again? 

7. Why do you buy paperbacks when you also have an e-reader?
 


Because loving something obviously means you can find different ways in which to appreciate it.

It turns out, I'm not the only one who feels this way. Check out this post from a reader on Bookriot who compiled her own list of 10 Obnoxious things people say to hardcore readers.


What is the most annoying thing a non-reader has ever said to you?I'd love to hear some of yours - grumble away. :)


Disclaimer:
This column originally appeared as part of Women24’s monthly book club newsletter. Keen to receive this as a monthly newsletter in your own inbox? You can subscribe here.