Book Review: Geekerella

Geekerella, by Ashley Poston, is a contemporary retelling of the story of Cinderella with the eponymous heroine cast as a lonely fandom nerd. Aimed at young adult readers it explores a world influenced by social media updates and special interest blogging; where fan fiction, cosplay and science fiction conventions provide outlets for those who feel alienated by what the cool kids and aspirational adults regard as desirable.

Ellie Wittimer lives with her dead father’s second wife, Catherine, and Catherine’s two daughters, Cal and Chloe. These three mock Ellie for expecting that she could ever make anything of herself. While she works on a fast food van, coming home to cook their meals, they socialise at an upmarket Country Club where the girls play tennis in the hope of gaining college entry. They encourage their friends to join them in putting their step-sister down.

Ellie has been miserable since her parents died. She cherishes the fond memories she retains of watching every episode of Starfield, a classic sci-fi series, over and over again with her dad, Robin, and then writing related fanfiction for him to read. Robin Wittimer founded the ExcelsiCon, an annual sci-fi event still held in LA. Ellie’s parents would go each year, cosplaying as Prince Carmindor and Princess Amara from the Starfield series, taking young Ellie along to soak up the atmosphere.

There is to be a reboot of Starfield and Ellie is wary of what will be done to something so important to her and other cult followers. When she hears that teen hearthrob, Darien Freeman, is to be cast as Carmindor she is horrified, unaware that he too is an informed and passionate fan. She writes cuttingly of him on her blog, which suddenly gains an increase in readership.

The story alternates between Darien’s story and Ellie’s. As part of his promotion for the Starfield film Darien will be required to attend ExcelsiCon and judge the cosplay competition. In an attempt to get out of this role, in which he would have to stick to his professional brand, he tries to contact the organisor. He ends up texting Ellie who still uses her Dad’s old phone. Without knowing who the other is they are drawn to each other. Communications continue, offering an escape from their unsatisfactory lives.

When Ellie decides to go behind her step-mother’s back and enter the cosplay competition she hopes to meet this unknown boy with whom she now feels such an affinity. Her carefully laid plans hit problems when Cal and Chloe decide to attend ExcelsiCon too.

I was surprised at how well this cast of characters fitted with the traditional story. Despite knowing what must happen the author creates tension and emotion as both Ellie and Darien push back against parental binds. The rarefied world of celebrities and their fans of fame are well evoked alongside the escapist geeky world in which Ellie resides.

An enjoyable romp that remained engaging and entertaining throughout. I pondered the issues raised of family loyalties given the modern, western world’s often complex households. The importance of standing up for kindness and friendship offer lessons all would benefit from learning.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk Books. 

Book Review: One Little Mistake

onelittlemistake

One Little Mistake, by Emma Curtis, starts out as a comfortable, middle-class, smug mummy story but soon morphs into something a great deal more sinister. It focuses on a small clique of aspirational young marrieds who mostly know each other from the school gate. They help each other out with emergency childcare and provide eager, listening ears over coffee or glasses of wine. They admire each other’s home projects aimed at increasing resale value as much as providing congenial living space. They share gossip and offer sympathy whilst feeling both superiority and resentment about their own lives.

Vicky Seagrove has three healthy children, a supportive and loving husband, and a newly renovated home, yet still she wants more. When she is tempted to indulge in an affair she shares this sordid secret with her best friend, Amber. Although promising to keep it to herself, Amber is not impressed with such behaviour. Vicky has everything Amber aspires to but cannot quite acquire. When Vicky’s poor judgement puts one of her children at risk, Amber decides she can use her friend’s fear of being found out, especially by her husband, to her advantage.

Amber and Vicky have been close since meeting at their first NCT class and are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. Amber is possessive of her friend and is piqued when Vicky spends time with Jenny, a young mum new to their neighbourhood. When Amber and Vicky both decide they would like to buy the same rundown house as a doer upper, their friendship is put under strain.

Vicky is naive and trusting but as dark undercurrents bubble to the surface even she begins to question Amber’s loyalty. She is shocked and embarrassed when her friend asks for help with a down payment. She does not anticipate that money is the least of her blessings that Amber intends to take.

Interspersed with the unfolding tale of potential domestic crisis is a story set eighteen years before. A young girl has lost her mother to a drugs overdose and ended up in care. She is uncomfortable with the family who foster her, fixating on her social worker as a potential parent. She finds that her desires are deemed unreasonable and her fears ignored.

The final third of the book is pure psychological thriller. The denouement is masterfully played. The outcome may be extreme, but in this rarefied world it seems love and loyalty rely on self interest. This is an engaging and darkly entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan. 

Book Review: God Future

God Future, by David Quiles Guilló, is described on the publisher’s website not as a story but as a premonitory vision. It is an example of abstract literature which I would recognise as experimental prose. The book has no page numbers, chapters or headings. There are no capital letters and no punctuation. The stream of words can at times appear incoherent, yet by persevering there is meaning to be gleaned.

Its title page describes it as “a very strange book” and it is dedicated “to everyone who will never attempt to read it”. I did. As an ordinary if voracious and somewhat eclectic reader, these are my thoughts.

There are three entities interfacing, named as one, two and three. Whatever conciousness they have is related as system process. Thoughts are streamed as they reshape concepts to search out meaning. It reads as a mixtape of mind riddles, an attempt to make sense of human living.

To go outside is to downgrade a firewall. Misunderstandings are unsolved equations. Death is a device lost. Interactions require synchronicity and compatibility. Secure connections are advised. Hackers abound. There is a warning to “be very careful when downloading feelings”. There is much superfluous code.

Upsets in relationships require reboots but without reconfiguration data traffic may cause further system crashes. There can be “strong emotional reactions as updates occur”. Single player mode is possible but rare in the longterm. Sound is everywhere, silence loud. The presentation of a device can be altered but matters less than software.

This is the “doomed human condition” described in technology speak. There is depth to the ideas presented if one can extract them from the conceptual narration. In this I would say I was partially successful.

In many ways I approached this book as I would poetry – trying to work out what is going on, what is clever and what hopelessly opaque to someone with my abilities. When I had finished I checked to see how it is described elsewhere. The author writes that his book is:

“The apocalyptic view that the only three living entities are the ones that survived inside the autonomous internet of things, and where fate of consciousness relies on them to communicate, and communication depends in figuring out how to use all the data that humans left behind many centuries ago.”

I had understood some of this, although figuring out how to make sense of many of the convoluted strings of words was at times a challenge. It is an interesting idea and a strangely satisfying puzzle to attempt to solve. It is not by any stretch an easy read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Gone Without A Trace

Gone Without A Trace, by Mary Torjussen, is a psychological thriller that takes a while to get going but ends up packing an almighty punch. Set in and around the Wirral Peninsula in Northern England, its protagonist is a young and ambitious professional woman, Hannah, who lives with her boyfriend, Matt, and socialises with a group of similarly minded friends. She is closest to Katie who she has known since childhood. They have a competitive relationship, likening themselves to the sisters neither of them have.

When the book opens Hannah is returning from a training course in Oxford where she has been commended by her employers for her recent performance and told to expect the promotion she has been working towards for some time. Happy and excited she is eager to share this news with Matt, picking up champagne on her way home to enable them to celebrate. After a long drive she opens their front door and immediately realises something is wrong. Every trace of Matt’s occupation has been removed. She has been left no explanation.

What follows is shock, distress, despair and then determination. Hannah discovers that Matt’s phone number is no longer available. He has left his job and removed himself from all social media. He has not just left her but also disappeared. She can find no one who knows where he has gone.

Hannah will not give up. She sets out to track Matt down, believing if she can talk to him he will want to return. Her work suffers and her friends worry but she refuses to be deterred. When she starts to receive texts from unknown numbers and realises that someone has been in her house when she is not there, she believes Matt is behind the intrusion and will not be persuaded otherwise.

I couldn’t empathise with this Hannah. For a successful, professional woman she seemed blinkered and irritatingly unable to face reality. She did not seek time off work despite recognising her performance was now well below par. I struggled to push through this section of the book.

The shocking explanation, when it eventually came, made sense of most of what had gone before. The pace picked up, the tension rose and the denouement was impressively constructed with a chilling finish.

Narrated in the first person, this was not a comfortable read but explores interesting topics. Before knowing why, Hannah’s dogged determination to find Matt and the personal cost she seemed willing to pay came close to making me set the book aside. I am glad that I persevered.

I am somewhat reluctant to recommend a book that I struggled with in part, yet the ending made the reading worthwhile. There are complex issues to ponder, not least how much support friends can be expected to offer. Once understood, Hannah is a fascinating creation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Deadly Game

Deadly Game, by Matt Johnson, is the second book in the author’s Robert Finlay series of crime thrillers. I review its predecessor, Wicked Game, here. This latest instalment contains all the intrigue and adrenaline inducing action that made the first book so compelling. It is another ‘just one more chapter’ type of read.

There are a large cast of characters to get to know from the army, police, and intelligence services as well as the victims and bad guys central to the action that unfolds. The theme is one of international sex trafficking but includes an investigation into historical middle eastern terrorist activity, with a potential link to Finlay’s past.

The story opens in Romania where a cold and hungry young village woman is putting herself forward for a lucrative job in the city. This offers an explanation as to how traffickers obtain their human cargo. The action then jumps forward a couple of years to the aftermath of 9/11 and the final report into events recounted in Wicked Game. A job must be found for Finlay who is suffering PTSD. He has crossed the radar of both MI5 and MI6. The police consider him a liability.

To get him back to work Finlay is assigned to a new unit being set up by The Met to investigate European sex trafficking. With no experience in the CID he is not a popular recruit. When one of his first assignments results in the discovery of a murder victim he is able to demonstrate his particular talents. He is also recognised by a suspect which puts him in danger.

The early background and scene setting chapters felt bitty in places but this was soon overcome as the ongoing action and pace of progression ensured reader engagement was grasped and maintained. The twists and turns were masterfully presented engineering doubts over who could be trusted and what their end game might be.

Unlike many in this genre I warmed to the protagonist. There are also a slew of strong female characters, there for their skills rather than for the men to win or save.

A full-flavoured addition to a series that I look forward to following further. This was an immersive and entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Deadly Game Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

Deadly Game is published by Orenda Books.

image001

Book Review: Larchfield

Larchfield, by Polly Clark, is an intricately constructed tale of the devastating impact of prejudice and hate. Set over two distinct yet entwined time periods, it introduces the reader to two young poets – Wystan Auden and Dora Fielding. Both have recently had their debut collections accepted for publication but, for personal reasons, have left the supportive circle of the Oxford literary elite to live in the Scottish coastal town of Helensburgh.

The book opens in 1930 when Wystan travels north to take up a post teaching English and French at a small boarding school for boys, named Larchfield. His part in the tale is loosely based on known facts. The reader will know him as W.H. Auden and he wrote The Orators during the two years he spent in this place. The poem is a meditation on paranoia and repression set in Helensburgh. The author also lives here and mined her experiences to portray the suspicion with which those regarded as outsiders are treated.

Alternate chapters follow modern day Dora, recently married and expecting her first child, who moves to a seafront apartment constructed when a large house, once owned by a wealthy shipbuilder, was divided up into more affordable living spaces. Dora’s husband, Kit, was raised in Scotland and has an involving job as an architect so is easily accepted. Bereft of her friends and facing the challenges of new motherhood, Dora struggles with the local’s expectations of how she should behave.

Kit and Dora live below an elderly couple, Mo and Terence, who are popular members of the community and church. Dora finds her neighbours’ blatant antagonism difficult to bear. Kit is sympathetic but believes his wife is over reacting. When the health professionals also berate her, making thinly veiled threats for the choices she makes in caring for her child, Dora seeks solace in escape.

Wystan is barely coping with the legally required suppression of his desires. He visits a good friend in Berlin where their lifestyle is overlooked, but in early 1930s Germany this is about to change. The consequences when an individual will not conform to what an intolerant society considers necessary for the wider good has been proven to be devastating.

The comparative similarities in how Wystan and Dora are treated will be recognisable to any modern mother, as will Kit’s assumptions that his wife’s complaints are overplayed. When both protagonists refuse to back down and act as is demanded, the ramifications, although shocking, seem inevitable.

Like its protagonists, this is a book that does not conform to a standard. The originality is never a challenge as the prose is so satisfying to read. I felt Wystan and Dora’s pain and frustration, their determination to remain true to themselves. As Dora realised early on, belonging requires giving up something of self.

“Dora suspected she had probably never belonged anywhere […] while many thought her shy and brainy to the point of passionlessness, they were wrong. There had been love affairs […] These had always fallen apart at the point where she was expected somehow to change, to accommodate them in some profound way. She never wanted to, enough, and they certainly seemed to have no notion of accommodating her, and her need to scribble and read.”

The plot threads are intense but also entertaining. The writing throughout is utterly captivating. I enjoyed everything about this book but especially how it made me think and feel. It is a literary depth charge that I recommend you read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, riverrun.

Book Review: An Ounce of Practice

This review was written for and first posted on Bookmunch.

Leo Zeilig’s An Ounce of Practice is a sweeping exploration of human connections and a search for meaning beyond mere existence. It is a journey driven by sex, politics and idealism. The flawed characters are radicals fighting for personal freedom and a better way of living. They are striving for a Promised Land, unable to be present and satisfied, unwilling to accept.

The protagonist is Viktor, a member of the teaching staff at a London University where he is prevaricating over completing his PhD. Viktor struggles with his everyday situation and seeks a cause to champion. Having befriended members of the outsourced cleaning staff, many of whom are illegals, he becomes involved in their campaign for worker’s rights. His contribution is to document their protests on his blog.

Through these workplace connections Viktor is put in touch with a group of resistance fighters in Zimbabwe and acquires an interest in their struggle. Eventually he will be coerced into visiting, to gain his ‘ounce of practice’.

In London, Viktor lives with Nina. They embarked on a passionate love affair but soon grew discontented. Viktor has detached himself from Nina’s attempts to facilitate understanding of her needs, leading to rows that drain his energy. Despite moments of clarity when he recognises his flaws they serve only to pull him further into self-contemplation. For all his efforts to make a positive difference in the world, his focus remains on himself. Even their daughter, whom Viktor adores, struggles to maintain his attention.

When Viktor travels to Harare he is perturbed by the crumbling infrastructure and disparate living conditions. He joins a small group of socialists who eagerly pontificate on revolution. He meets NGOs enjoying their pampered lifestyle whilst ‘helping’ poverty stricken locals. He is told of the former socialists who gained power but then grew out of touch, travelling the world fund-raising, always business class.

The sweeping narrative can at times feel bogged down in the details of the radicals’ polemic. It is worth wading through these sections for when the pace once again picks up. The section set in Bulawayo is tense and pivotal, although does little to improve Viktor’s naval gazing and insatiable need for affirmation.

Viktor is not the only conundrum. Biko, the cogent student radical, the future hero of the movement, trades the fine jacket his dying mother worked and saved for a year to buy for a few moments on a sofa with a girl. Details are shared of sweat, phlegm, mucus and semen. The reader is offered little respite from the messiness of being alive.

Although this is partly a tale of a white man’s attempts to save Africans, there is no glossing over the locally endemic corruption. Easy answers do not exist for a problem centuries in the making.

Their flaws may make many of the characters difficult to like but they add depth to the complex personal and political situations.

Any Cop?: There is little to raise the spirits in this tale despite the many well meaning efforts. What it does provide is rich food for thought.

 

Jackie Law