Story in brief:
Unseen psychopath with unknown motivations imprisons six completely unconnected people in an underground bunker.
SPOILERS FROM HERE:
Cue starvation, poison gas, mad dogs, rape (I think, as woman naked) strangulation, stabbings with glass eyes shards, putrid septicemia, cannibalism, abandonment to being buried alive in said bunker… etc etc
And one by one they all die, mostly horribly. The End.
Quality of writing: great. The child Jenny, while being the token fragile kid we must protect, still manages enough individuality to make us care. The narrator Linus is interesting, sympathetic, multi-layered and very relatable.
But ultimately, this is an exercise in horror with no real point. Worst, most hopeless and soul-destroying end you can think of? Check. Possible reasons, insight gained? Absolutely none. I know a lot of people loved this book, and I can’t understand why. And I don’t mind dark, in reasonable doses. But the author gives the power to the unknown psychopath with his sadistic manipulations – there is no motive, no why or how – and I just wonder what goes on in the author’s mind, or why he wants to write something like this. Create people the reader cares about – then wipe them out horribly, for no reason. YUK.
It was revolting, and made me cross. Disappointing, that so much talent should be used so poorly. A nasty nasty book.
The initial set-up is interesting – Hayley’s Dad, a vet with PTSD and an alcohol problem, has quit living on the road and moved back to the house in which he grew up, in part so that Hayley can go back to school, get her grades and go to college.
The good things about this book are the prose and the dialogue – Hayley and Finn are almost too witty, a couple of teenaged Oscar Wildes, so maybe not totally believable but very very enjoyable.
I have mixed feelings about this book, because it is very well written and it deals with heavier issues, which is a good thing. So why didn’t I love it?
Hayley as a protagonist is quite negative, not just with her judgmental attitude towards other girls at school but also, particularly, towards Trish. We never get a clear sense of what Trish has done to deserve Hayley’s unadulterated hatred: it seems unreasonable.
Finn is a highly entertaining character but he seems rather a figment of the “I wish there’d been a boy like this at my school” author wish-list imagination. He’s nerdy, incredibly smart, runs the school newspaper – and is also a complete hottie swimmer with dozens of girls lusting after him. Also, his instant and persistent attraction to the repelling and hostile Hayley seems inexplicable.
Some plot developments seem a little cavalierly worked out, like the way the school newspaper thing fizzles out. And themes are introduced, like the family problems of Hayley's friends, which aren't really dealt with properly and don't seem to go anywhere.
Finally, it was a little bit slow for maybe the final third. It could probably have lost a fifth of its length and been a sharper read.
But I would still say it is a well-written, interesting, worthwhile read. 3.5 stars.
This is a deceptively simple read. The title is quite clever – I thought it was just a reference to the body-swap story, but then it turns out that swotty geek Alex Gray has woken up in Philip (Flip) Garamond’s hot athlete body, in the middle of a strange family – who naturally all think he’s acting very oddly.
The plot is therefore simple: Alex/Flip coming to terms with his strange new life, a botched attempt to reconnect with his original family in London, attempting to find answers on the internet and, when he discovers that his original body is in a coma after a hit and run, a desperate sortie to try and reverse this psychic evacuation. Plus coping with a much more complex love life than he’s used to.
The story works because Alex is immensely likeable (all the characters are very well-written: Flip’s witty older sister and Cherry in particular): he’s smart but not a know-it-all at all, searching for answers. Ideas around the mind, soul, and essential human identity are explored, and the way different religions view what has happened to him (none of them believe it). None of this is heavy-handed, and it’s completely believable. There are some comedic moments but mostly I found it quite sad: Rob’s life, for example, was incredibly sad.
The whole concept was handled in a very straight, this-is-really-happening kind of way, right down to the end where emails from different psychic evacuees are posted on the website where Alex met Rob. Even these were quite affecting.
Psychic evacuation: 2 souls connected by proximity at time of birth are ‘twinned.’ If one of them should die prematurely (say by age 24), then he or she may find a way to enter the other’s body – so the psychic twin dies instead. Although the psychic evacuee website considers that many souls, probably, fight off this invasion, if a soul really wants to live – it can win, and evacuates the original soul.
Some reviewers say it’s a clichéd plot, others that it’s a unique concept? Don’t know where I stand on that, but it’s a fresh, thoughtful, very well-written book. If I was to be picky: police involvement for stalking – seems like plod in a lot of YA stories have so little to do with their time they love to waste it trying to prosecute non-criminals. And the end: satisfactory in almost all respects – but Flip himself was left hanging in terms of what the reader knows, and left in a very difficult situation by Alex. I felt Alex should have been much more proactive trying to see what had become of him and owed it to him to help. The poor guy’s probably been banged up for psychotic tendencies.
Despite that: 5 stars
This is an enjoyable novel, not as fluffy as some. It’s set in Hartley-by-The-Sea, Cumbria, in a small-ish village where everybody knows your name, and the story revolves around two friends who disconnected back in Year Six at primary school, when they were around eleven. Claire was the rich little princess-type, from the big house on the edge of town, who was soon to go to a private school anyway. The other, Rachel, had an unemployed dad who walked out, and a mother who broke her back while on a cleaning job and is subsequently an invalid. So cut to present day and Rachel, who is strong, competent and independent, is secretly worn out and over-whelmed with too much responsibility too young. Claire is the opposite: everyone manages her, and treats her like she’s an incompetent child – partly because of a history of health problems, and partial deafness. The characters are well-rounded and I found myself really rooting for them. The constant stress of being short of money, and working long hours to make ends meet, and feeling constantly tired and worn-down, makes Rachel’s predicament very real but also annoying. Her two sisters are apparently idle lumps: there seems no reason on earth why Rachel should work all day and then clean up after them. So that was slightly annoying, she was a bit of a martyr (but nowhere near annoying enough to want to stop reading).
And Claire was incredibly wet at first, but gradually her insecurities and sense of isolation begin to make sense, given her health and family history. I felt the characterization was sound, consistent and in-depth regarding the two main protagonists. I liked the depiction of Dan the post office man, who also figured in Rainy Day Sisters, the first Hartley-by-The-Sea novel. His extreme closed-offness and impenetrability are refreshing: he doesn’t instantly thaw and transform into a chatty socialite when he discovers love, and again his experiences are consistent with his behavior and personality now.
If I have one quibble – and it is only a small one – it is that for much of the story Rachel’s disabled mother is depicted not as a person but as a burden. I felt she was seen very much from the outside, through the lens of her long-suffering carers’ eyes. There was very little sense of empathy for her, or of her as a person at all outside of her nuisance value, until right at the end when Rachel does have a lightbulb moment that it can’t be all that good for her mum either.
But as I say a small-ish quibble. This is a solid, satisfying read, rather darker in places than you might expect but in a good way. It has more depth and realism.
I found this to be a gripping, unputdownable sort of read, in the way of some books when you don’t really like them – you’re not having a good time because everything is so horrible and you’re 99% sure it can’t end well - but you still have to keep reading to find out what happens.
Max is born on Hitler’s birthday under the Nazi "Lebensborn" program, Hitler's Aryan baby production line scheme (which produced about 8,000 children in Germany, between 8 and 12,000 children in Scandinavia, and hundreds in several other occupied countries). So Max is special, baptised by Hitler himself.
The narrative device/pov is quite peculiar, beginning from Max’s time in the womb but with no concessions whatsoever to developmental realities or likely knowledge base. Max understands exactly who and what he is from the moment of conception, and expresses himself with highly articulate clarity and an in-depth understanding of Nazi ideology and the Lebensborn program. From the stage of, you know, a marble-sized cluster of cells or so.
Which is a little weird, but in the main it does work: suspension of disbelief kicks in and the reader absorbs that this is what the program wants Max to be – a high-on-Hitler junkie – even though in reality no child could possibly express himself like this.
What works slightly less well are the modernisms sprinkled throughout, which jar, and may be due to translation rather than the original story.
The Lebensborn program is a less well known aspect of the Nazi obsession with Aryan supremacy and eugenics, and so there is an element of horrified fascination: how these supposedly educated and civilized adults could become so warped that, for instance, they would send the “rabbits” (defective babies – asthma etc) off to be experimented on and dissected.
And for all the slight weirdness of the pov, it is fascinating to see the system from inside: how it might appear to a child who has known nothing else, how he is formed and his attitudes/ideology/mindset developed.
I did feel there were some slight inconsistencies: for instance, Max is perfectly well aware from marble-cell stage of what is going on – the code words used, the function of camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz, the fact that he’s using soap made of Jewish fat, the constant fear that he may not make the Aryan grade because the less perfect are “relocated” (he knows they’re killed) – but then at some much later point he’s told about industrialised death-dealing by his friend Lukas, and is apparently struck dumb amazed??? Also that he knows all the insignia of rank from a very young age (like, birth). And like the fact that he doesn’t know what happened to his collaborator friend who was helping him round up Polish children, and then quite a bit later suddenly he can see precisely how she was executed.
And most of all, the fact that this eugenically pure indoctrinated super-Nazi doesn’t shop his friend Lukas when he finds out he’s a Jew. There’s not really been any hint, up till then, that Max has had any doubts about his ideology. So not sure that the sudden about-face is entirely plausible – but obviously it makes for gripping reading, because you’re never sure which way Max is going to go with his knowledge.
There are extremely abusive, invasive sexual examinations of children, brutal violence, mega-death, grim stories of the ghetto, rape, and graphic language (also odd, that baby Max is such a foul mouth?? Where is he hearing it?) Like so many books, it is a puzzle to me that this is considered a YA read. Because of the age of the protagonist? If that were the criteria for readership, then this should be read by four year olds – because for much of the story Max is four. Even at the end he’s only nine. Hm. I read Babi Yar when I was twelve, so there’s no doubt a young adult could read it. But it’s nightmare material, I would say.
I would give this four and a half stars. It’s powerful and disturbing reading. It deserves five really, but was too depressing.
What Works And Why?
We read to escape, enjoy, engage, and find out more about our world. So reading is great - but what makes a great read? A page dedicated to short analyses of how writers engage readers.