This is the third Sean Duffy novel I’ve read recently, and I really wish I’d read them in order, because Duffy clearly has ups and downs in his love life and career and his personality definitely evolves, but reading them out of order muddles that progression so one day I’ll go back and read them again, in the right order.
Yes, I WILL READ THEM AGAIN. Adrian McKinty is that good.
Each one is a stand-alone in terms of the police investigation, and the investigations are quality in terms of plotting, twists and turns, high-level involvement, betrayals etc and exciting denouement, but that is not why they are great.
They depict a dark period in history more effectively than any other book I’ve ever read, and make that experience of living in Northern Ireland during what was euphemistically known as the troubles, and was in fact a bitter and violent civil war, come alive in the scariest possible way. To live always with the knowledge that you can be shot at the wheel of your tractor, that every morning there could be a bomb under your car, that there is never never a real chance to be off duty because people out there are really out to get you… the sheer stress must have been unbelievable. The number of Catholics in the UDR is a disgrace, Sean contemplates at one point, less than 5% - but then, the IRA have promised that any Catholic who joins will be targeted first, so that’s one hefty disincentive. Above and beyond the fact many UDR members will be dyed in the wool orangemen.
The guns, the violence, the graffiti, the extreme poverty and despair, the dismal weather, the barefoot kids pointing at him (a Catholic police officer – so something of an anomaly), calling out “bang bang, you’re dead” –knowing that this is what kids learn, it’s real, it’s what people in their community are doing – all paints a devastating picture of grim awfulness.
Then contrast this with a kind of dour and bitter wit which is often laugh-out-loud funny: Sean’s conversations with his rebellious constables when they won’t get in the dumpster, his boss’s moods and rants in between puzzling over the cryptic crossword clues, the bigotry and misplaced religious fervour of so many people (hilarious snippets from the radio), the sheer incompetence of the authorities which, though it can have terrible consequences, is also darkly funny. And integral to the humour are the unique, distinctive Irish voices and vernacular.
The stories are basically a depiction of what a very stubborn, tough, humanistic and decent guy might have ended up doing when trying to work inside an almost impossibly bigoted, divided, and hate-filled country. Sean wants to make his country better, but back then no one really believed it was going to happen; they’d given up hope that things could ever change.
I don’t read these books for the investigations, though obviously the murders etc are necessary to drive the plot along. But I read them more for insight into the culture of Northern Ireland at this especially grim time: it’s kind of like world-building, only this world was real. And Adrian McKinty does it very, very well. Plus the wit and characters and human relationships do, somehow, offer a light even in this very dark place.
I enjoyed this story. At one level it’s a fast-moving thriller, but at another it attempts to deal with deeper issues such as the mental illness/emotional and psychological problems of the main protagonists.
Said protagonists are teenagers in therapy, sent to a therapeutic weekend in an abandoned warehouse with only two doors and no windows. Hm. Also no connected water, due to it being a building site in the process of renovations? Double hm. But I can overlook that sort of thing, within reason, and it honestly didn’t bother me too much.
Masked baddies break in and apparently hold the teens as hostages, because one of them has a very wealthy father. But no fear, despite their PTSD and other even more deep-rooted problems, our two main heroes Riley and Max contrive to half-escape, and spend a lot of time running around this fortress-like building before they realize the evil plot is maybe even more evil than they can imagine.
It would be quite easy to pick holes in this story: the set-up is definitely unlikely, the mental illness aspects actually became somewhat repetitive (Max’s uncertain grasp on reality in particular, though I could see where the author is coming from), and the extremely convoluted ultimate solution to the kidnapper’s mysterious motives. But I felt it was a solid, sympathetic approach to the experience of mental illness (and the use of the word “crazy” by Max was entirely consistent with his fears and in context with his attitude), plus it was a highly entertaining, exciting thrill ride. Four stars.
I’d never heard of this, strangely, as it now appears it’s super-famous and a National Book Award Winner. Quite justifiably, as it happens.
This is a terrific book. A story of growing up on the res – and getting out – the darkness of the underlying themes and lives portrayed is sweetened just enough by a thick layering of humour, the kind of humour that’s witty and real and comes from inside unbearable situations and struggling people.
It’s interesting to read some of the reviews on Goodreads, and a bit depressing: the numbers of Americans who express astonishment at the reality of Indian’s lives – and the flip side, the number who primly think the references to masturbation, alcoholism and strong language mean it’s unfit for teenage consumption.
There is only one fault with this novel: it substitutes frick for fuck, when we all know what the characters would really be saying. Even teens will know, unless they’re halfwits. And the nod to pseudo-morality didn’t work anyway, it’s still on the banned list (which, honestly, I was absolutely astonished by).
This is a book people need to read. It portrays truths which are apparently still invisible to many in American culture, but without hate or blame. It’s a story of racism, and cruelty, and disadvantage, but most of all a story of love and humanity and ultimately a wounded kind of triumph.
So you’ve had a hard week, want a lazy weekend blobbing out on the deck and forgetting the stress by losing yourself in a more exciting world? Who better to spend the time with, than a six foot five rootless modern-day Viking hitch-hiking across America? Somehow Jack Reacher never seems to want for money, and he always bumps up against some serious wrongs that need his phenomenally well-informed mathematical brain and ex-military ultra-mesomorph body, to right them.
Lee Child has created one of the greatest heroes of our time in the old-fashioned sense, of a guy with a highly developed ethical sense and a preternatural ability to fight and kill bad guys. Also to work out what the bad guys are doing. The prose is sparse, Chandler-style, and often quietly witty. The story moves along at a cracking pace, the plot is smoothly and expertly worked through and resolved. Tiny quibble: the motivation for the bad guys’ scheming is maybe on this occasion a little-far-fetched – but who cares. No more far-fetched than a white haired guy of six foot five blending into the crowd, and we’ve overlooked that one many a time.
As usual there’s a smidgeon of romance quickly cast aside as our hero moves on in his aimless quest for pastures new, where he will again and always fight for justice, and protect the down-trodden against the powerful. Formulaic maybe, at this stage of the series, but still fantastic fun and a great getaway without leaving home.
Well, David Almond is obviously highly regarded - huge reviews in the Guardian, prizes galore, so I was quite keen to read Skellig which is super-famous – but this was the one in the library so I got this out instead.
It’s a short read and very well written in a highly distinctive voice, with crisp clear precise sentences. The use of language is both beautiful and readable. Other stuff – not so much. I had a few problems, mainly with the plot, theme and characters. Hm.
The plot was moderately directionless: obviously this is deliberate. This reads like a long slightly magical summer with more or less naughty boys running wild, not going anywhere in particular. Two of them find a baby (a sweet-smelling “child of God” – what could she symbolize?), one is a nutter who chops up snakes in a pit with a spade amongst other revolting activities, and is generally cruel and disgusting (perchance symbolizing the opposite?). But there is no strong narrative drive. Almond is a very skillful writer: if he wanted strong narrative drive, I’m sure he could put it in there. But the novel is meant to be kind of elegiac: it ruminates on deep themes, ponders evil vs good and the pain of leaving childhood behind, evokes hot summers on the cusp of adulthood, and for these purposes absolute realism and a purposeful plot are maybe not crucial. If you’re happy with the elegy, the symbolism, the philosophy and the ambience.
War underpins the evil of man theme, being referred to constantly with planes flying overhead etc (Bush and Blair vs Iraq), along with the horrors of which man is capable. Are we all monsters under the skin? Is the veneer of civilisation a fragile thing with violence ever ready to explode through? Are we born evil, original sin being the true state of man? And so on. Psycho friend Gordon Nattrass embodies the arguments in favour of: we all love death and pain and torture, we just pretend we don’t. Plus we have an unlikely duo of foster kids, a Liberian ex-child soldier and a burns and foster care system self-mutilator. And herein lie the problems I have with really investing in this story, despite the quality of the writing which is in many ways a delight.
The theme is laid on in spades, for my taste. But above and beyond that – I am a big fan of plausibility.
Nattrass becomes an exhibited artist. His age is left vague, but at some point we are told Liam’s age is fourteen. This also was slightly problematic: in many ways he felt very immature, galloping around the countryside in sticks and mud more like a ten-year-old – but his friend and peer Max, looking to the future of careers and girlfriends, seemed more like a sixteen or seventeen year old. At least. And Liam’s age wavered, which I suppose could be construed as realistic: fourteen year olds can be grown up one minute, infantile the next. But… On the whole he felt like an immature, rather privileged, bratty older teenager.
So Nattrass becomes an exhibited artist – at fourteen? Or is he meant to be older? (He ‘s a friend, so the original assumption is that they’re close in age). It just doesn’t work for me: it’s not real world. Real world is: there are thousands of talented artists out there struggling for recognition – and yet some psycho kid gets support from a gallery to show his grim ideas, even if he has the verbal skills to make the pitch…
So, plausibility dead in the water on that one.
And then the two foster kids lack credibility, in particular Crystal. Oliver, the child soldier, is probably equally unreal but I have no experience with child soldiers so I could just about – barely – buy into his reality.
But I have worked with abused kids, foster kids, self-harmers… and the waif-like, dreamy, highly articulate, super-poetic and profoundly philosophical Crystal, is a hard creation to swallow. Neglected/abused/abandoned kids are more usually angry, inarticulate (neglect does that) and even more angry. Self-harm is anger turned inwards and mixed up into an unhealthy cocktail with self-loathing (because at a deep down level kids blame themselves – mum left me, so I must be bad and unlovable). Rage is a defining characteristic. Sweet dreamy poetics not so much.
To me, this reads like a skilled writer who deliberately chooses a drifting plotline and lack of narrative drive in favour of developing his themes through atmosphere and symbolism. I’m sure worthy critics, librarians and English teachers will love this story as a juicy subject for discussion, and because they think it’s the sort of meaningful thing teens should be reading. As for the teens themselves? I think I would have found it boring, and run back to Harry Potter or the Hunger Games.
This story has very mixed reviews. The plotline has similarities to Mean Girls: brainy social outcast Bree is a failed writer, because her stories are dreary metaphor-stuffed 110,000 word opuses on suicidal thoughts. But then she is only 17, so has a lot of time to get better. She decides to have a makeover, infiltrate the mean girls perfect group, seduce the hottest girl’s hottest boyfriend, and become interesting so she has something better to write about. Along the way she starts a blog detailing her experiences, rejects her nerdy friend Holdo because her plan must remain a secret, and has an affair with her English teacher.
I enjoyed this book, a lot. The writing style is smart, sparkling with dry humour, and pacey. The story handles themes like popularity and friendship, bullying, inappropriate relationships, and self-harming, and for the most part it handles them very well. I think maybe the negativity comes from the fact that we see things through Bree’s eyes, and she is not a squeaky clean pure-hearted type: she’s quite intellectually arrogant, sacrifices poor Holdo in favour of her plan, and then betrays her new friend Jassmine quite readily, even though Jassmine has been entirely supportive about Bree’s self–harming habits. So in many ways Bree’s not a terribly sympathetic character. Plus the teacher romance is seen through her eyes, so there’s not the extreme level of disapprobation that most people would like to see heaped on this gruesome relationship: the creep basically gets away with it, and she still yearns rather pathetically after him.
But to me that isn’t a problem: real people are flawed. When you see a story through one character’s pov, you need to relate to them yes, but that doesn’t mean you need to approve of all their actions. I did relate to Bree and found her entirely believable in the context of the story.
SPOILERS FROM HERE: It kept me reading, and the resolutions were highly satisfactory: misogynistic bully boy got his come-uppance, Holdo was restored, and Bree lets parents into her life again, and recognizes that even the perfects, the mean girls, are humans with flaws and vulnerabilities.
I do have a couple of criticisms (because I am that super-picky reader: really I thoroughly enjoyed this story). Firstly, the plausibility of a nerdy outcast being able to infiltrate the mean girls group so very readily, and having the confidence and panache to do that. If it was that easy maybe all the outcasts would be doing it…? But this didn’t affect my reading pleasure, the plot device worked perfectly well in context. And I liked that Bree got her mum involved, that was refreshing and nice (cos how snooty was Bree about her mum and dad?)
And the other thing is, that maybe Holly Bourne tried to cram too many themes into one volume, which meant it was both quite long and some themes felt under-developed. For instance, the self-harming: this is huge, and while it wasn’t exactly sidelined, it seems like such a major issue would have been a more significant part of Bree’s life. I wonder if the story could have worked without it? I don’t know; but despite that this is a great read, highly entertaining but also with depth and a good heart. I would give it 4.5 stars.
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.