Review: The Wind Singer by William Nicholson (68%)

Everyone has certain ‘milestone’ books in their lives. They’re the first book they ever read, the first book that made them cry, the first book that made them laugh, and so on. The Wind Singer was a major book in my childhood. It was the first fantasy book I ever read and it’s the book that made me want to write novels. So, when I found it in a second hand store, I pounced.

The Wind Singer is the first book in a trilogy by William Nicholson, aimed at children. I always find it fascinating to read children’s books as an adult, particularly ones I read when I was young. Now, with more experience and awareness, I could see where the book could have been stronger and what kept it from being more renowned. As a child, I was oblivious to it all.

I’ll start with the negatives, which are few and mostly irksome from a technical standpoint. Both the narration and the dialogue is very British. While this is less jarring in the narration, as it takes a fairy tale approach, it really stunts the dialogue. Seeing as this is a fantasy world with many races and societies, it’s strange to have such familiar phrases used. This is, however, offset by the people using their own swear words which are still kid friendly. “Pompa, pompaprune!” The clash of familiar terms and made up, creative ones is very clashing and makes it a little difficult to fully immerse in the world. Adding to this, the two main characters often sound a lot older in their speech than they actually are.

The ending of the novel is very abrupt and, although effective, could have been fleshed out somewhat. It’s a very fast paced book with plenty to tell in just over 300 pages and it’s a real achievement to fit so much in with such short space, yet still doing justice to all of the creations. Unfortunately, it was a case of so close but so far for the ending. An extra chapter, maybe, or even a few pages, that’s all it needed to wrap it up and clarify a few answers. For a novel with such innovation and creativity, it raises a lot of questions with a lack of answers. In some places, this left it an unsatisfying end.

Once you move past the above, though, you’re left with a colourful and imaginative adventure. The trio of children – Kestrel, Bowman and Mumpo – are on a quest to retrieve the voice of the Wind Singer, a powerful and mythical structure that can ward of the impending army of the Zars. Their adventure is exciting, dangerous, educational and at times, downright creepy. One of the constant presences is an army of “old children”, terrifying creations that sap your energy upon touch and turn you into one of them. They’re like zombies, but less aggressive, and their passivity adds to the terror. They are something that haunted my childhood and re-reading the book now, they still gave me chills.

This is a novel that can really unlock the reader’s imagination, with every location having its own rules and ideas. Everything has a history and a meaning, most of which the characters learn about as they go on. It is as exciting as it is interesting.

On top of all that, it patches a moral and philosophical punch that is as poignant now as it was in my childhood. It is a classic tale of repressive governments and restrictive societies, with a particular focus on critiquing the current education and examination systems. It raises questions that should be raised and now, more than ten years since its publication, they are questions that are still raised and not satisfyingly answered. Most importantly, the book does not aim to provide an answer. Nicholson is clearly not at ease with the current systems, but he acknowledges their uses and suggests that, at the very least, we consider alternatives.

The Wind Singer is an interesting and engaging read for children and adults. However, it is maybe more fitting as a children’s book and not one of those occasions where it is as good, or better, for adult readers. Still, I would highly recommend it for all children and even for parents to read with them. It is an important reminder to always question things and to never accept things for the way they are.

Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver (59%)

“The most dangerous sicknesses are those that make us believe we are well.” – Proverb 42, The Book of Shhh

In Delirium, love is a disease. This is a dystopian novel for young adults set in near-future America, where teenagers undergo an operation to remove their ability to love. The logic behind this is that love makes people do stupid, dangerous things. It compromises our reasoning. Anyone who has ever been in love will know that this is in fact true – love makes us experience heightened emotions and pushes us out of our comfort zone. In that sense, Delirium‘s corrupt and dark world is based on logical reasoning. It’s a clever, disturbing fact that cannot be avoided while reading it. The darkness, the corruption and the oppression, they’re all there for somewhat reasonable purposes.

It is obvious that Lauren Oliver spent a lot of time and care in crafting her world. Every chapter opens with a quote like the one above. The Book of Shhh is essentially a rulebook for healthy and appropriate living, from which quotes are used. There’s also playground nursery rhymes, old sayings and quotes from other governmental documents, each of which both frames the chapter ahead and adds to the depth of this crafted reality. It is arguably the biggest strength of this book, but unfortunately it’s a strength that isn’t carried throughout the story.

The world is there. The oppression is there. The risk and reality is there. Unfortunately, a beige story and forgettable characters weaken this novel by a huge amount. The protagonist, a so-so teenage girl, is the typical YA heroine. Her BFF is pretty, popular and rich. Her love interest is mysterious and, you guessed it, a bit rebellious. Of course, he has great hair. Sadly, nothing about these characters stood out enough to make me care. Sure, Lena (the main character) has a tough life and tough decisions to make, but I didn’t particularly care. When she recognises all the corruption around her, which she always really knew existed, it wasn’t enlightening. I thought: “About time you woke up!”

A lot of this comes down to the pace, too. Of the 400 pages in the book, the first 250 are mostly about building relationships. Then, when it starts to build up a bit of action and proper tension, there’s more relationship developments. Eventually, Lena finds herself backed into a corner with no way out, until the gorgeous hair and often-stroked-chest (I think there’s a character in there somewhere) saves the day in a fast paced, explosive ending. It’s a good ending. A great ending, actually. Unfortunately, I didn’t care about the characters by the end of it, so I swept their tragedies under the carpet and barely batted an eyelash at their victories.

The writing itself is layered with metaphors, similes and endless imagery. While some people enjoy this, it felt incredibly overdone and grated with me. I love good imagery but too many comparisons put me to sleep.

Basically, it’s a book that ticks all the wrong boxes for me. I read it on recommendation from my fiancé, who I found crying many nights over it and its sequels (oh yes, it’s a classic YA trilogy!). Reading it, I could see the appeal. I could see the parts where I should have cried and noticed when I should have rejoiced. It just didn’t do it for me. Thus, I’m declaring this a Marmite Book – you’ll either love it or hate it!

But, despite the mediocre score, I’d recommend it if you’re into YA dystopians. If it works for you, it’ll work a hell of a lot.

Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson (82%)

Neuromancer by William Gibson is what first brought cyberspace into the world and for that, it is very much a landmark novel. However, as such an important piece of science fiction, the new ideas Neuromancer introduced bring with them a whole heap of confusion and lack of clarity. Strangely, therein is the beauty of Gibson’s work.

Neuromancer is the first of The Sprawl Trilogy, followed by Count Zero and then Mona Lisa Overdrive.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” The opening line is written in the exact way the rest of the book will follow: simple sentences, graphic details, unusual imagery. At all times, no matter what Gibson is explaining, the descriptions are clearly and easily readable. Sometimes it can feel like lists of description, excluding metaphor and simile, but that is because they are built into the world themselves. His descriptions of false, manufactured skylines are literal and stark, but impacting, in a world that is as imaginative as it is haunting.

Neuromancer’s main character, Case, is a tech jockey, a space cowboy with a drug addiction and a suicidal death sentence. His bleak views on the world are life itself are heavily reflected by the bleak world around him. whether it’s the slums of Chiba City or the ethereal matrix. At all times, we are reading a dark reality. Yet, Gibson’s characters are layered with as much humour as complexity and they keep the tone from getting too dark. It is a colourful cast of assassins, army men and Rastafarians, each with their own struggles and journeys. The revelation of the characters’ inner desires is handled elegantly, never revealing too much to soon. This control of pace is what acts as buoyancy for the reader in a novel that is very, very confusing.

Why is it confusing? The location changes frequently in the novel and it’s not often signposted. It doesn’t take long to realise the location has changed, but Gibson has no intention of holding the reader’s hand. It is halfway into a lengthy description of surroundings that you discover this new setting is not just a new neighbourhood, but a new city entirely, maybe even a new country. In a similar sense, the workings of Gibson’s cyberspace and the matrix are, for the most part, unexplained. Case jacks himself full of stimulants, hooks himself up, flips a switch and wham!, he’s there. Where’s “there”? Well, you’ll have to read to find that out for yourself.

Ultimately, there is only so much to say in a review of this book, none of which does it justice. To best describe it, Neuromancer is an experience. It is one of those true books that transports you to a whole new world and, even if you have to work for it at times, it delivers a thrilling story loaded with terrifying truths and reflections on society. It is best enjoyed with an open mind and a furrowed brow. Not a light read by any means, but not James Joyce, either.

Review: Spiders by Tom Hoyle (56%)

Spiders by Tom Hoyle – the blurb on the back cover says “They’ll make your skin crawl.” That’s it.

‘Intriguing,’ I thought. ‘He’s saved all the writing for inside the book.’ It turned out not to be the case.

Spiders is the sequel to Thirteen and is for children and low teens. Or, to use that icky word, Middle Grade ficton.

This was a book I wanted to like. Heck, it was a book I wanted to love! Tom Hoyle is the pseudonym for a school principal – I hoped this would give for true characters. Unfortunately, this is where the book fell apart, right from the outset.

The third person narration takes the perspective of many characters in this book, most centrally three teens. Adam, who is suffering from past events that we are never properly told about, is a cardboard character who draws little emotion from the reader, even when in extreme peril. Megan, his girlfriend, is little more than Adam’s sidekick. She follows his plans and, when she leads her own decisions at one time in the book, she immediately reverts to the role of the lackey once Adam is back by her side. Then there’s Abbie, the badass girl who beats people up, especially if they’re guys. This is all because of her parents’ separation and because her dad is an undercover agent that’s never around. Such an original character portrait that I groaned whenever she appeared.

In terms of the many perspectives, this is one of the things Hoyle actually does really well. For the most part, each chapter jumps to one of the teens, but always in a clear way. Occasionally, within the chapters, the perspective shifts and even then, Hoyle keeps this clean. It was easy to follow at all times and never tripped up.

Unfortunately, this is where it stopped. To match the bland characters, a bland plot was created. A cult are planning to drug parts of Britain, as well as holding a mass suicide. The reasons for doing this aren’t original, but they’re interesting, yet Hoyle doesn’t explore them thoroughly. The book could also go in an entirely different direction in regards to the cult’s kidnapping victims, but they remain dormant for the whole book which ends as disappointingly as it carries through. The villain loses, the victims are freed. I didn’t expect otherwise, but it never seemed doubtful, even when the victims were in horrendous positions.

A lot of this comes down to pacing issues with the book. It could easily have gone on for another 50-100 pages, possibly restricted by its genre. The final ‘showdown’, in an isolated castle, could have called for larger heroics and a much more dramatic conclusion, which would have picked up a lot of the book’s.

In a book that aimed to be a James Bond for teens, this fell very short of the mark. The plot and characters are unremarkable and the ending disappointing. However, there’s still some interesting scenes in the book that I haven’t put in this review for spoiler reasons. The actual telling of the story and perspective shifts keeps it moving and relatively interesting too, up until the end. So, although it was packed with disappointment and (shamefully) several editing mistakes, some of which were quite confusing, the book was okay. Not great, not abysmal, but okay.

If you still plan to get this, definitely get the book before it: Thirteen, if only to clear up the confusion about Adam and Megan’s backstory.