Saturday, 14 February 2015

These kids and their modern techology... - Second Life by SJ Watson

[I paid nothing for this book, instead being provided with an uncorrected proof copy through the kindness of the publisher, Harper Collins, gifted via Edelweiss. I thank them profusely.]

There is always a burden on an author delivering a second novel when their first novel has been a tremendous success. S.J Watson's first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, was not merely a success, it set the trend for all the huge domestic psychological thrillers which have come since: Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, The Girl on the Train... Watson's debut was there first, 4 whole years ago. Watson doesn't merely need to stand up well against himself, he also needs to stand up well in an increasingly saturated market where the books we now hear about tend to be very good indeed.

When Julia's younger sister Kate is found dead in a Paris back-alley, Julia is destroyed with grief. Learning from Kate's housemate that Kate used internet dating sites to arrange smexy liaisons, Julia becomes convinced it was one of these men who killed her. So she does what anybody obsessed with an idea does: attempt to find proof. She sets herself up on some websites to entice the murderer. Except the man she does meet, Lukas, is everything her perfect middle-class life is missing.

Initially, this is slow. It takes a good 40% to get started properly and I was consciously reading with one eye trying to work out what was going to Be Important Later and why. I couldn't really engage with Julia's initial shock and grief over the loss of her sister and was instead waiting for the inevitable Search For The Truth to begin. Once it does it's good, the flirty messages becoming something more until sexual fantasy collides with reality and being controlled is considered part of the game. These aspects of the book are done excellently - and by that I mean so horrific and triggering I would have stopped reading if this hadn't been an ARC, which is the reason I'm mentioning them. It's gradual and insidious, the type of thing which can be explained away so very easily even when you aren't Julia, a grief-wreaked alcoholic fighting a relapse.

The trouble is it becomes boring. Julia's head is a fairly dull place to spend time and even before the book shifted into its end-game I became deeply irritated by her actions (and inactions), some of which felt designed to artificially spin the story out a bit longer.

I was also unreasonably annoyed by her alcoholism. It felt like a device, and while I think it could have been a very effective one, it needed to treat alcoholism as more than just wanting a drink and riding out the compulsion.

For instance, there is nothing about Julia's active alcoholism in her youth, only her attendance at the AA meeting where she meets Markus. She bangs on about failing her sister, about her guilt at leaving her behind when she went to Berlin, but never a word about the drinking she must have been doing when she was bringing Kate up or the effects of it. I genuinely thought Julia would turn out to have been lying about it, or faking it for some reason. It's used as a minor spoke in the story and could have had far more mileage than it's given.

In the end this story is wrecked by its own plot. The grand reveal of what's really going on is a laser saw away from the Bond-Villain School of Illogical Schemes. Plus, it makes something either a catastrophic plot hole or a clever piece of misdirection depending on your overall view of the book. If I learned Watson was a pantser rather than a plotter, I'd nod sagely and say, 'Well, that explains it.'

SJ Watson is a good writer. Whatever churlish things I'd say about Before I Go To Sleep must be countered by the fact it had me absolutely gripped by the end. Although Second Life never managed to hook me the same way there are some excellently done parts; it's scary because it's real. Until the last 10%, I genuinely wasn't sure how I was going to rate this. Happily, the terrible ending made it easy: 2 stars (but I'm definitely going to be interested in whatever Watson comes out with next.)


Second Life on AmazonUK

Thursday, 5 February 2015

I sympathise with your urge to leave Oxford - The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

When it was released, The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, was marketed as being the next big thing; the new Harry Potter, despite being nothing like Harry Potter. The second in the series is freshly available at a bookshop near yourselves, so it seemed like a good time to read it. It was... okay.

Paige Mahony is a clairvoyant in a future alt-England where such powers are illegal. More specifically, she’s a dreamwalker, one of the rarest types of voyant, who can separate her spirit from her body. Paige lives in London where she works for Fagin Jaxon Hall, her Mime Lord (Gangster boss), until she accidentally kills an Underguard. She’s captured, drugged, and sent to a place she and the rest of the populous didn’t know existed: Oxford. Okay, Sheol 1. Formerly Oxford.

There she learns the things which make this book and this review such a challenge: the extensive world building. It is confusing. For a start, there are the various types of voyants. I spent my youth with an orange dot energised by Yuri Geller himself so I came to this knowing terms like ‘cartomancer’ and when I didn’t know I word I could make an educated guess. Then there’s the world of Scion, the government, and its creation in the first place (Edward VII was the first voyant, and also Jack The Ripper, and apparently still Edward VII rather than Prince Albert Edward, despite people knowing this at the time of its occurrence). Then there’s the world of Sheol where the Rephaim – a race of beings from the Netherworld, as scholars of Hebrew mythology will remember – keep voyants as slaves and mobile larders, feeding on their auras. Those who embrace their new overlords can become Red Jackets, a necessary part of the attempt to stop the Emim from overrunning the city and the rest of the world. Then there’s a whole host of other stuff, sometimes with nicknames and a light smattering of Victorian slang in addition to the books own terms, and as a result the book proceeds in fits and starts, bogged down by its own exposition, not really getting into to gear until a good half-way through. It’s intermittently interesting until then but the first 20% is quite a slog requiring more than one consultation of the book’s glossary.

Because this is YA, it’s necessary for the MC to be imprisoned in some fashion. Paige becomes the property of a Rephaim who instructs her to call him Warden, even though that’s not his name, whose job it is to train her to earn her Red Jacket. If she doesn’t [world building stuff] but if she does [world building stuff] but there’s also the fact that [character] wants to [spoiler] because [spoiler]. Did I mention this gets a tad bogged down by itself?

Some aspects of the plotting are bland and predictable – Paige does something for Warden then repeatedly asks herself why she did it. Then it happens again and she repeatedly asks herself why she did it again. Other aspects give a nice spin to that predictability, setting up threads for coming tomes in the 7 book series. Others feel like they’re ripping off another YA series entirely.

The main story is ... merely okay. As is the trend in YA books, we have a female MC who gives the illusion of being active. Paige, like Katniss Everdeen, is at the mercy of her situation and can only act within its restrictions so much of the book involves Paige hoping to get out of her situation but having to go along with it. Your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance for reading about Paige being Paige. I was fairly meh. There are some good scenes – Shannon can write action when she wants to - but the final sequence, like much of the book, could have been a lot tighter.

I read this because it was an offensively low price on Amazon – 51 English pennies if I remember correctly – but I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel. I didn’t expect huge amounts from it and it gave me pretty much what I expected. The world building is going to be a huge plus several books down the line and this has got the potential to create internet communities in the way Harry Potter and Game of Thrones has but I, who can barely remember how to spell her own name sometimes, was left unengaged and frustrated. I suspect I may get more out of it on a reread, but right now I feel no compulsion to give it one, nor to continue with the series.

3 stars.


The Bone Season on Amazon UK