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review 2020-07-08 15:24
A challenging and beautifully diverse reading experience
Matt: More Than Words - Hans M. Hirschi

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel. I have read quite a few of Hirschi’s novels and have enjoyed them all, and some are among my favourites in recent years. He combines some of the characteristics that I most admire in authors: he writes strong and diverse characters, no matter what particular challenges they might be faced with; he carefully researches the topics he touches on (even when some of them might seem only incidental to the novel, he makes sure nothing is left to chance) and uses his research wisely (never banging readers on the head with it); and he does not shy away from the ugliest and harshest realities of life, while at the same time always dealing sensitively and constructively with those. His stories are not fairy tales, and they force us to look at aspects of society and of ourselves that perhaps we’re not proud of, but if we rise to the challenge we’ll be rewarded with an enlightening experience. And a great read. This novel is no exception. We follow the life of Matt, a young man diagnosed with cerebral palsy due to birth complications, for a few rather momentous months. The book, narrated in the third person, is told from three of the main characters’ perspectives. The novel is mostly Matt’s, or at least as good an approximation at what Matt’s experience might be as the author can achieve. It is a difficult task, and he expresses it better than I can in his acknowledgements at the end (‘How does one write about someone in whose situation you’ve never been? How do you give voice to someone who has none? And maybe, most importantly, how, without being insensitive, without objectifying, generalizing, stereotyping, in short without being a “dick”, do you tell a story that needs telling, about someone who could actually be out there, right now?’). He also explains that he shared his early drafts with experts (people with cerebral palsy and their carers), and, in my non-expert opinion, he manages to depict what the daily life of the protagonist would be like. The other two main characters, Timmy, a professional carer who is Matt’s personal assistant at the beginning of the story but gets removed from his team due to a misunderstanding, and Martha, Matt’s mother, are also given a saying and some of the chapters are told from their perspective. Timmy is a lovely young man, a carer in the true sense of the word, and he has a real calling for the type of job he is doing. Martha is a devoted mother who found herself in a tough situation when she was very young and who has poured her heart and soul into looking after her son. Neither one of them are perfect (nor is Matt for that matter), and they make mistakes, lose heart and faith at times, and can feel overwhelmed or despondent, but they never give up and always have Matt’s best interests in mind. Of course, I’ve already said that this is not a fairy tale. Far from it. We all know and have heard about some of the terrible things that happen: abuse, neglect, lack of resources, and although in this case there is no political and/or social oversight (Matt has access to a package of care and the family is reasonably well-supported, something that unfortunately is not the case everywhere), somehow things still go wrong, and we get to see what it must be like to be the victim of such abuse when you are totally unable not only of physically defending yourself but also of even talking about it. Terrifying. Not everybody is suited for this kind of work, and it is sad to think that those in the most vulnerable circumstances can be exposed to such abuse. And yes, because of the level of need and the limited resources, sometimes the vetting procedures are not as stringent as they should be. (The current health crisis has highlighted how much we expect of some workers and how little a compensation they receive for their efforts). Communication and how important it is to try to make sure everybody can communicate and become as independent as possible is one of the main themes of the book. The experience of living locked up inside your own body, with other people not even aware that you know what is going on around you and always making decisions for you comes through very strongly in the book. Matt knows and worries about how he is perceived by others, has internalised many of the attitudes he’s seen, and the comments he has overheard, and many aspects of life we take for granted are like an impossible dream to him. Speaking, going for a walk, even deciding what to watch on television, are tasks beyond his scope. The research into ways to facilitate communication and to increase independence is highlighted in the novel, and the role new technologies (including AI) can play is explored. With the appropriate investment, there’s little doubt that this could make a big difference in the lives of many people. Martha’s difficult situation (she wishes her son to fulfil his potential and be able to do what any other 23 years old normally does, but she’s also fiercely protective of him and does not want to get her hopes up for them to only be crushed again), the personal price she has to pay, the way she has to sacrifice any semblance of a normal life to keep looking after Matt, her worry about the future… are also convincingly depicted. And Timmy’s own feelings and his acknowledgment of his own limitations ring true as well. Family relationships feature strongly not only in the case of Matt, but also of Timmy, originally from Africa and adopted by Caucasian parents, a loving couple who accept him as he is, and Chen, Timmy’s friend and ex-boyfriend, whose parents are more understanding than he thought they’d be. The writing style is compelling and descriptive, although the descriptions are focused on the emotions and feelings rather than on the outward appearance of people and things. I found the story moving, and although it is not a page-turner in the common sense of the word, I was totally engulfed in it and couldn’t put it down, even when some of the events were horrifying at times and made me want to look away. The novel ends in a positive note, and I hope that in real life everybody in Matt’s situation will have access to a fulfilling life, if not now, in the very near future. As a society, we can do much to help, and we should. This novel reminded me of Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (yes, the famous screenwriter who ended up in the blacklist, one of Hollywood’s Ten), whose movie version I saw as a teenager (also directed by Trumbo), and I’ve never forgotten. The main character there is a WWI soldier who is so severely injured during the war that he ends up unable to move and to communicate, or so those around him think. Although the circumstances are very different (the main character there had led a normal life before and has many memories, although if that makes his life better is a matter of opinion), and I’m sure this novel will appeal to people looking for a book focusing on diverse characters and exploring the world beyond our everyday experiences. As I’ve explained, it is not a comfortable and easy read, but one that will challenge us and make us look at life with new eyes. If you are up for the challenge, the rewards are immense.

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review 2020-05-16 20:53
Eh
The Diabolic - S.J. Kincaid

I really like Nemesis but I can't continue with the huge plot holes. I have way too many questions about the basic world building and technology. If science and learning are outlawed, then how were Diabolics created? It makes them seem like a new creation, but isn't new science outlawed? And where do you draw the line on blasphemy? Is learning to sew a crime? What is considered BAD learning? 

 

Again, Nemesis is cool. But I take too many issues with the plot.

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review 2020-05-08 16:56
Cirque du Daddy Issues
The Circus - Olivia Levez The Circus - Olivia Levez

This was a quick read, and well paced.

 

But. But...

 

The whole premise of the book is pretty absurd. Let me break it down. First, this girl runs away to join the circus in 2016. Most circuses by that point had gone belly-up, but this girl seems to just stumble over more than one in a tiny UK coastal town. Very unlikely. 

 

And that leads us to Willow, our main character. She is flawed, but not in a relatable way. She has a rich daddy who owns her off on others and can't be bothered to take care of her because "she looks too much like her", his ex and mother of Willow. So Willow spends the whole book as a runaway, while recounting other escape attempts. Some seemed understandable while most seemed straight up spoiled brat moves. And that's where being flawed too much comes into play. How can I feel sympathy for a character when she is clearly in the wrong? The book opens with her ruining her step-mother's wedding dress. And by the end of the book, we still don't have an excuse for why she did it and why she hates her stepmom. Because she's young? Pregnant? We are never given a good reason, so most of Willow's behavior comes off as ridiculous and petty. 

 

And I would like to note that for a girl so "prepared" for this runaway episode, she didn't know squat about street life. She had a list of rules to follow but not one said anything about going anywhere with strangers. She kept putting herself in incredibly dangerous situations because she was too stupid to think "hey, maybe I shouldn't tease the creepy smelly ticket seller" or "don't go into a stranger's house". 

 

In the end, we get closure with a neat bow on top, but seriously? Nobody learned a lesson. Daddy still admitted to not really loving Willow, but he cries big fat tears of joy when she returns home to him. And let's not forget there are 17 years of distant "throw money at it until it goes away" parenting and never really even remembering she exists. You never learn why Willow hates her stepmom. You never learn why any of this had to happen. She ran away so many times she had a detective on her case all day every day, and nobody once thought to send this poor girl to therapy?! Why does a 6/8/11 year old keep running away from boarding school/home? Nobody ever seems to suggest this child might need help. 

 

All in all, don't bother. The whole thing is stupid. And if I'm going to be technical, as the book went along, the editing mistakes got worse and worse. So, I felt no sympathy for the main character, nobody learned anything, and everyone lives happily ever after. Gag me.

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review 2020-04-23 13:41
Tim Cratchit's Christmas Carol
Tim Cratchit's Christmas Carol: The Sequel to the Celebrated Dickens Classic - Jim Piecuch

by Jim Piecuch

 

An interesting idea, which I've seen attempted once before with dubious results, but this one very quickly looked like it would shape up to be a worthwhile story. The pacing was a little slow at first, but soon began to pick up and I found myself being engaged by the characters.

 

There was an element of Romance, but that wasn't the main focus of the story. I liked the plot progression a lot despite the sometimes slow delivery and a fairly weak ending. The characters were very well defined and brought reader reactions, sometimes strong ones. Tim is a likable character. He's generous, charitable and everything you would expect him to be, based on where Dickens left his story.

 

There were a few things that made it glaringly apparent that the book was written by an American author; terms like 'washcloth' and 'Mom' and drinking coffee in a situation where a Victorian Englishman would be far more likely to have tea for example. Otherwise there weren't any huge problems, although a sudden pov change to Jane did stick out a little. Also the ideas of gift giving at Christmas were very modern and didn't reflect the actual customs of the Victorian English as you might expect from a History teacher, even one who specialises in American history.

 

Conversely, there were some smooth transitions into visions from Tim's childhood which were very well done, although one extensive flashback seemed to go on too long.

 

Overall I enjoyed reading it and feel my time was well spent. As Christmas stories go, this one is a nice, light read. You have to suspend disbelief on some things, like how long it takes to recover from a major operation before someone can be moved, but generally it kept my attention and has left me feeling that now I know what eventually happened to Tiny Tim.

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review 2020-04-20 15:34
Dodger
Dodger - James Benmore

by James Benmore

 

 

As sequels to Oliver Twist go, this one was pretty good. Benmore depicts the Artful Dodger in a sort of 'winning rogue' sort of way that makes him likeable and easy to sympathize with as he gets into one tight situation after another.

 

The premise is that Jack Dawkins, aka The Artful Dodger, has returned to England after criminal exile in Australia with a special dispensation from the governor, but the governor has his own reasons for sending Jack back. He is to track down a valuable stone, called the Jackapoor stone, accompanied by a native employee of the governor who is also an assassin.

 

The premise is reasonably believable, however, some of the elements of the plot are not. There were scenes that ranged from the doubtful, like Jack finding out so many years later that Fagin had been killed, to the highly unlikely like the current residents of his old derelict lodgings allowing a known thief and his quiet, black friend to have a night's lodgings out of Christian charity. Sorry but in Victorian England, suspicion of such a pair would be too high to invite them into your home for the night and the building in question would probably have been uninhabitable and torn down long since!

 

The icing on the cake of unbelievability though, was later in the book when Jack meets up with all his old friends, Fagin's boys. I guess the author missed the part of Oliver Twist at the end where all the boys died of drink. Still, the reformation of Charley Bates was handled very well so at least that consistency with the book was carried forward.

 

Despite these problems with the plot, the story was told well and I did enjoy it, though it got a little slow in the middle. There is a sequel to this sequel which suggests to me that it could become an ongoing series, but I have mixed feelings about it. Judging from the sample of Dodger of the Dials, it looks like it will be much the same in that the character is well depicted, but what he does goes in directions that don't ring true.

 

Overall I enjoyed the read, but felt like it could have been done better.

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