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review 2017-05-20 19:48
For readers with a good attention span who enjoy Hitchcockian suspense set within the world of science and books about writers
The Planck Factor - Debbi Mack

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber and the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely decided to review.

This thriller (technothriller according to Amazon) tells a complex story, or rather, tells several not so complex stories in a format that can make readers’ minds spin. A thriller about a student who decides, on a dare, to write a genre book (a thriller) and whose life becomes itself another thriller, one that seems to mix spies, conspiracies, terrorism, the possibility of the end of the world, and it all relates to quantum physics. (Or, as she describes it in the book: “…a suspense story with a hint of science fiction and a touch of espionage at its heart.”) The parallelisms between the story of Jessica Evans (the protagonist) and that of her fictional character, Alexis, become more convoluted and puzzling as the book progresses and the astounding coincidences will ring some alarm bells until we get to the end and… It is a bit difficult to talk about the book in depth without giving away any spoilers, but I’ll try my hardest.

This book will be particularly interesting for writers, not only because of its storytelling technique (talk about metafiction) but also because of the way the main protagonist (a concept difficult to define but Jessica is the one who occupies the most pages in the book and her story is told in the first person) keeps talking (and typing) about books and writing. No matter how difficult and tough things get, she has to keep writing, as it helps her think and it also seems to have a therapeutic effect on her. It is full of insider jokes and comments familiar to all of us who write and read about writing, as it mentions and pokes fun at rules (“Show, don’t tell. Weave in backstory. Truisms, guides, rules, pointers—call them what you will… And adverbs. Never use an adverb.”) and also follows and at the same time subverts genre rules (we have a reluctant heroine, well, two, varied MacGuffins and red herrings, mysteries, secrets, traitors and unexpected villains… and, oh yes, that final twist).

Each one of the chapters starts with the name of the person whose point of view that chapter is told about —apart from Alexis’s story, told in the third person, written in different typography, and usually clearly introduced, there are chapters from the point of view of two men who follow Jessica, so we know more than her, another rule to maintain suspense, and also from the point of view of somebody called Kevin, who sounds pretty suspicious— and apart from Jessica’s, all the rest are in the third person, so although the structure is somewhat complex and the stories have similarities and a certain degree of crossover, there is signposting, although one needs to pay attention. Overall, the book’s structure brought to my mind Heart of Darkness (where several frames envelop the main story) or the Cabinet of Dr Caligary (although it is less dark than either of those).

As you read the story, you’ll probably wonder about things that might not fit in, plot holes, or events that will make you wonder (the usual trope of the amateur who finds information much easier than several highly specialised government agencies is taken to its extremes, and some of the characteristics of the writing can be amusing or annoying at times, although, whose story are we reading?) but the ending will make you reconsider the whole thing. (I noticed how the characters never walked, they: “slid out”, “shimmied out”, “pounded”, “bounded down the steps”, “clamored down”…) As for the final twist, I suspected it, but I had read several reviews by other members of the team and kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. I don’t think it will be evident to anybody reading the story totally afresh.

The novel is too short for us to get more than a passing understanding and connection with the main character, especially as a big part of it is devoted to her fictional novel, (although the first person helps) and there are so many twists, secrets and agents and double-agents that we do not truly know any of the secondary characters well enough to care. Action takes precedence over psychological depth and although we might wonder about alliances, betrayals and truths and lies, there are no complex motivations or traumas at play.

Due to the nature of the mystery, the novel will also be of interest to those who enjoy stories with a scientific background, particularly Physics (although I don’t know enough about quantum physics to comment on its accuracy). A detailed knowledge of the subject is not necessary to follow the book but I suspect it will be particularly amusing to those who have a better understanding of the theory behind it. (The author does not claim expertise and thanks those who helped her with the research in her acknowledgements). The book also touches on serious subjects, including moral and ethical issues behind scientific research and the responsibility of individuals versus that of the state regarding public safety. But do not let that put you off. The book is a short, fast and action-driven story that requires a good attention span and will be particularly enjoyed by writers and readers who enjoy complex, puzzle-like mysteries, or more accurately, those who like stories that are like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes.

I enjoyed this book that is clever and knowing, and I’d recommend in particular to readers who are also writers or enjoy books about writers, to those who like conspiracies, spies and mysteries, especially those with a backstory of science and physics, and to people who prefer plot-driven books and who love Hitchcock, Highsmith and Murder She Wrote.

 

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review 2017-05-07 23:08
Toni FGMAMTC's Reviews > Breakfast of Champions
Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut

This book is a crazy, seeming to head in all different directions. It covers a lot of social issues and much is about free will. It kind of makes fun of everything and is pretty 'out there' a lot. The way it is highlights how ridiculous things are in real life.

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review 2017-04-03 10:14
A dark revenge story recommended to readers looking for an author with a distinctive voice and style
A Shiny Coin For Carol Prentice - Mark Barry

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and I was provided with an ARC copy of the novel I freely chose to review.

Although I had heard about the author and read quite a few reviews of his previous books, this is the first of his novels I have read so I can’t compare it to his previous work. I know from his comments in the book that it links to another one of his novels, Carla (I won’t mention how, first, because I haven’t read the other novel, so I can’t comment on how well or badly that works, and second, because I’m going to try very hard not to reveal any spoilers) but I can put at rest the minds of all readers who are in the same circumstances as me. This book can be read as a stand-alone, although I suspect you’ll feel as curious as I am about Carla once you finish reading this novel. 

This novel is narrated in the first person by the eponymous Carol Prentice of the title. And yes, we get to know what the shiny coin means, but again, I’m not going to tell you. She’s a young woman; she’s just finished her degree at Manchester University and has to go back to her hometown because her father has passed away. She had avoided the town for several years (for good reasons as you’ll learn when you read the book) but she comes back to renovate the house and because the time has finally arrived to put her plan into practice. Of course, we don’t get to know about the plan until much later in the novel, but we have some hints throughout. She gets a job at a bookshop (so there are some interesting discussions about literature, mostly initiated by her boss, Steve, who is a connoisseur, not only of books but also of ales and many other things) and it’s not long before ghosts from her past come knocking. What at first appears to be a snotty and spoilt young man’s tantrum turns into a black hole sucking in everything and everybody. Almost.

The novel has some meta-fictional aspects. I’ve already mentioned the conversations about literature, psychology concepts (like the halo effect, perceptual closure), Steve was an author years ago back but did not make it and has strong opinions about popular literature and bestsellers (if you love James Patterson or Fifty Shades, look away now), and the author of this novel, Mark Barry, also makes a cameo appearance in it. As I said before, I haven’t read any of his other works but from some of the reviews, I get the sense that he has appeared in some others. He does not have a big part, and it reminded me of Hitchcock’s appearances in his movies (although Barry’s is a bit more significant than that).

As the novel is narrated in the first-person, we get a close look into the functioning of Carol’s mind and we get to know her better than other characters. She seems to focus a lot of her attention on how people smell (and it’s not always pleasant), what clothes they wear, and how they look. She has some annoying speech habits. There are plenty of ‘like’, ‘I so’, ‘totally’… Those appear not only when she’s talking to others but also when she’s thinking, despite the fact that she’s fairly articulate and perceptive in other ways. It might be funny for some readers and perhaps somewhat annoying for others, but it keeps her real and the story will hook everybody in and will make you keep reading no matter what. Carol says quite a few times that she cannot feel, that she observes things but does not feel them, and when we’ve gone over half the novel she eventually tells Steve why. I had my suspicions but the truth is worse. From her description of the events (that of course, I won’t reveal either) it becomes clear that she was experiencing them she tried to focus on anything but what was happening. She concentrated and observed objects, smells, décor, and it seems her current focus on describing things is a defence mechanism to keep events and people at bay, a way of remaining in control of what is happening as she felt powerless at the time. After her confession to Steve, the floodgates open and she starts feeling again, including acknowledging her complex feelings for Steve, that is difficult to know if they are projected from her need to have support as he becomes some sort of a father figure, or are genuine. She herself is not so sure.

Steve is the other character we get to know in detail, although of course always from Carol’s point of view and this is biased. She likes him from the beginning and he seems a genuinely nice man, much older than her, who’s tried many things and seems to have settled into a quiet life. He is not one for talking much about his feelings (he talks about everything else, though) and he is a recognisable and multi-dimensional character, with a strong sense of moral, that gets caught in a situation not of his making, but doesn’t seem willing or able to extricate himself from it.

Other than Carol and Steve, there aren’t many characters we get to know through the novel. There’s Toby, the baddy, a handsome and rich young man and a bully who believes rules and laws don’t apply to him; there’s also his father, and some other characters that only appear briefly (like the chief of police) but they aren’t as well developed. They only play a minor part in the drama and don’t hold that much of the narrator’s attention. By contrast, the town becomes quite a recognisable character in its own right, with its social mores, its politics and its royalty (so to speak).

The novel is written in a very colloquial way as pertains to the character narrating it (I’ve already mentioned the characteristics of Carol’s language) and there are plenty of references and words very local that might be a bit obscure to readers from outside the UK (or even the region) but that is part of what makes it so distinctive and vivid.

The novel offers quite a few surprises and reveals them slowly. I think most readers will have a variety of hypothesis about what’s going to happen, what the baddies will do next and what the plan is. I’m not sure many people will guess right and is an interesting and effective twist. This is a novel of revenge and just deserts that highlights the fact that there is always a price to pay. We might feel we need to exact revenge to be at peace but things are never quite as easy. With regards to what sets off what Carol describes as ‘the war’ it is pretty banal but, as she acknowledges, it’s not really about that and unfortunately other people get in the middle and end up becoming ‘collateral damage’. It did make me think of Hannah Arendt and her concept of ‘the banality of evil’. In this case not only about the evil person but about what sets it all off.  It does not take much for some people to ruin a person’s life, just because they can…  I’ve already mentioned the ending but I wanted to add that the ending is also a beginning.

I know I’ve been a bit cryptic about this novel but I had to be. I recommend it to those who like stories with psychologically complex characters, where the how is as important as the what, and to readers who’re looking for an author with a distinctive voice and style.  (There is some violence, some talk about sex and disturbing content but none of it is extremely explicit or gore. It is more what we feel at the time of reading it than what is on the page.)

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review 2017-02-15 04:43
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
The Princess Bride - William Goldman

Even though I’ve seen the movie a dozen times, it wasn’t until last week that I picked up The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. I needed something purely escapist (because I live in America and am a frustrated liberal and I read the news) to read and I couldn’t think of anything better than this book. Fortunately, the magic of The Princess Bride still works even if you already know the story back to front...

 

Read the rest of my review at A Bookish Type.

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review 2017-01-29 05:18
A Gothic Tour
The Poe Estate - Polly Shulman

This is an homage to Gothic fiction lovers aimed at younger readers. I loved that about this book. It's metafiction that takes it even deeper. There is story within a story within a story. I read The Wells Bequest first, which is the science fiction volume of this series. I liked it, but I liked this more because I love Gothic/Classic horror. It's apparent that Shulman does as well. I made a note of all the books she alluded to. Many I had read, but I got ideas for others to look up and read.

The overall concept was well done, and some elements were quite serious for a MG level book. This book deals with death in a very matter-of-fact way. Suki's sister died and her ghost is her protector. Except Kitty is getting to be problematic in her protectiveness, leading to Suki's reputation as being weird, and Suki needs to let her go. Her parents have to move in with a great, great-aunt into a house that is part of her family's strange and tragic history. As Suki gets drawn into an adventure related to her ancestor's tie to the house and interacts with employees from the New York Circulating Repository, she learns that it's important to accept her sister's death and try to move on.

I couldn't give this book higher than 3.5 stars because it is written in too lightweight a fashion. Some serious topics are put out there and there are deeper levels that don't get delved into with this book. I feel that there was a longer book inside of this one that didn't get written. I understand that some things had to be pared down due to format, but I would have liked to see that other book that this book shows potential for turned out. On the good side, I love how multicultural it is, and the fact that all families aren't the same, and that hardworking people experience financial difficulties and lose their homes and jobs. Not because they are lazy, but because of things outside their control. Suki is a strong young girl to go through all of this and keep on going. I had mad respect for her and her family. I cried about her sister and some of the tragic events from her family's past.

I love the metafiction concept. I could read about that for days. I could have spent hours more delving into this interest world that Shulman created. I wish I had 100 more pages of this gem. I will always be a cheerleader for middle grade fiction. While I was somewhat disappointed with this book, I would still recommend it to readers who love classic and Gothic horror.

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