A pacey but lacking dystopian fiction

‘The Only Boy’ – Jordan Locke

2-star-rating-1

The Only Boy - Jordan Locke

The Only Boy – Jordan Locke

Mary is stuck in Section One, living with three hundred women in a crumbling hospital. She wonders what life was like two centuries ago, before the Cleansing wiped out all the men. But the rules—the Matriarch’s senseless rules—prevent her from exploring the vacant city to find out.

Taylor’s got a dangerous secret: he’s a boy. His compound’s been destroyed, and he’s been relocated to Section One. Living under the Matriarch means giving up possessions, eating canned food and avoiding all physical contact. Baggy clothes hide his flat chest and skinny legs, but if anyone discovers what lies beneath, he’ll be exiled. Maybe even executed.

Mary’s never seen a boy—the Matriarch cut the pictures of men from the textbooks—and she doesn’t suspect Taylor’s secret. If she knew, she might understand the need to stop the girls from teasing him. If she knew, she might realize why she breaks the rules, just to be near him. Then again, she might be frightened to death of him.

Taylor should go. The Matriarch is watching his every move. But running means leaving Mary—and braving the land beyond the compound’s boundaries.

In this dystopian novel, readers are presented with a society that has been destroyed by a disease, wiping out all men. ‘The Only Boy’ is a relatively short novel and, as a result, Locke has the pace moving quickly. And in my opinion, it was this that made the read feel a little one-dimensional.

I very quickly found myself intrigued about how this dystopian society ran and how history had caused the total wipe-out of all men. Readers are given this in snapshots throughout the story and I think it would have been better if this background was given in more detail, early on in the story. As such, when I realised that Locke was not going to be forthcoming with this detail, I found myself getting a little frustrated with the plot .

In this sense, I found it quite difficult to connect with the characters because I did not know enough about their backgrounds. Don’t get me wrong, we find out about Mary and Taylor, what happened to their mothers, and the role they play in society. But I felt this was a little lacking and sometimes I found it difficult to understand a character’s motives.

Mary and Taylor are cleverly portrayed to be opposites in their viewpoint and Locke subtly presents this throughout the story. Their interpretation of different ways of living made me smirk a few times, such as eating freshly grown food versus tinned, and it just showed how different Mary and Taylor’s backgrounds are.

The plot yo-yous between different settings and this made me feel like the story was not progressing. There are numerous times of being captured and escaping and it didn’t feel like the characters were getting anywhere. I would have liked to learn more about the “Earthers” who live in the forest and how they grew to be their own clan because they appear to live such different lives to what Mary especially is used to.

Switching between Mary and Taylor’s viewpoint kept this plot refreshing and new, particularly as I found the story becoming a little repetitive after about half way through. I enjoyed reading about how each adapted to their new surroundings after being captured and how they dealt with the other’s death, (or so they thought). However, I was surprised that Taylor being the only boy was revealed so early on in the story; I was expecting this to be the driving force of events.

I think that this is a pretty average dystopian fiction to read and I confess I feel there are stronger novels out there. The ending was a little disappointing and I found I had even more questions than answers. That being said, it did match the quick pace of the rest of the story, so Locke retains this consistently. This is definitely an easy read to get into and one that gets you drawn in to the narrative quite quickly. If dystopian fiction is your thing then you may want to think twice before reading it as I believe there are far stronger books out there than ‘The Only Boy’.

Divided loyalties

‘Enemies of the Heart’ – Rebecca Dean

5-star-rating

Image courtesy of goodreads.com

Enemies of the Heart – Rebecca Dean

Berlin 1909, cousins Zelda and Vicky are about to meet the Remer brothers – an evening that will change their lives forever…

Vicky Hudson is only seventeen when she marries Berthold and moves from her idyllic Yorkshire home to Berlin. Adjusting to her new life isn’t easy, not least when she discovers that the Remer family are producing weaponry for the German army. With war looming, Vicky flees with her children, leaving Berlin, and her husband, behind.

Striking dark-haired beauty Zelda Wallace is eager to meld into Berlin’s high society and sever all ties with her American identity. But beneath her exotic looks, Zelda holds a deeply hidden secret that if revealed, could threaten everything she holds dear…

To sum it up, “wow”. Once I got started in this novel and got to know the characters, I couldn’t put down Enemies of the Heart. Spanning two world wars, this follows how a German-English family is tested through loyalties towards their country versus their own personal beliefs.

The way that author seamlessly moves the narrative away from Vicky and Zelda to their children meant that the pace of the story continued and it really did not feel like a 600-page novel. However, I was never left wondering what was happening to the other characters in different locations. The lengthy chapters covered several areas at once over a small time period and it was fascinating to read how the family’s lives were changing as a result of the Second World War in particular.

The constant fear that a member of their extended family had been injured or killed in the war kept the tension throughout the story. The lack of communication that the characters had with one another had me desperate to find out whether the family would be reunited at all and I was always wanting them to know that their siblings/parents were doing ok. When these small reunions did happen, it was a relief shared by the characters and myself alike and proved a relaxing respite from the terrors of the war.

It was incredible to read how each member of this family’s life became so different to one another. Although so many of the siblings lived in Berlin, their experiences of war were different yet, equally terrifying. Indeed, it made me realise the hardships that Germans suffered and provided an alternative angle to the Second World War, one that I had not previously considered.

Most of this book was read with my heart in my mouth as I feared each character’s actions would expose them as challenging the Nazi regime. Dean has you loving the characters and caring for them: wanting each to return to their loved one safely and for them all to be reunited. It is this that made this such an enjoyable read and one that I couldn’t put down. The evolution of all of the characters and narrative was a clever way of telling the story and I found that by the end of the novel, I had a connection with all of them, even characters who I didn’t really like at the beginning of this story.

I cannot recommend this book enough and would definitely read this book again. It does not drown readers in historical fact and the character lives that you follow are all varied. There is never a dull moment and the way that everything links together at the end was very satisfying. I am really keen to read other books by this author and if they are anything like Enemies of the Heart, then I know I am in for a real treat.

Drama and turmoil for a mother and her two daughters

‘Better Days Will Come’ – Pam Weaver

5-star-rating

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Better Days Will Come – Pam Weaver

Worthing, 1947:

Widowed Grace Roberts comes home from her factory job one day to find that her eldest daughter Bonnie has run away to London. Utterly distraught she has no choice but to carry on with her life, struggling to make ends meet for her and youngest daughter Rita. Her boss, Norris Finley is a powerful and calculating man. He promises to assist Grace, but his help will come at a hefty price…

Pregnant Bonnie arrives in London eager to be reunited with George so they can begin their new life together. But while she waits anxiously on the platform at Victoria station, he never turns up. Unable to return home as she can’t bear the thought of bringing shame to her family, she is left to fend for herself and her unborn baby.

Disturbed by the apparent relationship between her mother and Norris, Rita flees home and meets Emilio who she marries. Yet Emilio is guarding a deep secret and when Rita uncovers the truth, she is left heartbroken.

Caught in the very worst of times and separated from one another, can the strong bond of family love eventually bring Grace, Bonnie and Rita back together again?

From the start of this novel, it is clear that the close relationship Grace believed she had with her daughters has fractured, and the cracks continue to spread as more wrongs are carried out and the three characters drift further apart. The desperation to see the “silver lining” drives Grace and Bonnie to new lows, whilst her youngest daughter, Rita, appears very innocent in the ways of life.

The villain of this novel, Norris Finley, causes trouble for all three women and I was desperate to see him punished for his actions. The web of lies he has woven around the town where he lives is impressive as are the means he will go to to keep his secrets undiscovered. But when we are introduced to his wife and we learn more about her as a character, I knew that she would become the catalyst to his downfall at long last.

I enjoyed the way that Weaver linked her characters through relationships, previous events and plot development. My heart was in my mouth at times because of the tension as the novel reached its climax, and this really made it a page-turner for me. However, what was disappointing for me was how naive she has made Rita. Her relationship with Emilio is obviously wrong and the signs that are around Rita go blissfully unnoticed. Yes, Weaver wants to create an innocent young woman who is quite naive, but I found it more that Rita was dense and a little stupid, which was just a bit irritating for me.

This is the first book that I have read by Pam Weaver and I really enjoyed it. A heart-warming finish, all the characters get their “just desserts” and there were plenty of surprises along the way. A drama that explores post-war desperations, it was lovely to read a book with such a happy ending.

A satisfying read with a solid ending

‘The Return of Captain John Emmett’ – Elizabeth Speller

4-star-rating

Image courtesy of amazon.co.uk

The Return of Captain John Emmett – Elizabeth Speller

It is 1920 and Laurence Bartram has come through the First World War but lost his young wife and son. He receives a letter from the sister of his old friend, John Emmett. Why, she wonders, did Emmett survive the war only to kill himself? Laurence begins to investigate…

I was a bit dubious when I picked up this book. According to The Independent, this novel is ‘the new ‘Birdsong’ – only better’. And I really enjoyed ‘Birdsong’ so felt this gave Speller’s book high expectations. Suffice to say, it took me a while to get into the pace of the novel and I found myself only really beginning to enjoy the mystery after I had read the first one hundred pages.

This is a good mystery that does not drown in historical fact. Whilst the mystery focuses on the First World War, there are plenty of elements to the novel that make this an enjoyable read. I did find it quite comical that Laurence seems to get so much information from his friend, Charles, and felt that at times, the whole process could be sped up if Laurence simply continued to interview his friend! But, it is as if Speller realised this and introduced more characters into the mix who seemingly could provide more ambiguous clues to the mystery surrounding John Emmett’s apparent suicide.

Whilst I did find the investigations a little exhausting, I couldn’t help but suspect each character that Laurence met in his quest for the truth. The scenes with Chilvers and son I found rather chilling, imagining the treatment carried out at the veterans hospital. Disappointingly, this did just become a product of my over-active imagination and I wonder whether Speller could have expanded this part of the plot a little more to add further substance to the story.

So, is this book like ‘Birdsong’? Personally, I don’t think so. Few flashbacks in first person mean that readers are relying on character versions of events which fuel the mystery that Laurence is investigating. Whilst it provides an insight into WWI, I think Speller’s offering demonstrates the wide-spread effect one event can have on so many people. Overall, I think that this is a good read with a satisfying ending that answers all of your questions.

A tale of unwavering friendship

‘Land Girls’ – Angela Huth

Image courtesy of waterstones.com

Land Girls – Angela Huth

With the country’s men at war, it falls to the land girls to pitch in and do their bit… Stella arrives at Hallows Farm in her Rayon stockings, having just waved goodbye to the love of life – naval officer Philip. Agatha has just graduated from Cambridge; life on the Farm is certainly going to offer her a different kind of education. Prue, a hairdresser from Manchester, is used to painting the town red, not manual labour. Joe dreams of leaving the family farm and becoming a fighter pilot. But with the arrival of these three beautiful young women, there’s enough to keep him busy on the farm for the time being… Work is hard and the effects of war start to take their toll on the three women. But as the bonds of friendship start to form and excitement builds as the RAF dance looms, maybe life in the countryside isn’t so bad after all?

‘The Land Girls’ is a heart-warming story that shows how friendship can endure over time and destruction. Following the lives of three land girls in the second World War, Angela Huth looks at what it must have been like for them in terms of love, life, work and friendship.

The three land girls have such contrasting personalities that readers will find one who they can relate to and I think the author has deliberately done this to allow readers to immerse themselves in the story. Whilst you cannot ignore the fact this is set during the war and based on the real land girls, Huth uses some comedy to make light of what was a very bleak period. And I think it is this, and the relationship that exists between all of the characters, that makes this story so heart warming.

Following Mr and Mrs Lawrence as they adapt to having land girls is interesting to observe as the writer initially presents them as quite cold and stand-offish. In contrast, their son Joe spends the novel rebelling against what is expected of him by society and his parents and the reader can’t help but support Joe in his conquests with the girls, even if they really shouldn’t! On the other hand the reader follows Ratty, the farm’s old hand, and the changes he undergoes through working with the land girls. Whilst there is some sense of liberty at the end of the story, the reader can’t help but feel sorry for him and what he has been through.

This is definitely one to read. Whilst you know that Huth has fictionalised the story of the land girls and given it a heart – warming edge, there are plenty of elements to the story that make you sit and think about what life was like during the second World War. This will give you the escapism desired from a novel, but with the added dimension of its historical context.