Book Review: The Toll (Book 3 of Arch of a Scythe Series) by Neal Shusterman

TL;DR – Scythe Goddard rules the new Scythedom. Greyson Tolliver is now ‘The Toll’ and the only one who can communicate directly to the Thunderhead. The Thunderhead seeks to secure humanity’s future but needs to do so without being interfered by Goddard who seeks to thwart any plans to create a world where Scythes are not needed. Citra and Rowan were critical to the Thunderhead in creating a future of hope but, with the sinking of Endura, they are now forever lost. Or are they?

Summary (warning: spoilers)

For my review of Scythe (Book 1 of Arc of a Scythe series) and Thunderhead (Book 2 of Arc of a Scythe series) by Neal Shusterman, and what has happened previously please click here for my book reviews page.

After the sinking of Endura and the deaths of the Grandslayers, the new Scythe order is declared with Goddard as Overblade. Under his rule, Scythes are allowed to glean without restriction. However, not all regions agree to Goddard’s authority.

Meanwhile all non-Scythes (i.e. the rest of humanity) has been declared unsavoury by the Thunderhead. All except Greyson whose previous unsavoury status was lifted and is now the only one who has a direct connection to the AI. The religious Tonists have now titled him ‘The Toll’ (a prophet who will guide the rest of the world).

The Thunderhead sees the bigger picture and aims to secure humanity’s future, a future that does not require Scythes that have become corrupt with power. To do so, it needs to set in motion a plan that will require assistance from those not aligned with Goddard but also evolve itself to a new level of existence (an existence that seeks only to provide hope for humanity).

Citra and Rowan were believed to have perished in the sinking of Endura. Goddard wants to make sure their bodies are never retrieved. But the Thunderhead has other ideas.

Review

The dramatic conclusion to the Arc of a Scythe series is complex in its telling without being overwhelming. Shusterman is able to combine many threads of plot to weave a tapestry that provides the final picture of this gripping trilogy.

There are many themes explored in book three including power and responsibility, political and religious beliefs, sexual identity, tragedy and hope, mortal and immortal life and purpose, love and hate, reliance on technology, and what it means to be human. Shusterman blends these themes into an exquisite final book that concludes an epic tale of a dystopian (or utopian, depending on your point of view) earth.

I would love to know how much time Shusterman spent in mapping out the final arc. Not just the time taken but also how he went about plotting the concluding climatic scenes and tying together the numerous sub-plots. It is an achievement that has resulted in this trilogy deservedly winning numerous awards and has been picked up by Universal Studios to be adapted into a film.

Book three tells the story on a global scale. Shusterman had no choice (and likely every intention) to do this as book two expanded far further than the primary two protagonists in Citra and Rowan. To tell a story about humanity as a whole and the all-seeing, all-knowing Thunderhead required that the plotline went this way. This is both a strength and a weakness in the final book.

As a strength, it satisfied me (very happily) in terms of concluding what happens to the Scythedom, the Thunderhead, the Tonists and humanity’s future. All the large scale stuff is not left wanting and Shusterman ensures that he covers off on all bases. Hats off because this was no easy feat.

As a weakness, it means book three zooms out from the characters we love. Book one was all about Citra and Rowan, they are the pair that the lens focused on and their plight drove me to fully invest into the next two books. Book two still follows Citra and Rowan, but now includes the Thunderhead and Greyson Tolliver. I confess this made me struggle initially in the first few chapters of book two because all I really wanted to follow was Citra and Rowan. But the ending of book two was so brilliant that it blew my mind and I gave it a perfect score. In book three, Citra, Rowan and Greyson are all there but their roles while integral are only three pieces in a giant puzzle. Zooming out means you do not necessarily get the same emotion running through you when you read each chapter because Citra, Rowan and Greyson are already established. It is now about the world’s plight rather than just their individual plights and in this way, I felt book three did not move me in the same way as books one and two did.

But this is a very small quip in what is an outstanding creation of work. Fans of sci-fi and young adult fiction should devour this series.

4.5 out of 5.

Book Review: Thunderhead (Book 2 of Arch of a Scythe Series) by Neal Shusterman

TL;DR – The Scythedom is experiencing internal politics between two groups; one that wishes to move away from the old laws surrounding how they glean and the other that seeks to uphold the established principles. There is much afoot including Citra who is causing quite a stir with her revolutionary approach to gleaning and the ongoing hunt for Rowan who is targeting Scythes he deems as corrupt. All the while, the Thunderhead seeks a way forward for humanity.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

For my review of Scythe (Book 1 of Arc of a Scythe series) by Neal Shusterman, and what has happened previously please click here.

When last we read about Citra and Rowan, they both started journeys down different paths. Citra is now Scythe Anastasia. Though she does not see herself as any kind of revolutionary, her approach to gleaning is a significant leap outside of how scythes normally operate. While most scythes execute their duties in efficient and no warning type fashion, Citra gives those she chooses to be gleaned one month to get their affairs in order and to express how they wish to be gleaned. This causes quite a stir among the Scythedom and is of particular interest to the Thunderhead (the all-seeing artificial intelligence in the cloud), who monitors closely all of Citra’s movements.

Rowan’s path is less one that he has chosen and more one that has been forced upon him. Calling himself Scythe Lucifer, he seeks to weed out corrupt scythes and is a ‘most wanted’ figure by the Scythedom. Going rogue is tough business and as such he has to stay under the radar. But Thunderhead sees all and is also monitoring Rowan’s actions too.

Enter Greyson Tolliver, a person essentially raised by the Thunderhead, who wants to give back not only to humanity but to the Thunderhead himself… herself… er… itself. He feels compelled to become a Nimbus agent (the Thunderhead’s human counterparts that operate out of the Office of the Authority Interface (OAI) in regions all around the world and who help maintain a state of order). He enrols in the Nimbus Academy as a student to go through all the necessary courses and training to become an agent. His life is mapped out and on track. That is, until he gets called into the OAI headquarters and has a strange conversation with an Agent Traxler. A conversation that will change his life.

Review

Chapter 8 of the Thunderhead makes it clear in black and white: “The Thunderhead was power without hubris”. It is an interesting idea given we, as humans, have been designed with an instinct that centres around fight or flight. Our existence has survived the centuries because we are built with a defence mechanism. When confronted with a potential danger, our survival instinct will kick in and assess the situation that will drive us to either fight or flight.

To varying degrees this extends to how we live today. From crossing the road at a busy intersection to making business deals or buying/selling stocks to living in a country torn by war, our mind and instincts assess risks and make choices based on accepting or not accepting those risks.

When it comes to technology, there are many people who have a genuine fear of it. Aptly named ‘technophobia’, some have an inherent mistrust in advanced technology; the reasons are varied and complex. So to imagine an artificial intelligence that has achieved consciousness that has no guile, no malice, and no agenda other than to care for humanity sounds like an impossible idea. But that is what Neal Shusterman imagines when he refers to the Thunderhead in the ‘Arc of a Scythe’ series.

It is an impressive achievement for the Thunderhead becomes an integral character that is explored in book two of this stunning trilogy. The world is without death and disease and everyone can rely on the Thunderhead to serve and help them. In fact, at any point in time, the Thunderhead can communicate to a billion people simultaneously and it will not tax its resources (to the individual, it will feel like the Thunderhead is only talking to them). There is no ability for the Thunderhead to be corrupted by the power it wields.

Even those individuals who wish to rebel against the establishment, who want nothing to do with the Thunderhead, and seek to disrupt the Utopian society (and/or break the law) are unable to do anything significant because the Thunderhead is aware of such plans ahead of time and are caught. The Thunderhead labels these individuals as ‘unsavory’, who meet with human peace officers weekly and are unable to communicate to the Thunderhead.

The Thunderhead is not so much a ruler as it is a facilitator to assist humans in living their lives. However, there is one area that the Thunderhead cannot intervene and that is in relation to the Scythedom. An organisation with the responsibility to cull human population to ensure overpopulation does not become a problem.

This is the trigger that drives the story in book two because when the Thunderhead becomes aware that there is a plot involving the assassination of Citra and her teacher, Scythe Curie, it cannot intercede as it has no jurisdiction over Scythe affairs. In fact, the Thunderhead goes to great lengths by instructing Nimbus Agent Traxler to meet with Nimbus Academy freshman Greyson Tolliver and reiterate the rules between the Scythedom and the Thunderhead. Agent Traxler goes so far as to say that even if the Thunderhead became aware of a plot to murder Citra and Curie, it would not be able to do anything. Further, should a Nimbus agent (or even say an Academy freshman) were to take matters into their own hands and meddle with Scythe affairs then the Thunderhead would have no choice but to impose penalties on such an individual.

In this way, Greyson is informed of a potential plot and being (indirectly) asked to act without being (directly) asked to act. The Thunderhead has done nothing to breach its laws, but it understands who Greyson is and how he will react. In the end, it is Greyson’s choice whether to act on this information. And we, as the reader, knows he will.

Much to his dismay, even though Greyson saves Citra and Curie from being killed, he is marked unsavory for his actions by the Thunderhead and can no longer converse with it.

What follows are a series of events surrounding all the main cast from book one and now including Greyson, the Tonists (a post-mortal religious group), and the search for an island that supposedly contains a fail-safe in the event the Scythedom go off the rails.

The middle book in trilogies can sometimes be challenging, but Shusterman has somehow written a second book that exceeds the first. The ending of book two blew my mind.

And I am not talking about the climactic scene at Endura involving the wiping out of a whole heap of Scythes including the leadership in the Grandslayers.

I am also not talking about the eventual death of Scythe Curie and what appears to be the final curtain coming down on Citra and Rowan.

I am talking about the Thunderhead’s reaction and what happens to Greyson at the very end. I know this review has spoilers, but I cannot bring myself to spoil that by revealing what happens. You will have to read it yourself.

Mind… blown…

5 out of 5.

Book Review: Chew (Volume Six) “Space Cakes” by John Layman and Rob Guillory

TL;DR – With Tony Chu out of action, the story turns to his twin sister, NASA special agent Toni Chu. Her story is one to die for.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to see what has happened in previous volumes of this award winning graphic novel series. Volume Six revolves around Toni Chu, a Cibovoyant and NASA agent who has the power to see certain bits of the future by taking bites out of living people.

Her story involves being roped in by her chef old brother, Chow Chu, to investigate Barnabas Cremini, a collector of food art where the depictions are so real that if you lick the painting, you can taste the food; hunting down D-Bear who has stolen psychedelic chogs (genetically engineered combination of psychedelic frogs and chicken) and has been serving them in an underground restaurant; her on again off again relationship with her boss Paneer; stopping Professor Angus Hinterwald who has found a way to trigger a gene within beef to cause them to explode at the first sign of decomposition; and uncovering the murder of Judy Heinz-Campbell who had the ability to craft face masks out of food that transforms a person’s appearance.

Volume 6 also has an interlude chapter on Poyo, the killer rooster, whose resurrection from the depths of hell is pretty darn funny.

The final chapter sees Toni preparing to marry Paneer only to conclude in shocking fashion.

Review

John Layman and Rob Guillory know how to turn on the afterburners, propelling you along and engaging your heart in the exuberant and gregarious life of Antonelle “Toni” Chu and then thrusting you skyward without a parachute causing you to crash to the earth in a bloody mess. Your heart will never be the same.

Toni is the fraternal twin of Tony Chu (who we follow in the first five volumes). She is almost the antithesis of Tony. She is happy-go-lucky to Tony being always serious. She is full of life and energy while Tony is often gloomy and down. She enjoys a party while Tony probably prefers reading a book. She has a positive relationship with her family while Tony does not.

It is a fresh contrast and I was gripped in its pages from the get go. Splattered between the various plots that Toni gets involved in, she bumps into Ceasar Valenzano (FDA agent and sometimes partner to Tony Chu) several times. Each time, Ceasar believes Toni looks familiar and flashbacks occur that reveal they have in fact met before on different occasions and settings (once at a party leading to some drunken sex in the janitor’s closet). But Toni flat out denies they know each other every time (even though she does remember and it gives her the giggles). This laissez-faire attitude summarises Toni’s character.

She’s charming, adorable, loves her family, and can kick ass when the moment requires. One could not have a cooler twin.

And then Layman and Guillory decide to rip your heart out. Yes, dear readers, they make you care and then they laugh in your face. The first hint that something is not right comes at the end of chapter 4 where Paneer confesses his love to her, proposes marriage and allows Toni to bite his shoulder to get a glimpse into their future. Her ‘food power’ showing her that Paneer genuinely loves her and so she agrees to marry him. But when they hug, you see her expression (Paneer doesn’t see it because they’re hugging) and it is one of horror. I wanted to ignore this panel in the graphic novel. Almost doing a double take and thinking Guillory has illustrated her incorrectly, why does she look so sad and horrified when just a moment before she was happy to say yes to Paneer?

All is revealed in the final chapter when Toni goes shopping for a wedding dress with Paneer and is kidnapped by the Serbian cibopath known as The Vampire (an enemy of both Tony and Mason Savoy who is seeking to cannibalise and absorb all individuals that have ‘food powers’. Toni has already foreseen this happening and she allows it to happen because she knows it will lead to her brother eventually stopping The Vampire. In horrifying illustrations, Guillory depicts Toni tied to a chair but both her legs and one arm already amputated by The Vampire. The Vampire attempts to feed on her limbs but is unable to absorb her seeing-into-the-future powers (the reasons for this are revealed in flashbacks, and you understand that Toni has been preparing herself to be kidnapped and to thwart The Vampire’s plans). Toni does not give an inch and taunts The Vampire saying she has already seen the future and it is one where Tony will hunt him down to the ends of the earth, beating him to a pulp, before finally killing him. In a rage of frustration, The Vampire breaks Toni’s neck.

In the final panels, we see a flashback of Toni and Ceasar as little children, meeting at a playground. They begin to talk and Toni reveals her powers. Ceasar asks to know his future (not realising that Toni will need to bite him in order to see it). Toni does just that and reveals to him that he will be part of a team of special agents that will save the world. This flashback finally clicks in Ceasar’s memory and he remembers her but this happens after he breaks the news to the Chu family that Toni is dead.

John Layman and Rob Guillory… I hate you.

Yet I must concede that Volume 6 of Chew is story-telling and art at its finest.

5 out of 5.

Book Review: A Slow Burning Fire by Paula Hawkins

TL;DR – when Daniel Sutherland is found murdered on his narrowboat in Regent’s Canal, North London, the locals are naturally shocked. Those linked to Daniel and those who were last to see him alive are all interviewed by detectives. What is uncovered is a history of family tragedy and how preconceptions can lead to false assumptions of just who holds the power to the truth.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Laura makes bad choices. The latest involving hooking up with Daniel Sutherland who is later found murdered in his narrowboat and she becomes the primary suspect.

Miriam lives on a narrowboat next to Daniel and witnesses Laura, blood on her face, limping away on the towpath. People see Miriam as a hermit, an old spinster, who sticks her nose in other people’s business. She is the one who finds Daniel’s body.

Carla is Daniel’s aunt. Divorced to Theo with a history of tragedy. First she lost her three year old son, Ben, then her sister Angela (Daniel’s mother) dies in a horrible accident, and now her nephew Daniel has been murdered. She is haunted by her past, can barely function in the present, and does not know how to look forward to the future.

Theo is a somewhat successful author. His novel – The One Who Got Away – achieved success but has received controversy as well as a claim by Miriam that Theo based key events in the novel on a memoir she wrote and shared with him. Theo, like his ex-wife Carla, has never managed to move on from the death of his son.

Irene lives next door to Angela, an eighty year old widower who never managed to have children of her own. She has her own personal demons and remembers quite well the arguments Angela and Daniel used to have, which carried through paper thin walls of their neighboring homes.

Questions of who killed Daniel and why leads to uncovering truths about the past, both horrifying and tragic for all those who had links direct and indirect with Daniel.

Review

A Slow Fire Burning is Paula Hawkins third novel published in the mystery thriller genre and examines the effects of neglect and the assumptions people have of others by their appearance and mannerisms.

Hawkins does an admirable job in depicting a cast of characters that are all deeply flawed in some way. On the surface, these flaws are unlikeable as opposed to interesting. I was in danger of losing empathy with practically all the main characters in this novel.

Generally, characters must have flaws in some manner otherwise the story will be dead boring. It is neither believable nor interesting when a character is perfect. Flaws create layers and demonstrate humanity that allows a reader to connect and become invested in that character’s plight. But Hawkins dares to create a bunch of characters that are all unsavoury in a way that will make you feel you don’t care what happens to them.

However, Hawkins manages to walk this tightrope and slowly reveal that there are deep seeded reasons to their behaviour. Not all of them pleasant but at least understandable, and you can see why they act the way that they do.

A Slow Fire Burning is not so much a mystery thriller as it is an examination of how the seeming powerless seize power, and the method by which they do so is not always altruistic or just. In fact, for many, it is power for selfish reasons only.

Surprisingly, what helps carry the story is the main detective, DI Barker, which one of the main characters, Laura, calls “Egg” because he has a head shaped like a cue ball and is completely bald. Barker is intelligent (not Sherlock Holmes intelligent but smart enough at his job) and he exhibits a level of empathy that was needed in this story.

The mistake that the main characters make when they interact with each other is judging who they are and what they are like from their appearance and external habits. Even Theo and Carla who were previously married and have a deeper understanding make false assumptions about each other. The reasons for these assumptions lead to igniting the slow burn to obtain power or revenge or justice (depending on whose eyes you look through) and stems from complex and tragic past events experienced by each of them.

Barker, on the other hand, is not burdened by their past. He was not part of any of the tragedies experienced by each of them. At the same time, he’s not presumptuous nor a cold-hearted fact finder focused only on the evidence to determine Daniel’s murderer. He is as human as the rest of the cast even if he is not so deeply flawed. Hawkins wisely uses him sparingly, but when he appears, he enhances the story and thankfully brings another dimension of humanity that is usually missing from law enforcement characters in these types of stories (unless the law enforcement officer is a main character, they are usually relegated to the background to indicate a crime is being investigated). Barker is a supporting character but is not left as a plot device in a crime mystery to indicate that the police are doing something. His interactions with Laura are particularly well done.

For the most of it, I found this book to be reasonably compelling, but one plot device is used near the end that deflated my enjoyment. The device is used on Miriam to allow progression of the plot between her and Theo. Unfortunately, the device is too convenient. It was like Hawkins was not sure how to put out one particular slow burning fire that was occurring between Miriam and Theo, so she threw in a series of last-minute scenes that would explain it and lead to a resolution between the two. I found it far-fetched because Hawkins does not give any hint that this is going to happen. She just inserts it at the end of a chapter, and you’ll be asking yourself, “Who the hell is this character? Why does she suddenly mention him after 32 chapters?” The remaining seven chapters plus epilogue explain the sudden appearance of this character, but it is all too coincidental and convenient. A shame really because the rest of it is decent read.

2.5 out of 5.

Book Review: Chew (Volume Five) “Major League” by John Layman and Rob Guillory

TL;DR – Tony gets kidnapped by a crazed sports writer, who wants to use his psychic food powers to obtain the histories of famous baseball players… famous (dead) baseball players. Given he achieves psychic impressions of the past only from items he eats, you know this is not going to be a pleasant.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to see what has happened in previous volumes of this award winning graphic novel series. Volume Five focuses on Tony Chu, his working partner, John Colby, and his estranged daughter, Olive.

Tony and John have been fired from the FDA and are assigned new jobs. Tony ends up in Traffic division riding a motorised scooter dressed in what looks like a Scottish bagpipe outfit and issuing parking tickets. What starts off as anger and reticence in what he perceives is a demeaning role turns out that he can still uncover crimes and make a significant positive difference. This leads to his new boss in Traffic division lauding him a hero and making Tony realise it helps working in an office where he actually gets along with his team (at the FDA, his boss made his life a living hell).

On the flip-side, John is assigned to the USDA; an all female government agency where agents are partnered with cybernetic-enhanced animals. Every agent seems to hate men, so when John ends up working in their agency, he is an immediate outcast. His boss, Director Penya, makes his life a living hell (similar to how Tony was treated by his former FDA boss) but unlike Tony (who put up with the hate), John takes action by sleeping with her resulting in some hilarious consequences.

Meanwhile, Olive has partnered up with the infamous Mason Savoy. She is unaware of the previous fall out between Savoy and Tony. Together with Caesar, they continue to hunt down individuals with food-related powers. One such individual is Hershel Brown, a fugitive that has the power to sculpt chocolate into any item and mimic the exact properties of that item (e.g. he can carve a machine gun out of chocolate and it will work like a real machine gun).

Tony’s elevated joy at the Traffic division is short-lived when he is ambushed and kidnapped by Dan Franks. Dan works as a sports-writer at the Mercury Sun, the same media outlet where Amelia Mintz works (Tony’s girlfriend). Dan used to date Amelia but she broke up with him, and he has been scoping out Tony for sometime. His true motives revealed in this volume.

Review

Chew Major League is as brutal and gripping as all the previous volumes. Both story and artwork move at a pace that makes you want to turn each page as quickly as possible, but this would be a mistake as you will miss on the small details that often hint to what will happen in future volumes. Being a graphic novel, the story is told through both words and art, so the need to take your time and absorb each panel is worthwhile and a testament to what Layman and Guillory have created.

Seeing Olive’s character unfold and her food-powers develop opens up a world of possibilities of where the story will go. And John’s exile to the USDA and his desperate attempts to get a hold of Tony (who he doesn’t know has been kidnapped) is hilarious yet he still manages to do his job uncovering a counterfeiting ring responsible for creating life-like cash notes made out of vegetables.

But this volume is really all about Tony. The purpose of his kidnapping surrounds Dan’s belief that famous baseball players have sordid stories and skeletons in the closet that would allow Dan to write a killer book titled ‘Superstar Sluggers’ Untold Sex Tales’. Tony is force fed the corpses of deceased baseball players and while he receives the images and histories of them, none of them have anything sordid to tell. So, he makes up tales in order to buy time.

In the end, it’s Amelia who comes to the rescue when she becomes suspicious of her boyfriend’s absence. Her own investigative skills come to the forefront in locating Tony. She almost doesn’t succeed but Tony (having consumed a number of famous deceased baseball players) uses newly acquired baseball skills to stop Dan. It’s all pretty ghastly but will still keep you glued to the page. As Tony collapses into Amelia’s arms having been bashed and beaten by his captors previously, she calls for an ambulance and Tony is rushed to hospital.

I cannot get my hands on the next volume quick enough.

4.5 out of 5.

Book Review: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

TL;DR – mystery crime about a two-year old gone missing, a family with dark secrets and a religious fundamentalist snake handling group. Past and present revealed chapter by chapter until they collide.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Kimberley Leamy lives in Melbourne, Australia and teaches photography. She is approached one day by a man who claims she is actually Sammy Went, a child who went missing twenty-six years earlier from Manson, Kentucky. The whole idea sounds absurd, especially when the memories of her childhood were generally happy, and she was raised by loving parents, Carol and Dean. However, when evidence is presented to her, she begins to doubt Carol and Dean are her biological parents and undertakes a journey to uncover her true origins.

Review

Christian White’s debut novel won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and is a gripping tale that alternates chapters between past and present to fill in the mystery behind the abduction and sudden disappearance of Sammy Went. It is a clever story if a bit convoluted, and White is adept at keeping the reader on course by tying you emotionally into Kimberley’s search for the truth and her own identity.

Travelling to America, she discovers a world completely different to the one she has lived for most of her life in Australia. And when it is revealed a Pentecostal fundamentalist group known as The Church of the Light Within is involved and part of their worship involves the handling of snakes, you know that things are going to get a little dark. The idea of snake handling is to demonstrate one’s faith and that you should be able to handle deadly snakes without being harmed. This also involves drinking snake venom and the individual not being poisoned.

Combining snake handling with the secrets being hidden by Kimberley’s biological family, you will find yourself turning the pages easily enough in a desire to see out Kimberley’s fate. It is a decent read though I would recommend The Wife and The Widow over this one. The last half of The Nowhere Child not delivering the thrills that the first half seeks to build up.

3 out of 5.

Book Review: The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

TL;DR – no one ever talks about the language unless you are Mark Forsyth.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

An essential (I repeat essential) book for every writer, budding author, lyricist/songwriter, screenwriter or individual who is curious about what makes a phrase stand out from another. A writer without this book is like a pianist without a piano.

Review

Mark Forsyth has gone to the effort of demystifying how the greatest writers write. What makes a convincing argument? How did the masters of rhetoric (e.g. Greek philosophers, American presidents, famous musicians like The Beatles etc.) capture audiences and have them listening to their every word? Why is Shakespeare considered the greatest playwright in the English language?

Did they have angels (or demons) on their shoulders whispering turns of phrase into their ears? Did some higher power bestow upon them a gift greater than the gab? Or were they all individuals of destiny guided by a clarity of purpose that was beyond us mere mortals?

The answer is no.

It is none of these things. Forsyth not only breaks down the tools that makes a sentence eloquent, but he demonstrates that even, what the world considers, the greatest writer that ever lived in Shakespeare came about his creations through the in-depth study of formal rhetoric.

From alliteration to hyperbole to anaphora, Forsyth is able to summarise each and every one of these tools and provide a plethora of examples to demonstrate its effectiveness.

For example, an epistrophe is the repetition of words at the end of consecutive sentences for emphasis. The Pulitzer prize-winning Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck uses this technique:

“Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. […] And when our folk eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Forsyth does much more than explain these tools to the reader. One would think dissecting passages from great works would be a dry topic, and understanding the difference between polyptoton and antanaclasis would not aid in one’s writing but instead just give you a mild headache. But what Forsyth does is he explains these tools not only in an accessible way but also with humour.

It is a genius piece of work and actually gives hope to anyone looking to tell a story and get published. I cannot recommend this book any more highly.

5 out of 5.

Book Review: Chew (Volume Four) “Flambe” by John Layman and Rob Guillory

TL;DR – In the aftermath of fiery alien writing appearing in the sky, the prohibition on poultry no longer seems a priority, but Tony Chu still has a job to do.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to see what has happened in previous volumes of this award winning graphic novel series. Volume Four begins with a flashback of a thriving chicken fast food industry and then the events of an avian flu that wiped out millions and resulted in the subsequent prohibition on cooking/dining/eating poultry.

Moving to present day and the appearance of fiery alien writing encircling the globe, and the population is no longer concerned with a poultry prohibition. Instead, everyone is focused on what the writing means. Is it first contact with an alien species? Is it an act of God indicating the end is nigh? Or something else entirely? The general agreement is that whatever the writing means, it isn’t good.

FDA Agent Tony Chu is still doing his job, investigating crimes related to food, but with government funds all now being poured into NASA to try and figure out the alien writing, enforcement of the poultry prohibition is taking a back seat.

Review

Chew Flambe begins to reveal more of Tony’s family, and building upon the introduction of the Chu household seen at the end of Volume Three (Chew Just Desserts). Specifically, Olive Chu (Tony’s estranged daugther) and Toni Chu (NASA special agent and Tony’s twin sister). The mystery of the alien writing is now at the forefront of this story arc and triggers many to react in different ways.

Chapter 1 has Tony hunting down an FDA agent that has gone AWOL by the name of Daniel Migdalo, who is a Voresophic (an individual with the power to look at pictures and give detailed historical profiles of the individuals in the pictures. He also needs to consume large amounts of food to fuel this cognitive/psychic power). Since the appearance of the alien writing, Daniel has gone off grid. When Tony finds him, he’s become ridiculously obese and has gone mad, continually spouting mathematical formulas, which one would have to think is reaction to seeing the alien writing. Whatever Daniel is trying to say is never understood as he attacks Tony only to lunge at a pack of mints which Tony throws out the apartment window. This results in Daniel going splat on the street below and killing himself.

Chapter 2 focuses on a nerd student (who has experienced constant bullying) at a school that Olive also attends. Said nerd has concocted some sort of drug that he puts in food and makes the person who consumes it do what he says. This results in the nerd getting revenge on the students who bullied him by inciting a food fight that ends in a blood bath of thrown cleavers, stabbing of forks and knives, and smashing of metal chairs over heads. Tony comes in to apprehend the nerd from blowing up the school.

Chapter 3 sees Tony and his partner, John Colby, joining a suicide mission to stop a mad General who has developed a bio-weapon that mimics what the avian flu did three decades ago. The reintroduction of the killer rooster Poyo is both hilarious and alarming.

Chapter 4 has Tony working with his twin sister, Toni, as they investigate Area 51 and bust a scientist making bullets from the metals of meteors. And the final Chapter involves Tony and John going undercover to get information on a cult that worships eggs and foretold the alien writing would come.

Throw in Mason Savoy who kidnaps Olive and a chunk of the earth disappearing (yes, literally going poof) and you can see there’s plenty to read in Chew Flambe. Lots go on and nothing is revealed as to the mystery of the alien writing that pervades in the sky. It’s a collection of stories of how people have reacted to it and how the world is devolving. The cliff hanger ending has ensured I will continue reading on in this excellent and weird series.

What has Savoy got in store for Olive? What is the explanation behind the alien writing? The various individuals that have powers connected to food still appears to all tie into this underlying mystery. Bring on the next volume!

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty

TL;DR – an elderly man and a young boy are neighbours connected by loneliness. Both their lives are victims of circumstance. Together they discover that they have more in common than they initially realise, but when the boy’s single mother starts a relationship with an abusive man, choices will be made that will shake the foundations of their friendship.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

An old man, who seems to have never caught a break, lives alone tending his garden and taking care of his chickens. He reminisces about a life filled with heartache and hardship. It all started when he was a little boy, and he was found standing over the crib of his dead baby sister. The events of his life that followed were forever scarred by that moment. Several decades on, and he now wishes to live the remaining years of his life in peace. But the kid next door is always causing such a racket.

Next door lives a young boy with his single mother. The boy loves his mother, and she loves him but has no desire to take care of him. She wants freedom of a single life, her love for her son conditional on him taking care of himself while she goes drinking and comes home with strange men. The boy feels lonely and sometimes watches the old man tottering next door, working in the yard and hen house.

One afternoon, due to an incident involving the boy stealing cigarettes, he hides in the hen house. The old man finds the boy but doesn’t give him up to the strange man (whose cigarettes the boy stole from). This leads to a tentative alliance between the pair that slowly grows into genuine friendship.

However, their bond becomes threatened when the boy’s mother starts seeing a man with a penchant for violence.

Review

Cass Moriarty’s debut novel is an evocative, atmospheric drama set in Brisbane, Australia, that captures the innocence of youth and the frailty of age. Chapters alternate between the old man and the boy. Moriarty uses a clever, simple technique to give a distinct voice between her two main protagonists. She writes all the chapters about the old man in first person, and all the chapters about the boy in third person.

Her ability to capture the Australian slang and feel of the old man is spot on. A man that had his prime years during a time when computers were not common place and newspapers were printed using metal letters that needed to be arranged in the right order before a print run. And she achieves the same level of depth and feeling when writing about the young boy next door.

The reflections of the old man’s history is relatable and emotionally moving. It’s a life that was hard but also had highlights and pleasures even if they didn’t last. His reflections influence his interactions with the young boy; he sees a lot of himself in the boy and begins to realise the hardships the boy is going through could lead to destructive behaviour. So, even though he thinks he is old enough to put his feet up and not have to get involved with anyone else’s business, the kindred spirit he feels for the boy causes him to go out on a limb and try to nurture the potential he sees. And in the process, the boy (in his own way) teaches the old man that he still has plenty of things to live for. Together they raise chicks, build a vegetable garden, and spend a glorious Christmas day together on the beach.

All of this is beautifully written. When the boy receives a bicycle as a birthday present from his mum, I was taken back to when I was a child and received my first bike also. His excitement and the places he rides off to reminding me of my own childhood and those simple thrills and joys. Moriarty is exemplary in her ability to capture both young and old souls.

The tensions and inciting incidents that are introduced by the story’s antagonists come in the form of the boy’s mother and her bikie boyfriend named Snake. His name is due to a body length tattoo of a snake that winds itself all along his back with its head and eyes staring from the back of his neck. It is obvious that Snake is nothing but trouble. But the levels to which he takes things out on both the mum and the boy are shocking and disturbing. Domestic violence on this scale was an alarming counterpoint to the beauty and kindness experienced between the old man and boy. It shows the stark reality life has, that is, where there is light, there is also shadow.

A remarkable novel that moved me in many ways. Moriarty’s literary fiction drama was short-listed for the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards for emerging author, short-listed for the 2016 Courier Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year, and long-listed for the 2017 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

4.5 out of 5.

Book Review: Nightflyers by George R. R. Martin

TL;DR – shoe string sci-fi horror about the crew of the starship Nightflyer seeking to explore the furthest regions of known space in search of an alien race.

Summary

Karoly d’Branin assembles a crew of scholars and experts on a journey to locate the Volcryn, an alien race with interstellar technology that surpasses every other race. The Volcryn’s purpose is a mystery. They pass through regions and events always moving outwards towards the fringes of known space, and they do so without any apparent desire to interact with anyone or anything. Karoly, determined to unlock this mystery, sets out on a transport ship called the Nightflyer. The starship is piloted by Royd Eris who locks himself in part of the ship where no one else can access. This results in most of the other crew wanting to find out who their enigmatic and secretive captain is and why he will not reveal himself.

When one of the scholars suddenly dies in horrific fashion, the stress of the journey, combined with the claustrophobic confines of the ship and a captain who is always watching them remotely, causes the rest of the crew to unravel. Karoly is determined to continue on and find the Volcryn, but will he ever achieve his quest or will external forces conspire against him?

Review

George R. R. Martin wrote Nightflyers prior to his critically acclaimed Game of Thrones series. In his early career, he wrote primarily sci-fi and combined them with horror elements, and Nightflyers is one of those efforts. Being a novella, Martin demonstrates he is as capable of writing epic length fantasy as he is in writing short stories. His ability to convey suspense and horror in concise, evocative language to maintain word length is exemplary.

In saying that, the story in Nightflyers won’t shock avid readers or movie watchers of the hybrid sci-fi horror genre. Books like Solaris by Stanislaw Lem or Blindsight by Peter Watts along with films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Event Horizon have themes and elements similar that run through Nightflyers.

Still, it is written in a way that will have you turning the pages even if you can see where it all leads. The reason for this is the colourful collection of crew that rides the Nightflyer starship.

Karoly d’Branin is the astrophysicist and leader of the group, who is obsessed in finding the Volcryn and study them.

Royd Eris is captain of the ship and never leaves his quarters. He communicates to the rest of the crew through speakers or a ghostly hologram.

Melantha Jhirl, a genetically engineering woman, is considered the epitome of the human species in terms of physical strength.

Lommie Thorne (cyberneticist), Alys Northwind (xenotech), Rojan Christopheris (xenobiologist), Dannel (male linguist), Lindran (female linguist), Agatha Marij-Black (psipsych) and Thale Lasamer (a frail young telepath) make up the rest of the crew.

All of the characters, except arguably Melantha, are flawed in some way (or multiple ways). By all appearances, Karoly chose his team solely on their expertise in their particular field and not on whether they can actually get along. Even Dannel and Lindran (the two linguists), who are in a romantic relationship, belittle and argue with each other all the time. It leads to conflicts on many fronts.

You will read this story because you will want to know who comes out of it alive., and in this way, the book is effective. An atmospheric novella more about the characters than the plot.

3 out of 5.