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Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

Hesketh Lock is a unique figure in the world of anthropology; his Asperger's syndrome allows him to objectively analyse patterns in human behaviour that others overlook. He is never short of work as big businesses take advantage of his talents to assess their employees' habits in order to maximise their profits. While investigating an unusual case of whistleblowing and sabotage in a factory in Taiwan, Hesketh becomes aware of bizarre news reports from home. What starts as an isolated incident of parricide becomes a global epidemic as young children all over the world turn inexplicably against their loved ones. As his own stepson Freddy begins to exhibit increasingly sinister behaviour, Hesketh must use all his expertise to try to get to the bottom of this most disturbing phenomenon.
Liz Jensen has impressed me before with The Ninth Life Of Louis Drax and The Rapture, so I was pleased to finally get around to reading this latest offering which was published in 2012. Here, Jensen revisits the dystopian, apocalyptic themes of The Rapture, but handles them in a far more understated manner. If you're looking for a straightforward horror novel with creepy zombie children and gratuitous gore you won't find it here. Instead, we explore how a community might react under pressure to a truly inexplicable and sinister global threat.

Hesketh is a strong lead character and it is easy to empathise with him. I liked that he is a well-developed character in his own right rather than simply a one-dimensional caricature of Asperger's syndrome as I have sometimes found in other novels - neither overbearingly 'quirky' nor an emotionless robot. Instead, we see how his Asperger's affects him in more subtle ways and how his analytical habits lead him to see situations slightly differently from the majority, which really added to my enjoyment of the book. I liked that as panic sets in we see mob mentality prevail globally, with people treating the children like feral animals, but Hesketh is one of the very few people who shows a semblance of humanity, trying to continue caring for Freddy as best he can.

I was pleased to find that Jensen doesn't tie all the plot strings up in one neat and tidy bow. The premise is so far-fetched and outrageous that to have a flawless conclusion would have been far too convenient and implausible, in my opinion. However, it is worth bearing in mind if you're considering picking this one up, as I know many readers aren't satisfied with an ambiguous ending.

This really is a disaster novel with a difference. An unusual and thoughtful little book that I enjoyed very much.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Parasite by Mira Grant

It's not often that I feel moved to abandon a book altogether, but it's even less often that I push myself to get to the end of a novel only to really wish I hadn't wasted my time. I had heard great things about Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy, and when I saw Parasite pop up as a 'Read Now' on Netgalley, I thought I'd give it a go. The dystopian sci-fi premise with a medical twist sounded right up my street. Unfortunately it turned out to be one of the worst reading experiences I've had in a good while.  

Mira Grant transports the reader to a near-future where modern medicine has been completely revolutionised by a genetically engineered parasite that sits happily inside the gut performing all kinds of immune surveillance. The population have taken these tapeworms on board in huge numbers, the company who created them is raking it in, and the implants have even saved their first life.

Sal, previously Sally, sustained a severe head injury in a car crash that was very nearly fatal. But just when everyone thought that hope was lost, she reawakened, and all thanks to her SymboGen tapeworm. She was left with no memory at all of her old life, but unquestionably owes everything to the team at SymboGen and falls into the role of their international poster girl, an advertisement of everything parasites can achieve. But she slowly develops a creeping suspicion that these parasites aren't the panacea they first seem to be...

The premise of this is really great and has the potential to raise all kinds of wider issues and questions that could be so interesting to read about. I got excited about it just reading the blurb. What does it mean for society if parasites stop people from getting ill any more? Are people living longer, are there overpopulation issues, will natural resources begin to get stretched? How about the ethics involved in this two-tier system where those who can pay SymboGen for parasites don't get sick, but those who can't afford it are left to their own devices? Unfortunately, Grant doesn't even begin to explore any of this and the plot is really quite basic. The idea is excellent but I didn't think it was very well-executed.

There is some reasonably sound science behind the book, in particular when Grant discusses the genetics of the tapeworms and how they can go wrong. But unfortunately I never really grasped what they were supposed to do in the first place and how they could possibly work as a cure-all implant. It didn't seem to be properly explained. This made it really difficult for me to suspend my disbelief  later on. And it is certainly necessary to suspend a whole lot of disbelief. Sal's story made no sense to me - we are told about her accident six years earlier, and how she awoke a completely new person, having to even learn to speak and write English from scratch. But then here she is, having sex with her doctor boyfriend and discussing the intricacies of gene splicing. I found it all completely implausible, and to make matters worse she is a fairly bland character who I couldn't engage with at all.

I had my suspicions of what was afoot right from the beginning, but persevered thinking there would be some twist in the tale that I hadn't foreseen. There wasn't. I don't see how even the most half-hearted reader could fail to predict the conclusion. You probably don't even have to start reading the book - just five minutes musing over the premise will get you there. If you've got a tapeworm wriggling around inside you, a tiny little worm, how might it possibly decide to go about causing you serious harm? What's the most sinister thing it could do living there inside your body? If you think you've got the answer, you probably have.

So, this book wasn't for me, but based on the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon lots of other people seem to have enjoyed it! I have really tried to give an honest review and remain grateful to Orbit Books for the opportunity to try Grant's work.