Origin by Dan Brown

If there’s one thing I really enjoy, it’s a page-turner of a book and, Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon mystery, Origin, is certainly that. Park your bottom, pour a coffee, wine or beverage of choice, put on the lamp, and begin…

Once again, the quiet, Mickey-Mouse watch-wearing Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon (and now I always picture the wonderful Tom Hanks), is in the wrong place at the right time – the right time to thrust him into the middle of a murder investigation with potentially catastrophic, future-of-humanity-is-at-stake, life-changing consequences.

Attending the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to hear a former student of his, Edmond Kirsch, deliver a speech he claims “will change the face of science forever”, by delivering the answers to two fundamental questions that have perplexed scientists, religious minds and philosophers for centuries, what Langdon doesn’t expect is the murder and mayhem that unfolds. Though, really, on past experiences (I’m thinking Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol and Inferno) maybe he should.

After all, Edmond, a computer and high-tech genius who has made dazzling and accurate predictions for over twenty years that have gained him a global cult following, is no stranger to controversy. Not afraid to poke a religious hornet’s nest, the book opens with Edmond baiting three religious leaders by allowing them a preview of what he intends to release. For such a smart man, this seems like a dumb move as there are those among the faithful who will do anything to ensure his discovery is never revealed.

When the presentation to the world goes horribly wrong, it becomes a race against time as Professor Langdon (and his trusty watch), a beautiful female side-kick (is there any other kind?) and a very sophisticated piece of technology, work to ensure Edmond’s discovery is made public. As much as the good Professor and his helpers seek to do what they believe is right, there are those working against them who believe the same thing and will stop at nothing to ensure they fail, even if it means more bloodshed.

In the meantime, all eyes are turned to Spain – as conspiracy theories and theorists, a growing media pack, denizens of the internet and a digital and real audience simultaneously commentate upon what is happening.

Gaudi’s, Sagrada Familia

There’s no doubt, Brown has perfected the art of making sure his reader is hooked. Fast-paced, filled with didactic speeches (that are nevertheless interesting and entertaining), that reveal religion and science to be both juxtaposed and yet, not as polemically situated as one might think, Langdon’s mission is, indeed, an ideological game-changer… or is it? Tapping into the zeitgeist, Brown ensures that the questions tormenting many in the world at present such as the role of religion and faith in a technologically-savvy, rational world that constantly seeks proof and wonders can these two oppositional ways of thinking ever find common ground, are asked. Required to suspend your disbelief (which is fine), there are some strange plot points that frustrate rather than illuminate, and so impact upon the overall believability, even within this genre, of the sometimes OTT actions and consequences. Mind you, the glorious descriptions of Antoni Gaudi’s works does go someway to compensating.

As is often the case, the journey to uncover answers is often more exciting and revealing than the destination. Still, there is much to enjoy about a book that excites the mind and the mind’s eye, turns an academic into, if not a super-hero, then certainly a hero and, it seems, religious authorities into villains while concurrently overturning a great many expectations. There’s also a satisfying twist that many might see coming, but that doesn’t reduce the impact.

Overall, another fun, well-paced, Robert Langdon adventure, replete with groans, dad-jokes, and some fabulous facts. I hope he takes us on a few more.

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Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I don’t know quite why I picked up this book. I think at first both the title and the cover really appealed but it was the blurb that sold me. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of those books that within a few lines you know you are going to love.

This is the tale of Harold Fry, recently retired and seemingly waiting for his life to be over. Each day is much like the last as he and his wife, Maureen (who you initially dislike) simply co-exist, going through the motions and habits by which they’ve survived the last couple of decades. Strangers in a not so strange land. That is, until one day Harold receives a letter that changes his life.

Learning that an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer, Harold writes back to her, uncertain what to say or how, but making a fairly ordinary attempt. Leaving the house to posThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fryt it, he suddenly becomes aware of the world around him, not in an epiphanic kind of way, just a gradual unfolding that is calm but no less wondrous for this. Deciding he’s enjoying walking, the sounds, sighs and smells,  he doesn’t post the letter at the first post box, but walks to the next, wanting to prolong the experience, then the next and so on until he makes a decision: bugger posting the letter, he will walk to Queenie who is in palliative care over 600 miles away and express the sentiments he struggled to write in person.

And so, without fanfare or warning or preparation, Harold’s pilgrimage begins. Each shuffle, step, bunion, blister, meal, shelter, and companion, heralds a type of transformation or awakening, but also a reaffirming. But it’s who Harold meets along the way, the manner in which his journey is both understood and misrepresented by various people, that provides another kind of trial, a rest of endurance for Harold – not all of which he passes.

Written mainly from Harold’s point of view, we are also given access to Maureen’s perspective of her husband’s perambulations and the attention they receive and the impact all of this has on her. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder so much as as alter, reignite and reconsider.

Distance from home and from his wife of many, many years allows Harold to reflect upon and view his life, past and current, differently – it gives him perspective and more. Likewise for his wife and thus the reader begins to understand how and why Harold came to be who and where he is and why his pilgrimage is not only a journey to find and say goodbye to an old friend, but himself.

Poetically told, incredibly moving, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is like a modern fable of disconnection and reconnection, aging, youth, the power of the media, love, friendship and self-discovery. Funny at times, capable of biting satire and stirring insights into the human condition, this is a marvellous novel that, like a few I have read lately, is original and lingers in the heart and mind long after the last page.

Simply lovely.

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Book Review: Blackout by Mira Grant

BookBlackout (Newsflesh Trilogy, #3) Three in the Newsflesh trilogy, while a terrific read that ticks many of the boxes, didn’t leave me as impressed or as satisfied as the first two in the series. The plot is strong, the characters very good and  their motivations mostly sound and plausible. Whereas Deadline was very much a quest cum road trip, Blackout uses many of the same tropes and subsequent ideas but, whereas they came across as original and compelling in the second book, in Blackout, you have a feeling of situations and outcomes repeating themselves. This also happens with manyexplanations. For example, the number of times Shaun has to justify the fact he is or is not going mad regarding Georgia is far too many. We get it. Likewise, with the explanations regarding the impact the virus had on Georgia’s eyesight and the differences between one way of imagining her and another. There was barely a description or reference to eyes that didn’t go over familiar ground and it became irritating and redundant and in the end infected the pace of the story.

In terms of story, however, the plot is good and the science and cunning of desperate men and women well-handled. Still searching for answers to Georgia’s death and the whole infection, Shaun and his crew stumble upon secrets, lies and possible truths including the greatest one of all, one that will test their credibility beyond limits. Fortunately, it didn’t test the reader and we accept the “truth” of this grave new world and the horrors contained within.

Like other books in this genre, the Newsflesh trilogy and Blackout in particular reveal that the monsters we live with are not necessarily those who manifest as such: that, in fact, the monstrous is within us all and it’s often down to the choices we make whether or not this aspect of our selves is given reign.

Overall, a good conclusion to a great series.

 

 

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Book Review: Deadline by Mira Grant

I haDeadline (Newsflesh Trilogy, #2)ve to say at the outset that I was simply stunned by Mira Grant’s first novel in this series, Feed and, after the shocking conclusion, wondered how she could follow it up… well, she did. Deadline is another wild ride that takes the reader deeper into the post-apocalyptic, virus-ridden world where zombies, pharmaceutical companies and politicians rule.

Greif-stricken and believing he’s going mad after the horrifying death of his beloved sister, Shaun Mason is searching for a reason to both live and die. Aiding him in this quest are the remaining members of his blogging business. Together, they set out to uncover the real reason why Georgia had to die and what they find not only break’s Shaun’s heart and mind, but will leave the reader reeling.

Fast-paced, tautly plotted, this is speculative fiction at its meaty best. The underlying commentary on media, science, truth and how we both produce and consume them all is powerful and very gratifying – food for thought. Thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

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Book Review: Feed by Mira Grant

When going on holidays recently, I asked FaceBook friends for some reading recommendations (this was despite having about forty books in my “to-read” pile). Feed, by Mira Grant was one of them and, why I chose it from the many other wonderful suggestions I received was the way it was “sold” to me by another writer, the lovely Mandy Wrangles. I still remember. She wrote something along the lines of, “It’s a zombie book, only, it’s not. It’s so much more. Don’t let the zombie thing put you off. This is an amazing book, dystopian and about communication, the media and politics and it’s just incredible…”

To be fair, Mandy said it far more eloquently than that, but that’s how I absorbed it and was intrigued. Much preferring zombies on the screen than on the page, I’d resisted anything remotely zombified before, but I was going on a holiday, why not challenge myself? Take a holiday from my usual genres? Am I glad I did. Oh. Boy. Mandy was right, Feed, the first book in the Newsflesh Trilogy, was not what I expected – even with Mandy’s wonderful affirmations, it thoroughly exceeded my expectations.

Set in the very near future, after a zombie plague has basically wiped out a great deal of the civilised world, facilitated the establishment of gated communities, serious and constant health checks, and armed protection services, and seen the mainstream media not replaced, but in healthy competition with bloggers (the reason being that when the uprising of zombies began, the media were in denial and, due to government control and censorship, inclined to perpetuate fallacies – it was bloggers who told the truth and won reader loyalty and trust), this tale centres around prominent blogger, Georgia Mason, who along with her brother Shaun and their IT specialist, win a contract to accompany a candidate throughout the drawn-out presidential election. Overjoyed at such a coup, they quickly accept and join the convoy, travelling throughout parts of the US, being given insights into not just the political machinations of the party and those who belong, but the media and the plots and cunning of desperate men, including the biggest secret of all – the terrible conspiracy behind the infected….

This is a wild, hold-on-to-the-edge-of-your-seat book that, after an ETesque opening (but with zombies, death and destruction on the protagonists’ bicycle tail), immerses you in this post-apocalytpic reality of a country/world torn apart by a mass infection and its consequences. Orphaned at a young age, brother and sister Georgia and Shaun, though they’ve been adopted, have to survive on their wits and intelligence and neither of these are in short supply. Nor is their sense of justice and determination to see it meted out.

Though the zombies (the infected) hover at the edges of the story the entire time, bursting into the narrative at opportune and sometimes unexpected moments, the real story here is the politics – not simply Republican versus Democratic, though that’s there, but personal politics as well. How individuals manoeuvre themselves into positions of power, the politics around the stories we tell, about ourselves, each other – what’s omitted, what’s included, the impression we strive to give and maintain- and the strength of meta-narratives to colour and infect the smaller ones. It’s also about belonging, connectivity, being an outsider – of family, society and beyond. It’s about truth, lies and everything in-between. It’s about when to compromise – morally, physically, intellectually – and when it’s appropriate not to.

As story-tellers with credibility, Georgia and Shaun know how important their job is, how much the surviving masses rely on them to keep the lines of communication open, to spread the “truth” and to provide informed opinion. But story-telling in this world is also big business, and ratings are important. Hence, risks must be taken, not with the truth, never with that, but with reputations, uncovering relevant information and, for Georgia and Shaun, it also means putting their lives (and that of others) on the line.

This never becomes more important or real than when they discover the truth about the zombies…

This is such an original and compelling book. Alternately shocking and heart-wrenching, capable of blood-thirsty scenes and great pathos, the characters are strong, purposeful to a fault, but also ever-so vulnerable, the combination is intoxicating and nerve-wracking. You invest so heavily in both Georgia and Shaun, shout at and with them from the sidelines, revel in their ingenuity and disingenuousness. The narrative twists and flows in ways that are never predictable but always true to the overall arc and intentions of the book – you believe in everything that’s happening and the rationale behind it. An example of this is the reasoning behind why there are zombies in the first place. An interview with Grant (at the end of the book) reveals that she was always frustrated by films and other books that took zombies for granted, that is, the writer/s never explained how they became that way, except to point to biting and contagion through other means as the answer. The origins of the infection and what happens in the body of a human who becomes a zombie is rarely if ever dealt with. Feed addresses this in a scientific and acceptable but never dull way. The explanation simply feeds (excuse the pun) into the logic of the setting and time the author has created. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect as well.

Whether or not you like “zombies” (what’s NOT to like J), whether or not you enjoy dystopian narratives, this is a great book. But, if you’re looking for well-crafted, tightly written, imaginatively conceived stories that take you on an incredible, high-octane adventure while simultaneously exploring some serious ethical and philosophical issues and offering a critique of modern media with kick-arse, wonderful rich and complex characters and a plot dripping with intrigue, this is the book for you.

Touted as young adult, it’s not. It’s for anyone who loves astonishing novels.

I have bought the second and (er um) can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

A huge big thank you to Mandy!

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