Review of ‘House Rules’ by Jodi Picoult

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In the 2 weeks or so since I read this, after a bit of cogitation on whether or not I liked it and whether I had anything to say about it, I’ve decided that yes, I did, and yes, I do.

The story centres around Jacob, a young man with Apsegrers/autism and an obsessive interest in crime scene investigation and forensics. When his support worker disappears and is later found dead, Jacob is accused. We don’t discover exactly what happened until near the end, so there’s an element of a murder mystery to this novel, but the reader can make a good guess at how things might have gone down. The strength of this novel is not in the murder mystery itself, but how the accusations against Jacob play out on a personal level to the characters.

Certainly the author is a good writer, I was impressed by her ability to tell the story through the first-person viewpoint of several characters. Emma was particularly nuanced, perhaps being closer to the author herself, but Jacob and Theo were well done, too.

It struck me that the author was brave to portray an autistic character in a first-person point of view. There are some with a “them and us” mentality, viewing Autism as a minority subculture, who would take offense at a neurotypical attempting to write an autistic voice. I say, good on her for giving it a shot. Autistic people are, first and foremost, people.

And this is, primarily, a novel about Aspergers/autism. The author has obviously done a huge amount of research and the novel is heavy in AS details (which I can forgive, as the condition is nothing if not complex), and this is the driver of the plot, too. In essence it revolves around the way an autistic person’s view of himself can drastically differ from how he is viewed by his family, by outsiders, and by the legal system. It’s about the difficulty of finding out the truth and obtaining justice when dealing with someone with a literal mind, communication difficulties, and a condition so many associate with a lack of empathy. In that sense, this is an important novel.

While I applaud the author for tackling this subject, there were aspects with which I was uncomfortable.

Firstly, I was not convinced about the way Jacob’s autism presented. Even knowing the wide variety of trait severity out there, and knowing that some with a sky-high IQ can still struggle significantly in daily life, the dichotomy between trait severity and IQ in Jacob seemed too extreme. There’s a reason why classic autism and Aspergers Syndrome were once separate diagnoses, and I believe that intellectual capacity generally does help to moderate behaviour. So while I agree with the author that a child diagnosed with classic autism might potentially become an adult with Aspergers Syndrome, in Jacob she seems to have mixed the two, presenting a young man of great intellect who retains an absolute rigidity over things like food colours, and still has the uncontrolled screaming kind of meltdown.

Since Jacob’s meltdowns and his intellectual abilities are both necessary parts of the plot, my doubts detracted from the realism of the story and induced an element of disbelief in the legal proceedings which might otherwise have felt more dramatic.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the way in which Emma tackles her son’s autism, by placing him on a gluten and casein free diet and feeding him some very expensive supplements. Multivitamins and fish oils I can understand, but he also gets liposome-enclosed glutathione, an oxytocin nasal spray and daily injections of vitamin B12.

This is certainly consistent with Emma’s character – the mother who will do whatever it takes to improve Jacob’s life and relieve the family of his worst behaviours. I get that. What I’m uncomfortable with is that the benefits of these treatments are presented in the novel unchallenged. She tells us that the nasal spray and the B12 shot help with his anxiety, and average reader (who hasn’t studied the scientific literature and does not know that there is in fact no scientific consensus that such treatments have any benefit whatsoever) is likely to take this as gospel truth.

On reflection, despite these niggles, I’ve decided that I like what the author is doing here, overall. And it was certainly a very readable story, keeping me entertained for a couple of days. Recommended.

 

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Review of ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry

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This was an unusual novel, but a very enjoyable read.

Of course I’m biased in its favour because it’s set in Essex, county of my birth. In fact, it’s set alongside the very same Blackwater Estuary into which I fell as a child, in a sort of baptism of stinking black mud. I would have enjoyed this novel for the setting and memories alone.

I was interested, too, in the portrayal of an autistic boy in a time before autism was a recognised condition. It was subtly done, and I appreciated the way the boy was viewed, even by his own mother, with a kind of baffled incomprehension.

If the book had a topic, it was the clash of religion and science. In a way. But not in the sense of a rational argument, more as a study of relationships within the sensibilities of the Victorian era, which happened to feature a woman of science and a man of religion.

The ending, though, was strangely anticlimactic. For a novel whose heart was in the relationships between its characters, and in which the search for the Essex serpent was merely a means to explore this, ‘discovery of the serpent’ could not be enough. I needed more resolution.

Overall, though, this was a story told with impressive competence and well worth a read.

Book Review: The Shadow of His Hand

Reading ‘The Shadow of his Hand’ was an unexpected pleasure – it’s rare to find a first novel that can pull me into the story so capably.

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In this epic fantasy, the Jerikan armies are camped on the border of the allied kingdoms and war seems inevitable. When a baby is born with a prophesied mark, the young King Eldilin dares not defy the Unseen God but must send his sister and the babe on a dangerous quest.

Fredrick is a directionless young man who enlisted as a soldier because it “seemed like the right thing to do”. With his uncanny ability to calm the screaming child, he’s an unlikely and reluctant addition to Princess Kathryn’s company. Can they beat the odds and complete the prophecy?

For the genre, I thought the plot proceeded at a fast pace, with never a dull moment, and the world-building was quietly effective (if hazy on the geographical details). The stand-out for me, though, was the characters. There was something appealing in Fredrick’s assessment of himself as an ordinary man out of his depth, and honesty and humour in the way he coped as fate stretched him to his limits and beyond.

Shifts of point of view from the main protagonists to other plot threads were also effectively managed, maintaining my attention. In particular, I became quite absorbed in the secondary plot revolving around the King and his unexpected bride, a meeting of singularly unusual personalities.

Overall, this was a diverting read. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, though less to see how the war will proceed than to be involved in the developing relationships between the characters.

Review of Riversend by Sylvia Kelso

This was breathtaking.

I read the previous book, Amberlight, and enjoyed the beautiful prose and the imagination at work. A city run by women and the mysterious sentient stone, querrique, is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a stranger. In places, I found the plot hard to follow, but by the end I was so caught up in the unique love story I just wanted more.

Riversend was an easier read – the prose has more clarity without losing its poetic qualities, bringing to life a different world, and the story is strong in its exploration of relationships under pressure.

Tellurith and her House are in exile after the destruction of the querrique, around which their society was based. Now she must lead her people, not only to safety, but through an upheaval in gender roles and traditions. At the heart of this is the struggle of her two husbands to accept their new roles, at odds with their upbringing.

I was a little thrown in places by plot twists that seemed to come out of nowhere, but it didn’t matter too much. The strength of the story was in the depth of moral integrity displayed by the main characters, and the exploration of their choices under intense and competing pressures of love and duty.

It is also a reflective tale on gender roles, an interesting mirror to our own society. In places, where actions shocked or surprised me, especially the depiction of sexual violence, I tried turning it around – if genders had been reversed, would I have felt the same? And when the answer was ‘no’, why not?

If you like fantasy based around mature, strong-willed characters, or are interested in gender roles and expectations, I think you’ll enjoy this.

The Magical Realism of Raymond St. Elmo

In this post, I want to introduce you to self-published author Raymond St. Elmo (Raymond Holland). He writes ‘magical realism’, about which I have no idea, except to observe that his stories mindbendingly blur the boundaries between reality and dream.

He’s not afraid to play with the occasional metaphor, I like that, but what appeals most to me is the humour in his writing.

Read his books if you have a love of stories, especially stories of the kind which play games with reality. His writing references and extends literary traditions and he clearly revels in the magic of the written word.

Find out more about Raymond at his site here: http://raymondstelmobooks.com

And below are my Amazon reviews of his books – two books in two different styles, but with a solid thread of connection. Check them out here: https://www.amazon.com

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The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing

In which our hero, having worked hard to achieve a respectable degree of seriousity, discovers a clue to a lost manuscript written in the footprints of birds. A self-imposed quest to decipher its meaning sends him tumbling down a rabbit-hole of dreams within dreams, pitting wits against dead authors, human and ornithological.

A story about the transcribing of stories, told with wit, humour, and a touch of magic.

(Especially recommended for those of us who work in cubicles, neglect most of our emails, and are supposed to be in a meeting).

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Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons

I have no idea how to describe this book. It’s the sort of fantasy in which you can get lost, escaping from this world to another.

In this other world is a doomed ship with a terrifying cargo, a crew of incompetents, and two mysterious books. There is a failed poet, dreaming of his girl left behind, arguing Blake with the murderous, conversing with gods, courting lightning and dancing with the undead. There are puzzles and mortal dangers and a quest, of sorts.
It’s a story within a story, with even the narrator of this tale a mystery. Is he the blind old man the unseen interviewer claims him to be?

Read this if you pine for love and adventure, if you enjoy the uncovering of sly deceptions and deeper truths, or need an injection of wit and humour. Great stuff.

Review of Harsh Lessons by LJ Kendall

Being Tamed or Growing Up?

I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.

This book continues the story of Leeth, groomed by her adopted Uncle Harmon to be an archetypical huntress, as she grows from teenager to young woman. Now she is being trained within the secure subterranean facilities of the Department, honing her fighting skills and being pushed to learn other, more difficult, lessons. How can this wild child be taught the social skills, not just to blend into normal society, but to take on the range of personas a mission might require? And what is the motivation behind the evil menace that stalks the streets, The Breaker? In this book, we see Leeth’s transformation from child to adult.

My first comment on this book has to be a warning: like the first in the series, it treads a thin line in its portrayal of violence and sexual abuse within a story intended as entertainment. For me, it hovered on the edge in places, but was saved towards the end by Leeth’s growth, and her budding sense of moral responsibility.

I also felt that more background to the characters and organisations would have helped to establish their motivations. For instance, what is the Department was trying to achieve? Why do they want Leeth badly enough to train her, on an individual basis, for more than a year? Perhaps my understanding of the socio-political situation was inadequate to fully grasp their goals.

The plot revolving around The Breaker felt underdeveloped, too. It was a little disappointing to finish this book with no greater understanding of this part of the plot than I had at the end of book 1.

Don’t let these perceived flaws put you off, though. Leeth is an interesting character tested by a variety of threats both mental and physical and I found her story an absorbing read.

 

 

Review of Contagion: Eyre by Alison Sinclair

What do you get when you mix sci fi and medicine? You get the Plague Confederacy Series, possibly the only example of Medical Space Opera.

After mixed feelings  about the first book in the series, Breakpoint: Nereis, I’m not entirely sure why I picked up this one, but I’m glad I did, there was much to love. It was not an easy read – it took me weeks, taking it in small chunks – but I stuck with it because it intrigued me. Here’s why:

It does that wonderful space opera thing of putting us onto a whole new world and a society at once different from ours and believable. In this book, we have a post-plague society with a medical-based theology, melding the concepts of physical and spiritual ‘stain’. Those who dare to question why power rests entirely with the Caducean Order are subject to mind-altering drug treatments known as ‘mercies’ by psychopractors. Those who work with the dead, the necropractors, must ritually cleanse themselves.

So when the confederacy team arrive wishing to study their gravesites, right in the middle of a revolutionary uprising, they are quickly accused of doing the work of the Adversary.

Like the first book in the series, the story is told through a variety of major characters. This was one of the reasons I found it a hard read, because it was a big ask to develop a strong enough bond with each of these characters to handle all the changes in point of view. I kept feeling that it would work wonderfully as a television series, with more visual clues to bring these people and their environment fully to life.

What I particularly liked was that we spent more time in the pov of my favourite character, Teo, the ninety-something-year-old no-nonsense doctor with surgical tools embedded in her prosthetic hand. She’s wonderful.

Altogether, this was sort-of great and sort-of flawed, at once an intriguing and frustrating read. I’d recommend it for the unique melding of medical, spiritual and political manoeuvrings.