Book Review: The Fireman

The_FiremanI’d been recommended this a while ago so it was with some trepidation and excitement that I approached this book. This was my first experience with Joe Hill’s fiction and I found it held up its own – certainly, the fact the author is Stephen King’s son didn’t sway me. The book stood up fine on its own.

The Fireman tells the story of Harper Grayson, a nurse at a time when a mysterious, and deadly, spore named Dragonscale that literally causes the afflicted to spontaneously combust. Naturally, in the line of Harper’s work she contracts the disease and is forced to relocate to a nearby camp of other infected.

First of all, the characters were really well fleshed out. Harper is a sympathetic character that I related with; interestingly, her husband, Jakob, deals less successfully with her contracting the Dragonscale, and their paths quickly diverge; she flees to Camp Wyndham while Jakob, disgusted by the disease that has befallen his wife, joins one of the roaming vigilante Cremation Crews who take it upon themselves to search out and purge what’s left of America of the infected.

While this is happening, the book quickly delves the reader into life at Camp Wyndham, which was ostensibly set up as a safe refuge for the infected but, like the wider world outside the camp, society begins to fall apart as people’s natural suspicions seem to take over. The slow degeneracy of the camp is quite compelling to read; I found myself wanting to read on, to find out what happens to these characters in the camp that become gradually more unpeeled and their motivations revealed. Indeed, Harper herself becomes somewhat ostracised inside the camp – she is sceptical of the quasi-religious nature of the camp, where singing brings about an euphoric trance-like state known as The Bright – plus she quickly develops an allegiance to The Fireman, an outsider who has mysterious abilities with his Dragonscale whose relationship with Camp Wyndham is at arms-length at best.

I enjoyed the bleak depiction of the horrors that a disease like Dragonscale would bring – the inherent widespread societal collapse is beautifully put across with some haunting but vivid imagery. Entire states literally seem to go up in smoke and the tranquillity of what was once thought to be normality is quickly shattered. Early on there’s a depiction of the horror of the Dragonscale outbreak on TV in Toronto, which seems so distant yet the outbreak quickly envelops not only the continental USA but the world in which the characters reside. Indeed, the main focus of the book is the collapse of society at Camp Wyndham, but that reflects and is analogous to what’s happening in the wider world.

As events transpire the reader, too, learns both of Camp Wyndham’s unpleasant past and the history of the Dragonscale itself. I had some initial concerns that the Dragonscale affliction was a bit witches-and-wizards but the more I learned through the gradual unpicking of the backstory the more I found myself at ease with it. And as the book shifts toward the finale, some brilliantly-written and tense confrontations lead to a bittersweet but believable ending – as is the case with a lot of books that deal with society-destroying events, there isn’t room or the plausibility to wrap things up in a nice package; but The Fireman wraps them up in a believable package that kept me thinking for a good while after I finished the book.

There’s some subtle but powerful themes at work – the zealous nature of the Cremation Crews bringing to mind the ugly worst confrontations of the US civil rights movement and the empowerment that is given to supremacist groups. The infected almost become an underclass – able to live with their affliction as they learn more about its dynamics – rushing to escape from the zealots that won’t entertain their very survival.

Overall though, The Fireman was a compelling, thrilling and thought-provoking read. Definitely pick it up!

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Welcome to On Holliday!

Welcome all to my new-look website, which I have decided to title On Holliday!

For the last few months of 2017 I realised that content was a little scant here and I wasn’t feeling the impetus or drive to post, so over Christmas I decided to do something about it.

This renewal is inspired in no small part to two particular blogs I am fortunate to know about through their owners being friends of mine; the first being the excellent ThatsWhatCharlotteSaid by my university classmate Charlotte Dodd whose book-blogging I feel is excellent and thorough and something I hope to be able to emulate and the second being a recent launch in the guise of The Kenny Corner by an old schoolmate Chris Kenny who has surprised and inspired me in equal amounts by his wonderful, insightful and diverse way of putting his thoughts across. Seeing him launch his site was the final impetus for me to renew my own site, which I had been toying with already thanks to Charlotte’s work on hers. So thank you both!

What do I want to achieve with On Holliday in 2018 and beyond? The focus is simple and in my tagline, in order of their importance:

  • Reading: I want to do more than sporadic reviews of most of the books I read; that’s not to say I won’t be reviewing books, I will also try to reflect on what I enjoy about particular series, genres and techniques and motifs I pick up on along the way. I also want to talk in the future about my general attitudes to reading, which is a pastime I love and want to find a renewed sense of energy about after a fairly underwhelming 2017.
  • Writing: My writing is still of fundamental importance and something I want to showcase, but I feel it can better supplement my blog as being alongside the content pertaining to my reading: great writers must be great readers after all! I am looking forward in 2018 to chronicling more thoroughly my own writing (especially my approach to editing and pursuing publication of my novel The Thaw) and perhaps unearthing some of my older material along the way.
  • Online Wanderings: this is a fairly vacuous term but as Chris put in his page on his site, this is my corner of the internet to share with the world my thoughts and opinions on anything I see fit, and I see no reason why I cannot do so here in an eloquent and reasoned way. What this means is I will, from time to time, approach non-reading and non-writing topics for things I want to get off my chest. These may be contentious – likely around societal and political issues that I care deeply about – but I will try my most earnestly to argue my case as well as possible.

So, welcome and, if you’re a returning visitor, please enjoy the new look and new focus! I’m excited to start over with this renewal and I actively encourage those who agree, disagree, like, dislike or have a thought inspired by one of my own to comment or share it! I will get back to you as a matter of courtesy!

Oh, and why On Holliday? Well, that’s partly inspired…

Year in Review 2017

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I realise I’ve been a little inattentive to this website for the last couple of months and that’s regrettable; unfortunately “real life” has had to take precedence. However I did want to round out the year as I have done similarly in previous years by having a glance back over my shoulder to see the accomplishments of 2017. Let’s get started!

I posted toward the beginning of the year a list of ten books I wanted to get read to improve my writing. Unfortunately, I only managed six out of the ten. My reading this year has been fairly poor which has upset me a little but I have identified the source of the anxiety I’ve had regarding my reading and why it’s not been great this year – the Goodreads Reading challenge, which I have limped over the line of after revising the goal to be more realistic. In the new year I will outline why I am not going to participate in this again but looking back on what I did get read here’s the standout hits:

  • Children of Men by PD James
  • The Fireman by Joe Hill
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

I’ve been a little lacking with reviews lately which is another thing I want to address in 2018. Reviews are great things to write as they force me to think critically about books that I read; what did I like, what didn’t I like and, importantly, why. So reviewing read books as a writer is an important activity I’ve been admittedly lazy with.

In a similar thread, my return to University has been a little underwhelming. I’m not massively enjoying my course these days; there’s a small part of it, following on from a pretty insipid and uninspiring second year, that I am enjoying but for the most part I’ve intellectually checked out as I don’t feel challenged. I want to reflect more closely on the University experience once I graduate but it’s been a mixed bag, to put it kindly.

One better result this year is that I completed the first draft of my post-apoc adventure novel The Thaw and I feel so proud of this! It’s a great piece of work that I am thrilled to have completed and, yeah, I’ve been a little lazy in editing the draft (again, other concerns have crept in) but I am so pleased and feeling so pumped to work on it in 2018. I definitely feel that it’s something worth pursuing, publishing-wise as I am committed to the story and the world I’ve created therein. I can’t wait to talk more about the journey this book is going to take in 2018!

Speaking of journeys… I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this website as a whole for the new year, and I’m feeling inspired and invigorated. So watch this space because I’m going to understand some work on the site, for a new direction I can’t wait to unveil in early January!

So despite this year being somewhat of an underwhelming one, I come out of 2017 feeling ready to resume course for something brilliant!

Review: Universal Harvester (Paperback)

universal-harvesterI’m fortunate that I live a short distance from my local library so I visit often. My library contains a section called Page One in which recently released popular fiction is located. Accordingly, I saw Universal Harvester in this section, on a display with new science-fiction books and, intrigued by the synopsis and on a bit of a punt, I took it out.

Unfortunately, it was only the synopsis that proved enjoyable or interesting. Universal Harvester is set in the late 1990s in the heartland of America, and features Jeremy Heldt who works at a video store where mysterious recordings begin to be reported on the tapes. Now, this synopsis stood out to me because I recall a fairly memorable and highly-rated episode of Doctor Who. I was intrigued to see what the retro, 90s time period would bring (no internet, no smartphones acting like magic wands to the mystery). The synopsis seemed to promise me a creepy, haunting story that threatens the very lives of the characters.

The book starts out fairly slowly, but the first haunted tape soon comes in. I felt fairly hooked – I wanted to find out what the mystery was. Was it supernatural? Was it the shady scheme of some untoward character?

I didn’t really find out as the book seemed to focus more time exploring the backstories and motivations of the characters than actually solving the mystery. There’s virtually no action (save for a car accident that I’m unsure was connected to the mystery) and instead Universal Harvester spends its time navel-gazing at the foibles and tribulations of its characters. Does Jeremy keep his job at the video store or take a better job with better prospects? Does Jeremy’s dad Steve manage to emerge from the shadows of Jeremy’s deceased mother and fix the relationship between father and son? The question I kept asking myself as these characters kept talking and talking was when are we going to get to the mystery?

The trouble with Universal Harvester is that it sets up a creepy mystery in a fairly convincing location (which I feel aided the mystery. Quiet sleepytown America is gripped by creepy videotape mystery works well) but then decides not to actually give any motion to that mystery but focus on the internal quarrels of the characters. I feel the separate storylines do tie together eventually but by the time this happens I’ve become so bored by the individual storylines I pretty much coasted to the end just wanting to finish. How this book managed to creep its way into the science-fiction section of the library where I found it is anyone’s guess as I simply couldn’t detect any hint of sci-fi there; maybe it was subtle, or maybe my abject boredom by the time the plot manages to reach a simmer at best precluded me from noticing.

I didn’t find myself interested in the very personal, very mundane intricacies of these characters lives – they didn’t feel special; instead, they felt totally ancillary to everything happening around them. There are scenes which seem to serve only to forward these uninteresting, mundane character storylines which ultimately bored me – I wanted to see where this all fitted into the mystery with the video tapes but it didn’t seem forthcoming! This made a 200-page novel feel considerably longer.

It’s unfortunate that Universal Harvester doesn’t quite deliver what its synopsis or setting sells as I feel the terse, sparse prose of the author isn’t bad; I just feel that it’s too directed at character study and fatally fails to move the plot fast enough or with enough intrigue to keep my interest. There’s a definite sense that the prose style matches the atmosphere the author is trying to portray, but this doesn’t alleviate the problems I had with the glacial, distant plot that seemed to be second fiddle to the characters. That’s not to say it won’t appeal to anyone but I prefer significantly pacier storytelling.

Perhaps Universal Harvester was trying to be more “literate” than perhaps it should’ve been, focusing on flawed characters, all at a crossroads, rather than the mystery they find themselves embroiled in. Disappointing, but I’d freely admit that it wasn’t for me.