The Book of Wonders by Julien Sandrel

The Book of Wonders: The perfect feel-good novel for summer 2019! is a definitive up-lit read that tells the story of Thelma, a career-obsessed mother and her twelve-year-old son Louis. Thelma’s world is turned upside down when she is out with Louis one day in their hometown of Paris. Louis gets run over and ends up in hospital in a coma. As a consequence of this tragic accident, Thelma decides to quit her dissatisfying job and spends all day at Louis’s hospital bedside.

Thelma discovers Louis’s Book of Wonders, his notebook, where he has recorded his hopes and dreams for the future. As Louis is unable to carry out these dreams and wishes himself, Thelma decides to carry them out for him then record them and play them back to Louis in hospital so he can experience them second-hand. Of course, the results of her endeavours are both hilarious and nerve-wracking (depending on the kind of task that it is).

The Book of Wonders is at times heart-breaking (you’ll need tissues) and at other times joyful. The plot is simple but highly effective and the characters are very well drawn. It is no surprise that it has done hugely well in France. Comparisons have already been made with Eleanor Oliphant and the subject matter and excellent characterisation by Sandrel will I’m sure, ensure that it does just as well in the UK and across the world.

The most powerful message that you take away from this book is that life is too important to spend time working in a job which you despise and where no one really appreciates you. Time should instead be spend with friends and family that you love and respect and who love and respect you in turn, as life is short. The ending of the book itself is unexpected and a lovely touch (I won’t spoil it by giving it away). The Book of Wonders is a definite must read that will touch your heart and restore your faith in humanity.

Skin by Liam Brown

Skin is the third dystopian novel I’ve read recently so I feel like I’m on a dystopian roll at the moment but realise that the increase in dystopian fiction is due to the state of the world we’re living in which looks increasingly uncertain and bleak. In times of heightened uncertainty, a desire for control takes over and control is one of the key themes in Skin. Skin is the fourth book Liam Brown has published and it is an assured and confident read.

Skin is set in a future UK. A global virus has wiped out many populations and martial law prevails. It turns out that the virus is caused by touch as people have become allergic to other people’s skin dander. The only remedy for survival is to live in completely incubated sterilized rooms separate from family members. To ensure the population continues, women donate eggs to a fertility service that are artificially fertilised by donor sperm. People are not really allowed to venture outside as it is considered too dangerous, but if they do so, they must wear a full hazmat suit and spend time afterwards in a quarantine room at the entrance of their home.

We observe Angela, a middle aged mother of teenagers, the fitness crazed Amber and the surly computer obsessed Charlie. She works from home in marketing and her husband, Charlie works for a firm that creates virtual reality experiences for rich clients. They communicate once a day through a computer screen.

The prospect of having an opportunity to venture outside by joining the neighbourhood watch team is too great a chance for Angela to miss and she relishes the opportunity to do so. On one of her patrols she notices how much nature has taken over the ruined landscape of the city. She meets the rebel, Jazz or Jason Freeman, an alternative young man who lives in an abandoned school and wears no hazmat suit. Is he perhaps the answer the world has been looking for? A person immune to the deadly virus? I can’t really say anymore without giving the game away but I will say that this is a thrilling read that is beautifully written. It certainly brings up a lot of questions and is relevant to today’s society in that we are becoming an increasingly digitised world but levels of loneliness and social isolation are increasing too in kind. It seems the more connected we become to our screens the more disconnected we become from one another. This is a huge message that pervades through this book though there are others too that you’ll have to discover when you read it for yourself!

Fallen Angel by Chris Brookmyre

Fallen Angel concerns mysterious past events surrounding the Temple family, who return to their Portuguese villa for a final holiday after the death of their family patriarch, Max. The story is set in both the present day and in 2002, the year of Niamh Temple’s disappearance. Niamh went missing as a young child and there are echoes here of the Madeline McCann case.

Speculation is rife amongst the characters in the story as to what actually happened to the little girl. There are moments in the book where almost everyone who was present in 2002 is a suspect. Matriarch Celia Temple is an extremely narcissistic character. She used to be an actress on British television in the 1970s and still sees herself exactly as she was then. Her husband Max was also an unlikeable character, a psychology professor who became famous by appearing on a TV show debate debunking conspiracy theories.

The Temple’s have three grown up children. Marion the eldest is the kindest but is viewed as being too homely and weak by her mother. She is married to Ken, a plumber who is handsome but who Celia feels is beneath her socially. Robbyn the son, is also seen as a disappointment. He is a bit of a drifter and is easily taken advantage of by other people. Ivy, the youngest of the Temple clan has a successful career in PR and is distant and aloof with her family. Despite her career success, Celia seems to have a strong dislike to Ivy in particular that is out of proportion with her general dislike of her children overall.

Into this toxic miasma, the present day situation introduces: Kirsten, the new young wife of villa neighbour Vince and their son baby Arron. Accompanying them is Amanda, a Canadian Au Pair. Amanda serves as a detective who starts to look into the past to see what really happened in 2002.

I think that the setting of this Mediterranean paradise (that is really rotten to the core because of the people involved), is excellent and compellingly written. There are many twists and turns to the narrative and it went in a direction that I did not expect and could not foresee which is a great sign of a very strong psychological thriller. I recommend that you pick up this book as a chilling holiday read.

Poster Boy by NJ Crosskey

Poster Boy is a dystopian thriller set in a not too distant future Britain. This Britain is scarily not dissimilar in some ways from the one we know today. The country has become polarised with the ERP controlling the UK like a totalitarian government. The ERP are an extremely nationalist and racist party and blame all of the UK’s problems on immigration and terrorism.

The story is told from two viewpoints, that of Rosa, unwitting pawn in the story and Teresa, an activist in Gridless (a protest group that uses technology to disrupt the ERP’s control). NJ Crosskey began writing this book before Trump’s ascendance and before the whole Brexit debacle. The ERP’s ultimate aim is to microchip all UK citizens ostensibly to make the UK a safer place. People who are un-microchipped such as migrants will be viewed with suspicion and unable to receive benefits or even shop for essential items such as food. Therefore the unchipped will become official outcasts who cannot participate in British society. This chilling premise has echoes of the treatment of those the regime saw as the ‘Other’ in Nazi Germany.

Propaganda is used to full effect in this story and Rosa’s family are fractured and manipulated to full effect. Her brother serves as the convenient ‘Poster Boy’ by the ERP, even though he lived a life contrary to the goals of the party. Crosskey paints a terrifying scenario of a future Britain that forces its citizens to either toe the line and sacrifice their autonomy, or become activists living on the edge of society. This future Britain has caused rampant depression affecting many citizens which in turn has increased drug misuse. In Poster Boy, it seems that some people would rather live in a pharmaceutically induced haze than face the frightening situation of their lives in such a world. These people are merely existing rather than living and this prospect is a frightening one but as with the opioid crisis of America, perhaps this is a reality that has real resonance today.

This is a deeply impressive read and I recommend that you do read it as it is relevant to the society that we live in and should serve as a warning of the society that we could become.

Asylum by Marcus Low

Asylum: “the most credible – and therefore the most disturbing – dystopian novel I [have] ever read”- SUNDAY TIMES is a fascinating read. It is set in a place called the Pearson Quarantine facility, where patients have been forcibly detained because they are suffering from a terminal disease called ‘pulmonary nodulosis.’ This condition is so rampant that it has reached the level of a plague. There is no cure for the condition and sufferers gradually die as their lungs get increasingly scarred. [Note – This story was actually based on the real life enforced hospitalisation of patients with drug resistant tuberculosis in 2008 in South Africa].

The book follows the narrative of patient Barry James who keeps a diary of his experiences at Pearson. There are short introductions to his diary entries written after the fact, that sometimes factually refute what you are about to read. This is an interesting idea as you then read the entry in a more objective way.

Some of Barry’s experiences are dream type scenarios. Low successfully captures the strange dreaminess of what it is like when one is fevered and ill and have limited ability to tell fiction from reality. You begin to wonder how much of the visions that Barry experiences are induced by the symptoms of the illness or the drugs that he is given. Barry sees characters who keep appearing and disappearing which add an element of creepiness to the story.

You learn quite early on that the protagonist may not be a reliable narrator and this device is used to full effect during his counselling sessions when he reveals something that happened from his past. This incident makes you temporarily lose sympathy for the character until you read on and realise that it may never have actually happened. (My lips are sealed so you need to read the book to find out what I’m referring to here!). Overall, you do have sympathy towards the character who is stuck in this enforced limbo and is a young victim of a dreadful disease.

Asylum reminds me of one of my favourite books, The Outsider by Albert Camus. Though there are differences in the settings of both books, there is a similarity in the observant nature of the protagonists. Low writes Barry as projecting a feeling of not being connected to events in some way, producing a distancing effect which is very hard to successfully achieve in writing, but which Low creates with aplomb.

This is a fascinating story that has a dark, dreamlike quality. It has already been shortlisted for at least one prize and I can easily see it being listed and winning many book awards in the future. I can also see it being adapted for a film. So, go ahead and read it, you won’t be disappointed.