Book Review: Shift by Hugh Howey

shift-by-hugh-howeyAnyone who read and enjoyed Hugh Howey’s epic Wool has two questions on finishing the original book: “What happens next?” and “How did this happen?”

Shift covers the second of those questions, leaving the former to Dust which is due for release in the Autumn where we find out the fate of Juliette Nichols and the silos.A sprawling prequel jumping from century to century, it is every bit as compelling as it’s predecessor.

The first, and most significant character we are introduced to is Donald Keene, a congressman swiftly rising through the ranks recruited by his former mentor Senator Thurman to design (with Thurman’s daughter, also Keene’s ex-girlfriend) what would become the silos we are familiar with from Wool, unaware of the implications and the sheer scale of the plans of his superiors to annihilate mankind and reseed them underground. The conspiracy runs deep and Keene doesn’t discover the fate of the planet until it is too late. It’s fascinating to see the initial planning for the silos happen all the while dreading the impending apocalypse we know is about to happen and this dread is amplified by the horror Keene experiences when he realises what is happening around him at the key moment when the event begins.

Waking from stasis years later, we find another character Troy beginning his first shift as head of Silo One, the main silo controlling all others. Fed pills to forget, at the end of his tenure he is placed back in the cryogenic chamber until his next shift begins many years later. However as his shifts progress, the strain of his responsibilities show as his memories start to resurface and he realises his true identity is that of Donald Keene and his role in the history of the silos. This also affords him the opportunity to continue his struggle with Thurman, who has also survived in stasis as well as his daughter. Keene now has to struggle with his decisions and decide his fate and the fate of the other silos while engaging in a desperate power struggle with Thurman and his co-conspirators. The dynamics of Silo One are much different to the other silos. It is a soul-less machine dedicated to the plans of it’s originators, operating without question, without morality, able to destroy an entire silo at the push of a button. It is in stark, clinical contrast to the more human elements seen in the silo of Wool. Can Keene be the one to break the cycle and challenge the hierarchy? It remains to be seen.

The next character introduced is Mission Jones a young foot-bound porter (Shift provides us with an interesting take on why Silo One is the only silo that has elevators) in another silo unwittingly caught up in an uprising. Mission struggles with the fact that he was born outside the lottery, with his mother having to clean to atone for her indiscretion. The nature of his work takes him through the entire silo allowing him to see first hand the rising tensions between the trades leading to the inevitable conflict which will change his life and the life of the entire silo forever.

Finally we are introduced to Jimmy, a young boy caught up in the destruction of his silo who finds himself alone, struggling for survival. The heartbreaking circumstances of his survival help the reader to bond quickly with the boy (who we later learn is Solo from the original Wool) As he finally emerges from his hiding place he faces the ghosts of a now-empty silo as he resigns himself to being alone until the inevitable arrival of Juliette many years later.

Shift is a thrilling read. Initially I was disappointed to find it was a prequel as I has invested so much in Wool and Jules’ story. I was so eager to find out her fate and that of her silo I wasn’t sure if I could make the investment in new characters and story arcs. However Howey’s character development and the positioning of these characters in the timeline fits perfectly. Keene is a wonderful anti-hero for the most part, while struggling with the moral dilemmas foisted on him as Troy he has no qualms about destroying an entire silo for the greater good but he becomes a much more interesting character as the plot develops and he learns the fate of those he loved and Thurman’s involvement.

The world of Wool was so enormous, this backstory is essential and only serves to fuel the reader’s excitement about what will happen next.

One thing I can guarantee: it will be epic.

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Book Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books)

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Asteroid 2011GV, also known as Maia is on a collision course with Earth.

Probability of impact: 100%

What do you do?

Detective Henry Palace goes to work.

Since the announcement of the impending catastrophe the world is changing rapidly. Lawlessness is on the increase, suicides are at an all-time high. Technology is breaking down and no-one cares enough to fix it anymore. Most large corporations have imploded, money is worthless. Certain foods have become valuable commodities and weapons can be worth a small fortune. Many people have turned to drugs or religion, some have gone ‘bucket list’. Concord, New Hampshire Police Department is running at capacity and our newly promoted hero has stumbled upon a suicide case that just doesn’t add up.
But why should he care? It’s now March and by October Maia will seal the fate of him and anyone else left on the planet. As far as his colleagues are concerned a suicide’s a suicide.

That’s the first thing you do learn about Hank Palace: he does care. He’s a good guy, maybe the last of the good guys in this slick, witty pre-apocalyptic whodunit. The joy of this story is that it’s taking place regardless. The end of the world is secondary, right now all Hank wants is to solve a murder because it’s the right thing to do. It’s his job and you as the reader want to see him do it.

Palace may seem like your archetypal murder mystery detective, and in a lot of ways he is. Shades of Marlowe, Deckard even Holmes echo through his character in this self-narrated tale. He’s hugely pragmatic with a typically deadpan sense of humour, but Winters writes him with heart his emotional side showing mainly in exasperation of those around him, particularly his wild younger sister Nico whose husband has disappeared and whose participation here seems to be related to something much bigger that we’ve yet to see. He’s not perfect by any means. He’s no action hero, he doesn’t always get the girl and Bruce Willis won’t be playing him in the movie (at least I hope not).

As expected the narration has a very noir-ish feel, the grim events taking place in a crumbling world with failing technology means more traditional investigative techniques need to be applied which add to the feel of the experience and give it a more authentic slant falling just short of a jazz soundtrack. There are no gadgets, no huge arsenals and even Palace’s possession of a car is seen as somewhat of a luxury.

The story plays out well. As we learn more about the victim’s background other interesting characters come out of the woodwork, (some briefly but effectively) gently guiding Hank through twists and turns, some throwing him off course, some doing their utmost to stop him in his tracks. But he soldiers on. After every setback, every dead end, every beating (of which there are several – his self-defence skills are pretty awful!) Hank picks himself up, dusts himself off and keeps going and it’s this inertia that mirrors mankind’s struggle in the face of certain annihilation.

It’s hard not to like this book. While many Hollywood stereotypes and cliches could easily have emerged here they didn’t. It’s never over-melodramatic and it relies largely on common sense and a good prediction of how the human condition could develop in the face of such an impossible situation. Armageddon aside, it’s still a damn good mystery novel and a promising start to what should be a very interesting trilogy.

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Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

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A while back I happened to come across the photograph above on the internet. I was intrigued both as a lover of photography and all things weird. I instantly tried to track down it’s origin and my search brought me to this curiously titled book. They say never judge a book by it’s cover but in this case I was so impressed with the design of the cover I would have bought it for that alone.

Out soon on paperback, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is the first novel from wonderfully named author Ransom Riggs (that’s his real name by the way – well done Mr & Mrs Riggs!) an avid collector of vintage photography from pretty much anywhere he can find it. In this book he uses some of his most unusual discoveries to weave a gripping fantasy centred around a young teen Jacob who after witnessing the death of his grandfather Abe at the hands of a terrifying creature, discovers a life hidden from him until now except for some odd photographs of children doing seemingly impossible things shown to him over the years.

In an effort to understand what has happened and conserve his own sanity he follows a trail of clues which lead him all the way to a remote Welsh island to find the orphanage where his grandfather spent his childhood during the 1940’s. He finds the house in ruins after a German raid during World War II but on following a strange girl he recognises from one of the old photos through a Cairn – an ancient neolithic tomb he exits in the 1940’s with the house fully restored and populated by the aforementioned Peculiar Children who possess strange powers, protected by the enigmatic Miss Peregrine.

What follows is a wonderfully written adventure both original and captivating and at times chilling . Riggs has a wonderful, almost forensic eye for visual detail (his previous book was the amazingly detailed Sherlock Homes Handbook which says a lot!)  and constructs a vivid world to play out the unfolding storyline. To the author’s credit as the story transfers from America to Wales the transition is pretty seamless. Riggs understands the language and customs of the area and this section doesn’t feel as if it’s written by a tourist. As the story reaches it’s conclusion we’re prepared for a sequel (Hollow City, due January14th 2014) by a thrilling cliffhanger .

The other wonderful feature of this book is the book itself (I’m speaking of the hardback version here as this was my review copy) – beautifully bound with classic fonts and high quality paper and peppered with those wonderfully creepy photos it’s one of the best designed books I’ve seen in years and the Quirk Books team have to be applauded for their efforts in creating such a beautiful piece.

Looking forward to Hollow City!

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Book Review: Wool by Hugh Howey

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After coming down from finishing Justin Cronin’s The Twelve a friend insisted I try Hugh Howey’s Wool. “Not another dystopian thriller.” I thought, but my friend had recommended The Passage and The Twelve which I loved so I couldn’t refuse.  I decided to give it a whirl.

Wool takes place many years in the future when an unknown cataclysmic event has left the remainder of humanity to survive in a huge underground bunker called the ‘Silo’ 144 floors deep all linked by a spiral staircase providing a self-sufficient environment for a few thousand of what seems to be the last of the human race.

Sealed off from what remains of the outside with only a large screen displaying the devastation of what has become of the world, people go about their daily business as normal under the ever-watchful eye of the sinister I.T. department who, along with the mayor seem to be running the operation of the Silo and controlling it’s citizens only allowing births by lottery following a death. This also creates issues with class distinction within the Silo leading to inevitable tensions within the groups controlling the essential operations. Criminal behaviour is threatened with ‘cleanings’ which involve a one way trip to the outside of the Silo to clean the camera sensors broadcasting the obliterated landscape to the inhabitants inside. Unfortunately this results in the cleaner choking to death on the toxic atmosphere due to the poor quality of the protective suits manufactured in the I.T. Department.

A series of events leads Holston the sheriff to volunteer to clean in his wife’s footsteps with his recommendation for his replacement being a young engineer Juliette who had previously helped Holston on a murder case in her department. She’s a strong female character, resilient and innovative with equal parts sass and common sense. Some would say a good choice for a sheriff. We’re also witnessing the birth of what is one of the most important female characters in science fiction since Ellen Ripley.

However when Jules takes up her post she quickly realises that there are other forces at work and deception around every corner. The Grand Scheme Of Things is grander than anyone could ever have imagined, but Jules’ standing with her peers in Mechanical as well as her own expertise offers much help with discovering the truth of not only what happens outside the Silo but what caused the terrifying event that left them to exist there.

Howey’s world is truly horrifying at times but the pace is brilliantly levelled throughout without having to resort to over-dramatic gimmicks to keep the reader interested. The whole experience is wonderfully claustrophobic There are parts in the book where you almost find yourself gasping for air. Everything within the world is well devised and practical with every aspect of the Silo (bar the I.T. department) running on age old seat-of-the-pants engineering practices with every skilled worker having an apprentice or “shadow” as the people of the Silo refer to them. There are no high tech gadgets helping these people survive and they depend on recycling and sometimes reverse engineering as much as they can of the technology they have available. The characters are believable and well cast and you genuinely feel for these people, almost as if they are your own descendants.  Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances led by a protagonist few could dislike and an antagonist (Bernard the head of I.T.) everyone will.

Wool has a lot to say about the world we live in today but the beauty of it is that it does so without being overly preachy and by giving us a gripping addictive thriller to boot. Behind the lies and deadly schemes is a story of hope under impossible circumstances and the beginnings of a sprawling sci-fi epic that will resonate with fans of the genre for many years to come.

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