Book review: To Thee is this World Given by Khel Milam

Every so often, an afternoon spent trawling aimlessly around the internet will turn up a rare gem. Last week’s discovery was a self-published  novella entitled To Thee is this World Given: a slow burner that spends a few days with a handful of people surviving the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

Yeah, I know, the internet is creaking under the weight of apocalyptica, but this one is a bit different. It’s very much character-driven, along the lines of Station Eleven which happens to be one of my favourite books. You won’t see zombies eating the lungs of their screaming victims (and yet they’re still screaming), or chiselled sweat-laden heroes dispatching the walking dead with pickaxes. If that’s your bag then this book may not be for you.

dfw-km-ttitwg-cover-small-e1431038739393But if you’re looking for a measured, well-written (and I have to say it’s very rare that you see such care and attention devoted to a self-published novel), philosophical perspective on the end of the world, then this is probably it. It’s a great study of people and how they come to justify what they need to do to survive. You soon come to realise that the zombies are not really the problem (they’re slow, not particularly bright, and so pretty easy to avoid); the real problem is the other survivors, and the limits you set yourself in order to be one of them. Oh, and infected cuts: they can kill you too.

The writing style is crisp and lyrical (I can’t be a hundred per cent sure, but I don’t think I saw a single dialogue tag); the author makes great use of the environment to build suspense. The pace is slow, but still gripping. Some of the phrasing became repetitive at times; you can get away with this in a longer piece, but something like that does stand out in a novella. Still, the book as a whole was a highly enjoyable, wonderfully smooth read.

Seven out of ten.

 

Book review: Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Well, she can certainly churn them out, I’ll give her that.

I’ve bumped a couple of books out the way so I could get to this one: the third in the Cormoran Strike series, skilfully penned by J.K. Rowling’s alter-ego. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two, and so expectations were running pretty damn high for book number three. And I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed… for the most part anyway.

This episode has our hero  wading through the dregs of human society to solve find a serial killer who’s struck a little too close to home. The book follows much the same setup as the previous two (why change a winning formula): a gentle intro for the newcomers, a grisly murder, then  a classic whodunnit skilfully woven around a tale of unrequited something. Epic stuff, and I would have enjoyed it as much as the first two books, except for one small thing: too many words.

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Now it could be because I’m focussed on editing my own stuff at the moment, so perhaps I’m a little sensitive, but I did find that the book meandered around a bit. Every location was described in poetic prose that was a little strained at times, and the omnipotent viewpoint could have been smoother. I’ve never been a fan of leaping from brain to brain over the course of a few sentences. It’s wonderful device when you can pull it off, but we can’t all be Virginia Woolf, so I did find the overall effect a little jarring in places.

The pace was much much slower than previous books in the series, which gives the reader time to reflect on the changing relationship between Strike and his partner Robin (female – just sayin’). They continue to be wonderfully believable, flaws and all, as were the rest of the cast: the heroes were instantly likeable, and the perverts were about as scummy and unpleasant as you can possibly get.

The plot was intricate, beautifully crafted, and burned slowly up until the last few pages when someone lit the blue touch paper and we cannoned to a conclusion  I hadn’t seen coming. (From about a third way through the book I was convinced I knew who the killer was; now I know that I was cleverly steered in the wrong direction).

As I said, the book had a few problems that could have been sorted out with a few more rounds of editing, but on the whole it was a cracking good read, not so much for the thriller aspect as the fascinating relationship between Strike and Ellacot.

Definitely recommended.

Seven out of ten.

 

 

Book review: In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park (with MaryAnne Vollers)

I don’t throw around adjectives like ‘extraordinary’ very often, but this book has earned it. In Order to Live is the extraordinary (there ya go) autobiography of Yeonmi Park.

Park was born in North Korea when foreign aid to the country was beginning to dry up and it began its inevitable slide towards famine. She tells, in stark and brutal detail, of life under a totalitarian regime whose leaders live like kings while everyone else starves. It’s one thing reading about it in the newspapers, but when you’re living it through the eyes of an excellent writer, then the whole idea of North Korea takes on a completely different perspective. What surprised me most about the book were the little pockets of dark humour. Here’s a question from a North Korean school lesson:

If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many American bastards have you killed?

Eventually, Park’s family is faced with a choice: flee North Korea or starve to death. Park and her mother make their way to China, where they fall into the hands of  people traffickers. Pretty harrowing reading.

in_order_to_liveIt struck me how they were both willing to believe almost anything they were told by these people, but then I remembered they’d been conditioned to believe whatever they were told since birth. This makes North Koreans, in their desperation, especially vulnerable to traffickers and prostitution rings.
The two women are bought and sold until they eventually make their way to South Korea. The story doesn’t end there; freedom is especially hard on those who’ve only known some form of captivity their whole lives. Even the most basic things, like telling someone your favourite food when asked, can be something of a trauma.

It’s one hell of a read and compares well to Escape From Camp 14, which I also thoroughly enjoyed – though perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word.

In Order To Live is beautifully written, which I wasn’t expecting from a biography of this nature. It flows well, the language is simple and wonderfully descriptive, and as I’ve said, it is occasionally very funny. The best biography I’ve read so far? Quite possibly.

Ten out of ten.