Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 4)

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

Even when I’m working my way through a set reading list, I’m still, at my core, a mood reader. When I’m down, I want a book that’s going to cheer me up. When I’m on top of the world, I want a book that’s going to challenge me. And after Ulysses, I was in the mood for some F.U.N. I didn’t want anything literary or high-minded or complex – I wanted a page-turner, dammit, and I wanted it NOW! So, where to turn but to Liane Moriarty’s ubiquitous smash hit, Big Little Lies? I was worried that I was the last person left in the world who hadn’t read this book. Honestly, how I managed to avoid any spoilers is beyond me… (this review is going to be chock-full of them, by the way, so if it turns out I wasn’t in fact the last person ever to read it, you might want to look away now.)

I had some idea of what I was getting into: I read and reviewed Moriarty’s fifth novel, The Husband’s Secret, last year. Big Little Lies, published in 2014, was her follow-up. It looks like she knew she’d stumbled onto a winning formula (three women-centric stories woven together in a domestic-thriller-type set-up), and figured she’d stick with it. Good call, on her part!

So, let’s meet the ladies. We’ve got Jane, the single mother who moves to Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her son, Ziggy. She enrolls him at the local Pirriwee Public School (entirely fictional, for those of you playing overseas). There, she meets Madeline, who has a daughter Ziggy’s age, and Celeste, who has twin boys that age, too. The three of them strike up a friendship – more of an alliance, really, to protect themselves in the political battles with other factions of school mums.

Each of them, naturally, has their own set of problems. Jane is dealing with the aftermath of the sexual assault in which Ziggy was conceived. Madeline is hella jealous that her teenage daughter from a previous marriage is growing close to her ex-husband’s new hippie wife, Bonnie. Celeste’s relationship with her wealthy, charismatic husband, Perry, is abusive and toxic (to say the least). So, clearly, it’s massive trigger warnings all ’round, for all types of violence against women (even sex slavery gets a look in, via the passion project of Madeline’s teenage daughter). The point, it seems, is that men are garbage – but at least the women in Big Little Lies have more agency than any of the women in The Husband’s Secret. It’s a far more enjoyable read for that reason alone!





As the story unfolds, each chapter is punctuated with extracts from witness interviews with a journalist, just to keep the lure dangling and really exaggerate the characterisation. See, something went down at a school trivia night, someone is dead, and these little snippets are like banner ads from Moriarty every few pages: SUBURBIA IS A LIE! SOMEONE WAS MURDERED! DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW WHO, AND HOW? KEEP READING! It’s not subtle. I must say, I heaved a sigh of relief when she revealed, about a hundred pages in, that it was a parent who died; I mean, that’s not great news, but at least we were spared any particularly-gruesome child murders.

After the three women have grown quite close, Jane reveals the details of the sexual assault that’s got her all messed up. She says the man’s name was Saxon Banks. That raises a red flag for Celeste and Madeline, because that’s the name of Perry’s cousin. Celeste actually knows him, from family barbecues and whatnot. They decide to keep that little nugget of information to themselves, though, right until the very end. Perry also busts Celeste setting up her own apartment, and figures out that she’s planning to leave him – if you know anything at all about domestic violence, you know that this is Bad News. His violence towards her escalates accordingly.

And let’s not forget all the kiddie drama that’s playing out at the same time! Ziggy is accused of bullying another child at Pirriwee, and the mothers tear one another apart like lionesses fighting over a warthog carcass. It takes a while, but eventually Jane and Celeste work out that it’s actually one of Celeste’s sons doing the bullying, apparently taking after his violent father.

It all comes to a head at the Pirriwee Public Trivia Night fundraiser. All the parents get together, get drunk, and the titular big little lies come unravelled. This is what all the witness statements have been hinting at throughout the book. Perry is revealed to be Jane’s rapist; he used his cousin’s name, the way he used to as a kid, to get out of trouble. When Celeste calls him out (“hello, excuse me, yes, you’re the absolute worst”), he backhands her. Unbeknownst to him, Bonnie – remember her? Madeline’s ex-husband’s new hippie wife – was the child of a violent relationship, and seeing Perry hit Celeste causes her to freak the fuck out. She ends up pushing Perry over the balcony, to his death.





Yes, it’s all a little neat, a little convenient, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I much preferred the structure of Big Little Lies to The Husband’s Secret. The relationships between characters seemed much clearer (if you’re struggling to follow in this review, the fault is entirely mine!), as did the chronology of events. It was just a far better effort overall. Moriarty didn’t even have to resort to a saccharine explains-it-all epilogue. Big Little Lies didn’t have the most realistic ending, but it was certainly a satisfying one.

I was surprised at how dark it was, really, even though it managed to make me chuckle now and then. A New York Times book review said: “A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality”, which is spot on. There are laughs to be had, sure, but they’re ornaments on pretty heavy and disturbing subject matter. I hope everyone who picks this one up does so with eyes open…

The TV miniseries, produced by HBO in 2017 (starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley) won eight Emmy Awards. The second season, based on a follow-up novella by Moriarty, brought in Meryl Streep(!). I haven’t watched either of them yet, but I checked out the trailers on YouTube; it looks like they’ve moved the setting to the States (boo!), but that’s the nature of the beast, I guess.

At the end of the day, Big Little Lies isn’t a “literary” read, but it lived up to the hype as far as I’m concerned. It was just what I needed after the brain-draining monster that was Ulysses! Moriarty’s writing was compelling, perfectly page-turner-y, and reminded me of how much fun reading can be. I would sum up Big Little Lies as being The Slap meets House Husbands, with a female cast and a murder mystery at its heart.

P.S. In her acknowledgements, Moriarty says: “Now seems like a good time to make clear that the parents at the lovely school where my children currently attend are nothing like the parents at Pirriwee Public, and are disappointingly well behaved at school functions.” = LOL!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Big Little Lies:

  • “Maybe little long ?” – Antoinette Ritacco
  • “Too many lies!” – Sissel Kran
  • “Book club torture” – Muffy McGuffin
  • “By the end of the book I didn’t care who did what to whom” – Lynn R
  • SPOILERS shallow self-absorbed helicopter moms and their tedious offspring completely overshadow the underlying tale of infidelity and manslaughter. Schadenfreude and black comedy can be entertaining, but when paired with the serious themes of rape and domestic violence it felt tone deaf and distasteful.” – Weaslgrl


The Maze Runner – James Dashner

Here’s the whole truth: I didn’t feel optimistic going into The Maze Runner. My husband had seen the movie, and he told me it was terrible (I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its movie, but still!). Plus, some ugly accusations about Dashner surfaced in 2018 as part of the #MeToo movement. But the book was already on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, so I figured I may as well go ahead. If nothing else, I suspected it would be over quickly…

… and I was right. On all counts.

The Maze Runner was first published in 2009, the first book in a young adult dystopian series of the same name. Well, it’s the “first” in the sense that it was the first to be published, but it’s actually third in narrative order (so there have been two prequels and three sequels, if that makes sense).

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a stark metal elevator. He has no memory of who he is (other than his first name), or how he came to be in that situation. Right away, I started poking holes in the premise. I mean, it just doesn’t seem right that he could remember his first name but not his last, or anything else – right? I tried to tell myself not to be such a cynical snot, but the whole premise was just so flimsy, right from the outset, that I couldn’t help myself.

The elevator brings Thomas to the Glade, a large courtyard full of boys roughly his age (we’re told later that Thomas “looks” to be about sixteen, but he talks and acts like he’s twelve). He learns that a new boy arrives each month in the same way that he did, and in the same condition (with the memory loss and everything). The elevator also brings them supplies, but no, they can’t use it to escape – they’ve already tried. Thomas’s new home is surrounded by four high concrete walls, forming a square in which the boys are held. Outside the walls, they tell him, is the Maze. They send “runners” out into the maze every day to try and map its pattern and find a way out, but the pattern changes every night. They don’t stay out there after dark, because that’s when the “Grievers” emerge. Thomas is intrigued.

Yep, this is the ol’ newbie-has-to-save-the-day trope.



The “Grievers” are spoken about a lot, and even encountered a few times, but they were really hard to visualise based on the descriptions Dashner used: slimy, but mechanic; lurching, but fast… like villainous monsters designed by committee. And while we’re all rolling our eyes (you’re with me on this, right?), let’s throw something else on top of the shit heap: the boys that live in the Glade have developed their own nonsense slang, a very obvious and very lame attempt by Dashner to give the impression that his characters are very cool and swear-y, without using any actual profanity that would offend the delicate sensibilities of school boards and over-protective parents. It’s completely transparent, nothing like the masterful effort in, say, A Clockwork Orange. On the whole, The Maze Runner had very strong Lord Of The Flies vibes, right down to the bumbling, chubby best friend.

Anyway, the day after Thomas’s arrival, the elevator comes cranking up again. This time, it deposits a girl named Teresa. She carries a note saying that she’s the “last one”, and promptly lapses into a coma. The elevator stops bringing supplies, the skies turn grey, and the doors to the Maze stop closing at night (leaving everyone in the Glade vulnerable to the Grievers). Teresa remains steadfastly unconscious for about half the book. When she finally wakes up, she and Thomas decide that they “feel” like they already know each other. Oh, and they can communicate telepathically.

RANT ALERT: this telepathy thing is the worst! It’s some of the laziest hack writing I’ve encountered in all my reading life. I suspect Dashner just retro-fitted some Special Significance(TM) to it elsewhere in the series, but I’m just going to die without ever finding out and I’m okay with that. For The Maze Runner, it seemed like a deus ex machina cop-out to allow him to have his two central characters communicate privately whenever the plot needed them to. Booooo!



Anyway, I need to charge ahead with this plot summary before my eyes start to hurt from all the rolling. Thomas manages to figure out that the Maze walls move to spell out a super-special secret code. He also figures out how and where the Grievers get in and out off the Maze. He draws the logical conclusion that the easiest way for the boys to escape is to follow them. He also gets himself “stung” by one of the Grievers, on purpose, so that he can go through “The Changing” (I’m biting my tongue, I’m biting my tongue…), because it is rumoured to bring back memories of the victim’s pre-Glade life. Sure enough, he remembers the crucial bits and pieces that allow him to put a plan together. How convenient.

And away they go, down the Griever hole. Thomas, Teresa, and Chuck (the bumbling, chubby sidekick) find a computer at the bottom, and they punch in the Maze code. Hey, presto: the rest of the boys from the Glade appear. They all learn that they are part of a WICKED experiment. No, I’m not suddenly being enthusiastic with the adjective; it stands for World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department (and if that acronym wasn’t backwards-engineered, I’ll eat my hat).

Chuck bites it, like Piggy and all other chubby sidekicks before him. In fact, he does a Dobby, throwing himself in front of the knife that was intended for Thomas. All the surviving Glade boys figure out that these WICKED government guys are bad news, and just as their cogs are turning, another team of grown ups shows up to “rescue” them.

Their saviours whisk them away to safety, which gives Dashner the chance for a whole stream of exposition to explain what the heck is going on (and set up the next book, conveniently enough). Apparently, a bunch of sun flares have ruined Earth, somehow. The world is a wasteland now, and there’s a disease (called “The Flare” – Dashner’s creative hits just keep on rolling) that’s got half the population all fucked up. The Glade boys are taken to a safe house, fed a decent meal, and they’re happy enough with that.

Then, an epilogue reveals that this apparent-rescue and supposed-safe-house are all an extension of the Maze experiment, set up by those WICKED people. *ominous chord* The End.

Ugh. I’m so glad to be done with this book – even writing this review made my eye twitch.



Here’s what I can say for it: the chapters are short. The story moves pretty quickly. Well, it has the illusion of doing so, at least. You could call it “fast paced”. But that’s all I’ve got, folks. The Maze Runner is a real stinker.

I’ve seen it compared to The Hunger Games, and although that wasn’t my favourite book of all time, it was streets ahead of The Maze Runner. In fact, the only way that Dashner bested Collins, in my view, was that he started working in the set-up for the sequel about seventy pages before the end, instead of cramming it into the final chapter. That tells me he’d always envisaged the book as part of a series arc, which is something, I suppose.

As I mentioned up top, there was a film adaptation released in 2014. I watched the trailer on YouTube, and it’s exactly as terrible as you’d expect. All in all, I’d say don’t bother, with the movie or the book. Don’t even bother buying it for the tweens and teens in your life. They’d be better off with almost any other young adult book out there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maze Runner:

  • “my mummy likess this book and me. she thought that it was wonderful. i recommend u read it. Ya yeet.” – Ms Samantha M Thomson
  • “Very disappointing. Just a lot of action. Almost like he’s trying to get a movie deal.” – consumer scientist
  • “If you like terrible prose, a dumb plot, and unrealistic dialogue, this book is for you!” – W V S
  • “All the violence and hate of the Hunger Games without the pesky storyline or plot. I kept hoping the story would develope, but no. Left disappointed.” – John
  • “Yuck, I think I’d rather have a root canal than read another book of this series.” – Amazon Customer
  • “DO NOT READ! Boring, tedious. We bought this for a multi-hour car trip and had to stop the audiobook because silence was better than this story.” – Judy-Lynn Benjamin
  • “I didn’t order this book, so I don’t know why it asked me to rate it . And my name is not Dylan .” – Dylan Chilano
  • “I utterly HATE this book no reason.” – Amazon Customer

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man is a short novel, first published in 1964, by American author Christopher Isherwood. It tells the story of a day in the life of – you guessed it – a single man, George. He’s a middle-aged professor at a Los Angeles university, still grieving the recent loss of his partner, Jim. You wouldn’t think that it’s a funny story, but this slim volume was chockers full of darkly comic moments that had me literally laughing out loud.

A Single Man is different from Isherwood’s other books. In his own words, it’s “the only book of mine where I did more or less what I wanted to do”. The others (including Goodbye To Berlin) famously drew upon his time teaching English in Germany, where he witnessed first-hand the rise of the Nazis. But it was later, in the ’50s, that he started drafting a film script, then titled The Day’s Journey. It was that project that eventually became A Single Man.

He sought to pay homage to Mrs Dalloway (which he called “one of the most truly beautiful novels or prose poems or whatever that I have read”), fashioning it as a day in the life of an English woman; indeed, a later draft was re-titled The Englishwoman. All of these ideas bubbled away on the back-burner of his brain for years. In a diary entry from 1962 (ten years after he began), he records that his lover, Don Bachardy, suggested changing the gender of the central character and making the story more autobiographical. Don later said publicly that he thought Isherwood had written an imagined version of what might happen if they were ever separated. He also said that the writer was “very difficult and very tiresome” to live with as he completed the novel – ooh, snap!

Even though it sounds like Don had a major influence on A Single Man, Isherwood actually dedicated it to Gore Vidal. Vidal, in turn, called Isherwood “the best prose writer in English”. Take this as an important lesson, would-be novelists: if you want renowned intellectuals to say nice things about you, just dedicate a good book to them. That’ll do the trick!

My Vintage edition has a nice, short introduction, written by Tom Ford – yes, the fashion designer, but also the creative mind behind the movie adaptation starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. It’s a touching, personal tribute to Isherwood and his work, without being overwrought or overdone.



So, to the story itself: A Single Man begins when George’s day begins, waking up, going about the usual coffee and ablutions. Right away, I found it hard to believe Isherwood was writing in 1964 – it felt so contemporary, almost timeless. George is despondent, bereaved, mourning a lover he couldn’t publicly declare (remember, back in the day, even being “out” wasn’t being out). And yet, Isherwood writes in such a cool and dispassionate way that George’s bitterness and misanthropy comes across as hilarious and matter-of-fact.

“George feels a bowel movement coming on with agreeable urgency, and climbs the stairs briskly to the bathroom, book in hand.”

Page 7, A Single Man

Throughout the course of his day, George meets and interacts with the people around him, his thoughts and feelings constantly coloured by his grief. He teaches a class, tries to skip a social engagement (and fails), works out, goes to the supermarket, has a drink with a friend, and engages in an illicit flirtation with one of his students. All the while, he tries his best not to present himself to the world as a grieving widower – because, of course, he can’t, and in the eyes of the law, he isn’t one. Still, his sense of loss consumes his every waking moment.

Now, what makes all of this particularly heart-wrenching (spoiler alert, etc. etc.) is that we find out in the final pages that this day is actually the last day of George’s life. The plot fades to black, in a sense. I know that sounds trope-y or cliche, but I swear to Oprah it doesn’t read that way. Isherwood writes it really well, and he knew it, too – he called A Single Man his masterpiece. Most people are surprised to hear that, thinking that Goodbye To Berlin or one of his other more popular works would rank above, but I’m sure he was right.

I really enjoyed A Single Man. It’s a quick read, but a powerful and moving one. All of that heart-wrenching and grief-striking is counterbalanced with humour and insight. I laughed out loud a lot, as I said, but maybe take my reaction with a grain of salt. After all, I have a pretty dark sense of humour, so maybe I responded with more mirth than most readers would. Still, if you’re looking for a shining gem of a book to squeeze into your limited reading time, this one would be perfect.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Single Man:

  • “Sad story with no plot that just kept getting sadder. Very hard to read.” – jared abrahamse
  • “‘A Single Man’ was a homosexual who lost his lover due to an accident…Homosexuals suffer a lost just like everyone else, but perhaps it may be more difficult and stressful since the relationship may be closeted” – Beverly Guardino

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

So, I’m not particularly familiar with Raymond Chandler, but for crime fiction fans he’s basically God. Anthony Burgess once said: “Chandler is an original stylist, creator of a character, Philip Marlowe, as immortal as Sherlock Holmes“. That’s some mighty comparison! The Big Sleep is Chandler’s best-known novel, published in 1939, and it was the first to feature that immortal Sherlockian detective.

Everyone comes to The Big Sleep for Chandler’s descriptions of Los Angeles, and he was certainly an evocative place writer, but I personally loved his characterisations most of all. I got a lot of smirks out of descriptions like: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money” = brilliant! That said, Chandler was far from perfect when it came to plotting. The Big Sleep is complex, criss-crossing, and full of holes, like a hand-knitted jumper from a kindly arthritic grandma. So, bear with me as I try to explain…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is having a grand old life, being vaguely sexist and drinking a lot of hard liquor, when he gets a call from wealthy patriarch General Sternwood. Sternwood wants Marlowe to “deal with” a recent blackmail attempt on his daughter, Carmen. And Marlowe won’t have to work too hard, because they’ve already fingered the culprit: bookseller Arthur Geiger, whose bookselling operation is actually a front for his illegal pornography trade.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of Sternwood’s son-in-law, husband of his other daughter Vivian: Rusty Regan has disappeared off the face of the earth. Vivian puts the heavies on Marlowe herself, trying to figure out whether he’s on that case, too. But mostly, it’s the blackmailing thing. Sternwood tells Marlowe to deal with that as a priority.

So, off Marlowe trots to investigate this “bookseller” Geiger, starting with a good old-fashioned stakeout at his house. He sees Carmen walk in, but doesn’t follow her, figuring he’ll wait and see what happens… and then he hears gunshots, and screaming. He heads inside and finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged and naked, both sprawled out in front of an empty camera.

First thing’s first: he gets Carmen into a jacket and home safe. But, upon returning, he finds Geiger’s body has disappeared. Uh oh.



The next day, the coppers come around and tell Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ car was driven off a cliff with the chauffeur still inside (but he was whacked around the head before the car hit the water, so at least he didn’t suffer). They also grill Marlowe about whether he’s chasing after Regan. Seriously, every other minute someone’s pestering Marlowe about this missing Regan bloke – I can’t think of a single character that doesn’t ask him about it at some point.

Anyway, still on the blackmailing case, Marlowe heads back to Geiger’s bookstore and sees his porn stash being moved to the home of one Joe Brody. Before he can figure out what to do about that, Vivian hits him up, telling him Carmen is still being blackmailed, but now with nude photos from the night before. She also tells him, just casually, that she likes gambling at a casino belonging to Eddie Mars, whose wife (she suspects) ran off with Regan.

To his credit, Marlowe doesn’t take the bait straight away. He heads back to Geiger’s house first, and finds Carmen trying to break in. They search for the nudes together, with no luck, and she plays dumb about what happened the night before. Then Eddie Mars, the casino owner, coincidentally shows up. He says he’s Geiger’s landlord and he’s looking for him. He and Marlowe have a pissing contest.



Are you lost and confused yet? I hope not, because we’re not even halfway through! With all the crossing and double-crossing, it’s easy to lose track of who’s doing what to whom. Plus, I’m not sure I quite buy how often Marlowe “just happened” to witness a murder, or arrive on the scene while the body’s still warm…

Next, Marlowe heads over to Joe Brody’s, where they’re stashing the porn. He works out Brody is in cahoots with Geiger’s clerk, Agnes. He tells them both the jig is up: he knows about the porn, he knows about the blackmail… but before he can finish them, Carmen breaks in and tries to shoot them both. Marlowe gets the gun off her, thank goodness (a strumpet with a temper and a firearm is not a good combination), and he tells her to head out, he’s got this.

Geiger was, in fact, the one initially blackmailing Carmen. The (now dead) chauffeur, Owen Taylor, didn’t like it much, because he had the hots for her. He snuck in and killed Geiger, and took the nudes out of the camera for safekeeping. Brody had also been staking out the house (how did he and Marlowe not run into each other?), and he followed Owen when he left. He knocked the driver out, stole the nudes, then decided to do a little blackmailing of his own.



Then – bam! Geiger’s lover shows up, and shoots Brody dead. He thought Brody was the one who killed Geiger, and wanted to get some revenge. Also, he admits, he was the one who hid Geiger’s body – he wanted to get all of his stuff out of the house before anyone figured out they were more than friends (this was the ’30s, after all).

So, case solved! Yay! All the blackmailers are dead, happy days. But Regan’s disappearance is still troubling Marlowe – probably because everyone around him won’t shut up about it. The cops aren’t that concerned though; they figure he just ran off with Mrs Mars, like Vivian said.

Now, we meet Henry Jones (yes, Chandler is still introducing new characters, and they all have super-generic names – ack!). He offers to sell Marlowe the location of Mrs Mars, but he doesn’t get the chance, because Eddie has him killed. The Big Sleep‘s death toll is now up to four. Luckily, Marlowe manages to squeeze the information out of Agnes instead. He finds Mrs Mars (killing Eddie’s henchman in the process – that’s five!), only for her to tell him that she hasn’t seen Regan in months. Dead end, after all that!

With hat in hand, Marlowe goes to see his client. But Sternwood ups the stakes, offering him $1,000 for Regan’s whereabouts. Marlowe quickly decides that this isn’t the moment to give up. On his way out the door, he returns Carmen’s gun to her, and she asks him to take her down the back paddock and teach her how to shoot. Fair enough, he thinks, but as soon as they get out there she decides to use him as the target.



But Marlowe, being a clever bugger, has loaded the gun with blanks. Carmen immediately falls into a (very convenient) seizure, which saves her from having to explain herself. He carries her up to the house, and he and Vivian finally piece it all together. A while back, Carmen came on to Regan and he rejected her, so she killed him (as she just tried to do with Marlowe). Eddie Mars, who had been an investor in Geiger’s little porno enterprise, had helped Vivian cover it up. He disposed of the body, and invented a cock-and-bull story about his wife running off with the dead guy. Vivian claims she did it all to keep her father from finding out his other daughter was a psychopath, and she promises to get Carmen locked up in a nice cozy mental institution.

So, to celebrate a job well done, Marlowe heads down the pub. He downs a few scotches, muses briefly on death, and tells the bartender he has the hots for Mrs Mars but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. The title, The Big Sleep, is Marlowe’s euphemism for death that he uses in those final pages.

The Big Sleep, like most of Marlowe’s novels, was written by what he called “cannibalising” his short stories. Chandler would take stories he had already published and rework them into a coherent novel. For The Big Sleep, he mashed together his short stories Killer In The Rain (1935) and The Curtain (1936). Although the stories were independent, and shared no characters, they ran along similar lines – an old powerful bloke whose daughter is stressing him out, basically.



As might be expected, all of this cannibalising sometimes produced a plot with a few loose ends. The famously unanswered question in The Big Sleep is who killed the chauffeur, Owen? I mean, logic would suggest that it must have been Brody, but Chandler never confirmed it – in fact, when the question was put to him, he said he had no idea. To him, plot was less important than atmosphere and characterisation (and it shows). An ending that answered every question mattered less to Chandler than interesting characters, so bear that in mind when you pick this one up.

The Big Sleep is quite similar to one of my other recent reads, The Maltese Falcon, in a lot of ways, but I think I preferred Hammett’s style. If you’re a dedicated crime/detective mystery reader, though, The Big Sleep would be a good one for you – you’ll be well practiced at following the twists and turns, and it’s clearly a classic of the genre.

If you’re not sure, you can try before you buy. There have been a bunch of different adaptations into almost every format – most famously a 1946 film starring Humphrey Bogart (naturally). I’m not sure I’ll read The Big Sleep again, but I’d be keen to give the movie a go – it reads like it would translate really well into film.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Big Sleep:

  • “Lime gimlets. What more do I need to say.” – AH Jones
  • “I read a great deal and have read nothing better. Frequently not as well crafted. Correct as to the time period. Yes I’m that old.” – cain paul the less than apostle
  • “a classic that doesnt dissapoint. named my cat marlowe.” – ssfn
  • “Book showed up good. Had pages and ever thing.” – Ken Johnson
  • “chandler like so many authors puts too many non essentials in his plots make them a little too much boring” – Astan papemazon Customer
  • “Descriptive wording. Love that.” – Lynne B.
  • “A good reader. Turnpager.” – Maycoon


If I Stay – Gayle Forman

Well, after my adventures with Augie March, I was looking for something a little easier to digest. That’s how I came to If I Stay, a young adult novel by Gayle Forman published in 2009. But I’d forgotten something about YA literature: even though they tend to be easier to read in terms of language and style, they also tend to tackle some really heavy topics. This one centers around a car crash, and a girl’s decision about whether to stay in the land of the living or “move on” with her deceased family. So, yeah. Not a lot of laughs to be had here!

The story opens on a Norman Rockwell painting: a happy family of four, living in Anywhere USA, deciding one snowy day to go for a drive together. Then, there’s an immediate and violent tragedy: another car crashes into theirs. The two parents are killed immediately, and the kids are both unconscious, with severe injuries.

Mia – our 17-year-old protagonist – is not having a very good day.

She falls into a whacky out-of-body experience, standing over her lifeless skin suit and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. She follows herself, and her younger brother, in the ambulance back to the hospital. Her extended family rushes to be with them, and she starts to wonder why her boyfriend isn’t with them. Then, the flashbacks start, and her pre-coma life unfolds.



She grew up being the only classical music-lover in a house full of rock’n’rollers. Literally, her parents were punk before it was cool, and her little brother played the drums (or something, he wasn’t that memorable, to be honest). Mia also has a boyfriend, Adam, who is handsome and musically talented (duh), and – of course – he’s in a baaaaand. I swear, authors who write rock stars as romantic leads have never actually dated a musician in real life. They generally don’t make for stable and committed lovers. But Adam “loves” Mia, even though she’s “weird”, which makes the whole love story read like a tragic episode of wish-fulfillment. I mean, a quiet, plain girl with a rock-star boyfriend who loves her, even though they have nothing in common, and persists through her tantrums and shyness because he sees who she “really” is? Ugh.

Anyway, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about her boyfriend – fair enough, she is a teenager – and whether she should stick around in the mortal realm to be with him. By this point, her younger brother has succumbed to his injuries, so choosing Adam would also mean choosing a life of grief and poor-orphan-girl sympathy. Her grandparents are still alive, though, so she wouldn’t be entirely alone. Choices, choices…



If I were writing a high school book report, I would say that If I Stay is a book about choices. Live or die, stay or go, et cetera. Forman actually did a pretty good job of weaving in a series of smaller choices as well, in Mia’s flashbacks and reminisces, foreshadowing this big final call she has to make. Mia calls upon all these choices she’d made throughout her short life, and pretty much makes up her mind to shuffle off the mortal coil… but then, her boyfriend shows up, and has a normal human reaction to seeing one’s comatose girlfriend (i.e., he gets a bit upset), and she’s so moved by this “outpouring” of “true love” that she decides to stick around after all. Wonderful!

Some of the philosophising and musing on life and death was a bit trite, but in fairness I’m closer to thirty than twenty; I’ve had plenty of time to think a lot of this stuff through already. If I’d read this book as a 13- or 14-year-old, maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so cringey. It really started to drag a bit, especially towards the end, which is saying a lot because the timeline of the book only ran to a day.

(Oh, and there’s quite a bit of ableist language, too, which really surprised me. YA books tend to be pretty woke, so it was especially jarring, as I wasn’t expecting it. Steer clear if that stuff bothers you!)



Even though it was a bit much for cynical snots like me, If I Stay was well received, and sold gangbusters. Summit Entertainment bought the film rights straight away, but they chewed through a few different directors and lead actresses before they finally got it out. The film adaptation was released in 2014, starring Chloe Grace Mortez, and pulled in $78 million at the box office. Not bad.

And, not one to let go of a good thing, Forman also wrote a follow-up called Where She Went. It was published in April 2011, and it picks up the story a few years after Mia’s accident. She and Adam have broken up (good thing she “chose life” for this guy, eh?), and she’s moved to New York to attend Julliard School of Music. Side note: why is it always Julliard? Are there no other performance schools in the U.S.? Why don’t any of them ever come to NIDA?

Anyway, If I Stay wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t great, but it was an adequate literary palette cleanser. I can’t picture a situation where I’d be pressing this book into somebody’s hands and insisting they read it, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment of it either. So, take it or leave it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of If I Stay:

  • “gave as a gift. was loved.” – Kate doyle
  • “Somewhat interesting book” – erika
  • “Aside from the bad language, plot was boring, unrealistic and the ending was lame.

    SPOILER: She’s watching her body in ICU but can’t walk through walls? Her boyfriend isn’t allowed to see her in ICU? Uh, no.” – Zarabbeth
  • “Wow. I love that the story is not linear. It bounced around. I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to read about death.” – Victoria M.
  • “The book was so boring and it just lacked interestingness.” – Madie Sue
  • “This book has language, alcohol use, and possible nudity. Overall rating R. This book is inappropriate for young girls named Teresa. She is in seventh grade. She does not need to know about boys that are older than her wearing skinny jeans. Boys go in a very hard stage in their life, advancing for boys to men. This is
    called puberty and girls named Teresa don’t need to know about boys wearing skinny jeans going through this stage.
    Disappointing.
    Inappropriate.
    Uncalled for.
    Terrible.” – Amazon Customer

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

If you’ve ever found yourself reading a detective mystery and wondering “but, wait, could that really happen to a reallife detective?”, The Maltese Falcon might be the book for you. Dashiell Hammett was an American writer, but before that he was an actual real-life detective. He’s now regarded as one of the masters of detective fiction, and The Maltese Falcon (first published in 1930) is perhaps his best-known work. He didn’t promise his readers that it would be a true-to-life story, but his background gives him a lot of credibility, don’t you think?

The first thing you need to know about The Maltese Falcon is that it is told from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Hammett doesn’t describe (or even hint at) any of the characters’ internal worlds, thoughts, or feelings. It’s up to the reader to guess for themselves each character’s motivations and secrets, based purely on his descriptions of what they say and do. Hammett took this style of writing to a new post-Hemingway extreme, and I know this next comment might be controversial, but I stand by it: Hammett does it way better than Papa ever did.

Plus, it’s a really clever approach to writing a detective fiction novel when you think about it. Without too much effort on Hammett’s part, he’s able to keep the reader guessing, and he doesn’t have to tie himself up in knots to keep a character’s internal monologue from giving away the ending.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to offer a boilerplate spoiler warning, too; The Maltese Falcon is a mystery novel, after all. I find it practically impossible to properly discuss or review a book without spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out whodunnit.



There’s a lot of mini-mysteries within this book, a lot of red herrings and blind paths. Despite its paltry page count, it’s a rather intricate story of double- and triple-crossings. So, that makes it kind of hard to break down – I’ll do my darnedest!

The big dick is Sam Spade, a private detective working in San Francisco, with his business partner Miles Archer. And I do mean “big dick”, in every sense of the word; it’s the 1930s, he’s the boss, so it’s very old school with lots of calling secretaries in tight dresses “darling” and stuff like that.

Spade and Archer are going about their usual business when in comes one Miss Wonderly, and wants a guy followed. She says Floyd Thursby ran off with her sister, and she wants them to keep an eye on him. They take the job, and Archer takes the first shift on the guy’s tail.

Later that night, Archer is found dead, and shortly thereafter Thursby is found dead, too. Sam Spade becomes the prime suspect in both murders, as it turns out he was shagging Archer’s wife on the side, and Miss Wonderly wasn’t entirely honest about her reasons for wanting Thursby followed…

Miss Wonderly confesses that she’s using a fake name (no kidding). She’s actually an “acquisitive adventuress” by the name of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, She’s tied up in an international hunt for a treasure they call the Maltese Falcon (thus, the title).

Then, we get some back-story: in the 16th century, the knights of Malta made a statue of gold and jewels to present as a gift to the King of Spain, but it was intercepted and stolen by pirates. The statue passed from owner to owner over the years, and one of them covered it in black enamel to conceal its true value from would-be thieves. A man by the name of Casper Gutman had been tracing the history of the Maltese Falcon for years, and when he found out it was in the possession of a Russian exile living in Constantinople, he paid Brigid O’Shaughnessy to secure it for him.



Brigid worked with Thursby, and another bloke called Joel Cairo (who Hammett only ever describes as being Greek and gay, we don’t really learn anything else about him). They managed to get the falcon off the Russian, but Brigid’s no fool; she realised how much the thing was worth, and decided to cash in. She hid it on a ship that was setting sail for San Francisco, then she and Thursby went on ahead, planning to meet it there. Gutman, meanwhile, none too pleased with his prize being whipped out from under his nose like that, followed hot on their heels, and enlisted the services of a vicious gunman called Wilmer Cook.

It takes Sam Spade a while to piece this story together, especially seeing as he starts shagging Brigid O’Shaughnessy and she’s determined he find out as little as possible. Sex is a good way to stop a detective asking questions, I suppose, but it only works for so long. Plus, they’ve both got cops coming at them from all directions, because they know something smells funny with this whole deal (and there’s the unsolved murders of Thursby and Archer hanging over their heads).

The Maltese Falcon falls into Spade’s possession when a wounded ship captain stumbles into his office, hands it over, and promptly dies. It seems like a stroke of very good luck, and I think that’s the only way Hammett could think of to keep the story moving forward. Spade’s a real mensch, though, and he doesn’t seem at all tempted to keep the falcon for himself… but he’s not quite so high-and-mighty that he doesn’t use it to negotiate a good deal.

Spade outsmarts O’Shaughnessy, Gutman, Wilmer, and Cairo at every turn. He ends up getting them to agree to pay him $10,000 for the falcon, and use Wilmer as the fall-guy into the bargain (seeing as, Spade explains, they’ll need someone to take the rap for all the murders, and Wilmer is a real arsehole so it might as well be him). Happy ending, right?



Wrong! The falcon, it turns out, is a fake! *Gasps*

Wilmer escapes, seeing no reason to hang around and take the fall for murders now. Gutman and Cairo decide to keep searching for the real falcon together, and off they trot. O’Shaughnessy starts planning a new life for herself with her new boyfriend Spade… only our big dick has put on his detective hat, and he’s worked out it was she who killed Archer and Thursby, back when this whole thing kicked off. He’s had a bloody gut-full of the lot of them, to be honest. He turns snitch, handing them all over to the cops, and wipes his hands clean. The story ends with Spade back in his office, back to normal, and Archer’s widow showing up to “talk”…

And there we have it: a twisty-turny detective mystery thriller, with a hint of the hunt for pirate treasure and a bare-bones love story to keep things interesting.

It’s a surprisingly Woke book (tight-dressed “darling” secretaries and reductive gay representation aside), given the time period in which it was written. The female characters were surprisingly complex, even if they were objectified at every turn. Hammett was a pretty cool dude, and he devoted much of his life to left-wing activism and anti-fascist movements. Those philosophies clearly seeped into his work, which is markedly absent the racism and brutal sexism of so many other books of that era.

Spade is an amalgamation of all those hard-nosed detective tropes we know and love: cold, detached, observant, ruthless, unsentimental, determined, with a keen sense of justice and a willingness to bend the rules to see it administered. There was endless speculation, upon release of The Maltese Falcon and a handful of lesser-known short stories also featuring the character, that Spade was based on a real-life detective that Hammett had encountered in his former work, but he vehemently denied it.

“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.”

Dashiell hammett

I only realised later that this book was the basis of the 1941 film noir classic of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart, which is perfect casting – as I was reading, I kept picturing Spade as a Bogart-esque figure. There have been a few other film adaptations made since then as well, but that one remains the best, according to basically every film critic ever.

The Maltese Falcon is formulaic, by today’s standards, but it’s also fast and fun to read. It’s not particularly challenging, but you do need to focus your attention, because it moves fast and it’s a short book to begin with. There’s not a lot of room for your mind to wander between plot points! Keep your wits about you, or you’ll lose track of what’s going on and where allegiances lie in the hunt for this golden bird statue…

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maltese Falcon:

  • “Awesome very different than the movie Bogart character was BLONDE!” – Debra Anderson
  • “Didn’t care for this book too much. Sam Spade is not a nice guy. Nuts to him.” – Phillip Marlowe
  • “classic af
    love living in San Francisco and I can literally visit the spots that are in the book. . .with this being said hire me someone! Marketing – is me at this time..” – Louis Quinteros
  • “Holy crap, if people were really this stupid in the early 20th century it’s surprising the human race has developed to the level it is in now. The characters are all dumb dumbs even the supposed bright private investigator is a dumb dumb. The book plays out like a boring episode of Scooby Doo if the characters were all victims of self inflicted anoxic brain injuries patients from trying to breath under waters.
    The ending which is supposed to be dramatic (I guess?..) is really dull and leaves me yelling at Sam the detective to shut up and call the police to arrest the woman already, but no it plays out like this: Semi-Spoiler Alert:

    Dumb detective: “I don’t know if I love you or not, sure we’ve known each other less than a week and may have banged once. Maybe that is love, maybe it isn’t. Don Draper from Mad Men isn’t alive yet to use creative marketing to tell us what love is. So like I said how can I know for sure if we’re in love?”
    Dumb Lady: “Oh Sam, I do love you, sure your contemplating calling the police because I straight up murdered your business partner and royally screwed over the other criminals I was working with but, I would never do that to you…”
    Dumb Detective: “That maybe, but I still don’t know if I can trust you. I think the best thing will be to still arrest you, maybe when you get out of jail, if you don’t get the death penalty, we can be a couple because that seems like the reasonable and responsible thing to do. Especially since I’ve known you for a week and you murdered my business partner and pretty much lied since we met.”
    Dumb Lady: “I guess.”

    The End” – Todd K.


Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Have you ever been so bored of the men at a party that you create an entirely new genre of literature? Did you then follow that up by writing one of the most enduring monster stories of all time? That’s the potted version of Mary Shelley’s life, but that’s what happened, and we should all be worshipping at her feet. I’ll talk more about her fascinating (and terribly tragic) life in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at her best-known work: Frankenstein, the story of a young scientist and an unorthodox experiment that went horribly wrong.

The original full title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, though most modern editions (including mine, see above) exclude that subtitle, which is a shame because it tells us a lot about the story. A quick Greek mythology lesson: Prometheus created mankind on Zeus’s orders. He taught us to hunt and read and talk and do all those human-y things we love to do. Zeus was a bit disappointed with the final product, though, so he punished us by keeping fire for himself and the other gods. Our boy, Prometheus, wasn’t having that, and he told Zeus to fuck right off. He brought fire down to us, and copped his punishment on the chin. Zeus sentenced him to be eternally fixed to a rock, where each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for it to regrow overnight and he’d have to go through the same again the next day. So, yeah, we owe Prometheus a lot, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with Shelley’s Frankenstein

Oh, and another quick note to get out of the way before we dive in: yes, we know, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. We fucking know. People who point it out are (generally) wankers. Shelley never gave the monster in the name, identifying it in the book as the “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “fiend”, and so on. Of course, she was making a point about how the lack of a name prevents a sentient being from forging a true identity and all of that, but the confusion also means that mistakes will happen and I wish readers wouldn’t make such a big deal about it. I’ll be calling the monster “the monster”, for the sake of clarity, but just so you know if I ever hear you say um-actually-Frankenstein-was-the-doctor in conversation, I will roll my eyes at you.



So, the story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually framed a couple of different ways in the book. It’s an epistolary novel, with events taking place sometime during the 18th century. Captain Robert Walton kicks things off with a few letters to his sister; he’s been trying to sail to the North Pole, and his crew picked up one Dr Victor Frankenstein off the ice, where he had apparently collapsed while chasing after a monstrous creature.

Through a series of conversations with the good doctor, Walton is able to deduce that he actually created this monster and now lives a life of misery and horror as a result of his creation. Frankenstein offers up his story as a cautionary tale, and tells it so…

Young Victor was obsessed with science as a kid, even though everyone else thought he was a weirdo. After his mother died, he took himself off to university, and he began doing experiments as a way of escaping his grief and keeping his mind busy. That’s how he stumbled upon a technique for creating life from inanimate objects.

Now, you might assume he used electricity to do that, but that’s actually not in the canon – Shelley, in her book, described an elemental process and some vague alchemy. The use of electric shocks and screws in the monster’s neck didn’t appear until the 1931 film adaptation and other early depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. So, there you go.

With his new secret chemical formula to make dead things become alive things, Frankenstein created a huge humanoid form (it had to be big, he explained, otherwise the small bits would be too fiddly) out of pieces he scrounged from cadavers. He tried to make it pretty, but when the monster came to life it was scary as all hell. Frankenstein, freaked out by what he had done, reverted to the age-old tradition of doing a runner. He bailed the fuck out of his laboratory, leaving the monster there.



You’d think that would take up most of the pages of this slim book, but Frankenstein moves really quickly, so the story is only just beginning. In perhaps my favourite plot point ever, Dr Frankenstein returned to his laboratory to find the monster missing… and he’s all “Phew! We’re cool! Problem solved!”. He doesn’t even wonder where it went. LOL!

The whole situation stressed him out so much that he ended up getting really sick. He recovered just in time for the monster to kill his little brother. The criminal justice system being what it is, the authorities arrested and convicted the kid’s nanny of the murder, and put her to death. By Frankenstein’s math, that put his monster’s death toll up to two, and he was pissed.

After a while, he reunited with his monster. The poor creature tried to explain himself, saying he was just sad that everyone hated and feared him (aw!). He asked the doctor to build him a wife, so he didn’t have to be lonely anymore. That sounded pretty reasonable to me, but then the monster threatened to kill everyone Frankenstein loved if he didn’t comply with this request – which was, admittedly, less chill.

How is the monster able to communicate these demands, you ask? Well, it turns out he spent most of the intervening time stalking a kind immigrant family, peeping in their windows, and somehow all those hours watching them and stealing from their library taught him language. He’s startlingly eloquent, given the basis of his education. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but if the monster learning to speak is the most unrealistic part of this novel for you, you might need to re-evaluate your priorities…



The doctor headed for England, taking a friend with him, and the monster followed hot on his heels. Frankenstein got to work back in the laboratory, but inside he was still freaking out that the female he created would hate the monster, or turn out even more evil than him, or (worst of all) they might fall in love and start breeding, unleashing a new generation of horror on the world. When that thought occurred to him, it was the final fucking straw. Frankenstein had had a gutful, you guys! He destroyed all the work he had done and told the monster to shove it.

You’d think the monster would fly into a rage at this point, but he actually took the news quite well. In sum, his reaction was: “Yeah, okay, no wife for me, but no wife for you either – when you get married, I’m coming for your girl on your wedding night, so watch your back,”. And then he killed Frankenstein’s friend, just to show he meant business.

Now, I realise Dr Frankenstein doesn’t have a great track record with decision-making, but at this point he makes a truly, unbelievably bad call. Despite the monster’s warnings, and his own growing anxiety, he went ahead and got married to his adopted sister (whom he referred to as his cousin – it’s almost-but-not-quite incest, which is a bit gross, but George R.R. Martin has pretty much deadened our sensitivities on that subject forever).

And, sure enough, that very night, the monster showed up and took her out. The doctor, enraged, chased him all the way to the North Pole, determined to defeat his monstrous creation once and for all, but he collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia before he could catch him. That’s where Walton and his crew found the man, and we’re back at the beginning again.



Dr Frankenstein promptly dies, but he makes Captain Walton promise to kill the monster on his behalf. The monster, of course, conveniently appears on board shortly thereafter. I was expecting a big violent showdown, but he is able to talk Walton out of killing him by making a big show of mourning the death of his creator. He promises to kill himself instead, and Walton’s all “Um, okay?”, and watches as the monster drifts away on the ice, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy ending – heck, it’s not a happy book.

It was a lot more introspective than I expected. Really, this whole story is about interior worlds. Frankenstein, at its heart, is about the shame and guilt of the Doctor, and the loneliness and desperation of his monster.

Now, this is one of those rare cases where the story of how a book came to be written is just as fascinating as the book itself (if not more!). In 1814, aged just sixteen, Mary met and fell in love with the then-unknown poet Percy Shelley, and she ran away with him. They weren’t married until 1816, shortly after Percy’s first wife died by suicide (oh, yeah, the guy was a real peach).

The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary that year, when she was holidaying with Percy and his mate Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that they have a writing competition, to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary dithered for a few days, and struggled to come up with anything she thought would be scary enough, but she knew she was onto a winner when she dreamed of a scientist who created life but was horrified by what he had made. She connected that premise with her earlier travels in Geneva, where she’d passed Frankenstein Castle (yes, a real place); in there, a couple centuries earlier, an alchemist had engaged in strange and dark experiments. Boom! A horror story, and the science fiction genre, was born.



The themes of the work, we can see in retrospect, were very clearly drawn from Mary Shelley’s real life. She had a pretty rough trot: her mother died, she had a terrible relationship with her father, her first child was born prematurely and died in her arms while Percy was off having an affair with one of her step-sisters. From these experiences, she distilled themes of loss, guilt, and the consequences of defying nature, and funneled them into Frankenstein. Consider how the monster turns evil due to a lack of parental and spiritual guidance, for instance…

Mary initially conceived Frankenstein as a short story, but with Percy’s encouragement she expanded the manuscript into a full-length novel. She wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister (told you! rough fucking trot!), and the first edition was published anonymously in January 1818. Then she moved to Italy, where she lived with Percy until he drowned in 1822 (seriously, the woman’s life was just an endless parade of death and misery).

Mary Shelley’s name wasn’t connected to the book until the second edition was published with a proper byline in 1823. She was 25 years old. When the author’s gender was revealed, the British Critic published a review that said:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

“Oh, snap!”, they might have thought, but the reading public didn’t give a shit. Frankenstein sold gangbusters; it was an immediate popular success, and by the middle of the 20th century it was demanding serious and extensive critical attention from academics. The list of subsequent adaptations and re-releases is longer than my arm, and readers are, even today, always hungry for more.



Frankenstein fused elements of the Gothic and the Romantic, capturing the attention of both audiences, and it levelled-up the popular ghost stories of the time to create the first true science fiction novel. No longer were monsters and mysterious beings purely fantastical; Shelley gave us a monster that was the product of man’s own actions, his own scientific experimentation and discovery, and that had never been done before. Not bad for a teenager who was just trying to show up her boyfriend and his mate on holiday, eh?

There are now a few different editions floating around, the later ones being highly revised and sanitised. It’s up to you which you’d prefer to read, but I’m a fan of dirty bits in literature, so I’d recommend trying to find the earliest version, as close to the original as you can. I’d also highly recommend you check out this great discussion over on the Keeper Of Pages blog, for more fascinating insights into reading (or re-reading) Frankenstein.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Frankenstein:

  • “free book enough said” – andrew
  • “*SPOILER ALERT* Basically, this guy spent time of his life trying to life from scratch. But when he finally succeeded, he got scared and ran away from it? There are a lot of questionable decisions from him too. He fits the definition of “coward”.” – Rusydi Farhan
  • “I thought I had the wrong book when I started reading it. Very different from most of the Frankenstein movies.” – Mark B
  • “WRONG LANGUAGE” – jackeline
  • “This book stinks! Munsters re-runs are much better” – Rich Fish from Glen Ridge
  • “Very boring story about a crazy science guy who wants to reanimate a Trump lookalike. On the positive side I would like to pitch in and her a hand” – Prince Henri I
  • “Movie was a million times better than that stupid story but I will say that it was very poorly written” – JMann
  • “Terrible novel; long, preachy, unrealistic, especialy where Frankenstein’s “monster” has read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and other classics and holds forth like an Oxford don.” – Richard Kelly
  • “This book was so boring I threw it out my window. (Almost) It just had too much detail” – Bernard Callahan


Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

What do you know: here we have another staple of high-school reading lists that I somehow never encountered in the course of my own education. This very edition of Lord Of The Flies, in fact, once belonged to “James Wells Year 9”, according to the inside front cover. I’m sure he’s a swell kid, but his highlighting of key passages was really distracting (though it disappeared by about the half-way point so I’m guessing he never finished the book – hopefully, he found a love of literature elsewhere…).

Lord Of The Flies was William Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. It wasn’t an immediate success. It sold fewer than three thousand copies in the first year, and promptly went out of print entirely. Golding eventually found his audience and went on to have a glowing literary career, winning the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1983. He was also knighted, in 1988.

The introduction to this Faber “Educational Edition” makes some insightful remarks about the fact that Lord Of The Flies came so soon after WWII. The world had just seen previously-unimaginable atrocities, far removed from everyday life, and it had made everyone all-too aware of humanity’s true nature. “Ultimately, Mr Golding’s book is valuable to us,” the introduction says, “not because it tells us about the darkness of man’s heart, but because it shows it…” (pg. xii).

The story starts with a war-time evacuation, and a plane-full of British boys crashing on an isolated Pacific island. Golding really drops the reader right into the action; I’m not sure I would have had a damn clue what was going on if I wasn’t already familiar with the plot through the osmosis of pop-culture references. He quickly introduces two boys, the fair-haired take-charge hero Ralph and the overweight asthmatic Piggy. They find a conch, and Ralph uses it to summon all the other survivors. As far as I’m concerned, Piggy is more likeable than the rest of them put together; he insists that they “put first things first and act proper”, which made me chuckle.



The boys are a rag-tag assortment that includes a musical choir, already operating under the leadership of Jack Merridew. These boys don’t take too kindly to Ralph appointing himself head honcho. Ralph’s key policies are that they should have fun, survive, and maintain a smoke signal, apparently in that order (so he really needs to work on his priorities). The choir grumbles, but eventually submits to Ralph’s vision for life on the island; Jack decides they’ll take on the role of hunters, and they spend most of their time trying to kill animals for food. The group maintains a veneer of democracy (at first) by agreeing that whoever is holding the magical conch should be allowed to speak and receive the silent attention of the rest of the boys. I don’t know why everyone spends so much time talking about the pig’s head, when really Golding’s characters spent an inordinate amount of time arguing over that bloody shell…

They create a fire using Piggy’s glasses, a good start, but everything turns to shit pretty quickly. The boys start fighting among themselves, and let the fire languish while they hang out on the beach. Oh, and they imagine up a “beast” that they believe is stalking them from the woods. Jack Merridew lures the boys away from their “work” on the fire, with a view to hunting this supposed “creature”. The smoke signal dies out, duh, and they miss the opportunity for rescue by a passing ship.



Jack, fed up with Ralph’s pragmatism and Piggy’s whining, tries to start a new group. One by one, the boys abandon Ralph to join Jack, lured by the smell of sizzling pork (yes, they manage to kill a pig and cook it, but not one of them thinks to go fishing, for fuck’s sake). The members of the new tribe start doing weird shit, painting their faces and making sacrifices to the “beast”. Not sure what was in that pork, but it was nothin’ good. They end up beating a kid to death – Simon, the poor epileptic who had hallucinated the pig’s head talking to him in one iconic scene.

Jack’s New Tribe(TM) decide that Piggy’s glasses, the only means of creating fire on the island, are the real symbol of power. Finally, they’re thinking sensibly! They steal the glasses from Ralph and Piggy, the last hold-outs of the old group. When Ralph confronts Jack about the theft, a fight ensues, and everyone on Ralph’s side is crushed to death (RIP Piggy). The conch is also shattered in the confrontation, which is Golding’s heavy-handed attempt at symbolising the end of civility and the boys’ final transition to savagery. (Yeah, maybe scratch that thinking-sensibly part…)

Ralph manages to escape their clutches, so they hunt him through the woods, setting fire to everything in the process. He’s just about ready to give himself up for dead when he runs into a British naval officer, whose party had seen the smoke from the raging fire and come to investigate. The boys are “saved”, but they all start crying when they realise what they’ve become. The officer makes fun of them, he’s kind of a dick actually, for acting like they were at war… only to turn around and gaze at his own war ship (awkward!). Yep, Golding kept the heavy-handed symbolism going right to the bitter end.



I really didn’t enjoy Lord Of The Flies. In fact, I kind of resented it. Assigning it to school kids feels like force-feeding them a cautionary tale: “behave the way that the hypocritical adults tell you to, or look how you’ll end up!”. Really, could it be any more patronising? In the beginning, I wondered if maybe I was just coming to this book too late in life (like I did with Fahrenheit 451), but that’s not it: honestly, my anti-establishment tendencies have only softened with age. Had I been required to read this in school, I probably would have ended up sent to the principal’s office for accusing some poor English teacher, in all earnestness, of trying to brainwash us into accepting everything they said without question (yes, I was a bit of a handful). As it stands, Lord Of The Flies wasn’t a winner for me, and I doubt I’ll ever pick it up again. It’s definitely not a book I’d want with me on a desert island, even for the hilarious irony.

I think I might be the only one who’s down on it, though. Stephen King, in particular, is a very vocal fan, and has borrowed heavily from it in his own writing; he also penned an introduction to the 2011 edition, celebrating the centenary of Golding’s birth. And public interest in Lord Of The Flies has led to the release of two film adaptations (1963, 1990). Production of another adaptation, with an all-female cast, was announced by Warner Bros in 2017; before I read the book, I was all in favour of a woman-centric re-boot, but now I feel like the project will be a huge waste. The story of Lord Of The Flies is so deeply rooted in patriarchal bullshit, I’m not sure it can be saved, even if we make them all girls. I’d much rather see that film’s budget reallocated to producing and marketing a story written by women that reflects a genuinely female experience. Someday, when I run the world…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lord Of The Flies:

  • “It isn’t a story filled with hope. The human race is a disgrace.” – James Asherton
  • “‘Food for thought’, and I imagine that anyone who likes this book would also enjoy it if a restaurant hid razor blades in their dish. Like with real food, ‘food for thought’ should be enjoyable, healthy, and should not make you feel sick after consuming it. This book is garbage. It’s unhealthy, and it will likely make you feel sick. I do not recommend consuming this ‘food for thought’. I am not impressed. If someone wants to make a point in literature, there are better ways of going about it. This book is actually just malware for the brain. It’s best not to read it, but if you already did, sort it out the best you can. Good luck.” – S. DANIELSON
  • “The reviews on this book were more fun to read than the actual book itself.” – Lilian
  • “I HATED ALL OF IT. IT WAS THE WORST STINKIN BOOK I HAVE EVER READ. AND I LIKE BOOKS. @$&# PIECE A @$&$” – cat gilleland
  • “This book was only boring because it is not the type of book i like but it was interesting to read.” – jack gartner
  • “Hated it. If your looking for a book that describes the scenery 90 percent of the time. This book is for u.” – Joe Pena
  • “This book doesn’t deserve a review. With all due respect, Golding couldn’t write a good book to save his life. His writing is reminiscent of Tolkien’s; he comes up with a great story, and then ruins it with horrible writing….” – Amazon Customer
  • “I had to read this book for literature class I hated it. my teacher rattled on about the symbolizm in this book.It was so boring and kinda gory.plus no girls, wasnt they suposed to repopulate the world after nuclear war so not possible with only boys. The one thing i found interesting was how they acted like wild animals after they had been on the island a while.that was kinda cool.But it was to confusing” – Amazon Customer


All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

It’s been a while since I visited the American South in literature. I think my last sojourn was The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, some time ago. That’s how I came to reach for All The King’s Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winner by Robert Penn Warren in 1946. I was actually surprised, looking at the inside cover, to find it was written so long ago; it reads like a far more contemporary novel and as recently as 2006 the New York Times called it “the definitive novel about American politics” (though, that was pre-Trump, so it’d be understandable if their position has changed).

Our narrator is Jack Burden, a former history student and newspaper columnist turned personal aide. He recounts for us the meteoric rise of Governor Willie Stark in the American South in the 1930s. He’s fascinated, and at times disgusted, by the larger-than-life populist leader. Stark transforms over the course of the novel from idealistic lawyer to hardened (and extremely powerful) politico. Burden faithfully documents the evolution of “The Boss”, and the role of his doctor friend Adam Stanton, who is not-very-subtly painted as the polar opposite of Stark. Stanton is the man of ideals, the angel on one shoulder, while Stark is the pragmatic and corrupt devil on the other.

The chapters are loooooong, and intense. Warren really doesn’t give the reader many opportunities to pause and catch their breath. He also uses decidedly non-chronological storytelling, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (think more Mrs Dalloway than The Narrow Road To The Deep North). Warren uses the shifts in time to highlight the connections between characters and continuities in their stories, how Burden and Stark and Stanton’s lives all weave together. That means there are a few stories-within-the-story, most notably a detailed history of Jack’s uncle (whom he researched in pursuit of his American History degree), and also Jack’s own life (which he tells, bizarrely, in the third person). Jack wouldn’t have been much fun at parties, actually, with his penchant for endless nihilistic philosophising. It takes the deaths of a few of his mates, and his biological father, for him to even contemplate the notion that he has to take some personal responsibility for what happens in his life, instead of attributing it all to what he calls “the Great Twitch”. That said, some of his introspective bullshit was actually quite funny:

“‘Can I see the cutting?’ I asked. I felt all of a sudden that I had to see it. I had never seen an operation. As a newspaperman, I had seen three hangings and one electrocution, but they are different. In a hanging you do not change a man’s personality. You just change the length of his neck and give him a quizzical expression, and in an electrocution you just cook some bouncing meat in a wholesale lot. But this operation was going to be more radical even than what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. So I asked could I see the operation.”

pg. 477




All The King’s Men is very dude-centric, if that’s not already obvious: it fails the Bechdel Test in spectacular fashion, with nearly 700 pages of white dudes talking to one another about power, clapping themselves on the back for gaining power, and ever-striving to become more powerful than some other white dude. There are a couple of love interests and mistresses, and these are the only appropriate roles for women in that world, it would seem. Jack devotes quite a long passage to his regret at never having fucked his first love, and of his wife he simply says “Goodbye Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you,” (pg. 462).

Warren fills the hole where the women should be by making a Very Big Deal of biological paternity, and how one’s father affects one’s sense of identity and morality. It’s central to every plot-line and character arc; the book would perhaps be more accurately called All The King’s Daddy Issues. Stark, in becoming a Governor through patronage and intimidation, becomes a surrogate father for all of them: deeply flawed, but influential, and impossible to ignore or reject. The thrust of the story, it would seem, is that Jack comes to realise that no man or father (not the man who raised him, not his bio dad, not Willie Stark) is invulnerable to corruption or temptation. Oh, and it’s impossible to remain a passive observer of anything, no matter how hard you try. Whatever you do, it will catch up with you, etc. Such profound, very wow…



The character of Stark is famously rumoured to have been inspired by the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that All The King’s Men was “never intended to be a book about politics” (fucking lol, alright mate, odd choice of subject matter then).

There’s a surprisingly happy ending, all things considered. Yes, there’s a lot of death and bloodshed, but Jack gets the girl, reconciles with his father(s), and carries on living the good life. I was expecting something far more bleak, but Warren managed to pull a Happily Ever After out of his hat.

Tl;dr? A bunch of white dudes chase political power in the Great Depression-era American South, in the hopes that it will help them all overcome their Daddy Issues (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work).

My favourite Amazon reviews of All The King’s Men:

  • “I am a business professor so the long involved descriptions of his angst drove me crazy.” – CP
  • “Somewhat tedious” – Carol Weidensaul
  • “Greek drama set in depression era Louisiana. Sad,” – Martha Failing
  • “This edition appeared to have been translated by a child. I got a real book from the public library. Very disappointed.” – Gwen Luikart
  • “Thought it stunk.” – Barbara J Mason
  • “Had to read this for my AP English class. -10/10 stars, would not recommend, take regular english instead.” – Emmy
  • “I AM ALSO A TINA FRIEND AND HER INSIGHTFUL AND TRUE COMMENTS INTO THIS MONSTROSITY OF A BOOK MAKE ME PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!” – A customer


Divergent – Veronica Roth

I know there’s still a lot of ingrained snobbery and elitism that causes some readers to look down their noses at young adult books, but it’s hard to argue with the power of a juggernaut like Divergent, whatever you might think of the genre. It was a New York Times Best Seller (a couple times over, actually), and a Goodreads Choice Awards winner (Favourite Book Of The Year in 2011). According to Publisher’s Weekly, the combined three volumes of the series sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 alone. Whatever we might think of it, clearly Veronica Roth’s dystopian world has captured more than a few minds and hearts…

So, just to be clear, I’m reviewing the first book in the Divergent series (also, confusingly, called Divergent), a trilogy of dystopian young adult novels (it’s followed by Insurgent, then Allegiant) set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth’s meteoric rise is all the more enviable when you learn that Divergent was published less than a year after she earned a degree in Creative Writing from Northwestern University; in fact, she’d sold the film rights before she’d even graduated. But don’t let the green-eyed monster overtake you just yet, my honest review is still to come…

See, Divergent doesn’t exactly start strong (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t improve much along the way). Roth opens her story with the old protagonist-examines-her-reflection-in-the-mirror trope, ugh. She gives some kind of half-arsed explanation as to why she’s only allowed to look in the mirror once a month or something, but it still irked me. It’s such a lazy way for a writer to “show” the reader what a narrator looks like, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

This central character, Beatrice (well, “Tris”, as she’s later known), and her family are among the survivors of some unspecified apocalyptic event (and yes, it’s extremely frustrating that Roth doesn’t give us any more details on the back-story, but that’s the least of our problems here). What we do know is that everyone is now divided into five “factions”, based on their dispositions and inclinations. The Abnegation are the selfless ones, the Amity are the peaceful ones, the Candor are the honest ones, the Dauntless are the brave ones, and the Erudite are the smart ones. They’re kind of like the castes in Brave New World, but not quite so hierarchical; each faction has a different role to play in society, and theoretically they should all work together in harmony.



Kids are raised in the faction of their parents (in Tris’s case, Abnegation) until they turn sixteen, at which point they are given an “aptitude” test and forced to choose a permanent faction for themselves at the creatively-named Choosing Ceremony. No, I’m not kidding. Anyone who doesn’t complete initiation into their new faction becomes “factionless” (the creativity just keeps on coming), and is forced to live in poverty on the streets, reliant on charity to survive. Tris’s aptitude test shows that she could belong to any one of three factions, and thus she is “divergent”. An early warning: do not attempt to turn this into a drinking game by doing a shot every time someone uses the word “divergent”, because you will die. Tris pretty much whacks you over the head with her divergence for the rest of the book.

The test administrator warns her to keep her divergence under her hat, so Tris takes her word for it and acts like she’s normal. She chooses to join the Dauntless faction, much to her parents’ dismay, and her brother simultaneously fucks off to the Erudite (so a double-whammy for Abnegation).

Tris’s instructor at the Dauntless compound is “Four”. Roth said he was originally the protagonist in her first draft of the novel, but she switched to Tris’s perspective because she felt it “worked better”. Four tells Tris and the rest of the Dauntless initiates that they’ll be tested again and again, and only the top ten candidates will be accepted into the faction. The guy’s welcome speech could use some work, tbh.



You can smell the relationships forming a mile off, they’re all very predictable. Tris befriends some of her fellow transfer initiates (Christina, Al, and Will), comes into conflict with others (Peter, Drew, and Molly), and falls head over heels in love with Four. And later on, one of her chosen friends betrays her. It’s all rather uninspired and cliche, but we persist!

It turns out that these “tests” for the Dauntless initiates are mostly a series of drug-induced hallucinations while they’re hooked up to technological gizmos. They’re forced to face their worst fears in a simulation, and beat them. Roth said she was inspired in part by learning about exposure therapy in an introductory psychology course. Important note: this is a very gross misrepresentation of what exposure therapy is actually about, and how it works for people with phobias and other anxiety disorders. If Roth has scared anyone off seeking treatment with this story, I will be very, very cross.

Anyway, Tris’s divergent abilities actually give her an advantage in this fucked-up testing scenario, and she (quite rightly) exploits it to make sure she gets that top ten ranking. But of course, no one likes a kiss arse, so the other initiates attack her and do their best to take her down a peg.



Meanwhile, in Grown Up World, the Erudite faction are stirring dissent against Abnegation. See, the selfless ones were given the role of governing the city, because they’re so selfless and all, but the clever ones are pretty fed up with that situation. They accuse the Abnegation leaders of abusing their children (and Four brings Tris into one of his fear simulation thingos, revealing that he was indeed abused by his Abnegation father, so not everything the Erudite are saying is fake news). The dispute reaches crisis point when the Erudite inject all of the Dauntless with a serum that allows them to be controlled in one giant simulation. The Erudite mobilise them as an army, stage a coup, and take down the Abnegation.

To put this in terms everyone will understand, let’s highlight a few of the very obvious Harry Potter parallels: in the Divergent world, the Gryffindors and the Ravenclaws (who are actually just clever Slytherins in disguise) gang up on the Hufflepuffs. You following?

It turns out that the Erudite serum doesn’t actually work on divergent members of the faction, which is why the test administrator encouraged Tris to keep it to herself; if she can’t be controlled, she’s a threat to the system and the whole Erudite plot to gain power. The divergent kids, led by Tris and Four (oh yeah, turns out her boyfriend is also divergent, vomit), rebel against the Erudite, uniting to disable the simulation. Once that’s handle, they escape to the Amity compound – that’s the nice faction, remember them? They don’t get much of a look-in in the story otherwise. Both of Tris’s parents are killed in the fight, the military conflict remains unresolved, and that’s where Divergent ends. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to buy the next book (duh).



I think my feelings have been made abundantly clear already, but just in case, I’ll say it straight: the writing isn’t good. It’s full of lines like this:

“I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery.”

Divergent (p. 96)

I mean, come on! Tris gets sweaty palms, a lot. As in she mentions it on practically every page, and it really wears thin very early on. There’s also a lot of references to necks, and a lot of chapters and sections that start with “the next morning”. I thought initially that Divergent must have been self-published, without professional editing, because really this is the type of shit that would have been picked up by even a first-time editor. But nope! This book went through the full rigors of Harper Collins’s editorial process, and still came out this way. *shrugs*

If you think I’m being too persnickety, let’s take a step back and look at Divergent more broadly: it really doesn’t break any new ground. A young adult book that explores an adolescent’s relationship to adults and authority in a dystopian future is hardly revolutionary. Tris’s whole character arc is simply coming of age through a series of choices, always between conforming and choosing her own path – nothing new there, either. I read one review that sung the praises of how Roth “critiqued the illusion of democracy” (whereby citizens are able to “choose” which faction they join but are indoctrinated through the initiation process regardless of what they choose), but that seems to be an optimistically retro-fitted analysis at best. Roth really doesn’t explore that idea at all; it seemed to me more of a convenient plot point to get everyone divided into groups, given that the idea of a Sorting Hat was already taken.



The religious overtones are interesting, though. Roth says in the first sentence of her Author Acknowledgements: “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension”, so she’s clearly down with the Squad. There’s a very clear Point(TM) in the intellectual Erudite (read: genetics researchers, stem-cell harvesters, Galileo, etc.) being painted as control-hungry villains, pitted against the righteous, pious, and persecuted Abnegation. It gives me really bad vibes, actually. I mean the Erudites, who are clearly coded as academics and experts, are the “evil” ones, and in the world of Trump and Brexit it seems to reinforce a particularly scary position that experts are part of some kind of conspiracy to screw the everyman. I’m not sure if Roth intended to write a conservative religious call-to-arms, but that’s how it came across to me.

I’m not much good at content warnings, but Divergent probably warrants a few. There’s a lot of violence (including some sexualised violence), a major suicide as a plot point, and plenty of other distressing shit. This makes it all the more baffling that it’s recommended reading for young adolescents – why are we so much more willing to let kids read about men killing each other than we are men kissing each other? It’s a more confronting, more violent version of The Hunger Games. I know it’s gross to lump all female-protagonist-dystopian-future-YA novels into the same basket, but in this case they really are very similar on a lot of levels. I’ve also heard Divergent has a lot in common with The Maze Runner, and I guess it does (in that they’re pretty much equally not to my taste).

As I was putting together this review, I started to feel really guilty that I didn’t like Divergent more, like I was doing a disservice by hanging shit on something that legions of young readers really love. I promise, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums, and if you enjoyed Divergent, power to you! No hard feelings! It’s just not for me. I couldn’t help but laugh at times at how truly bad I found it. The film adaptation was no better. I thought it was ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fans Roth has won herself around the world, and the power that a beloved series like this can have in ensuring the continuing literacy of younger generations. (Please forgive me for how old that makes me sound!) As I said in the beginnings, elitists and snobs might look down their noses at a series like this, but I’m not one of them. I won’t be reading any more of Roth’s work, but I don’t begrudge anyone who finds joy in it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Divergent:

  • “Funny as he’ll” – derrick
  • “thia is the sort of series tat doesnt deserve a 3 star rting its so bad sory for bad typing I am uinf a small kindle in bed.” – S. Berestizhevsky
  • “Cool I get to be review 44,444. 4s are my lucky number.

    

Anyway. I guess I am Divergent because this book is just…bad. I couldn’t get through more than 100 pages. It never got better. The premise is just, dumb. It’s basically a rip-off of the sorting hat from Harry Potter mixed with Hunger Games without all the action. The protagonist is supposedly the only person with a mind of her own in the entire book (besides some of the poor homeless/blue-collar workers who we should feel SO sorry for and look down on, in spite of them making up most of our actual society). She is labeled “divergent”, which is unspeakable. And basically, she doesn’t fit in. Poor girl. That’s about it. I don’t know why I even gave it two stars. I guess I’m feeling generous.



    I read that this book was written in a month. Sounds about right.” – Kristen

  • “Oh boy how to begin? This book is garbage! Utter garbage. I’m sorry, this review is literally better written than this book. Don’t waste your money. Also don’t buy books go to a library they’re dying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Daughter disappointed dont know why” – Amazon Customer


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