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Ellen Allen Writes

Avid reader. Wild swimmer. Indie Author of The Sham. Collector of writing titbits (http://www.ellenallen.co) and all things bookish...


The Program; not incendiary, but a satisfactory spark

The Program - Suzanne Young

I inwardly groaned at the start of The Program; I've been reading a lot of YA lately with preposterous plots (it's the reason I love YA) but I wondered if I'd reached a natural break. Then The Program reeled me in and I was hooked enough to want to finish. A slow, rather than rapid, start.

It's about how an epidemic is leading teenagers to commit suicide. They are put into The Program, which rids them of their bad memories and lets them back out into the world wiped clean (very Stepford Wives). At the centre though, is the love story between James and Sloane; ripped apart by The Program, the question is whether or not they will find each other again after their memories of loving each other are removed. (Spoiler alert; they are back at the same school so it's kinda likely).

It was well written in the sense that I got a good 3D view of both of the lead protagonists (which isn't always the case in YA) and the plot is bonkers but fast. (Ignore the billion questions about resources here; if there really was a mass epidemic for suicide, not sure they would be able to afford to do anything but kill 'em all off or at least put 'em inside an extremely locked facility. The solution appears right wing but in actual fact is a very left-wing solution - we'll put the kids in therapy, talk to them, reintegrate them into society slowly in a very resource-intensive way).

The major theme is really about whether true love is "true" and lasting, kind of like Sliding Doors (which asks interesting questions about fate and if we are destined to be with one person no matter what happens). I realised - like every YA at the moment - there are two more books, although thankfully, unlike The Selection by Kiera Cass (which is still bugging me in a bad way), the story is at least satisfactorily concluded before moving onto the sequels. This book has a huge following on goodreads who really love it, but for me, it wasn't incendiary. More of a pleasing, satisfactory spark.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/05/03/the-program

Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis; sad, funny and a bit nuts


I read a review this week on the great book blog It’s All About Books of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis about a man who wakes up one morning and finds he has turned into an insect. She didn’t love the book but like all good book blogs, I was intrigued by the review. It sounded like something I would love; quirky, interesting, funny, well-written and a bit nuts. I wasn’t wrong.


There’s a good analysis of the book here, regarding Kafka’s feelings of alienation and jewish ancestry (better than the normally good wiki analysis here) and it’s just – in my opinion – a great short story that means so much more. Like The Lottery and The Alchemist, both of which I’ve read lately about completely different aspects of human nature, short stories really can sometimes be so much more powerful than longer ones; they’re quicker to read and they can leave a greater impression.

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Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/05/01/franz-kafkas-metamorphosis-sad-funny-and-a-bit-nuts

Unwind; pacy but a little shallow

Unwind - Neal Shusterman

The hype on this one is large indeed (“Before the Hunger Games came…”) and the number of people who love this book even larger (it’s running a 4.2 average on goodreads with over 100,000 reviews). So, pretty impressive. I think there’s even a movie in the pipeline…


Unwind by Neal Shusterman is a dystopian novel set in the future after wars are fought over reproductive rights. It forces the world (i.e. the US) to decide that all children are sacred (i.e. none can be terminated) until age 13-18 at which point they can be “unwound”, i.e. their organs may be harvested into other people’s bodies. It’s a brilliantly bonkers premise (and the reason why I love YA plots where I can completely suspend disbelief) and very well written in the sense that it’s pacy and gripping; it’s a great example of how to write YA page-turners. That said, whilst I raced through it, the characters felt very one-dimensional, everything is over simplistic and I just felt like it could have been a little deeper. But then, I’m not a Young Adult!

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Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/03/01/unwind-pacy-but-a-little-shallow

The Players; It's unsettling how life imitates art

Players - Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo has written some amazing books but I’m not sure this is one of them. Players is an interesting book mostly because it was written pre 9/11 and the characters work in the World Trade Center. The wife even talks about how the towers seem temporary: “To Pammy the towers didn’t seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light.” Moreover after witnessing a terrorist event on the trading floor, her husband decides to get involved with some terrorists. Talk about life imitating art. 


Where DeLillo really delivers is on characters and their mannerisms, the way they observe people. I found myself saying, “Yes, I do that!” and applauding how he describes those feelings and processes.


But it’s a difficult read; I found it hard to engage. The narrative is dream-like at times and hard to grasp (purposefully so) and the four main characters are shallow and living vacuous lives in New York. They pursue the idea of terrorism and different lifestyles to escape their boring routines. The problem was I didn’t care enough to worry about them (although I think that’s also the point DeLillo is making). I agree with other readers on Goodreads that it hasn’t aged so well. I was expecting more. That said, even a bad DeLillo is better than a lot of everything else.

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Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/04/13/delillos-players-its-unsettling-how-life-imitates-art

The Alchemist; a wonderfully crafted but heavy-handed fable

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho

I didn’t expect to write a review of The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho’s bestselling fable) that included a reference to Monty Python but this book surprised me in lots of ways. 


The first was that I enjoyed it. I had avoided it because the reviews I’d read painted it as more of a self-help book than an actual novel and I’m not great with those. It’s a tale about a shepherd called Santiago who sets out on an adventure to fulfil his own “personal legend” – the thing you know you want to accomplish but are unsure if you can. He has a dream that he believes to be prophetic, so he sets out from Spain to Egypt in search of his treasure. Interestingly, it’s not actually a new story but a rehash of many old fables, (none of which are credited by the author – read Wikipedia on that here) which is probably the reason why I enjoyed it; I like a well-told fable.


Secondly, I hadn’t expected the language to sound so lovely and melodic, although I’m sure having Jeremy Irons read it to me on the audio version helped (it might not sound so great in my head):


“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.


“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.”


An added advantage was that a couple of his character voices sounded like Michael Palin in The Holy Grail. Truly so funny that I laughed out loud.


The Alchemist is a deep book but in a very unsubtle, I’m really going to spell these messages out and repeat them and then say them again very, very s-l-o-w-l-y so everyone can understand the message as if they’ve been hit over the head with it, e.g. “When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us strives to be better too.” i.e. the universe will conspire with you to help you achieve your personal legend, if you are only brave enough to find it. It’s laden with symbolism, e.g. a shopkeeper that Santiago encounters represents everyone who is risk-averse and too scared to fulfil their own personal legends. I could have done with a little less direction about how I was supposed to link things together and a little more space to find the linkages myself.


I can see why people love this book and I can also see why people find it too much. On the whole, I suppose no one ever went wrong with a short sharp dose of optimistic life lessons wrapped inside a wonderfully crafted fable, particularly if parts of it sound (unintentionally) like Monty Python. I just wouldn’t want a lot more of them… I’m done for now.

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/04/16/paulo-coelhos-the-alchemist-a-wonderfully-crafted-but-heavy-handed-fable

The Selection; a modern girl's nightmare

The Selection - Kiera Cass

The Selection by Kiera Cass is a modern girl’s nightmare. The premise is interesting enough in a Mills and Boon kinda way – the rich prince wants to get married and allows millions of girls to apply to be his princess. A sort of equal-opportunity marriage race in a dystopian disaster. It’s the reason I love YA novels; I can easily suspend disbelief in ridiculous plots if they are well written and plausible in a new-world-order kind of way. 

Our heroine, America, is in love with Aspen (is everyone named after places?) who is too lowly to be a real hero so she allows herself to be persuaded by him to enter the competition in some macho “babe, you’re too good to not go for it” way and because he’s not worthy. She tells him how much she loves him anyway and how she already feels like his queen.


The writing is plodding. She’s been making out with her boyfriend for two years and claims how tricky it is to stop – “If we ever went further, and there was evidence of it”… wait? Does she mean, babies? The shock! If you’re gonna write about sex, write it, don’t paint a vague veil over it and make your heroine completely oblivious, grossed out, and horrified when a man comes from the palace to determine if she’s a virgin. Really? Is this for 5 year olds to understand? There’s an interesting article on this on BookRiot this week, about why YA novels shouldn’t sugarcoat sex. Didn’t everyone from my generation learn everything we need to know about sex from Forever by Judy Blume? I’m not saying you need to discuss sex at all (a lot of recent popular YA skirts around it, e.g. Hunger Games, etc) but if you do, please do it properly. Also, it’s so slow-moving (she meets the Prince half way through, who – wait for it – “looks like summertime”. Blimey.)


At times it looked like it had the makings of something really good. The chemistry between the prince and America is quite lovely but then our old hero, Aspen, comes back into the plot and the Prince gets kicked out because, wait for it, our old hero is now remade as a beefy, worthy-of-her hunk. I wanted her to have more self-respect. Plus it was only when I was three chapters from the end that I realised that the book doesn’t finish the story; you have to go to part 2 (there’s also a part 3) to get any closure. Could it be any more exasperating? Definitely not for me…

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/04/16/the-selection-by-kiera-cass-a-modern-girls-nightmare

The Lottery; a chilling allegory of conformity

The Lottery and Other Stories - Shirley Jackson

First published in 1948 in the New Yorker, The Lottery is a brilliantly written allegory about society, conformity and tradition. The very short story (32 pages) follows a small village as they gather for their annual lottery, each person taking a slip of paper from a box where the winner will be the recipient of a rather unorthodox and brutal prize.


Shirley Jackson received a ton of hate mail when the story was first published, which is a good marker of how society has moved on. (Or maybe not? It’s not particularly shocking anymore). The build up is truly wonderful, particularly the detail surrounding the characters as they wait for their names to be called and their banal reaction to the macabre tradition.


It’s full of symbolism and a really interesting examination of how people behave and conform in groups, of which there are many real-world examples. The most notable were Ron Jones’ experiment The Third Wave, conducted in the US in 1967, and the later Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Both tried to emulate how Nazi prison guards perceived themselves to just be following orders. The latter had to be stopped after just 6 days when “guards” began to blindly follow torture orders and “prisoners” began to routinely accept worse and worse punishments.


More recent light-hearted examples include the April Fool’s Day joke on Reddit where people have to push a button every ten minutes. At the time of The Guardian’s report, Reddit users had pushed the button 715,123 times and counting. The tv programme Lost portrayed similar behaviour as its characters felt they had to keep pushing a button they discovered every 108 minutes (as instructed) even though they didn’t know what would happen if they didn’t. (If you never saw the programme, you can watch the footage of them pushing the button here and read about it on Lost’s Wikipedia here and the Enter The Hatch website here.)


All in all, it really makes you think about human behaviour, doesn’t it?

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/04/19/shirley-jacksons-the-lottery-a-chilling-allegory-of-conformity

All the bright places; a life-affirming book about death

All the Bright Places - Jennifer Niven

All The Bright Places is about a girl, “who learns to live from a boy who intends to die”. It reminded me of the idea that everyone sits on the same “mental illness” line and we fluctuate up and down it – towards sanity and insanity – at various points in our lives, at times feeling fine and at others, a little more shaky (maybe it’s from the book Going Sane by Adam Phillips?). And so it is with Violet and Finch, two depressed teenagers, who meet each other on the bell tower of their school as both are considering jumping off. It’s reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Finch guides Violet off the ledge and saves her reputation at school by claiming she saved his life and not the other way around. In return, he takes the opportunity to make her his partner in a class project (he’s known as “Freak”, she’s the popular kid) and so this wonderful book begins.


It’s lovely and refreshing to read a male YA character where the author sidesteps all of the clichés; he’s not brooding, taciturn or beefy (well, just a little beefy) but three-dimensional, goofy and talkative. He has few friends. Both Violet and Finch are damaged and vulnerable but simultaneously endearing and normal. The mental illness is sympathetically done, without being worthy (in the same vein to Wintergirls, another great YA “issues” book) because most of the time, the emphasis isn’t on the symptoms but the causes of the characters’ depression; the shitty situations and/or people that they have had to deal with and how they both cope with not feeling “normal”.


It’s similar to some of John Green’s YA books (Paper Towns and The Fault In Our Stars) but I found it a lot less cloying and much more funny, even though I cried a lot. Whilst the main theme is death, this wonderfully written YA book is really a story about love and life.

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/04/19/jennifer-nivens-all-the-bright-places-a-life-affirming-book-about-death

If I stay; relatable, sincere and human

If I Stay - Gayle Forman

My rating: 4 stars (out of 5)


A lot of the YA books that I’ve read lately imagine their protagonists in situations that the average YA hopefully isn’t in: embroiled in some dystopian marriage nightmare (The Selection); dealing with parents who beat them up/contemplating suicide (All The Bright Places); or running from people who are trying to kill them (Unwind). So it’s quite refreshing to read a book about a normal teenager dealing with day-to-day insecurities even if it is through the prism of death; seventeen year old Mia is in a car crash that kills her family and in grave danger in hospital, she has to decide if she should live or die. She runs back through her life so far to make the choice.


It’s actually this normal prism that makes the book so effective. Mia has no major issues, her family is great, she’s an accomplished musician heading to Juilliard with a supportive, steady boyfriend and we get to see inside a loving family from the gut-wrenching perspective of knowing they are no longer together. It also taps into the thought of saying goodbye to people we love, how we would do it, and how we would assess our lives if given the same choice (follow the family you love into death or stay with the howling pain of grief and rebuild your life in the role of abandoned orphan).


It’s very well written (if not a tad long for me, for what is essentially a difficult yes/no decision and a walk-back through someone’s life) and interestingly for a YA book, Mia isn’t sarcastic or markedly different from the rest of her peer group. She’s relatable, sincere and human. Pretty much like the book itself.

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/04/19/gayle-formans-if-i-stay-relatable-sincere-and-human

The Law of Loving Others; a frank, coming-of-age novel

The Law of Loving Others - Kate Axelrod

My rating: 3 stars (out of 5)


The title of The Law of Loving Others is a quote taken from Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, “But the law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable.” It’s a lovely quote and an apt title for a book that discusses the relationships we have with different people; how we behave in our closest relationships and how the problems our friends and families deal with are the mirror we put up to ourselves, the way we assess our own lives. And so it is with Emma and how she deals with her mother’s breakdown over one winter break from school.


There seem to be a ton of YA books dealing with depression and mental illness that I’ve read lately (All The Bright Places is one example, good in every way) but this book is definitely at the older end of the YA spectrum. It was refreshing to read a frank account of how this teenager deals with something she has no idea how to cope with… the drugs, the fooling around with boys, the self-harming… it’s heavy stuff, but frank, and a bit more representative of some eighteen-year-olds and not quite so evasive about major issues.


That said, I found the language a little off at times and sometimes the book cuts off at interesting points and at other points it seems to go into too much detail about things I don’t need to know. It can be a little plodding… then he went there, then we got out of the car, etc. and could use a little better pacing and editing. I would rate this 3 stars from a novelist at the beginning of her writing career because I liked it. Not highly recommended but I might check out the author’s next work to give it a shot.

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Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/04/30/the-law-of-loving-others-a-frank-coming-of-age-ya-novel

Normal; a book that is anything but

Normal - Graeme Cameron

Room by Emma Donoghue was an amazing book, narrating the fictional story of an abductor and his abductee from the point of view of their child (who was born into captivity inside a locked box). I wasn't sure about Normal by Graeme Cameron as the blurb on the back sounded like it might be the same story (minus the child) just told in reverse, from the man's point of view. It's actually very different. Room was dark and harrowing; Normal is wonderfully glib, very funny and actually had me rooting for the serial killer. That's no small feat.

Cameron does a wonderful job keeping up the suspense (this man is chasing lots of women down at the same time and has one locked in his basement throughout the story), making me nervous for the women and their fate but I also wanted him to survive, particularly when the police start getting involved. It was laugh-out-loud funny in places and I particularly loved the detail discussed about being a serial killer and the practicalities involved in holding someone hostage (the parts with him searching for women's clothing and vegetarian food are great). It you like dark books - I seem to getting through a lot of these lately - then you'll love this. I raced through this. A real unexpected find!

**I received a copy of this book thanks to the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This review is taken from my blog: http://ellenallen.co/my-book-reviews/

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/02/19/normal-a-book-that-is-anything-but

Dark places; wonderfully disturbing

Dark Places - Gillian Flynn

Who hasn’t heard of Gone Girl? It was everywhere last year and because I loved the writing, I’m ploughing through Gillian Flynn’s back catalogue. Dark Places was her second book and written in 2009 (Sharp Objects was her first in 2005 and is high up on my TBR list). Dark Places is a much more harrowing story than Gone Girl because it tries to piece together the murder of an entire family in one night, save for the smallest daughter. The book intercuts from the present day and the surviving daughter’s unwilling acceptance that she needs to find out who actually murdered her family and the actual events of that day, as told from the brother and mother’s perspective. It’s reminiscent of one of my favourite (?!) horror/murder stories, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (itself based on the true story of a murder of one American family, The Clutters).



This felt like a different kind of book altogether from Gone Girl – just as good – but much more of a whodunnit, with less clever plot twists and turns but in some ways, more disturbing. (Gone Girl is about the damage a husband and wife inflict on each other, sometimes knowingly. Dark Places is about wondering who would want to inflict so much damage on a family). It has much more focus on money and more specifically, what the lack of hope can do to a family and the depression that sets in behind it.


I loved Gone Girl but I had a very hard time believing in the ending; I just didn’t feel the characters were absolutely believable when they made their final decisions – based upon what they had said and done in the rest of the book. The ending felt too much like it was trying to shock rather than providing us with the logical conclusion. That said, it had a lot to say about marriage and feminism (such as always being the “cool girl”) which other blogs and articles have covered in-depth. See the Guardian take on it here and here. Dark Places is just as well written but I don’t think it has as much to say. That said, it’s more scary and a great read.


My only gripe would be surrounding one aspect of Libby Day, the survivor and youngest child. Now in her 30s, Flynn does a wonderful job of showing us all of Libby’s flaws and making us love her anyway and she is our main narrator through the book. My issue is that she appears very reliable in lots of ways – she seems to know when people are lying, she has a sixth sense for bullshit and finds things out very neatly – but this seems to be too much at odds with the depressed state she finds herself in throughout. I was willing to suspend disbelief though but it’s the reason for the 4 star rather than a 5. I’m sure the author can live with that!

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This review is taken from my blog ellenallen.co
Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/02/11/dark-places-wonderfully-disturbing

Alice; we're all in wonderland with you

Alice in Wonderland - Rene Cloke, Lewis Carroll

My rating: 3 stars (out of 5)


I wasn't sure what to expect when I read this with my daughter. I'm not seven years old anymore and so much of the literary nonsense in this book has passed into common usage ("mad as a hatter", "the queen of hearts" and so forth) and it's all such a big part of our cultural landscape ("one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small" - Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit", in case you were wondering) that I wasn't sure I'd really be able to appreciate it. I was wrong.

I was really surprised by how little I had to explain to my daughter. She just "got" all the silliness and loved it and it was great fun to read together:


"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.

"We called him Tortoise because he taught us," said the Mock Turtle angrily: "really you are very dull!"


It is nonsense, but wonderful nonetheless.

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This review is taken from my blog on ellenallen.co

Source: http://ellenallen.co/my-book-reviews

HausFrau; a brilliant book, mostly

Hausfrau: A Novel - Jill Alexander Essbaum

The first line of a novel should really draw you in and the opening of this book “Anna was a good wife, mostly” had me from the beginning. The writing style felt a little disjointed at first, as if the author wasn’t a native english speaker, or maybe this is intended as it helps the forward momentum. (The story is told through the eyes of an American woman living in Switzerland and part of her lack of belonging is down to her poor german language skills).


On the surface, Anna has everything anyone could want – a healthy family and a comfortable life – but underneath, she is struggling to connect with the world around her and throws herself into torrid affairs, partly as a means of running away and partly as a means of punishing herself. The structure of this book is completely in tune with the story it has to tell. It flashes backwards and forwards between the present day and the past (I won’t mention why to avoid any spoilers) as well as with her therapist and in her german classes (where the structure of the german language is used as a wonderful metaphor for Anna’s situation). Totally captivating, awfully heartbreaking and very, very real.


**I received a copy of this book thanks to the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/02/01/hausfrau-a-brilliant-book-mostly

The Comfort of Strangers; no stranger, but still no comfort

The Comfort Of Strangers - Ian McEwan

I first read this Ian McEwan book (The Comfort of Strangers) a few years ago and I loved it so much that I wanted to re-read it. Now that I have, I’ve learnt a valuable lesson; you can’t re-read a suspense novel and get the same awful sense of foreboding that I remember having the first time around.


I could, however, still appreciate the writing and how he manages to vividly capture familiar sensations: the carefree way you feel on holiday and how that changes your decisions, particularly when you meet new people; and the way couples communicate with each other after years in relationships. It really is a masterclass in writing a suspense novel and it was this book that set me off on an Ian McEwan extravaganza – Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach, Solar, Enduring Love – and made me appreciate what a great author he is. It’s an unsettling book but I just wish I could have felt as scared the second time around…

Station Eleven; thought-provoking and “deeply moving”

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

It seems you can’t miss Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel at the moment; in my Mum’s local book store in England, she must be the envy of any author everywhere as the whole window is full of the things, but unlike many of the much-hyped books that I’ve read lately, this more than lives up to expectation.


It seemed like a mish-mash of genres. At times, it felt a little YA, but a cut above the latest glut of dystopian novels and it’s written so well, it’s more than on par with the best literary fiction. It’s circling nature – in terms of moving backwards and forwards through time – is extremely well done. It reminded me a little of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in its detail of life after a seismic change in the world. I’m always skeptical when a book’s blurb tells me that it’s “deeply moving” but in this instance, I can only agree. Highly recommended!


**I received a copy of this book thanks to the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


This review was originally posted on my blog at www.ellenallen.co. Find me there!