Books for Children

Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen

Boy In The Tower Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: strange, plants, menacing, trapped. tower

Boy in the Tower is a modern-day version of Day of the Triffids. It is equally powerful and, although it was originally released as a book for children, it deserves a place on adult reading lists too.

Ade lives on the seventeenth floor of a tower block with his mum. One day the buildings around him start falling down and it becomes obvious that strange plants are eating their foundations. Most people evacuate, but Ade is trapped because his mum is too depressed to leave their flat. The paces quickens as the battle between Man and plants begins…

I picked up a copy of this book with the intention of reading it to my two boys, but stopped reading it to my seven-year-old when I saw a remark about Father Christmas that would have led to too many questions! Undaunted by this initial set-back my 9-year-old and I continued reading and we fell in love with it. It was impossible for either of us to put down and he couldn’t wait all day for the next installment – I caught him reading it 2 hours after his bedtime! I was equally hooked and finished the second half in one sitting.

Boy in the Tower is an example of what is missing from the majority of the book world. The central character lives in a tower block, but isn’t treated as a pariah for doing so. It also sensitively handles depression, cleverly weaving the subject into the story without it dominating or becoming distressing.

The text was simple, but that didn’t prevent it from being vivid and packed with emotion. It was cleverly paced and didn’t dumb things down for children in the way many other books do.

There are a few moments, while we are all eating our food, when, if you were looking at us sitting around the table enjoying our dinner, you would not have been able to tell that we are on the very edge of disatser. That while we are pushing forkfuls of soft rice into our mouths, the Bluchers are creeping around us in a deadly circle, ready to eat the stones and bricks of our home.

 I was slightly concerned that my 9-year-old would find the concept of dangerous plants disturbing, but he loved it. This was the perfect introduction to dystopian fiction for him and an impressive addition to the genre for everyone else. I’d like to see it introduced to the school curriculum (probably for children around the age of 12) and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Day of the Triffids.

(for children aged 10 – 14)

(for adults)


1960s Books in Translation

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer

 The Wall Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

Five words from the blurb: woman, solitude, survival, dystopian, parable

The Wall was originally written in 1968 and is hailed as a feminist classic. I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction so I accepted a review copy, keen to see an Austrian take on this genre.

The Wall begins with a woman waking up to discover that she is surrounded by a giant transparent wall. Her relatives have disappeared and she can see many dead animals on the other side of the wall. She assumes she is the last human alive and sets about trying to survive. As time passes she plants crops and becomes a great hunter; becoming at ease with life by herself.

Unfortunately I had a few problems with the writing style. The first was that it all felt very distant. Everything was observed in such a cold way that I failed to develop any empathy with the woman. She is unnamed throughout and this didn’t help the bonding process.

She knew a great deal about many things, and nothing at all about many others; all in all her mind was governed by terrible disorder, a reflection of the society in which she lived, which was just as ignorant and put upon as herself. But I should like to grant her one thing: she always had a dim sense of discomfort, and knew that all this was far from enough.

The second was that the scientist in me questioned the entire back story. Why was there a wall and who put it there? Why did the women assume everyone in the world was dead? Why didn’t she try to escape?  There was no evidence to back up any of her assumptions and she never questioned the reasons behind her captivity. If someone suddenly trapped me in a giant glass box I would be very upset and be asking a lot of questions. Yes, I’d still get on with things and survive in the same way she did, but I wouldn’t be so emotionless. There were many more elements of the story that didn’t quite add up, especially towards the end, but I’ll leave you to discover those yourself. The feminist aspects of the book also irritated me and I found her hatred of men difficult to understand. 

I can see why this is considered a classic in Austria and the fact it annoyed me so much proves it has power over the reader. Recommended to feminists who enjoy a colder writing style.


The thoughts of other bloggers

 ….one of the most profound reading experiences I’ve ever had. Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

…a wonderful, profoundly moving novel…Crafty Green Poet

I’m sure, men don’t like this novel. Film, Book Tips and Buch Tipps

1930s Books in Translation Classics

War with the Newts by Karel Capek

War with the Newts (Penguin Translated Texts) Translated from the Czech by M and R Weatherall

Five words from the blurb: humorous, newts, trade, exploitation, fight

War with the Newts was one of the titles that caught my eye when I was browsing 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I love dystopian fiction and because the intelligent, talking newts sounded so different from anything I’d read before I ordered a copy from my library immediately. I’m so pleased that I discovered this Central European classic – it was original, entertaining and carried many important messages about our society.

The book begins with the discovery of a colony of newts in Sumatra and it is obvious that these animals are special. At first they are trained to bring up oysters; the humans taking the pearls, whilst the animals are rewarded with the shellfish. It seems like a good relationship, with both parties benefiting from the other, but mankind quickly realises that the newts can be exploited to a far greater extent. They are soon trained to build underwater structures and it isn’t long before they are being bred, sold and shipped around the world.

It formed a mass of black, squirming, confused and croaking flesh on which dull thuds kept falling. Then a gap opened between two oars; one Newt slipped away and was stunned with a blow on its neck; after it another and another, till about twenty were lying there. ‘Stop it,’ shouted our leader, and the gap between the oars closed up again. Bully Beach and the half-bread Dingo snatched up in each hand the leg of one of the senseless Newts and dragged them over the sand to the boats like lifeless logs. Sometimes the stupefied body stuck fast between the rocks; then the sailor would give a sharp and savage jerk, and the leg would come off. ‘that’s noting,’ murmured old Mike, who stood beside me. ‘Why, man, he’ll grow another one.’

This book was easy and entertaining to read, but contained important messages about human greed. The blurb states that it is an allegory of early twentieth-century Czech politics, but I think the message is far broader than that. I can see similarities with many other governments and I think the moral problems introduced are universal.

War with the Newts was originally published in 1936 and I found it interesting to see how a Czech viewed the different countries of the world at this time. Stereotypes were used continually and it was amusing to see Capek’s opinion of how each country would treat the arrival of newts.

Part of me wished that the book had been more realistic. I think the story might have had more impact if the newts had remained well-trained animals instead of a special species that learned to talk overnight, but this is a minor quibble and I can see that much of the newt-based humour would have been lost if they hadn’t had the ability to communicate.

My only real issue with the book was the footnotes – they increased as the book progressed and seemed to get longer all the time. At some points the story in the footnote was longer than the actual scene in the book. It was distracting and ruined the narrative flow.

Although this book isn’t perfect it is an important book that deserves a wider audience. Recommended.


2000 - 2007

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

The Carhullan Army Note: This book is also known as Daughters of the North

Five words from the blurb: escape, repressive, world, women, remote

I loved Haweswater and How to Paint a Dead Man, so have been keen to try some of Sarah Hall’s other books. The Carhullan Army is a dystopian novel, set in the near future. Like her other novels it is set in Cumbria and follows a young women as she decides to leave her home town of Rith (Penrith) and seek out a group of women living outside the controls of the repressive government, on the Lake District Fells.

I loved the beginning of this book. As usual Sarah Hall’s writing was of a very high standard, creating a vivid world packed with oppressive atmosphere.

It was hard to imagine all the people behind the bricks, sleeping two and three to a room, or lying awake, talking softly so as not to disturb the other families. Some of them crying, being comforted or ignored. Some not caring who heard them through the walls, pushing away from a sore body as the hits of cheap ephedrine began to wear off. Each time I had ventured out in preparation, these dawns seemed to have an atmosphere of reduction, as if there had been a cull, not a condensing of the people.

Unfortunately things went downhill as the book progressed. Once the women on the fells had been found the plot died and I lost interest in what was happening. The focus of the book turned to the relationships of the women, but they hadn’t been introduced in enough depth for me to care about them. Some sex scenes (both lesbian and straight) were thrown in, but they added nothing to the plot.

The ending of the book was very strange. Some fantastic plot elements were reduced to a single paragraph when they would have benefited from being developed into entire chapters. It all felt rushed and a bit of an anticlimax after all the build up.

I’m afraid that this book didn’t add any original ideas to the dystopian genre and although it contained a few fantastic scenes I’d recommend reading Sarah Hall’s other novels instead.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

gripping from the beginning to the end. Vishy’s Blog

With a bit of a polish it would make a good TV series. The Marple Leaf

Carhullan Army is a quietly powerful novel that lives long in the mind. Follow the Thread



2010 Books in Translation Science Fiction

The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

  Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

If there is a fine line between love and hate then this book is managing to balance on it! I was completely gripped to the text, but everything about the plot frustrated me. I was inwardly groaning as I read each new development, unable to believe what was happening. I am a big fan of dystopian fiction, but the plot was so farcical that it lacked the scary, thought-provoking response that this genre normally delivers.

The Unit is a state-of-the-art facility to which all childless, singles are sent once they fail to be of use to society. If they aren’t in an important job then all females are sent at the age of 50 and men on their 60th birthday. Whilst in the facility they are well looked after, but over time all their organs are harvested and donated to younger members of the population. They are also subjected to scientific experiments; until after a few years they make their final donation….

My main problem was that the whole idea had so many flaws:

  • Why wouldn’t all the single people just find someone to marry? If I knew I could avoid having all my body parts removed one by one then I wouldn’t be that fussy about who I married!
  • Wouldn’t it be easier to just kill them when they reached the specified age instead of paying for all those fancy facilities?
  • Why were they doing research on the people and then using their organs – surely this would damage the tissues and leave them inappropriate for use in others?

I also had major problems with the plot. I could list lots of examples, but the major ones were:


(highlight to view)

  • Pregnant?!
  • Why did she return after escaping?!

I was almost shouting at the book. I couldn’t believe what was happening!

This book is easy to read and a real page turner. I can’t really fault the controlled, sparse writing and I admit there were a few emotional moments, but I’m afraid the plot wasn’t on my wavelength.

Overall I was so infuriated with this book that I can’t recommend it, but it is a fine line between love and hate…..

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…..a gripping, heart wrenching, thought provoking read. My Friend Amy

… will make you think twice about a whole host of issues, and is a natural for book club discussions. Rhapsody in Books

I fall short of adoration with The Unit, but I sure did like it a great deal. Galley Smith

Did anyone else find the plot frustrating?

1920s Books in Translation Science Fiction

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

 Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown

Five words from the blurb: dystopia, totalitarian, masterpiece, individual, freedom

I hadn’t heard of this book until Michelle recommended it on my Literary Science Fiction post, but I’m so pleased that she bought it to my attention as I feel it is one of the most important dystopian fiction novels ever written.

We was originally written in 1921, but was suppressed in Russia and so first published in English, French and Czech, before finally being published in Russian in 1988. We is recognised to have been the inspiration behind George Orwell’s classic 1984, but on reading it I spotted key ideas that I’d read in many other books.

The plot follows D-503 (everyone is given a unique number, not a name) who lives in a totalitarian society built entierly from glass (so they can be spied on more easily). All aspects of life are controlled to the extent that everyone must get up, work and eat at exactly the same times each day. D-503 begins to have dreams and question the society he lives in. Everything changes when he discovers that there are other humans living outside OneState – haired humans who live free amongst the animals….

The book is very readable and hasn’t dated at all. It is amazing to think that it was written 90 years ago as most of the ideas and fears still hold true for us today. The book was packed with thought-provoking quotes: 

But, my dear readers, you’ll have to do just a little thinking. It helps a lot. Because, you know, all human history, as far back as we know it, is the history of moving from nomadic life to a more settled way of life. So, doesn’t it follow that the most settled form of life (ours) is by the same token the most perfect form of life (ours)?  If people used to wander over the earth from one end to the other, that only happened in prehistoric times, when there were nations and wars and trade discoveries of this and that America. But why do it now? Who needs it?

I was gripped throughout, but have to admit that a few things went over my head. I would have benefited from having a reading guide to explain some of the weirder sections, but I’m sure this is one of those books that gets better with each re-reading.

The only problem with this book was that I didn’t develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters. I was interested to see what would happen to them, but didn’t really care about their fate.

I think it is important for anyone interested in dystopian fiction to read this book, but if you after an emotional response to events then you need to look elsewhere.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

I’m glad I read We for the historical and contextual value as a dystopia, but I didn’t love it. Rebecca Reads

….the longer We went on, the more it reminded me of The Famished Road by Ben Okri with its endless blending of colour and dream. Books, Time, and Silence

…one of the weirdest, most disorienting things I’ve ever read. The Zen Leaf