Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I’m stranded on Mars.

I have no way to communicate with Earth.

I’m in a Habitat designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m screwed.

Amazon UK | Amazon US | GoodReads | Book Depository

No, I haven’t seen the film – yet. Seriously hoping to soon, though!

So, I’m a super latecomer to this one. I heard of the book way back in 2013 when it hadn’t yet been courted by traditional publishing and Hollywood producers foaming at the bit to replicate the next great sci-fi movie, following the immense success of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I mean, how amazing is it that we live in a world where somebody can simply put something up on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program and then have not just huge publishers, but  Ridley Scott knocking at their door?

Mark Watney is an astronaut who’s having a pretty terrible day at his job. He’s been separated from his crew on Mars following a massive storm that resulted in a full-scale evacuation. The crew assume that Watney died during the storm, when he is in fact, alive. And terribly stranded. He has absolutely every reason to freak out, but doesn’t — he builds up his lab, fixes the damage to the best of his ability, and just settles into life on Mars (wonder if he’ll ever know / He’s in the best-selling show) as he tries to establish communications back on Earth.

Hopefully you’ll forgive me if I say that quite a bit of the more technical, scientific stuff went over my head. What I did understand, I was fascinated by, but there were definitely parts that I had to skim through. I loved how resourceful Mark was — using his degree in botany to make sure he has enough food to last (although you do feel sorry for the guy, nothing but potatoes for weeks on end), and not just accepting his destiny was to die alone on another planet from dehydration or starving or running out of air to breathe.

Weir’s writing style is incredibly immersive. You’ll feel everything from Mark’s frustration when things don’t go according to plan, to his joy when eventually things do go right…  Also, the story is split into two points of view — well, Mark’s first-person POV, and this omniscient narrator that details everything that’s being done at NASA and in the media to check in with the mission and try and get Mark back home.

I… kind of like the omniscient narrator better. Nothing wrong with Mark, but there were definitely times where I found him to be a bit grating. Sure, you’ve had your time to freak out (and Mark occasionally does get very frustrated since Sod’s law is apparently doubled on Mars), but the way Mark talks sometimes, it’s like whatever’s just happened to him is a minor setback, he’s so casual you can’t help but go: “Dude, this isn’t like you’re on holiday in Spain and you lost your hotel key. You’re on Mars.”

Otherwise, it’s a cracking read. I read part of the book at work, then part of it in an airline waiting lounge, and then another part of it on a flight… and yeah, it just sped by. The climax is absolutely nail-biting.

Final verdict: 4 stars

Guess who’s back?

Yeah, sorry. Not Slim Shady. You’ll have to make do with lil ol’ me.

So, I’ve been in Japan for the past 15 days. And it was awesome. Not even for weeaboo-y reasons (me and my travelling companion kinda… balked at Akihabara — Shibuya and Shinjuku are where it’s at), I really enjoyed it as a great holiday destination with plenty to do and loads of friendly people. I stayed in Tokyo, Osaka, Nara and Kyoto, and I would absolutely love to go back again. (Be warned, though — take plenty of spending money, especially if you’re travelling within the country and getting souvenirs.) Even though for some reason, I did have a hankering to watch anime when I came back, after I’ve been going through a severe dry spell. Why.

Back before the Great Migration to Blogger and then WordPress, I started out as an anime blogger. (Back when I was still in US high school/UK sixth form. Wow.) I’d write about the next season’s anime, write first impressions on new anime episodes, and eventually, I grew kind of tired of it. Probably because I’d get myself to essentially marathon anime without really sitting down to enjoy it properly. Just voraciously consuming. But that’s going to change, because I’m actually going to start writing about anime again on a side blog. Yeah, I’m just as shocked as you are.

So what else is new with me? Well… I read 15 books while I was in Japan, and I’m currently enjoying goddamn Outlander, of all books. A novel about a feisty young lady who travels to ancient Scotland where people wear kilts and live in castles and hold ancient style meetings and why can I not stop reading. Guh.

I guess it’s a good thing that the new season of anime is almost out (October!). I can dive right back in! Also, I’ve just created a Hummingbird account, so if any of y’all want to add me, the name’s Totoroll.

See you on the other side! I’ll probably write a blog about my travels in Japan soon enough. Just gimme a bit of time to get over the jet lag. (It’s been two full days and my brain is still a bit foggy. Soz.)

September Update

It is the month of my birth! And it is going to be a super busy month for me, so at 07:20 in the morning, here I am writing a very quick blog post on the state of Nessa, and to give some bite size reviews.

I am eight books being in my challenge to read 200 books this year, because August was a very busy month. Oop.

So, as you all know, Reawakened by Colleen Houck was terrible. And I have to apologise for making a mistake… oop. For some stupid reason it got stuck in my head that Amon said he was born after the time of the pharaohs when Egypt was becoming much more Hellenic and Roman and was religiously turning more towards monotheism. And looking back through my copy, he says that “the time of the pharaohs was after my own.” So basically, I checked in with a friend of mine who is super passionate about Egypt (and also a Kemetic pagan), and she said that couldn’t work either. Well. “Don’t use my books to pass mythology tests,” eh? Paige and Khanh have done excellent reviews, and Thibaut (all of whom are GoodReads friends) is in the process of reading it, and I believe there’ll be posts on the book on The Snark Theater too. :D (Update – it is now live on the Snark Theater!)

Next up on the list to tackle is Every Day by David Levithan, which Katya gave to me as a gift when I met up with her in Bath last month, along with Freya Stark’s biography, which I am really looking forward to. I was surprised at how quickly I finished Every Day, it’s a really sweet and really intriguing premise, a soul named ‘A’ who wakes up in a different body every day, always in the same geographical area. A falls in love with a girl, and it’s super cute. But… the supernatural element was the most intriguing to me, rather than the romance. I mean, this book would probably be adapted into a movie by the Wachowskis, it’s that sort of story about soul transgression and transference that they would love. While I don’t need for it to be explained, the premise just eventually takes a back seat and… meh. I wish more had gone into it, especially around the end and this big reveal that’s plonked down out of nowhere when we’re more than 90% done with the book. Anybody else feel this way?

I also read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’ve been looking around the blogosphere and apparently it’s not the best Eugenides book to start out with. It starts out really interesting and then… just peters out and becomes kinda dull. I’m sorry, it’s a great book, but I really found myself struggling with it. Even though it was only 250 pages! Bleh.

And currently, I am reading The Shepherd’s Crown (RIP Pterry), which I bought on release day. And so far it’s fantastic, even though I still haven’t read the Tiffany Aching sub-series.

I’ve actually been playing the Discworld MUD for the past few weeks and it is a riot. <3 I’d love to find out more of the games, but they’re out of print and bloody expensive. Welp, maybe time to fire up the old emulator, eh?

Ciao for now, my lovelies. I’ll check back in soon! I’m off to Japan for two weeks this month! \o/

Book Review: Reawakened by Colleen Houck

When seventeen-year-old Lilliana Young enters the Metropolitan Museum of Art one morning during spring break, the last thing she expects to find is a live Egyptian prince with godlike powers, who has been reawakened after a thousand years of mummification.

And she really can’t imagine being chosen to aid him in an epic quest that will lead them across the globe to find his brothers and complete a grand ceremony that will save mankind.

But fate has taken hold of Lily, and she, along with her sun prince, Amon, must travel to the Valley of the Kings, raise his brothers, and stop an evil, shape-shifting god named Seth from taking over the world.

From New York Times bestselling author Colleen Houck comes an epic adventure about two star-crossed teens who must battle mythical forces and ancient curses on a journey with more twists and turns than the Nile itself.

Amazon UK | Amazon US | The Book Depository | Goodreads

(Also posted on Bibliodaze!)

Okay, guys. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

A teenage girl who believes herself to be plain and yet ‘not like the other girls’, is whisked off on a far-flung adventure with a mysterious, “exotic” prince who has found his way to America, with whom she has a cosmic connection in the pre-destined, soulmate kind of way. This girl is the only person in the whole world who is able to break the curse that has been placed upon our princely love interest, who has been trapped in a hellish limbo where for centuries he has not been able to communicate nor fight his way out of his predicament. Whilst in this new location, she meets a scholarly older man who explains a lot of the mythology/historical interest sites, and is generally receptive to multiple call-and-response dialogue sections where one character asks a question, and another explains. Also, lots of attention is paid to detail on food and temple interiors and while you might feel from time to time that you’re in a temple, you certainly don’t feel as if you’re visiting the particular country that the writer had in mind.

Yeah. I just described Tiger’s Curse, didn’t I?

The boilerplate for Reawakened is the exact same thing as Tiger’s Curse. Except this time, we’re swapping India for Egypt, and Lilliana, our stand-in for Kelsey actually has parents who are still alive. Not a huge divergence, but hey, I’ll take anything I can get so long as I never have to spend another moment inside the cotton wool bud-stuffed cavity that is Kelsey Hayes’ mind ever again.

To be fair, there is a decent little bit of character development, in that Lilliana decides to break loose from the stifling conformity of her stupendously rich parents’ expectations and actually have fun and do something for herself for a change. Houck has also toned down the ridiculously overwrought sentimentality from her previous series, meaning that Lilliana is a lot more subtle about her issues, rather than hammering on about them every time there’s a slight gap in the narrative and our author couldn’t figure out quite what to put there, besides exposition.

The plot is this: Lilliana Young gets swept up onto this grand, magical quest during a routine visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The Egyptian wing is currently playing host to a resurrected Ancient Egyptian guy named Amon, who is an avatar/demigod/whatever of the Kemetic sun god. Except that Amon is a stranger in a strange land, his bald head and shendyt clashing with local fashion sensibilities, and he doesn’t understand technology or English until he literally pulls a Pocahontas-style “Listen With Your Heart” hand-wave of a spell out of his backside in an effort to keep the story trundling along. Through some awkward, clunky set-up, Amon accidentally forges a magical bond with Lilliana, meaning that she is literally chained to him, her health deteriorates without him, and she has absolutely no choice in the matter of getting caught up in all this nonsense. Imagine that. A heroine in a Colleen Houck book with agency.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair, considering that Lilliana is independent and feisty, despite cracking awful jokes (not awful as in – “grandpa made that pun and it was so bad I had to laugh,” no – so bad as in cringing every time Lilliana decides to crack a stupid and contextually-inappropriate joke) and making pop cultural references that are about thirty years out of date. Amon dances at one point, and she describes him as a fusion between ‘Elvis Presley and the Chippendales.’ Like Kelsey, Lilliana’s frames of reference for foreign cultures tends to be referring to whatever is the closest equivalent in American pop culture, as opposed to learning about the culture or the native mythology. Houck’s attention to detail is almost always focused on the wrong thing entirely. Amon makes a few classical time-traveller-in-the-future quips, like thinking a smartphone is a magic box and calling a taxi a ‘golden chariot’, but then forgets about this aspect of his character entirely. He gets on a plane with Lilliana, no fuss, no muss, and merrily chats with the hostesses and watches mummy movies with Lilliana like… eh? Shouldn’t you be amazed or, more likely, terrified at the prospect of how we future-dwellers have the technology to fly over an ocean?

But yes, it turns out that Amon has seriously amazing magical powers. He can conjure up sandy whirlwinds that transport him and others to different locations, he moves sand around to create solid walls and blocks, he’s absolutely masterful at hypnosis and he can shape shift to some extent. It also doesn’t help that he’s incredibly good looking and has some kind of regal/godly presence that makes people want to do anything for him. All it takes is one or two conversations for him and Lilliana to head off to the airport and somehow get through security (through the power of hypnotism) and off towards Cairo.

Ah, yes, Cairo. A focal point of the Arab Spring in 2011. The capital city of Egypt, a country which has undergone much in the way of political turmoil for several years. The president was ousted and replaced and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood became quite prominent in the aftermath of these protests. But, even though this story is set in modern times, Egypt just seems perfectly fine and dandy. The only places really visited are a penthouse hotel room and a stereotypical, tourist-y depiction of the Valley of the Kings. It’s the same exact thing from Tiger’s Curse — you only ever see Kelsey living it large in hotels and mansions, with the brief interlude trekking through the jungle and exploring a temple that remains booby-trapped despite booby-trapped temples never having existed. (For both historical and logical reasons, I assure you.) This basically means we have a book set in Egypt which never feels like you’re actually there in the country. Sure, Houck describes some sights and smells, but honestly, the scenery painted for us is yet another series of bland caricatures that do not serve to immerse you in the world of the story. I never felt like I was in Egypt — not because I didn’t see hide nor hair of the fallout of the Arab Spring, but because the author simply couldn’t be bothered to write more characters or research more deeply into what makes the country so unique and how its people grow up in the society. You can swap Lilliana and Amon’s penthouse apartment for one in Portugal or Thailand. It doesn’t matter.

Speaking of the lacking sense of place, however… I sort of buddy-read this book with Ashleigh Paige of The YA Kitten ( We discovered a pretty prominent plot hole about 30 pages in, where Amon says he was living after the Pharaonic times that Ancient Egypt is famous for. This means he was born after the end of the Ptolemaic/Hellenic dynasty, after the famed Cleopatra VII and her successor Ptolemy XV Caesarion. (This era ended pretty much because the Roman Empire swooped in on Egypt on its last legs. Go figure.) Except that Amon later claims to not know of Tutankhamen, claiming that he must have been ‘sleeping’ (read: in his death-like state) when the pharaoh was on the throne. Which makes no sense, because if he was born after the Pharaohs, well… King Tut died roughly over a thousand years before Cleopatra took up rulership of Egypt. For some reason, I tried to justify this in my head, and I couldn’t — each stab at the ground of these plot-holes just wound up digging me further and further until I was nearly reaching the Earth’s core. If Amon was born after pharaonic Egypt, then worship of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon wouldn’t be amazingly widespread, and he would at least be aware of the rise of monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity. For him to not be aware of King Tut, he must have been sleeping throughout the Middle/New Kingdom and their Intermediary periods. Meaning he was born during the time of the Pharaohs. Ashleigh even researched Itjawy, Amon’s ancestral home — and yeah, that was founded during the time of the pharaohs.

Sure, it could just be a mistake or something that slipped through editing, but these kinds of research flubs are so, so common in the books by this author. (Anubis is not the god of death/mummification, just so you know. That’s Osiris. But Anubis shows up so much in his in that role that you’d assume his uncle had posted up an OUT TO LUNCH sign and left little Anubis in charge.) The mythology is sometimes correct, if flavourless and watered down, but in terms of real world stuff… it’s clearly taken from Google and Wikipedia. Not bad sources to start with, and yes, we are both aware that Houck is writing fiction and not non-fiction, but there comes a point where you can’t glean any sort of credibility out of this novel whatsoever, despite the ‘claims’ of it being well researched. It’s incredibly easy to just start skim-reading halfway through the book, and not really miss out on anything. Houck’s characters are still fond of taking enormous exposition dumps all over the pages in regards to mythology or the role they are playing in this particular version of the story, etc. Which is sad, because if anything, the writing should have improved by now.

Which it has. In dribs and drabs, if I’m going to be really nice for a moment. Houck is now signed to a bigger publisher, and the editing is a whole lot tighter than it was back in the days of Tiger’s Curse. Lilliana has moments of really good character development and Amon isn’t a pathetic spoiled brat who throws tables when he doesn’t get his own way (à la Ren from Tiger’s Curse).  But, unfortunately, Houck’s storytelling suffers from narrative convenience to the point of seriously straining plausibility. Isn’t it awfully convenient that Amon can alter time/people’s perception’s of time/whatever, so that Lilliana will appear to have been spending a day in her bedroom in New York rather than diving down tombs in Giza? That he can hypnotise people into letting him and Lilliana live lavishly without any money whatsoever? That one can just hop in a taxi cab to JFK and grab a trans-Atlantic flight without bothering with security or passports or visas or airport duty because yay hypnotism? There’s no real obstacles or stakes for our characters, because everything can just be hand-waved away for the sake of quickly getting our characters to their destinations and doing that cool thing they’re meant to do.

There’s no difficulty whatsoever for Amon, no guilt over having forced Lilliana into becoming his companion on this journey, and absolutely no tension as to completing this quest of his to retrieve his canopic jars and restore his life force so he and his brothers can stop Set from rising again and wreaking havoc on the world. The quest is so seldom mentioned that the plot simply becomes a series of getting our characters from point A to B, rather than their actions having some meaning or bringing some closure to the story at large, tying up plot threads and all that good stuff that is supposed to happen if you actually have the ability to tell a decent story.

Houck’s issues with pacing crop up again in this novel. To the degree where one is almost three quarters of the way through the story before there’s any sort of plan regarding what to do with the Big Bad. The novel ends so hastily, too. The ending just goes absolutely nowhere, with boring, overwrought details about the Kemetic afterlife that could easily be gleaned from a Dorling Kindersley children’s guide to mythology.

The characters are bland. At least in Tiger’s Curse, the brothers and the small handful of other characters have distinct personalities. Amon and his brothers have nothing going for them, and it’s a shame — you’d expect more from resurrected personifications of Egyptian gods, but nope. They just fulfil their narrative purpose, and then they’re gone. The focus remains – myopically – on our two main leads, and since there are no stakes to their story, we have absolutely no reason to care.

There’s no real reason as to why Set rising again would cause any sort of calamity in the world. When you finally meet him, over 80% into the novel, you’ll find that… he’s just a scary monster who says cliché scary monster things. Yawn. There’s no foreshadowing, no real build-up… The novel is over five hundred pages, but could be pruned down to maybe four or three hundred, if only Houck were to take a break from writing trite romantic scenes that have little bearing on the plot and are more suited for Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance than young adult historical fantasy. I have never come across a writer who’s clearly visited by the Fairy of Awesome Story Ideas (which totally exists) but has no writerly ability to pull them off.

Look. I don’t want to be unkind, I really don’t. But this is yet another dreadful, culturally-appropriative book which gets quite a few of its facts – both historical and mythological – so indelibly wrong, and strings along our characters on such convenient narrative pathways that there’s not much of a reason to want to follow them through their adventures. If you’re a die-hard fan of Ancient Egypt and Kemetic mythology, this might be best avoided. And avoid if you happen to enjoy good storytelling at all. 1/5.

August Update

July came and went and it was a fairly stellar month for me, all things considered. I read more, walked more, and dived back into reading comics because I decided it’d be a great idea to marathon all of the X-Men cartoon series. Love, love, love the characters. Especially Nightcrawler, my babe.

(Speaking of X-Men, my brother and I started watching Days of Future Past the other day (it’s the only new X-Men film I haven’t seen… Oops) and he got called away right as it was getting good. Sod’s bloody law.)

So yes, I have been applying for jobs, reading, and gained an offer, which is lovely! I’m so excited, and I’ve managed to hit my weight loss targets too. Everything’s coming up Milhouse chez Nessa.

August shall be awesome, I have decreed. I am going back to Bath to hang out with Katya and Tiffy, and I’m also going to be clearing out my apartment, picking up my degree and finally saying bye bye to my university. It’s been an amazing three years. Seriously.

Bit of backstory. I was originally headed to a university in London to read Oriental Studies, but panicked at the last moment and failed the exam. Then I bummed around, worked, volunteered, and got my grades up and arrived at university to do English Literature at the tender age of 21. Looking back on it, I was definitely not in the right frame of mind to move to London or to take on learning two new languages (that course included Chinese and Japanese). I’m much happier with myself for doing English Literature, to be honest, and I’m really glad that my university was never snobby about the books you could read, just so long as you kept to the reading list and, y’know, didn’t irrelevantly bring up Harry Potter in an essay about Ulysses. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown a lot and I’ve made some incredible friends for life. Y’all reading this know who you are. <3 <3 <3

Also, university gave me a whole new appreciation of books. I was just a little fledgling when I first started reviewing in 2011 and my writing probably wasn’t the greatest at the time. And I was definitely a lot fairer with books back then — which then developed into me being a bit too harsh. Seriously, how did I give Daughter of Smoke and Bone such a low rating when I actually did quite like it once I’d mulled over it. I reread it a while ago and just tuned out the more tedious parts, and voilà. Wonderful book with gorgeous writing and palpable magical realism. Still has its issues, but it’s not like… 3/5 or whatever I gave it all those years ago.

That’s not to say that all of my former reviews are null and void. I’m not about to say that Tiger’s Curse deserved a better rating, or that I will never stop gushing about Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking books. No, no. There’s just a few here and there that I might re-rate some day and that deserved better. I’ve now achieved a more happy medium with rating books, I hope.

Ratings are difficult things. Some blogs use A-F grades, some use variants of “buy this/borrow this/dump this”, and others use the cardinal 1-5 star/1-10 scoring. I’m still going to continue with star ratings, I guess, but I’m going to have to seriously think up a list of qualities about books and come up with a rating that way. Like grading a paper.

So yeah, August is going to be a big month for me, and I’m super looking forward to everything this month. Positive attitude. \o/

In September, I am HEADED TO JAPAN. Oh my god. I basically spent the last of my student loan and money given to me by my family for finishing university on getting tickets and heading out there with my best friend. It is going to be amazing and I’ve been looking forward to it all year. Flights are booked, rail passes are being sorted out, and languages are being brushed up on. It will be amazing, hitting all the stops — Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara… I am so excited like you cannot believe.

I’m not sure I’ll get to read/review many books this month. But I’ll definitely see what I can do. :)

‘Til next time, toodles!

Book Review: Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

“You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.”

When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle home in Styria, Austria, Laura and her father agree to take in its injured passenger, a young woman named Carmilla. Delighted to have some company of her own age, Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla. But as their friendship grows, Carmilla’s countenance changes and she becomes increasingly volatile. As Carmilla’s moods shift, Laura starts to become ill, experiencing fiendish nightmares, her health deteriorating night after night. It is not until she and her father, increasingly concerned for Laura’s well-being, set out on a trip to discover more about the mysterious Carmilla that the terrifying truth reveals itself…

Amazon (UK) | GoodReads | Project Gutenberg

Can’t go wrong with the classics, can you?

Considering how much I loved this book, it’s amazing that I put off reading it for so long. I certainly preferred it over Dracula and the less said about Varney The Vampire, the better. (Sorry, Mr. Rymer, Varney’s a fun penny dreadful character, and he’s important to the genesis of the vampire novel and all but his name sounds like he teaches spelling on Sesame Street.)

So, we’ve got a lonely girl living with her father in an isolated castle in a district of Austria. (Really, though, its contemporaneous audience would have probably thought any European country beyond the Alps was a little… backwards and traditionalist, shall we say.) Laura gains a new friend in Carmilla, a sweet, beautiful girl her age who takes her on as her best friend, despite being weird as all hell. She’ll mention her family has a title, but then refuse to give Laura any information about what country she’s from or any nobles she’s related to. Since Carmilla is such a sweet girl, Laura just lets it slide until she starts suffering from nightmares and discovers a mysterious bite wound one morning. Then Carmilla goes missing, and the final act is trying to dig up information on Laura’s strange condition, culminating finally in figuring out what the heck is up with Carmilla.

I’ve read many books from the Victorian era, the Regency, and a lot of the time it seems like many writers don’t have much of a grasp on subtlety. Maybe it’s my more modern tastes in literature, and maybe it’s hard to disengage oneself from all the horror tropes ever encountered in modern fiction, but the moment Laura got that painting of the Countess von Karnstein, and Carmilla was acting all cagey over it… Yeah. And to top it off, the Countess in the painting is supposedly called Millarca. (You don’t have to be a Countdown whiz to figure out that particular anagram.)

I’m not sure if that was supposed to be climactic in a way, because it absolutely killed the mystery for me. When the General is explaining how Carmilla came to be, and why the noblewoman in the painting actually died 100 years ago yet bears such a strong resemblance to Carmilla… Yeah. Sorry, Joe. I’m not going to dock off too much of my rating, because I still enjoyed this book a lot; but seriously, it’s a common thing in books of this era. (I’ll rant about elements I didn’t like about Count Fosco’s portrayal in The Woman in White at another time.)

The writing is lovely, though. Laura was sweet and intelligent, not prone to fits of the vapours, and genuinely happy to have some company around after spending almost her entire life growing up in a castle with her eccentric father. I really loved how genuine the friendship seemed between her and Carmilla, and oh, the les yay subtext.

Shame about that ending. The novel builds and builds and builds, then Captain Obvious steamrolls through the plot and kind of ruins it until the novel hastily wraps itself up. Sure, it is only a short story, and I really did love the writing and the characters enough to say it is one of the better Gothic novels I’ve read. I just wish the Captain Obvious humdinger hadn’t happened.

But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check out all that hullabaloo surrounding the Carmilla YouTube series. The cream puffs are on standby in the fridge.

Verdict: 4.5/5.

Book Review: The Utopia Experiment by Dylan Evans

Imagine you have survived an apocalypse. Civilization as you knew it is no more. What will life be like and how will you cope?

In 2006, Dylan Evans set out to answer these questions. He sold his house and left his job in a high-tech robotics lab, moved to the Scottish Highlands and founded a community called The Utopia Experiment. There, with an eclectic assortment of volunteers, he tried to live out a scenario of global collapse, free from modern technology and comforts.

Within a year, Evans found himself detained in a psychiatric hospital, shattered and depressed, trying to figure out what had gone wrong…

Amazon UK | Amazon US | Book Depository | GoodReads

Last year while I was at university, I took a course called Writing and The Environmental Crisis. As you can imagine, we focused on books with an ecological focus — Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and even the teeth-grindingly ridiculous anti-global warming screed that is Michael Crichton’s State of Fear.

There’s been plenty of discussion about whether the current Western lifestyle is sustainable. Simply put, we take too much and put an enormous strain on resources, with our children adding to the burden more and more. Who knows, maybe in ten or twenty years, the economy will completely collapse. Power outages will be so frequent that only a rich handful of people will have access to generators, and considering how few people nowadays have pre-industrial skills like smelting or weaving fabric, if the world really does go to hell in a handbasket, we’ll be screwed.

Okay, so this book ends with Evans staying on a psychiatric ward with severe clinical depression. It’s telling that he wrote the book with this event in his life behind him, because hoo boy, the miserable tone he writes in and the insightful way he reminds himself what a stupid idea he took on is really palpable. Evans himself is a roboticist with a background in anthropology and philosophy, and several times declares his frustration with erratic human behaviour during the experiment.

To be honest, the Utopia Experiment seemed doomed to fail from the start. I can accept that Evans is writing about a past event with hindsight, but his enthusiasm for the project wavers, like “yeah I’m gonna do it!” to “…eh, might as well get on with it.”

Essentially, the Utopia Experiment was a LARP in the Scottish highlands. The world has ended, and we all live in this boggy, freezing cold corner of the countryside. But, Evans often makes provisions for himself, like staying with his girlfriend who happens to have bought a cottage nearby, and visiting his friends who own a smallholding not too far from the site of the experiment. The participants in the experiment even wonder what their parameters are for living in this post-apocalyptic roleplay. Like, if they go to the supermarket for supplies every now and again, how are they living as though the world has ended?

Of course, Evans notes that it’s supremely difficult to live in such a luddite fashion when the comforts of the modern world are always there to beckon you back. He tried to cut himself off from his safety nets (i.e., selling his house, giving up his career), but soberly reminds us that he only ended up needing them more and more.

The Utopia Experiment is well… kind of a drag to read because of Evans’ writing style in parts. His insistence that the world may go through a serious collapse in the next couple of decades leads to him even admitting that he started to sound like some doom-and-gloom conspiracy theorist. The project could have probably done quite well, he says, if he had simply rented out his house and done the experiment for one season, rather than dragging it out for nearly half a year. Volunteers for the project came and went, with friction between the group growing more and more until Evans eventually had to leave Utopia for good.

I can accept that Evans was locked into some kind of cyclical depressive state during the Utopia Experiment. He went through so much, just to prove to himself that this particular experiment could be done that he really did become like a mad scientist. (His words, not mine.) I think the overarching narrative just seemed far too fictional to the participants and didn’t ring true. Why are we pretending to be experienced survivalists freezing our backsides off in hastily-constructed yurts when just down the road, there’s a house with hot water and electricity and access to store-bought groceries?

The experiment was a failure, as one visiting journalist noted, because it wasn’t really an experiment in the first place, just a scattered range of ideas Evans had written down after reading books that foretold economic or ecological collapse, which aren’t really the best to read when you’re going through a lot of misery and apathy in your life.

While I was reading, there were quite a few times when I thought: “I told you so,” or variants thereof, and Evans himself is introspective enough to realise that this is indeed the case for him as well. Eventually the participants disbanded, with some likely having found ‘hippie’ communes elsewhere, and some having been absorbed back into the usual rat race of work, grocery shopping, rest, etc.

Maybe somewhere along the line, there will be a successful attempt at living a communal, post-apocalyptic lifestyle. It just seems that Evans was the wrong person entirely to head this experiment, having admitted to not being in peak mental condition and slipping into self-loathing, having to justify to himself the reasons why he was giving himself permission to have a hot shower and feeling responsible for so many happy/unhappy campers over the course of the experiment.

It’s a supremely interesting read if you’re into ecology, and Evans does bring up some established facts about the potential collapse of Western society. He clearly did his homework, both before and after the project. But honestly, the tone of the writing and the haphazard nature reminded me of a school project hastily done in a group by a bunch of awkward, quiet classmates who had never before spoken a word to each other. Of course the project was doomed to fail, there’s no reason to pretend we’re living in the end times, when the truth is out there and our society is actually doing okay for itself. For now.