Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Noah's Castle by John Rowe Townsend

Synopsis From Back Cover:

The coming winter was going to be a bad one - and not because of the weather.

Sixteen-year-old Barry Mortimer's life turns upside down when his father suddenly moves the family from their comfortable modern home in the city to a decaying old mansion on the outskirts of town.  Strange and mysterious events follow.

Why isn't anyone allowed to visit their new home?  What is Father doing in the basement and why is he keeping it a secret?

As rumors of skyrocketing prices and food shortages become a full-fledged economic meltdown, Barry's world begins to crumble.  Can his family hold together as a nation collapses around them?

Alright if you have any intention of reading this book, at anytime, please don't continue to read the review.  There is no way I can fully get my feelings about this book across without "spoiling" the plot line for you.  So with that being said, on with the show.

I don't know how else to put this than to say, I hate this book.  Hate it.  There is nothing, and I mean nothing about it I enjoyed.  I actually found myself getting angry while I was reading it.  I was angry at the author for writing such nonsense, angry at the characters for being so unlikeable that I hoped that they would all starve to death, and angry at myself for even agreeing to review this book.  There were a few times I actually wanted to throw the book across the room or in the garbage (which I have never wanted to do in my life) but I restrained myself and forced myself to finish reading the book.  I'm actually getting angry all over again while I'm typing up the review.

Okay, deep breath.  Now that I got that out of my system I will attempt to explain why I feel so strongly about a YA book that is only 211 pages long.  I was expecting a book about a family doing everything they could to survive during a time where food was scarce, and what food was available was rationed out in small portions or was so expensive nobody could afford it.  I was wanting a family that came together to survive the times, a family who loved and trusted each other to put the needs of the family first.  I wanted a story that as a father I could relate too.  Needless to say that's not what this book is about nor is it even close to what I got out of it. 

This book is about a domineering, sexist, jackass of a father who doesn't know how to show love to his family in anyway that most children would recognize.  He treats his wife as a upper level servant who isn't intelligent enough to be brought into his confidence.  He's not all that warm to his children and has no problem emotionally brushing them aside in order to do what he thinks is right.  So when he starts to hoard food and supplies for his family to live off of during the crisis, I agreed with him and knew he was doing the right thing for his family, but I still didn't like him.  When laws are passed by the government making it illegal to hoard food, I'm still backing his decision but part of me wanted him to get caught just to get him off the page.

No matter what I thought of the father though I wasn't prepared for how I would feel about the rest of the family.  The most likable was the wife/mother, but even there I found her to be weak and boring.  She didn't make that much of an impression on me and in the end I didn't care either way.  What really got my goat were the children.  There are 4 of them and while I didn't like any of them, I'm going to focus on Barry and the oldest sister, Nessie.  Nessie thinks everything her father is doing is wrong, she finds is abhorrent that her father thought ahead and hoarded food for his family when other people are doing without.  She would rather sparse out her families supplies to everyone else in the country instead of making sure her family was taken care of.  She even moves out of the house because she is so disgusted by her father's actions.

Barry, the star of this story, is a little more conflicted.  At first, while bothered by his father's actions, he goes along with it because while he thinks its wrong, he's not sure why though.  He just feels that his father making sure his family is taken care of when the country is going to hell is somehow wrong.  The book is his journey to the conclusion that the only way he can feel right about life is for his family to be in the same circumstances as everyone else.  The world can not be right until his family is starving the way everyone else is.  He concludes his journey of  "self growth" by turning his father in.  He tells a "charity" about the hoarded food in the basement, which by the way was the whole reason they moved into the house, and even helps the same "charity" raid and take everything they can.

By the end of the book, the father is in a fugue state feeling sorry for himself because he couldn't take care of his family.  The rest of the family are all happy and chipper because now they get to starve as well.  What a wonderful end to a ridiculous story.

My problem with this book wasn't the writing, which I found to be engaging despite the horrendous story itself.  My problem was the viewpoint of the author that a father who tries to take care of his family is somehow evil and that sacrificing yourself and your family for the greater good is somehow noble.  The noble thing to do is take care of your family first, to make sure that the children you brought into this world are provided for.  Then if you are able to, take care of your neighbors after that.  The idea that hurting yourself permanently to help others temporarily is for me, morally repugnant.  As a father the idea of letting my son go hungry for months to come in order to feed someone else for a day is stupid and not something I would ever consider.

Now I'm not sure if the fact that this book was written in 1975 has anything to do with the socioeconomic tone in this book, but I'm sure it does.  The entire time I was reading this book, I kept thinking that the entire point of it was to get the author's personal political/economic views across to the masses.  I'm not sure if that's the case but It's the way the way it came across to me.  What I do know is that I don't like this book, wish I had never read this book, and would strongly encourage everyone I know not to read this book.

This book will qualify for the Typically British Reading Challenge 2010 hosted by Carolyn of Book Chick City.


Staci said...

Your anger reminds me of when I read a book a few months ago that I totally despised!! I'm with you and will not bother with this one!

Lydia said...

Great review.

Writing a review for a book that you cannot stand is one of the toughest parts of being a book blogger and you did it with class - bravo.

I won't be picking up this story anytime soon. It seems such a shame too, the summary gives it such a promising sound.

Michelle Stockard Miller said...

I too am impressed with the class which you wrote this book review. I have only felt angry enough to throw a book once in my life. It was one I could not finish and that I reviewed on my blog. It made me pretty angry, I have to admit! I kept reading your entire review because I know if you absolutely hate a book, I probably will as well. Again, well done.

Oh, and I laughed out loud on the part about throwing it across the room or in the garbage. I could just picture, even though I don't know what you look like, you doing this! Too funny. =O)

Stephanie said...

What an excellent, unflinchingly honest review! It sounds like this story had potential, but how can a reader be drawn into a story without any characters he can like or even tolerate?

Melissa (My World...in words and pages) said...

Wow Ryan. I don't think I have heard such strong feelings about a book, on the negative side, like this from you. You always have such an open mind for books. I'm glad you shared your honest feelings though. :) Thanks!

Mike Mihalik said...


I sincerely appreciate your honest review of "Noah's Castle" although I have to admit, as the book's publisher, I was hoping for something more positive. :)

All artists, authors and publishers take a risk when sending the result of their blood, sweat, and tears into the world – they don't know how people will react to their creations. But the realist in us accepts that bad reviews are part of the territory.

Although you clearly disliked "Noah", there are many people who actually liked the book (myself included -otherwise I wouldn't have gone through the expense and effort of republishing it). When originally published, "Noah's Castle" was chosen as an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book. It was also designated a "Best Books for Spring" by the School Library Journal and was adapted into an eponymous mini-series for British television.

I am not discounting your reaction to "Noah". However, I would like to present a counterpoint to your review.

It sounds like you were expecting an uplifting book. The problem is that "Noah's Castle" is a tragedy that follows its flawed "hero" through difficult times until his inevitable downfall. Unfortunately, tragedies rarely have happy endings.

In addition to its tragic story, the book examines two main questions:

1) What holds a family together?

2) How do people balance the immediate needs of their family against those of the broader society?

The father, Norman Mortimer, is the tragic hero. His tragic flaw is that he was able to provide for the physical needs of his family, but was unable to provide for their emotional needs. The result examines the old adage: "Man cannot live by bread alone". Neither can a family.

It is a testament to John's skill as a writer that, throughout the book, I root for the least sympathetic character in the book – Father. Why? Because, in the same situation, I would do the same thing as he did. And also because of the purity of his motives. When Father is tempted by the gangster, Vince Holloway, to profit from his stored food, Father states, "If I had my whole basement packed with food, I'd still keep it for my own family." Later, Father says, "I would leave everyone in the world to die before I would stop protecting my own." Father's dedication to his family is palpable. Yet, he is unable to show affection and love which ironically was what they were truly starving for.

Secondly, John examines how different people would react to the dilemmas posed by a hyperinflationary economic crisis.

Every character has a different reaction. Father, Mother, Nessie, Barry, Geoff, Terry, Cliff, Stuart, Jim Alsop, Wendy, Vince Holloway, Mr. Gerald, the black marketeers, and the government all have different reactions to the crisis. They range from the practical preparations of Father to Terry's nonchalant "take it one day at a time" attitude, Mother's quiet rebellion, Cliff's selfless altruism, Stuart's idealistic vision for "Share Alike", Mr. Gerald's extortion, Wendy's tireless efforts to provide for her mother, and Jim Alsop's violent methods to commandeer food supplies.

I'd also like to mention the backdrop for the story. Most apocalyptic books choose something like an alien invasion, plague, nuclear war, or natural disaster to bring about "the end of the world". "Noah" uses something much more prosaic and realistic – a total economic collapse. What makes the story especially frightening for me is that I can actually imagine this happening. In fact, it has happened. "Noah" is partly based on the horrendous hyperinflation experienced by Germany in the 1920s.

Anyhow, my reply is getting longer than I expected, so I'll stop here. I'm disappointed that you didn’t enjoy the book but thank you for your honest review.

Best regards,
Mike Mihalik
October Mist Publishing

Anonymous said...

After reading both Ryan's and the publisher's reviews I MUST read this book.

bookmagic said...

Oh no, I got this book for review but haven't started it. I can't handle a book that makes me angry because then I have trouble getting into another book. I know if you hate it, I will hate it. I might attempt it but will wait until I am in the middle of a book that I love. Too bad, it sounded like it had potential from the synopsis.

Lydia said...

As a book blogger I'm actually a bit astonished at Mike Mihalik's comment on this post - and contrary to "Anonymous", it turns me even further off of the book.

When I read a review of a book, a well-written review, by a book blogger that I respect than I think that I, as a reader, can be trusted to make my own judgment on whether or not the book would be something I want to read. There are too many books out there for me to waste my time on something that I might not, and that's where my judgment kicks in.

A sentence that Ryan wrote was:

"My problem was the viewpoint of the author that a father who tries to take care of his family is somehow evil and that sacrificing yourself and your family for the greater good is somehow noble. "

This makes me pause and consider how I would feel while reading something that implies this. I know it would make me angry. Therefore I know that the chance is very high this is not the book for me.

I don't think that the comments of a book blog is the place to be "fighting back" when it comes to a negative review and it reflects poorly on the publisher to do so.

I, personally, would not accept any of this publishers books for review after reading that.

A Buckeye Girl Reads said...

I have to say, I'm a bit shocked by the publishers response to your review. That makes me more unlikely to read the book then your review.

I love how honest you with your reviews-and you are one of the most open minded book reviewers out there, it's why I love your reviews! I think I'm staying away from this book now.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes what I expect from a book and what it actually is just don't line up and I'll dislike the book, although if my expectations were different maybe I would have enjoyed it.

And sometimes it's just not a book I was going to like, no matter what.

Alexia561 said...

I agree with everyone that Ryan is one of the most open-minded reviewers out there, and I love his blog and respect his reviews. I think I can understand why this book upset him so much, as he is a loving father who would want to provide for his son no matter what.

I read this book and had a different reaction and took different things away from the story. Didn't get the impression that the father was evil in any way, just not able to articulate his feelings for his family. He showed his love for them by stockpiling food, and even thought to put aside clothes for his youngest to grow into, but wasn't emotionally available to them. I thought he was more sad than anything else.

At the end, I felt that Barry was not only trying to help his fellow man, but also trying to protect his father, as other people had discovered their secret. Yes, the father was a jerk towards his wife and daughters, but lots of men were sexist jerks during the 70s. I think his main mistake was keeping his family too well-fed, so people noticed they were obviously still eating and had food. Again, I think that shows the father in a good light, as he didn't want them to suffer in any way.

Different people have different views and take different things away from the same story, which is one of the reasons I like comparing notes and reading other reviewer's opinions.

If nothing else, at least this book started an interesting discussion!

Mike Mihalik said...

Dear Lydia and Buckeye Girl,

I apologize if I offended you with my post.

"Noah's Castle" is only my company's second book and I am still learning the ropes of the publishing industry. This is my first venture into the book blogging world and I obviously have much to learn.

Like you, I am passionate about books. Yes, I am the publisher of "Noah's Castle", but I began as a reader and fan. I first read "Noah" as a teenager in the 1980s and the story has stuck with me ever since. As a long-time admirer of the author and this book, and after the heartbreaking effort I have put into getting "Noah" republished, it was difficult to read a review which ends with "(I) would strongly encourage everyone I know not to read this book" without replying.

Again, my apologies.

Best regards,
Mike Mihalik
October Mist Publishing

Angela's Anxious Life said...

Hummm... I am surprised that the publisher commented on this. I understand that they want to get the book out there but if publishers commented on every review.. yeesh. This is why I don't get review books from Netgalley and such. Not that anything is wrong with this I would just prefer to not be bothered.