Saturday, 26 December 2015

'X Isle' by Steve Augarde

*This review will contain spoilers!* 

I'm going to be completely honest with you: the only reason I read 'X Isle' was because I'd been participating in a A-Z reading challenge and it's the end of December and I'd totally missed X. 
When I eventually found this title, I was quite excited about it. It's the end of the world as we know it, due to the planet being inundating with horrific storms that have completely covered most of central America, and therefore most of the planet. There's only one area that is completely safe: X Isle. Overseen by the Ecks brothers and their father, Preacher John, the family assist the families in the nearby area with their trading service, and they take young boys to the safety and comfort of the island. Baz, our protagonist, is desperate to buy passage on to X Isle to be less of a burden on his father, so it's hardly surprising when he's chosen by the brothers and his journey begins. 
With all of the awful storms occurring across the UK at the moment, it felt strangely premonitory and the concept did send a shiver down my spine - I thought that it would probably be harrowing and difficult to experience, emotionally charged and completely absorbing.
Alas, this is not the book that I read. 
I should have known at the beginning of the novel, when Baz left his father without a second glance, that this would not be the novel that I'd hoped for. Baz is uncaring about leaving his childhood home, not thinking twice about the fact that he's off to a better life and is leaving his father behind in a drowned city. 
I should have known when I picked the damned thing up and it was nearly 500 pages, in all honesty. Some long books can be brilliant, but on the whole the length is unnecessary and they get completely on my nerves. This was one of those. 
Baz gets to X Isle, with fellow passenger Ray, who also managed to buy his way on to the boat. They instantly get into a ruckus with the capos, Hutchinson and Steiner, who oversee all of their chores and activities on the island. X Isle isn't an easy haven to survive in: it's a place where you become a slave to the Ecks, and you follow every order to the letter for a measly tin of tomatoes at the end of a long hard day. 
There's seven other boys on the island, and in all honesty most of them are completely disposable characters. There's Enoch, Robbie and Dyson, who don't do a thing for the entire novel. There's Amit and Jubo: the token Asian and black characters, and neither of them get much expansion from that (apart from Jubo having the most stereotypical uneducated style of speaking I've ever had the displeasure of reading). There's Gene, the genius, who keeps himself to himself and avoids the hard work by tinkering away for the capos. And finally there's Taps, a sweet little guy who suffers from OCD and is severely undersized for the work that he's been forced to participate in. 
In fact, Taps is the only character with any developmental promise, which is why it was a massive shame that he was the first character to get killed off. It seemed like another attempt at diversity, including a character with a mental disorder, but it was a cop out that he was only just starting to become a focal point when his OCD got the better of him and he walked off of the end of the jetty. 
Then... Not much happens. There's a lot of repetitive scenes of working, a lot of complaining and general grumbling, and a lot of abuse from the capos. Ray has the brilliant idea of making a bomb and blowing their way off of the island, so the boys decide to do this by collecting the methane in their farts: cue juvenile fart jokes, general disgusting behaviour and idiocy. This continues for four hundred pages, then - despite the unbelievable length of the book - the ending is still rushed. You wouldn't think it would be possible, but it is. Two girls show up on the island, and Baz is certain that Preacher John is going to sacrifice them (the reason that he invited them to stay on the island is never specified) so the bomb plot gets put into action very quickly - they hide it under the deck of the salvage boat so that the engine will set it off. Baz is forced to man the boat on the day of the bomb plot, but he's in the water three meters away from the boat when it explodes, so of course the debris and the explosion don't kill him. Then he miraculously works out how to man the dinghy that was attached to the exploded boat and survived without a scratch, and he finds his way back to X Isle by following mackerel. Then the book is over, happy ending, extremely believable. (Can you taste the sarcasm?)
Other than the fact that this book is farfetched, told completely through coincidences and convenient events, and nothing really happens - I have a lot of problems with this book. Preacher John, the leader of X Isle, is portrayed as absolutely insane because he prays to God for Him to clear the waters and the storms that have been plaguing the country - then he becomes a caricature of himself and starts sacrificing live animals and his son to God. I'm not religious, but I still think such a severely biased portrayal against something that genuinely comforts some people is inappropriate. One of the girls on the island mentions that she prays "sometimes", as though it's something to be ashamed of - it's just annoying.
More annoying than this is the misogynistic attitude towards girls and women throughout the entire book. X Isle is an island solely for men: run by men, with the men collecting young boys to help them out. No girls allowed. The only women permitted on to the island are prostitutes, and then when Nadine and Steffie turn up later they're mistreated and exiled due to their gender. It's disgusting.
In my opinion, the most disgusting and unnecessary cop out of the entire novel is Ray. Throughout the book there are moments between Ray and Baz that are bordering on intimate: holding hands, helping each other out and hugging each other regularly. The other boys mock Baz for being a "Gay Boy", and Baz is conflicted about his emotions because "he liked girls - had always liked girls". Of course, it's less believable that Baz could possibly be gay, and completely believable that Ray was actually Rachel all along - a girl pretending to be a boy to get access to X Isle. 
It's not even properly resolved, because of all of the rushing: we just get Baz deciding he wants to learn how to fish and that he doesn't care what the rest of the boys (and girls) do with their new found freedom.
I've seen some reviews saying that this book is aimed at teenage boys, but I genuinely don't feel as though it's a teenage book: the writing style is so simplistic that it feels as though it would work well for younger children. It's very basic and very immature. The fart fights will definitely appeal to young boys, but I think there are many many better books for them to be spending their time exploring and enjoying. 
If you want to read a disappointing, overly long book, pick this one up! If you need to read a book beginning with X for an A-Z challenge, read this one! But if you're looking for a dystopian novel with depth, brilliant characterisation and convincing emotions, pass this one over. 

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