Book Review: “Or Else” by Joe Hart

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I got this book as part of Amazon Firsts, where you get a free book a month or so before the main release. I was particularly attracted to this one since the protagonist writes novels, which is something that I also do in my spare time. In the end, while there was so much I could not identify with in relation to the protagonist, I really enjoyed the book and there were many lines, sentences, and paragraphs that I enjoyed. Some of these I could also relate to in relation to my academic life, foe example,

Not writer’s block, writer’s distraction. Writer’s scatterbrain. Writer’s world upending.

While others relate much more to the novel-writing side of me;

I did get lost in my stories, in scenes playing out that only I could see.

While trying to avoid any spoilers, a key part of the book revolves around the protagonist and a woman, who he loved when he was still at school, who ends up moving into the same street that he lives in. Rather than merely focussing on what she had been to him, I particularly liked the description of how he found her attractive now;

Yes, there was lust, but what attracted me to her was something so much more elemental. She listened, she was insightful, she was so funny when she let herself be. She was fragile, and much stronger than she knew.

and also later on

She paused, and I could hear something in the quiet. Sometimes it was people’s silence that said the most. If you loved someone, all kinds of conversations happened without words.

At times, there were also elements of how I could relate to the protagonist due to things beyond the novel-writing aspects, for example,

Instead I changed recipients and wrote another text, hit send. Regretted it immediately. All this technology in the world and you still couldn’t unsend a text. Pathetic.

Yep. I’m sure many of us fell that at times.

I also liked and highlighted on my Kindle the line,

“You didn’t have to do it,” I said.

“I know. The best things aren’t done out of need.”

and, upon turning the page was greeted with the line

“I’m stealing that.”

Well, I’m not stealing it – but it’s definitely worth noting here… and I may look for ways to incorporate it into one of my stories too (I’m no stranger to referring to favourite authors and some of their ideas in my own novels).

One of the things I am looking at in my research is the battle between how images can reflect meaning and the degree to which the meaning has to be learnt – something I call Visual Packaging Culture. Some of the issues at the heart of this battle are incorporated within the idea within Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”, something which the protagonist in “Or Else” could probably also relate to;

Words are funny things. They’re warped mirrors of what we mean, and only once in a while do they reflect the truth.

Similarly,

As a writer, you always wonder if the words you’re using are good enough, if they’ll find their way through a person’s eyes and mind to their heart.

and

Oh symbolism, thou hast failed me.

The protagonist also discusses how stories and characters are developed…

Layers told a story. It’s how books came to life. Characters are nothing but layers, emotions driving actions, actions having consequences, which fueled new emotions. Layer upon layer, a story is told.

I cannot disagree with any of this. The only problem is that ever since watching Shrek, I struggle with any text where people start talking about layers as I just picture Donkey saying it.

The book was also contained another reminder of one of the uglier sides of American society,

Only in America could you be crushed by the wheel of medical expense before the disease being treated actually killed you.

There were also some other bits of text that made me stop, think, and reflect upon personal experiences or research I have been doing. For example,

There’s a deep place in the center of everyone where suspicion lives. It’s a rabbit hole going down and down without an end. One passage leads to another, and after a time you realize you don’t remember how you got there or what the sun looks like. You want to turn around, but the hole won’t let you. It’s go forward or stay there stuck in the dark of your own thoughts.

and, finally, a sentence which stands out in relation to the many post-Apocalypse films I have watched recently (such as The Divide),

The strong won, and the weak put up with it.

Sadly, this is a situation not reserved to a post-Apocalyptical world, but one that is all too familiar in modern societies. And there seem to be fewer and fewer winners, who seem to win more and more, with the number of weak ever increasing.

Anyway, returning to the book itself, as I hope you gathered from the quotations, there was much that I liked about the book, and the story itself was very well written – there were the right number of layers. Definitely worth a read.

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