Atomic Number Sixty Review

Atomic Number Sixty book review
Atomic Number Sixty book review

Atomic Number Sixty is an interesting idea from the outset. I’m not sure that I’ve encountered anything like it before.

Essentially, it’s a 60-chapter novella (one minute per chapter) that follows a story which unfolds over 60 minutes. You even get a countdown at the beginning of each chapter.

In the case of Atomic Number Sixty, the story is told from the 1st person perspective of 25-year-old Holly Holloway – a red-head receptionist with an attitude – who finds herself strapped to a bomb, with a timer set exactly to sixty minutes.

Reader-Friendly Fiction

As the premise suggests, this is a very short read and took me just over 60 minutes to finish.

And I like this concept a lot.

So many people say “I just don’t have time to read anymore,” before declaring to have just binged a TV series (myself included sometimes!). My point is that we make an active choice on how we spend our time and, sometimes, reading gets pushed out.

The great thing about Atomic Number Sixty is that you don’t really have any excuse not to read it.

It’s short, easy-to-read YA fiction that can be finished in a single sitting. I can imagine young commuters, for example, really enjoying this.

“Would you have shrugged your shoulders? Would you have accepted that it was life and moved on? Or would you have looked for revenge? Would you have wanted justice, Holly Holloway?”

Leo forces Holly to confront her past

And though it’s short, Johnston has packed Atomic Number Sixty with a good amount of content.

Holly is well-realised, as are her family. And throughout this 60-minute adventure, Holly goes on a date, revisits key moments in her past, and holds a discussion on ethics and just-causes with a terrorist.

Well, I did tell you it was packed with content!

Interesting Structure and Form

One thing that particularly impressed me was Johnston’s blending of the end of one chapter into the beginning of another. This is despite them often being about completely different topics.

For example, Holly is in a live terrorist situation at one moment, only for the next chapter to return to her date with the (rather odious) Markus. This often took me a few lines to realise.

It had the potential to be confusing, but I actually appreciated it as somewhat dark humour – largely at Markus’s expense!

“It was an impression of Marlon Brando, but only after he’d been run down by a truck and forced through a mincer. Lots of shoulders, lots of mastication, lots of slobbering. Some things just can’t be unseen.”

(This did make me chuckle out loud)

In fact, considering the seemingly serious subject matter, Atomic Number Sixty has some amusing moments. Not all of the humour landed. At times it was quite ‘quippy’, which may appeal to the younger reader, but on the whole, the moments of levity were appreciated.

Minor Quibbles

There were times where I could tell that Holly was written by a man. For example, certain sentences linger on Holly’s figure a little too much.

This isn’t a problem itself – sexiness shouldn’t never taboo – but it felt more for the benefit of the reader than description that added to the character. In that respect, it broke the immersion a little.

I also felt that some of the conversations Holly had with the terrorist named Leo are a little jarring.

At one point, Holly asks Leo how he got his scar. Until now, he had been reticent about saying anything. So I was a little surprised that he launched into a monologue on the history of ‘his people,’ foreign wars, and so forth.

Obviously, it was to advance the plot.

I also wasn’t 100% clear on Atomic Number Sixty’s setting at first. It seemed to be set in the US, based on the use of American English (and references to City Hall – which I assumed was New York?), but it wasn’t quite as clear as it could have been.

However, this didn’t really detract from the story – just an observation.

Final Verdict ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Quibbles aside, I think Johnston should be proud of this sixty-minute-read format. It’s a fantastic way to get people all of all ages reading – a bite-size, podcast-like experience of reading.

I’d love to see it explored more by other authors. If it has been done, do let me know!

But due to its unique format, I found it hard to rate. So much so that I ended up reading it again!

However… Is Atomic Number Sixty worth reading?


It’s a genuinely fascinating idea, executed reasonably well. Whilst It isn’t perfect, I had a lot of fun with it and really appreciated Johnston’s innovative approach to storytelling.

It’s sixty minutes of your time. What have you got to lose?

Atomic Number Sixty is available in digital and paperback here. I’m interested in your thoughts on the 60-minute-read format, so leave a comment below!

*For more information on the Tales from Absurdia rating scale, please read the review rating system.

A River in Darkness Review

A River in Darkness book review
A River in Darkness book review

A River in Darkness is a tough read.

And I don’t mean that the writing is complicated.

Ishikawa’s memoirs left me truly numb. Not since Hardy’s Jude the Obscure have I felt this disturbed by a text.

But here’s the thing – A River in Darkness isn’t fiction.

It’s a sombre tale of how a country inflicted (and continues to inflict) poverty, starvation, and death upon its own populace. Ishikawa did escape, but not without suffering immense loss.

These are memoirs of real life inside the most secretive country in the world. And this is partly the reason I would implore you pick up a copy of A River in Darkness.

Read more

Top 5 Books for your Lockdown Reading List

Lockdown Reading List Header

1) The Lord of the Rings

Okay – so, I’m sort of cheating here.

I realise that The Lord of the Rings is technically 3 books…but all of my copies come as a single cover-to-cover edition. So… I’m counting The Lord of the Rings as a single entry in this list!

The Lord of the Rings Lockdown Reading List

At over 1000 pages, Tolkien’s journey will keep you hooked throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, no matter how long we are confined to our homes.

Anyway, if you’ve never read (or watched) The Lord of the Rings before, it’s essentially a fantasy tale about a Hobbit (smallish person with hairy feet who loves breakfast) who inherits a magic ring that belongs to an evil dark lord. As it turns out, this ring is potentially world-ending and has to be destroyed.

Frodo, said Hobbit in question, seeks to destroy this ring and goes on an adventure with men, elves, dwarves, and wizards. It’s a classic tale of good vs evil, overcoming differences with one another, and – truly – about the virtues of friendship.

There is a beauty in Tolkien’s prose that few others in the fantasy genre have been able to capture. Take my favourite passage in the trilogy, for example:

“Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee–but almost the touch was a caress.

For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”

The Lord of the Rings is packed with emotion and tragedy, but it also exhibits the best of people, such as Samwise Gamgee’s optimism and courage, and Captain Faramir’s goodness and sincerity. It’s the perfect book for your lockdown reading list!

The Lord of the Rings is pure, unfettered escapism. And let’s be honest – I think we all need that right now.

2) The Count of Monte Cristo

Some stories are about revenge.

And then there’s The Count of Monte Cristo. It is the definitive tale of revenge and – I promise – will be the most epic book you’ll read all year.

It might even take you all year, such is the scope of Alexandre Dumas’s tale!

In brief, an up-and-coming seafarer named Edmond Dantés is betrayed by three men, leading to life imprisonment on an island prison off the coast of Marseille. During his time in prison, Dantés becomes a student of an elderly monk named Faria and undergoes a change, pledging to exact revenge against those who ruined his life.

Not unlike Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Dantés climbs out of his own dark place and makes his way back into the light. Donning the mask of the elusive ‘Compte de Monte Cristo’, he mingles with upper class Parisian social circles and consorting with Italian gangsters.

And at circa 1200 pages, The Count of Monte Cristo is a lengthy but thrilling adventure. It’s a proper page turner and I’d highly recommend it as your next read.

3) Smart

Kim Slater’s Smart is a bit of an outlier on my lockdown reading list.

It is neither epic in scale, nor a lengthy read. In fact, you’ll probably get through it in a few sittings. It’s also aimed at a slightly younger audience.

However, Smart is a worthy entry and I’d love you to give it a try.

Smart is set in modern-day Nottingham – where I grew up no less! Subtitled ‘A mysterious crime, a different detective’, our main character is a schoolboy named Kieran Woods who seeks to solve a murder that is not being investigated by the police.

A bit of an outcast, through no fault of his own, Kieran doesn’t fit in with the expected norms of society. In fact, it’s heavily implied that Kieran is on the autism spectrum. As someone with an incredibly talented brother who has learning difficulties, Smart can be upsetting at times. It goes to some dark places.

However, the novel is from the point-of-view of a child, so naturally it’s also very witty. Early on, Kieran reflects that:

“A long, long time ago, someone decided what word to use for every single thing there is. For a wooden thing you sit on, they decided that word would be CHAIR. But what if they decided it would be called a B*****D? Then you would sit on a B*****D and call someone a CHAIR if you hated them.

‘That’s true,’ Mrs Crane had said when I’d asked her about it at school.”

Kim Slater does a great job of writing from the perspective of a child. Kieran is a charming young man who embraces his differences (not to mention his love of drawing!) and it’s thrilling to see him overcome the sorts of challenges that many us will never have to face.

Why is Smart on this list?

It’s a feel-good romp that leaves you feeling hopeful and optimistic.

Innocent and humorous, with a satisfying conclusion, Smart is feel-good crime fiction novel for a younger audience, but one you should absolutely read next.

Speaking of crime fiction…let’s move on to my next recommendation!

4) The Woman in White

The Woman in White is possibly one of the cleverer pieces of literary fiction I’ve read in a long time.

An early example of detective fiction, with an ample dose of gothic horror thrown in, Wilkie Collins takes the reader down a rabbit hole that has more twists and turns than a M. Night Shyamalan movie.

The Woman in White Lockdown Reading List

Abduction, madness, mistaken identity, and notable shifts in narrative perspective – The Woman in White is a smart commentary on the inequality of marriage rights in the 19th century.

In brief, our hero, Walter Hartright – an artist with a strong sense of justice – falls in love with Laura Fairlie; a ‘pure’ virtuous woman, who just happens to have a significant dowry.

The problem is… Laura is already promised to another man. Sir Percival Glyde.

Couple this unhappy marriage of convenience with a missing woman, almost identical to Laura, and a portly Italian Count with a sinister charisma, and you have quite an unfolding mystery.

Marian Halcombe is the real star of this novel. She’s smart, belligerent, resourceful, forthright, and somewhat reminiscent of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. Big fan!

In short, Marian is the OG feminist of the Victorian era.

It’s unfortunate that she and Laura are often compared as opposites – one fair and virtuous, the other unattractive but really quite good at getting things done.

But hey, it was the Victorian era.

You should absolutely add The Woman in White to your lockdown reading list. It’s a genuinely fascinating detective fiction novel, and the shifting perspective between protagonists is a really neat way of revealing plot elements gradually.

If you’re not into Victorian novels, and I really can’t twist your arm, then do give the BBC television adaptation  a watch!

5) The Passage

I’ll be up front with you.

The Passage is the first instalment in a post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy.

Stick with me.

It’s a book of two halves – the first (shorter) part is set in ‘contemporary’ America, prior to a pandemic that wipes out most of humanity (sorry – too soon!).

The second part, 93 years later, focuses on the fallout from this pandemic. Specifically, people have been turned into vampiric-like creatures, with only seemingly a few bastions of survivors remaining.

What links the two sections is Amy Bellafonte – ‘the girl from nowhere’. A child who speaks few words, but could well be the difference between survival and extinction.

Why is The Passage on my lockdown reading list? Well, It’s quite simple.

Justin Cronin, the author, is a very good world builder and creates some very memorable characters (shout outs to Wolgast, Lish, and Sara!).

The Passage also strikes a curious balance between horror and thriller. At times, it is genuinely chilling and you’re fearful of turning the page. At other times, you cannot get enough.

I did have some issues with the abrupt time jump – suddenly you’re jerked 93 years into the future and introduced to a raft of new characters in very quick succession. It was a little alienating.

But, once I become familiar with Peter, Lish, Sara, Michael, and company, I actually found the second section of the book to be the strongest and most enjoyable part.

I’m yet to read the sequels, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors, but writing this reminds me that I must get around to reading them!

How many of these have you read? What’s on your lockdown reading list? Leave a comment below!

The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice Review

The Missionary Position Blog Image
The Missionary Position Review

“A thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf”

This was what author and journalist Christopher Hitchens once branded Mother Teresa.

Harsh? I’ll let you make that call.

Regardless, this damning statement might lead you to think that The Missionary Position is yet another of Hitchens’ famous polemics. And on this count, you’d be wrong.

Whilst The Missionary Position retains Hitchens’ usual sardonic wit, it’s also an excellent piece of investigative journalism. In this brief pamphlet, rounding out at around 100 pages, Hitchens examines Mother Teresa’s role in Kolkata (then Calcutta), the role of faith in her care, and ultimately – whether the public perception of Mother Teresa is well-founded or not.

The Great Kodak Misunderstanding

In this first section, Hitchens argues that Western adoration of Mother Teresa began with Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1969 documentary, Something Beautiful for God.

The BBC production centred on the Kolkata House of the Dying where Mother Teresa presided over the sick.

It was following this documentary that Muggeridge proclaimed to have recorded the first ever ‘authentic photographic miracle’. The lighting was poor in the orphanage, and there were doubts that footage shot would be any good (this was 1969 after all).

Ken Macmillan, the cameraman on this particular job, made the point that prior to visiting Kolkata, the BBC had procured some brand new Kodak film. Upon returning to the UK, he noted:

You could see every detail. And I said, “That’s amazing. That’s extraordinary.” And I was going to go on to say, you know, three cheers for Kodak.

I didn’t get a chance to say that though, because Malcolm, sitting in the front row, spun around and said: “It’s divine light! It’s Mother Teresa. You’ll find that it’s divine light, old boy.” 

Ken Macmillan, BBC Cameraman

From here, it was too late. The press got hold of the story, of the ‘halo-like’ lighting in the orphange. It is here, Hitchens argues, that the myth surrounding Mother Teresa took off.

Fundamentalism and Palliative Care

This section focuses on Mother Teresa’s faith, and observations made by various doctors and volunteers at the orphanage.

Having visited himself, albeit briefly, Hitchens noted that the orphanage had ‘an encouraging air and seemed to be run by charming and devoted people’.

However, Mary Loudon, a volunteer in Kolkata was less impressed from a medical point of view, noting the re-use of needles, lack of painkillers, refusal to send a child in agony to a local hospital, and the cramming of hundreds of people into a couple of poorly equipped rooms.

“She described a person who was in the last agonies of cancer and suffering unbearable pain. With a smile, Mother Teresa said: “You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.” Unconsious of the account to which this irony might be charged, she then told of the sufferer’s reply: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”

The Missionary Position (p.43)

Continuing on, The Missionary Position notes that the global income of Mother Teresa’s charity ran well into the millions, squaring this against the quality of life offered to the inpatients of the orphanage.


Probably the weaker section of the book, but nonetheless interesting, Hitchens addresses Mother Teresa’s association with dubious individuals and regimes.

Hitchens goes to great lengths to point out Mother Teresa’s association with the Duvaliers of Haiti, a despotic regime that would eventually be sent packing. Other targets include Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and – possibly the more interesting subject of Hitchens’ ire – Charles Keating.

Keating was convicted of one of the biggest fraud scandals in U.S. history. A key player in this deception, Keating donated $1.25 million US dollars to Mother Teresa’s cause.

“Saints, it seems, are immune to audit”

The Missionary Position (p.75)

In turn, Mother Teresa furnished him with a personalised crucifix and a personal testament of his good character at the trial in which Keating would be found guilty of fraud and conspiracy.

The money, which belonged to the U.S. taxpayer was never recovered, with no reply ever received.


Final Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Missionary Position drives home a really important point.

Idolisation is not a healthy attitude to have.

There’s no doubt that, as a well-known anti-theist, Hitchens had his motives in penning this pamphlet (he went on to produce a documentary called Hell’s Angel too).

However, regardless of your political or religious affiliations, it’s a really interesting piece of journalism.

Was Hitchens right? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

*For more information on the Tales from Absurdia rating scale,
read the review rating system.