Tag Archive | dystopian fiction

Book review: Son by Lois Lowry

Son (The Giver, #4)Son by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, here’s the truth. I read this book only because I have a compulsion to finish a series once I start it. It’s true I have bailed out of some series (Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake series, for one), but generally speaking, I am a completist. And these books were short enough that they wouldn’t waste too much of my time.

Son takes us back to the community that first appeared in The Giver and retells parts of that story from another perspective. Additionally, we discover more of the inner workings of that “utopian” village (view spoiler).

I have the same criticism of Son that I have of all the other novels in this series: gaping plot holes, two-dimensional characters, and in this one particularly, a rather stereotypical “bad guy” that must be vanquished. In some ways, though, this installment is the strongest of the four. Claire’s search for truth and for her son leads her into danger, but she doesn’t flinch. She carries on and makes her choices and accepts the consequences as they come. As a wrap-up to the series, Son satisfies.

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Book review: Messenger by Lois Lowry

Messenger (The Giver, #3)Messenger by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third installment introduces us to another community within the world of The Giver Quartet, a community that once welcomed refugees from other communities with open arms, but recently has changed its mind and decided to close its borders. Matty, a young man who can travel the hostile forest with impunity, is sent out to warn other villages to stop sending new residents; he is also supposed to find and bring back the daughter of his village’s leader. Messenger takes characters from the first two novels and ties them together so the reader begins to see the whole of the picture Ms. Lowry is painting.

Definitely a YA book, but with just enough provocation of thought that the adult reader doesn’t feel too cheated by the two-dimensional characters and occasional plot hole. Worth reading once.

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Book review: Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue (The Giver Quartet, #2)Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in the same world as The Giver, Gathering Blue provides a look at a way of life far different than that of the previous novel. Kira lives in a rough-and-tumble village with no technology and a ruthless intolerance for weakness or deformity. Kira, born with a malformed leg, is lucky to be alive at all and, now that her mother has died, she fears she will either be killed outright or driven out of the village to starve and die in the wilderness. But Kira has a gift for weaving and embroidery that the village leaders find valuable; thus, she is taken into their care and set to work repairing the Singer’s Robe. As did our young protagonist in The Giver, Kira soon discovers all is not as it appears, and the leaders of the community are keeping secrets from the general population.

I enjoyed this story more than I did The Giver; this time my expectations were lower and I read it for what it was: a story aimed at young people. It’s still simplistic; the characters are still undeveloped; and the plot is paper-thin; but for an audience of, say, 12-year-olds, it’s perfect. Like the other books in this series, this one is scarcely the length to call a novella, and was easily read over the course of about two, maybe three hours on one evening. As such, it was a pleasant way to pass the time. I’ll get the rest of the series from the library soon.

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Book review: California by Edan Lepucki

CaliforniaCalifornia by Edan Lepucki

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cal and Frida live in a little house in the woods. They farm what they can, they trade for goods they can’t make themselves, and they make the best of their primitive existence. Frida occasionally longs for the days when she had electronics and warm clothes, but this is the life they’ve chosen, and it was the best choice they could make at the time. Then Frida discovers she’s pregnant, and now the two of them have to choose anew: stay where they are, by themselves, and hope they and the baby survive; or travel to a nearby secretive settlement and hope to be taken in?

Set some 100 years or so into the future, California is a bleak vision of a possible future world, one wrecked by climate change and pollution; stratified by extreme income inequality; a world in which people escape dangerous cities rife with domestic terrorism to eke out a desperate existence in the wilderness because it’s safer to starve in the forest than scrounge in the suburbs.

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Book review: The Innocence Device by William Kowalski

The Innocence DeviceThe Innocence Device by William Kowalski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the near future, the United States is divided into prisons, and the majority of the men in the country — especially men of color — are prisoners. The majority of the women serve as guards. People are sentenced to prison for the most minor of infractions committed as children, and then sentence after sentence is piled on top of the already-incarcerated individual for things like insubordination (i.e., talking back to a guard), theft (i.e., taking an extra food allotment), or any number of other potential crimes. Here’s the rub, though: virtually everything is a crime. This is “zero tolerance” run wild.

Within the prison, a hierarchy has evolved that determines where one lives and what sort of privileges one may receive. Our hero, 24-year-old Chago, is a poor laborer whose only goal involves seeing his son (by one of the prison guards) as often as he can. When the warden of the prison announces the invention of new technology that can determine one’s innocence or guilt, Chago is eager to step through the Innocence Device. He knows he didn’t do anything really wrong — in fact, he’s not entirely sure why he’s in prison; he only knows he was about six or seven when he was first sentenced — and he’s certain the Innocence Device will set him free. Alas, all is not as it seems, and when a prison riot begins, Chago’s entire world is thrown into chaos.

Great premise, right? It’s why I signed up for this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Sadly, the writing itself failed to live up to that premise. This short novella — hardly more than a short story, really — can’t seem to make up its mind whether it was written for an adult or a YA audience. The language is simple, perhaps written at about a fifth- or sixth-grade level, but the protagonist is an adult in his early 20s. The copy is printed in large type with widely spaced lines, which is why I say it’s hardly more than a short story. Had it been printed in normal-sized book type with normally spaced lines, its length would have most likely been around 50 or so pages: a lengthy short story, yes, but still a short story. Plot development is minimal, character development is somewhat better (for Chago, at any rate), both of which generally can be forgiven in fiction of this length. However, there’s a gaping plot hole in the last few pages that, combined with the simplistic grade-school language, left this reader deeply dissatisfied. This plot hole almost feels like the author wrote something else in between the last chapter and the epilogue that he later took out, but he didn’t go back and smooth out the edges of the excision.

The premise of The Innocence Device is one I would enjoy seeing rewritten in adult-oriented language, and greatly expanded with more plot development, more character detail, more of the whys and the hows, the politics and the social disorder that must have led to such circumstances as exist within this novel. As I read through it (which took about 40 minutes — really, it’s just that short), I could almost see the full-length novel lurking in the shadows of each paragraph, waiting for someone like Hugh Howey, maybe, or Ben H. Winters, or (be still, my heart) China Miéville to flesh it out and bring it to life.

Too bad one of them didn’t think of it. Hey, Mr. Kowalski! Will you sell this idea to China Miéville and make me a happy woman? No? Two stars for you, then.

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2014 in review: Books

I got much more reading done this year than I expected. Part of that was due, I believe, to acquiring a Kindle and being willing to take a chance on Amazon freebies, some of which were hits, others misses. It’s easy to read the Kindle on the train; that extra uninterrupted 40+ minutes of reading time each day added up to a lot of pages. 31,567 pages to be precise.

Goodreads said I read 83 books in 2014. I actually started 83 books. I finished 76. Seven books were set aside before finishing because they were just too awful to continue. (I told you some of those Amazon freebies were misses.) However, one of those set aside was The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, so even Pulitzer Prize winners are sometimes misses for me. Anyway, out of those 76 finished, five were re-reads. So 71 new-to-me books in a single year. I call that a win.

Several of those 71 books were stand-outs.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly BrothersThe first five volumes of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire cycle consumed a goodly portion of the first quarter of 2014. I expect I’ll start re-reading them as soon as I hear of a publication date for Volume VI. I’m hoping that publication date will be later this year.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen was a roller-coaster ride through the Depression with a pair of bank robbers who just won’t stay dead. This is one of those books that grabbed me first because of its enigmatic cover art but kept me intrigued by its premise and execution. I read this one on the plane during a flight to California.

Perdido Street StationPerdido Street Station by China Miéville astonished me, sickened me, disturbed me, and amazed me. I seldom give five stars to any book, but this one deserved top billing without doubt. As I said in my review, Perdido Street Station isn’t for everyone — it’s a challenge in both language and content — but I’m going to recommend it to everyone regardless. Seriously. Don’t miss it.

Max Barry’s Lexicon, which deals with a secret government entity that uses the power of words and knowledge of certain personality traits to manipulate people into particular actions, cured me of taking any more Facebook quizzes and posting them Lexiconto my wall. Barry has a gift for plot-driven stories that move forward at Warp 10 but still manage to give the reader decently-realized characters and generally plausible Night Filmstorylines. Lexicon is a fast fun popcorn novel that scared the bejabbers out of me.

I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl in 2013 and thought it was excellent. Based on that experience, I grabbed Night Film as soon as I found it in my library’s catalog. I was not disappointed. Night Film explores the aftermath of a suicide, the power of film, and the boundaries of obsession. It’s dark and dreamy and enigmatic and twisted and a disturbing pleasure to read.

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt introduces us to a grieving 14-year-old June Elbus after the death of her beloved uncle Finn. June’s mother, who is Finn’s sister, doesn’t seem to care much that her only brother has died, and June doesn’t know why. Then June meets Finn’s roommate, Toby, and discovers hidden aspects to her uncle’s life. This novel works on a number of levels: an exploration of society’s reaction to AIDS in 1987, a not-so-typical coming-of-age story as June realizes her uncle had an entire life that didn’t include her, and a dissection of family dynamics when one member of the family is considered an untouchable by the others. Plus it’s gorgeously written. So, yeah, if you haven’t read this one, put it on your list.

WoolFinally, I want to mention a couple of trilogies. First, the Silo Trilogy by Hugh Howey, consisting of Wool, Shift, and Dust. I’ve read a lot, and I mean a lot, of post-apocalyptic stories, and the Silo Trilogy was hands-down one of the most original explorations of that theme I’ve seen in a lifetime of reading. In the not-so-distant future, thousands of people, survivors of an unnamed apocalypse, live underground in a silo. They don’t know how long they’ve been there; they don’t know how long it will be before they’re allowed to live above ground; but in the meantime, there’s work to be done, repairs to be made, and people to feed. Discontent is brewing, though, and revolution is in the air. This trilogy, while very well done, is not without its flaws, especially in Book 3, but its overall excellence makes those flaws worth overlooking.

The Last PolicemanThe other trilogy worthy of mention is technically “pre-apocalypse”, because the world-ending event hasn’t yet happened, but it’s post-apocalypse in the sense that global societal structure has already collapsed. In The Last Policeman Trilogy by Ben H. Winters — The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble — a previously unknown asteroid has been verified to be on collision course with Earth, and the date of impact is approaching. Detective Hank Palace of the Concord, New Hampshire, Police Department keeps showing up for work while more and more of his colleagues and fellow citizens bail out of their jobs, their marriages, and their lives to fulfill lifelong dreams or, as is all too often the case, to kill themselves in despair. Each novel takes us closer to the impact date and deeper into Hank’s efforts to find meaning and purpose in these last months and weeks and days. He clings to his humanity, to his belief in goodness, and to his life itself, despite recognizing that everything he knows and everyone he loves is gone. Hank is a gorgeous, generous, determined character, and this trilogy, although deeply sad, is a testament to the beauty of life even in the face of extermination.

You can see the entire 2014 list on Goodreads here.

R.I.P. IX — What I’ve read so far…

RIP 9 Peril the First
Constant readers may recall I committed to “Peril The First”, which means I pledge to read at least four books in the mystery, gothic, horror, dark fantasy, etc. genre between September 1 and October 31. At this point in the challenge, I can safely say, “Been there, done that.” Books read and finished so far in this challenge total 14. I’ve sort of been concentrating on books in a series recently. I’ll give mini-reviews of just a few here. You can click on the book covers to read the full review.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenHollow City

Hollow City was read as part of this challenge. I’m including its predecessor here (but not in my challenge count) because you can’t read one without the other. Picking up immediately where its predecessor left off, Hollow City follows the further adventures of Jacob, Emma, and the rest of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children as they search for a cure for Miss Peregrine’s condition. Their search leads them to one timeloop and another, and ultimately to war-ravaged London during The Blitz, where they encounter more danger, not only from the bombs but from the hollowgasts and wights who have been pursuing them ever since they left Wales. Another cliffhanger ending left me scrambling to find out when the next book will be published. (Late 2015? Waaaaaaaaahhhh!!!! Who does this guy Ransom Riggs think he is? George R. R. Martin?)

The TalismanBlack House

The Talisman was a re-read, mainly because The Black House had been sitting on my bookshelf for several years (and through several moves), glaring at me with baleful eyes. I wouldn’t have felt right responding to that glare and picking it up without refreshing my memory and renewing my acquaintance with young Jack Sawyer and his epic quest through the Territories to find the Talisman and save his mother. As it turns out, a re-read wasn’t strictly necessary, because The Black House isn’t strictly a sequel. One could read it without having read The Talisman, although the story is richer if one has. The Black House catches up with Jack, now in his late 30s, after he left the LAPD and retired to rural Tamarack, Wisconsin. A child murderer has surfaced in this sleepy little village, and local law enforcement requests Jack’s assistance on the case. The murderer (who is revealed to the reader fairly early in the book) isn’t any ordinary human being. He’s a dark and twisted personality straight from the Territories themselves; only Jack’s forgotten almost everything that happened then. This novel has a shaky start, but eventually finds its feet and delivers a solid, satisfying read, and maybe even a happy ending for Jack.

WoolShiftDust

Wool was read before the start of the challenge, so it’s not included in the count. Its sequels, Shift and Dust, were read after the challenge started. These three novels, taken as a whole, constitute one of the most original SF/post-apocalyptic/dystopian scenarios I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading. To preserve the joy of discovering them for yourselves (and to avoid spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read them), I’ll give you the set-up for Wool only: Several thousand people live underground in a self-sustained silo. No one goes outside because the world is poison. No one knows why or when the world was poisoned; they only know “the gods” did it; and anyone who expresses a wish to know more is granted that wish and sent outside to die. Then Juliette is appointed sheriff; in this position, she becomes privy to certain information previously unknown to her, and she begins to suspect there’s more to the ancient stories than she’s been told. RIP 9 PortraitGood stuff, people. Really. You should read them. By the way, if you’re an Amazon Prime member and have a Kindle, you can borrow them free of charge through the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library program. No, Amazon doesn’t pay me for this plug: I’m just that impressed with the selection in their lending program.

Stay tuned for another blog entry about a few more of the books read for R.I.P. IX, coming soon! And click that badge over there to be taken to a list of many more blog entries about this reading challenge.

Book review: Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Are you a cat person or a dog person?
What’s your favorite color?
Do you love your family?
Why did you do it?

Answering those four simple questions enables someone who has been expertly trained in the art of persuasion to tag you, bag you, and manipulate you into doing anything, anything at all, simply by speaking a few words. Or so says Max Barry in this lightning-fast paranoid fantasy of a novel.

Some years ago, Emily Ruff, a teenage runaway living on the streets of San Francisco by her wits and a facility for sleight-of-hand, is recruited to enter an exclusive school for the purpose of training her to use words as weapons in the manner described above. She’s rebellious and disdainful of authority and the curriculum, but avoids being expelled because Eliot, the operative who recruited her, defends her and her capabilities to the higher-ups.

Then things go awry. And I mean awry in a destructive, deadly fashion.

Meanwhile, in the present day, Wil Parke is abducted in broad daylight and administered the test questions listed at the top of this review, but he then fails to follow the instructions he is given by his abductors. “Yep, he’s the one,” they conclude and drag him off to parts unknown, where he is informed by Eliot of a mission he must fulfill because he’s the only one immune to “the Word.”

The story bounces back and forth between Emily in the past and Wil in the present, and eventually leads the reader to the connection between them, and something horrific that happened in a remote Australian town.

In between, we are treated to multiple examples of how the information and personality traits we inadvertently reveal through conversation and those seemingly-innocuous online quizzes can be turned against us. It’s enough to make one’s skin crawl.

Max Barry has a gift for plot-driven stories that move forward at Warp 10 but still manage to give the reader decently-realized characters and generally plausible storylines. Lexicon is no different. I picked this book up at the library yesterday afternoon, spent about two hours reading it while having a pedicure, and then another two hours while waiting for my car to be serviced, then finished the last 60 or 70 pages left this morning. I thought it was great fun. And more than a little creepy.

And I doubt I’ll be taking any more of those stupid quizzes that get posted to Facebook.

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Book review: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Perdido Street StationPerdido Street Station by China Miéville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Seriously, just wow.

Isaac, a scientist living on the fringes of respectability in the sprawling polluted city of New Crobuzon, works quietly on his theories and experiments in the warehouse-turned-laboratory he shares with two other scientists. He meets his friends for drinks and dinner and debate; and he revels in his secretive relationship with his lover, Lin. Lin, an artist, an outcast member of the Khepri, an insectoid race, struggles to come to terms with her self-imposed exile while she navigates a society filled with prejudice and bigotry.

Both of them accept commissions from strangers: Isaac is engaged by one of the Garudi, a bird-like race, to replace his lost wings; and Lin is employed by an underworld crime boss, an individual who has undergone so many surgeries and body enhancements that no one can determine what his original race may have been, to sculpt his monstrous life-size likeness. These commissions shatter Lin’s and Isaac’s quiet lives and lead them down, literally, into the city’s murky depths along unexpected and dangerous paths.

Perdido Street Station is astonishing, brilliant, frightening, grotesque, sickening, disturbing, and jaw-droppingly amazing. The reader is plunged headlong with Lin and Isaac into the rabbit warren of New Crobuzon’s slums and ghettos, where he lives and breathes and struggles and fights next to the human and non-human denizens of those squalid neighborhoods oozing with magic and technology and crime and grime and gore and the occasional glitter of kindness.

A book like this may not be for everyone, and it’s certainly not an easy read, both vocabulary-wise — I had to resort to my dictionary more than once — and content-wise, but it’s well worth making the effort. Don’t miss it.

(For mature audiences only. Contains adult language and explicit sex.)

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Book review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Three of five stars

The Quarter Quell is over, District 12 is destroyed, and Katniss finds herself at the center of a revolution she gets credit for starting. She and her family are safe — so to speak — in District 13, while Peeta has been captured by the Capitol and seems to be serving as their mouthpiece against the uprising. To counter his influence, Katniss is asked by the rebel leaders to take advantage of her status as the symbol of the Revolution by being their public face. Hijacked broadcasts of strategically timed photo-ops become the order of her day; Katniss’ growing rage and rebellion at this stricture drives her in directions that could cripple the budding independence movement forever.

The action takes place largely in the underground District 13 headquarters of the rebellion, and the reader can easily understand the increasing sense of entrapment and claustrophobia Katniss feels at being confined and closeted away from the fresh air and outdoor life that largely defined her days in District 12. She has nothing to do but be prepped and primped for the camera, while both her mother and little sister have real work, useful work, to fill their days. So when the opportunity to join an actual fighting unit comes along, Katniss jumps at the chance.

The final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy is just as fast-paced and easy a read as its predecessors. Given the plot-driven storyline and breakneck speed, it’s not surprising that world-building details and character backgrounds are given a cursory nod and then left alone for the reader to make the best inferences possible. Not necessarily a bad thing in a YA novel, but somewhat frustrating for an older reader more accustomed to savoring those little background details and nuances of character. Rebel leader Coin was particularly cartoonish and flat, even when Plutarch, another one-dimensional character, took time to explain to Katniss the reason for Coin’s animosity toward her. Katniss herself was, upon occasion, so arbitrarily contrary that I wanted to smack her. She grows, though, much more in this novel than in the previous two, and by the end, I liked her again, and wished her peace and happiness on her chosen path.