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Book Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish (Series, #4)

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

A bald man's head bowed in prayer.Summary:
A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet.  Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest.  Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet.  The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate.  While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth.  Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.

Review:
This is the third book from the collection of 1950s American scifi classics from Netgalley, which I will review as a whole at a future date.  I was surprised that a book that is fourth in its series was included in the collection.  Upon investigation, I discovered that this series isn’t surrounding a certain set of events or characters but instead is multiple books around a similar theme.  The theme for the series is each book deals with some aspect of the price of knowledge.  So each book works as a standalone as well.  There is also some disagreement as to precisely what book is what number in the series.  I have chosen to use the number used by GoodReads.  I had previously read a scifi book with a Jesuit priest scientist visiting a newly found planet (The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, review) and loved it, so I was excited to see a similar idea executed differently.  Unfortunately, I found that this book lacked the nuance and subtlety that made The Sparrow such a lovely read.

Ruiz-Sanchez is a rather two-dimensional character who quickly turns into a bumbling priest trope.  Very little attention is paid to his credentials as a scientist within the story, so instead of coming to know Ruiz-Sanchez the scientist, the man, and the priest, we only know him in his priest role.  This prevents a connection or even a basic understanding of his rather bizarre concerns.  Whereas in The Sparrow, the priest wonders how a new planet can be covered by salvation and has a meaningful crisis of faith, in A Case of Conscience, the priest is just busy seeing demons and Satan and the Anti-Christ everywhere in such a bizarre, unbelievable manner that he may as well be holding an end of the world sign on a street corner.  It’s almost impossible to connect with him on this level unless the reader also has a tendency to see illusions of Satan and the end of the world everywhere they look.

The plot is fascinating, although it does jump around a lot.  Essentially there’s the part on Lithia, which primarily consists of discourse between the scientists.  Then there’s the development of the Lithian child into an adult who doesn’t fit anywhere, since he lacked the social training on Lithia and also is a reptilian humanoid on planet Earth.  He then starts to incite rebellion among the youth.  Meanwhile, Ruiz-Sanchez is told by the Pope that he committed an act of heresy and he must re-win favor by stopping the Anti-Christ aka the Lithian on Earth.  All of the settings are fascinating, and the plot is certainly fast-paced.  However, the plot is so far-fetched that it is difficult to properly suspend disbelief for it.

The settings are the strength of the book.  Lithia is well-imagined, with uniqueness from Earth in everything from technology to how the Lithians handle child-rearing.  The tech involves trees since they lack minerals, and the child-rearing is non-existent.  The Lithians are simply birthed then allowed to develop on the planet, similar to turtles on Earth.  Earth’s setting is interestingly imagined as well.  The fear of nuclear weapons has driven humans to live underground for generations with only the elite living above ground, and the UN working hard to keep it that way.   It’s a fun mix of alternate alien civilization and dystopia.

Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences.  It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created.  However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Previous Books in Series:
Doctor Mirabilis
Black Easter
The Day After Judgement
The Devil’s Day (books 2 and 3 published as one book)

Book Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 7, 2013 6 comments

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds.  The book's title and author are printed on the background.Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.

Review:
I was always aware of this scifi classic but oddly had managed to never hear any spoilers.  When I saw it available for free on the kindle, I decided I should download it for when a classic scifi mood struck me in the future.  I’m glad I did because it was there and waiting for me when that mood did strike, and it was completely satisfying.  Like when you eat a food you’ve been craving for days.

The structure and writing style are typical for the late 1800s.  An unnamed narrator tells us of a strange person he met who then takes over the narration to tell us about an event that happened to him.  In this case, that second narrator is the Time Traveler.  The Time Traveler then expounds quite eloquently and philosophically on everything that has happened to him.  I enjoy this storytelling method, because it gives space for the narrator of the strange tale to do this philosophical thinking.  It makes sense to think about what you’ve learned when you’re talking about a past event.  The events are exciting, but they don’t happen at such a break-neck speed that the reader doesn’t have time to think on what they might mean.  After reading a lot of more modern dystopias, it was interesting to read a slower paced one.  Both storytelling techniques work well, but it was definitely a nice change of pace for my reading personally.

The dystopia is really enjoyable.  Instead of getting hung up on politics or climate change, the dystopia revolves entirely around evolution.  The Morlock/Eloi split happened because of the ever-increasing gap between the haves (the future Eloi) and the have-nots (the future Morlocks).  The Eloi are childlike in both stature and behavior.  They are the ultimate end result for what happens when people have no responsibilities and everything done for them, which is clearly how Wells sees the then modern-day elite functioning.  The Time Traveler talks about the ultimate evolutionary faults of a living that is too easy at multiple times.

Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. (page 30)

In contrast, the Morlocks live underground in old industrial tunnels.  They are physically strong but have lost their humanity due to a lack of the finer things.  They have no contact with the natural beauty of the world and so have turned into these ape-like, cannibalistic creatures.  The Time Traveler expounds on this:

Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth? (page 50)

I really like that this dystopia is so well thought-out but simultaneously so simple and easy to understand.

The plot itself kept me on the edge of my seat and constantly surprised at what happened.  Although it’s obvious the Time Traveler makes it back from his first voyage, there are other threats and dangers that are sufficient to keep the reader engaged.  The ending actually surprised me as well.

This book has withstood the test of time extremely well.  It has not yet saturated pop culture to the extent that the potential reader is unavoidably spoiled for the details of the plot or the ending.  The dystopia is unique and interesting, in spite of the proliferation of dystopian literature since then.  The philosophical thoughts of the Time Traveler are still applicable to modern society.

Overall, this is a piece of classic scifi that has aged very well.  It simultaneously entertains and challenges the reader.  In addition, it is a short read for a classic, more similar in length to modern fiction.  It is the ideal read for both hard-core scifi fans and those interested in dipping their toe in classic scifi.  Highly recommended!

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: the Kindle edition is free

Book Review: The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

March 15, 2013 Leave a comment

White egg balancing on one side against a red background.Summary:
In the near future world with no war and totalitarian governments there’s an ever-looming threat of starvation thanks to overpopulation and diseases attacking the crops.  The governments have responded with worldwide one child policies and psa campaigns to encourage homosexual relationships.  Englishman, Tristram Foxe, lives in a skyscraper with his wife, Beatrice-Joanna and works as a social studies teacher.  But his advancement suffers both from his status as a person with siblings and as a married man with a child.  When he discovers that his wife is cheating on him with his passing as gay brother who works for the Infertility Bureau, his world falls apart just as the world around him tilts from totalitarian regime to cannibalism and pagan fertility rituals.

Review:
When I picked up this book, the summaries I’d seen were nowhere near as clear or straightforward as the one I just wrote for you.  I’m not sure I would have ever picked it up if I’d had an inkling of an idea as to what I was getting myself into.  All I saw was a dystopian overpopulated future by the same author as A Clockwork Orange (which I know some people loathe, but I think has a lot of interesting things to say).  This book is….very strange, and I honestly am not exactly sure what Burgess himself is saying, although some of the characters say some horrible things.

The first half of the book reads like a treatise by a Quiverfull (Evangelical Christians who believe in having as many children as possible, more info) with some terror of a hyper-liberal future where people are denied their right to choose to have children (funny how they fear that but don’t get that pro-choice is all about protecting a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own reproductive organs but that’s another rant for another day), and people are forced into being gay/lesbian.  I know this sounds like it could be an interesting flip-flop of current times, but it didn’t read that way for me.  It read as a lot of homophobia and yelling about how population control goes against god’s plan and going against god’s plan sends the plagues.  Seriously.  That’s how it reads.  But, I traveled on because this is Anthony Burgess, and characters don’t have to be likeable.  They could be used to show the opposite point.  But that’s not really what happens.  What happens is that this set-up gets ditched for a mad-cap dash through sociology.

The last half of the book is kind of an interesting sociological exploration of how the world moves through the liberal/conservative/military cycle.  It is mad-cap and bizarre, and as a person with a BA in History, I really  enjoyed seeing a country move through those cycles at rapid-fire in a slapstick humor style.  This part of the book felt like an entirely different book in fact.  But I also think only a certain type of person would enjoy it. (Like, oh, Political Science and History majors).

As for character development, there is none.  Everyone ends up pretty much where they started after having lived through the cycles of political change.  It really reminds me a lot of playing Civ or SimCity where you move artificial people around to illustrate greater points.  I enjoyed this alright, but I would have preferred stronger characterizations or at least some growth.

So, is the book a phobic conservative dream of what a liberal society would look like?  I don’t think so.  I think Burgess actually presented each part of the political cycle as awful, including the fall into tribal-feeling paganism.  It sort of felt like the book was saying that someone somewhere will always be unhappy no matter what the political/sociological situation is.  Depressing, huh?  And yes I know it’s dystopian and lot of people think dystopias are innately depressing, but personally I think they can frequently offer a lot of insight and hope for the future.  This just felt a bit defeatist.  With some Quiverfull and homophobic characters to boot.

Overall I’m left feeling decidedly no reaction either way to this book, which is not what I was expecting from Burgess.  I was neither offended nor enlightened and mildly entertained but I could have had the same entertainment from playing Civ on my computer.  I think this book best appeals to readers who also enjoy studying political science or the history of societies, but even they should proceed with the caution that this is decidedly a mad-cap, non character-driven look at those topics.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Diviners by Quinn Robles

August 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Artistic image of light and darkness with book's title on it.Summary:
In a world where the 1% has taken over the government and resources and the rest are left to fend for themselves, the Symmonds siblings seek to keep starvation at bay with their divining abilities.  Everyone knows diviners can find a water source with two rods, but the Symmonds siblings can find much more, including lost people.  When they are asked to find girls most likely stolen by the government for sex slavery, they must face a choice.  Should they risk it all to save them?

Review:
I actually hesitated over whether or not to review this book because it does not appear to be available for sale anymore in spite of coming out just this February.  This shows me that perhaps the author is already aware that it wasn’t quite ready for publication, so why pile it on?  But I did promise a review in exchange for a copy, and I also review everything I read, so I ultimately decided to review.  But I will keep it short and try to offer simply constructive criticism.

There are two issues with the book.  One is some awkward sentence structures and flat-out wrong grammar.  This is something that could be quickly fixed in another editing pass, which I recommend.  The other is larger, though.  The world building is confusing and weak.  It took me until around 75% through the kindle book to finally figure out what was going on in this world, and some of it was still unclear.  For instance, what I think is a branch of the government (still not sure) is called the “Jacobs,” but they are just called the Jacobs for so long with no other information that at first it seems that they are a rival family or something.  The little information the reader does get about the dystopian world is delivered via information dump.  It’s not smoothly written into the story.  It is told to the reader like a confusing history book.  If this wasn’t a review copy, I would have quit in the first chapter, because it’s simply not pleasant to receive information via info dump.  The dystopian world itself, though, is interesting and timely.  It’s based around the Occupy movement’s rhetoric about the 1% with the wealthy ultimately blatantly taking over.  I could see a lot of people really enjoying the mix of that with the more fantastical element of divining.  The characters are also fairly well-rounded and easy to tell apart.

Overall I would say it’s a good idea and a good first draft, but it needs some reworking and editing.  I hope that’s what this author is doing and that she keeps at it, because her ideas are definitely unique.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

Currently unavailable to buy, but check out the author’s website

Book Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (Audiobook narrated by Kevin Kenerly)

April 16, 2012 5 comments

Living hand in dead one.Summary:
R is a zombie, and he remembers nothing about his life before he was one–except that his name starts with the letter R.  He and his group of the other living dead inhabit an old abandoned airport and are ruled by the bonies.  They hunt the living not just for the food, but also for the memories that come from ingesting their brains.  It’s like a drug.  One day when he’s out on a hunt, R eats the brain of a young man who loves a young woman who is there, and R steps in to save her.  It is there that an unlikely love story begins.

Review:
Now that I have a new job I decided to stop going through the rigamarole that is finding something you actually want to read as an audiobook in the public library and subscribe to Audible, especially since I always have my kindle with me anyway.  I decided to choose audiobooks to read from the bottom of my wishlist, so everything you’ll be seeing on here (unless it was free on Audible) was put on my wishlist a long time ago.  Half the time I couldn’t remember why it wound up there.  That was the case here.  I mean; I’m assuming it was there for the zombies, but I basically had no other idea about it heading in.  This is partly why my mind was blown, so if you want a similar experience I’m telling you to go get yourself a copy right this instant!  Vamoose!  For those who need more convincing, though, please do read on.

Perhaps surprisingly, I have read zombie love stories before, so I wasn’t expecting too many new or particularly engaging ideas.  This book is overflowing with them though.  Everything from zombies getting high on other people’s memories to getting to see both the zombie and living side of the war to the concept of what the war is ultimately about to even what a zombie is was all brand-new.  And it pretty much all makes sense in the world Marion has set up and is engaging.  I could not “put the book down.”  I listened to it in every spare second I had.  Nothing went the way I predicted and yet it all made complete sense.

R is far more complex than what you’d expect from a zombie, even before his symbolic awakening.  Julie is everything you would want from a heroine.  She’s pretty, smart, and she says fuck!  She can hold her own but is still emotional and vulnerable.  She’s exactly what any artistic, strong woman would be in a zombie apocalypse.  Even the more minor characters are well-rounded, and there is the racial diversity one would expect from a zombie apocalypse in a big city.

Alas, the narration was not quite as amazing as the story.  Although Kenerly does a very good job, sometimes he fails to convey all of the emotions going on in the scenes or doesn’t switch characters quite quick enough.  Don’t get me wrong, it was very good and didn’t detract from the story at all, but I also don’t feel that it added a ton to it.

This is a book that I know I will want to read again, and I may even need to buy an ebook or print version just to do so in a whole nother way next time.  It is an engaging new look at a zombie apocalypse that reads more as a dystopia than post-apocalyptic.  Anyone who needs restored faith in the ability of humanity to fix where we’ve gone wrong should absolutely give this book a shot.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Cause by Clint Stoker

January 4, 2012 2 comments

Green and black background with white letteringSummary:
In an overpopulated future, a city stands where there are not familial or close relationships, but everyone celebrates every night.  Air was recently relocated to a new position as a purger, and he slowly discovers the sinister side of the city.

Review:
This is an interesting concept that is poorly executed, badly edited, and takes a turn for the worse at the end.

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I love an overpopulation scifi story.  Stoker has an interesting take on it–the world is overpopulated so constantly at war.  A city arises where the residents can stay young forever but must follow a series of articles that removes the true joy of living from them.  The problem is that I just stated that more succinctly than Stoker does at any point in the novel.

What we have here is the classic example of a good idea poorly executed.  The basic concept is great.  But the main character’s flashbacks and current thoughts are difficult to read.  I found myself constantly skimming the flashbacks, because they were so confusing to read and lent so little to the story.

More upsetting though were the constant errors that had less to do with typos or difficult grammar and more to do with poor understanding of the English language.  Examples:

A golden metal sat at the top of his desk. (location 2879)

Won’t even know your there (location 3148)

I thought we we’re in this together (location 4225)

He put Air to sleep so he could remain innocent in the cities eyes (location 4509)

A transport past by (location 4588)

You can’t bring people back once their dead. (location 5050)

I am ti sro and you are the villain. (location 5083)

Anybody, understandably, would be frustrated with this amount of errors.

Perhaps more distressing is the “surprise” ending, which to me was just confusing.  Essentially, five infants are killed every 50 years to keep the city of 30 million people alive, yet the science of that is never explained.  The key to scifi is plausible science, yet Stoker ignores that entirely.  It’s a good idea, but without plausible explanations and good writing, it falls flat.  I’d recommend he gets a solid editor before his next attempt.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from the author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: The Walking Dead, Book 1 by Robert Kirkman (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)

November 21, 2011 7 comments

Black white and red silhouettes.Summary:
When cop Rick wakes up from a coma brought on by a gun shot wound, he discovers a post-apocalyptic mess and zombies everywhere.  He sets off for Atlanta in search of his wife, Lori, and son, Carl, and soon teams up with a rag-tag group of survivors camped just outside of Atlanta.

Review:
I just want to point out that this review is purely focused on the graphic novel, not the tv series.  I haven’t even seen more than 10 minutes of the tv show, so remember this is about the books not the show.  Thanks!  Moving along….

I almost gave up on this within the first few pages, because COME ON.  Can we PLEASE get over the whole oh I had a coma and then woke up to a zombie apocalypse trope, please?  First, it is so highly statistically unlikely that it was laughable the first few times it was used in my beloved dystopian novels, but at this point it just looks lazy.  Come up with some other way to start the apocalypse, ok?  I don’t care if your main character is out of touch with reality for a few days because he’s on a drug-fueled sex streak.  At least it would be different!  Also, a cop, really?  You want me to root for a cop?  And everyone trusts him because he’s a cop?  A cop is the last person I would put in charge if I was a member of a rag-tag bunch of survivors; I’m just saying.

Once we move on beyond the initial set-up though to the group of survivors caravaning their way across America, the story vastly improves.  The people are real.  They’re scared.  They’re angry.  The snap easily.  They hook up with whoever is convenient (and not necessarily young and hot).  They teach the kids to use guns.  It’s everything we know and love about post-apocalypse stories.

The artwork is good.  Scenes are easy to interpret; characters are easy to tell apart.  The zombies are deliciously grotesque, although I did find myself giggling at them saying “guk.”  Guk?  Really?  Ok….

The best part, though, is the people that in your everyday life you are just like, come on, god, bolt of lighting, right here?  They’re the ones who get eaten by zombies!  It is excellent.  So that really annoying chick in camp?  Totally gets her head bit by a zombie.  It’s cathartic and awesome.

The cast is diverse, and no, the black guy is not the first to be eaten (or the red shirt guy for that matter).  It wouldn’t kill Kirkman to be a little less heteronormative, but he’s still got time and more survivors to add.

Overall, this is a good first entry in a zombie apocalypse series.  Kirkman needs to be more careful to stay away from expected tropes in the genre and bring more of the creativity it is apparent he is capable of.  I recommend it to fans of zombies, obviously. ;-)

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

July 12, 2011 Leave a comment

People flowing through tubes and standing in line.Summary:
In the near-future humanity is increasingly facing over-population and all its consequences.  In reaction to this, most world governments have established population laws and eugenics boards.  In this overly crowded, information overloaded, perpetually on the brink of war society exist Donald and Norman, healthy bachelors who must live as roommates due to the housing crisis.  Donald is a dilettante, an information specialist on reserve to be activated as a spy when needed for the US government.  Norman is a Muslim African-American working his way up the corporate ladder of the most important technology firm in the world–GT.  GT houses the world’s most brilliant computer named Shalmaneser.  The intertwining lives of these two oddly well-suited roommates gradually unfold amid digressions into the lives of those they come into contact with and information from the modern-day philosophies and advertizing.

Review:
What is most memorable and striking about this book is not so much the story, although that is fairly unique, but the way in which it is told.  Brunner does not simply tell the main storyline, he also immerses the reader into the world the characters live within.  To that end, the main storyline (continuity) is interspersed with chapters focusing in on minor characters (tracking with close-ups, essentially short stories), plunging the reader into the middle of the advertizing of the time (the happening world), and works of importance to the world (context).  The result is that, although it takes a bit of work to get into the book, in the end the world these characters exist in is much more vivid and clear in the reader’s mind, thus allowing her to more fully understand the characters.

Sometimes this method of writing is a bit difficult to read, of course.  For instance, one chapter takes place at a party, and Brunner simply streams all of the conversation together as you would hear it if you were at the party yourself.  You catch snippets of bits of different conversations taking place, but never an entire one all at once.  It’s the most immersive party scene I’ve ever read, but also took me an inordinate amount of time to get through.

It was also refreshing to have one of the main characters in a futuristic scifi book be a minority.  This in and of itself made Stand on Zanzibar a unique, interesting read, and I believe Brunner did a good job portraying both Norman’s struggles with still prevalent racism and presenting him as a well-rounded character.

The major themes of the book, beyond the incredibly meta presentation style, are the very real threat of the loss of privacy and the dehumanization of dependence upon artificial intelligence.

The dehumanizing affect of overpopulation is evident in the language employed by the characters early on in the book.

Not cities in the old sense of grouped buildings occupied by families, but swarming antheaps collapsing into ruin beneath the sledgehammer blows of riot, armed robbery and pure directionless vandalism. (page 52)

These are no longer human cities.  They are crawling ant-piles.  The vision of piles of swarming ants is simply not a pleasant one.  This concept of humanity as a pest is carried even further in a poem from one of the context chapters entitled “Citizen Bacillus,” which begins:

Take stock, citizen bacillus,
Now that there are so many billions of you,
Bleeding through your opened veins,
Into your bathtub, or into the Pacific
Of that by which they may remember you. (page 115)

Not only is this poem taking into account the increasingly suicidal tendencies of the human population in this future society (something that is seen in the animal kingdom when a population becomes overcrowded), but it also is blatantly calling humans a bacteria (bacillus).

The book repeatedly addresses through vignettes, samples of books of the time period, and the lives of the main characters that overpopulation leaves people without enough room to think and figure themselves out in.

True, you’re not a slave. You’re worse off than that by a long, long way. You’re a predatory beast shut up in a cage of which the bars aren’t fixed, solid objects you can gnaw at or in despair batter against with your head until you get punch-drunk and stop worrying. No, those bars are the competing members of your own species, at least as cunning as you on average, forever shifting around so you can’t pin them down, liable to get in your way without the least warning, disorienting your personal environment until you want to grab a gun or an axe and turn mucker. (page 77-8)

In the book “turning mucker” is when a person inexplicably loses their mind and attacks strangers near them.  This happens increasingly throughout the book.  Thus Brunner’s main point that humans are our own worst enemy is repeated throughout the book.

Added on top of this is the fact that artificial intelligence is outpacing humans.  The characters literally cannot keep up with the information overload.  They have nightmares about it.  They simultaneously depend on the computers and dread them.  When one goes awry, they hardly know how to continue on, but simply flounder around.  Chad Mulligan (one of my new favorite literary characters) sums it up eloquently:

What in God’s name is it worth to be human, if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine? (page 645)

Thus, Stand on Zanzibar through postulating an overpopulated future that is overly dependent on technology demonstrates the very real dangers humans pose to ourselves if we outpace either our own minds or our environment’s ability to house us.  It is a brilliant read for the meta-literature aspect alone, but the content is also challenging and thought-provoking.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

March 30, 2011 2 comments

Flower and butterflies on black background.Summary:
Daisy’s stepmother has convinced her father to send her off to England to live with her aunt and cousins, and Daisy really doesn’t mind.  She hates her life in NYC anyway, and life in the countryside seems like a welcome change.  Her cousins are quirky and fun, and Aunt Penn is sweet and practices a relaxed parenting style.  When Aunt Penn goes away for a work trip, terrorist acts occur in London effectively leaving the kids on their own.  On their own to explore feelings and actions they might not otherwise have felt free to.

Review:
The big rumblings about this YA book is that there is incest in it.  In the grand scheme of shocking incest though, this incest is just….not that shocking.  It’s between two cousins who’ve never met until they’re teenagers.  *shrug*  Plus, the incestuous relationship is really not the main focus of the story at all.  It holds center stage for maybe two chapters.  Two very chaste chapters.  Oh sure, an astute reader knows what’s going on, but there are no lengthy sexual passages.  The most we get to witness is a kiss.  So, this book is really just really not about incest, ok?  If that was keeping you from reading it, don’t let it.  If that’s why you wanted to read it, go read Flowers in the Attic instead.

So what is the story about?  Quite simply, it’s about the impact living in an age of world-wide terrorism has on young people.  On their perceptions, decisions, morals, and more.  As someone who was only a sophomore in highschool when 9/11 happened, I feel safe in saying that Rosoff depicts the experience of a young person growing up in this world very well.  The mixture of relaxing and having fun while the adults panic around you with nights of fear are perfectly woven.

Daisy’s voice is wonderful to listen to.  She’s an appealing, funny narrator with an acute wit.  She is truly someone to like and root for.  Similarly, her female cousin, Piper, who she becomes a pseudo-parent to, is extraordinarily interesting and appealing.  In fact, I’m hard-pressed to name a character who isn’t well-rounded.

Unfortunately, all of these positives about the book come to a crashing halt at the end.  All I can tell you without spoiling the ending is that Rosoff did not take her themes as far as I was hoping she would take them.  In my opinion, she copped out, and I was sorely disappointed.  The ending reads almost like the beginning of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, and I was just left feeling as if Daisy and her cousins had let me down.  What could have been an extraordinary book became just average.

Thus, if you are looking for a YA take on the impact life with terrorism has had on the younger generation, but aren’t expecting anything mind-blowing, you’ll enjoy this book.  If what you’re after is shocking YA, however, look elsewhere.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Person in white hallway.Summary:
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.”  These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities.  The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit.  Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.

Review:
The entire concept of this book intrigued me as it is clearly a dystopia whose focus is on the older generations instead of teenagers and young people.  The concept itself is of course frightening to any of us who have come to grips with the fact that some day we will be elderly too.  This dystopia is also unique though in that it examines the possible future movement of Swedish society, which is vastly different from American society.

The writing is entirely from the perspective of Dorrit.  Although it is clear she is writing from some point after the events occurred, Holmqvist eloquently allows her voice to change to reflect her changing ideas on society, her friends, her family, and her own life.  When Dorrit first arrives in the unit, she attempts to defend herself saying that women used to be raised to be independent instead of with such a high focus on producing children that will add product to the GNP.  It’s not as if she didn’t want a partner, she did, but it didn’t happen.  So why is that her fault?  Deeper issues are addressed too such as why does only a new family unit count and not siblings?  What about pets?  Don’t they need us?  The vast implications of such a focus on interpersonal relationships found in the traditional family unit are subtly addressed.  What type of people tend to be alone family-less by the age of 50 or 60?  One resident in the unit’s library, for instance, points out that

“People who read books…tend to be dispensable.  Extremely.” (Page 26)

Of course the setting of this dystopia also brings up other interesting issues that Holmqvist handles quite well.  The dystopian setting allows the author to address the perpetual loss of friends that the elderly face as well as seeing themselves and their friends sicken mentally and physically.  Placing it in a society in which this is exacerbated by science naturally gives it another level as well as a welcome distance for the elderly reader.  This of course is a large part of what makes this dystopia different from the typical YA version.  Instead of dramatizing the challenges young people typically face such as their world widening and new knowledge being imparted, this one shows how the world becomes smaller and acceptance that it’s too late to change the world becomes the norm.

Perhaps the most universally interesting issue this dystopia addresses is how much the individual should be willing to sacrifice for the greater good.  The residents in the unit are constantly being told that their discomfort in an experiment could improve the lives of hundreds of needed people.  Or that they should be perfectly fine with “donating” one of their corneas and going half-blind if it means that a nurse with three children can remain a contributing member of society.  While some of the residents grow resentful of this concept, referring to the unit as a free-range organ farm, Dorrit finds leaning on this perceived value helps her with her depression in the unit.

“Otherwise I would feel powerless, which I essentially am, but I can cope with that as long as it doesn’t feel that way too.” (Page 71)

Clearly this book makes one think not just about the issues the elderly face but also about how society as a whole treats them and makes them feel.  It also firmly addresses just how much individuality and choice it is justifiable to give up for the greater good.  The ending completely shocked me and has left me with even more to ponder than the points given above, but I want to leave those for the future reader to discover.

I am incredibly glad this work was translated into English, and I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially to dystopia and scifi lovers, as well as those interested in sociology and psychology.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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