Recent Read Round-Up

What with one thing and another lately (mainly it being the end of the school year, which results in a hectic time for me), I realized today I’ve been letting some of my recent reads pile up without having been reviewed. So, today, let me go over four books I’ve read in the past week or so – three copies provided for review, and one for class purposes.

thehalloweenchildren-ebook-largeThe Halloween Children, a collaboration between Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss due out in June, boasts a pretty great structure, and for about 90% of its length, that structure and the unfolding dread of the book will keep you hooked. It’s the story of what happened one Halloween at a suburban apartment complex, with the tale told by two different narrators: a husband and wife duo, writing at two different times. The husband seems to be writing after all of this happened; meanwhile, the wife’s narration is as everything unfolds, in the form of monologues to a marriage counselor. To say the marriage is dysfunctional would be an understatement; there are power games between the two of them, distrust, and favorites between the children (split along gender lines). But through it all, Freeman and Prentiss keep the tension raising, leaving us wondering how these parents are unable to see how wrong and strange things are getting with their children – and in the complex as a whole. And all of it is intriguing and weird, playing like a horror variation on Gone Girl, where we’re not sure which, if either, of our narrators is reliable – that is, until the ending, when everything comes apart. Without getting into spoilers, The Halloween Children ends up throwing both of our narrators under the bus, leaving us unsure whether much of anything happened, before bluntly spelling out a ham-fisted moral and lecturing the reader. It’s a fizzle of an ending, which is a shame, because it’s an engaging, fast read up until that point. Rating: ***

Dean F. Wilson has become a reliable presence in my review book rotation, and a welcome one; over the past couple of years, I devoured his Great Iron War, finding myself swept up in the rich world that he created. 17399863So when Wilson offered me a chance to check out his fantasy series, it wasn’t much of a choice for me – I knew I was on board. Nonetheless, I think I was surprised and deeply impressed by The Call of Agon, which is the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Telm trilogy. This is high fantasy in a Tolkien vein, make no mistake about it; there are epic poems, old legends, numerous races, and dialogue – and narration – that can feel stilted, even archaic, until you get into the rhythms. And yet, once again, Wilson mixes well his world-building and his character work, populating an astonishingly complex and rich fantasy world with interesting characters who veer from their archetypal nature slowly but inexorably. The Call of Agon can feel slow and dense at times, and I can’t say that there weren’t a couple of times that I felt a little overwhelmed with the world-building, the history, and some of the speechifying going on with some of the characters. And yet, the story hooked me in, giving me interesting, flawed characters that I found intriguing, and letting its fantastical epic play out in unexpected, interesting ways that broke from convention appealingly. The Call of Agon may be almost too high fantasy for its own good, but none of that detracts from the incredible world-building, the great character work, and the compelling story that draws you in. And once again, Dean F. Wilson has hooked me in. Rating: ****

Sometimes, a gamble on a review copy pays off. Such is the case with Ray Else’s cover109911-mediumOur Only Chance: An A.I. Chronicle, a book whose description intrigued me enough to check it out. It’s the story of the first true A.I., an entity named Einna. Programmed by a brilliant young woman named Manaka, Einna is a technological breakthrough, but her creation raises any number of questions, ranging from the practical (is there a difference in Einnas if we duplicate the program?) to the metaphysical (does Einna have a soul?). Else’s novel navigates these questions ably and adroitly, tying them into the plot, which involves not only Einna’s evolution as a thinking creation, but the shady Yakuza ties that give the business the money it needed to get started. When I requested Our Only Chance, that Yakuza element made me think that I was getting something more cyberpunk than I got; nonetheless, Our Only Chance won me over surprisingly quickly, letting its story develop and raising fascinating questions without ever becoming preachy or didactic. Instead, Else follows Einna’s quest for self-actualization and lets it dictate the novel’s ideas and thoughts, letting the questions feel organic but no less thoughtfully approached. Indeed, that Yakuza element ends up being the one distracting element of the book, turning the ending into something a little more disappointing than it otherwise would be (without getting into spoiler territory, it turns the book’s final philosophical question into a moral one; moreover, it weighs the scales so heavily that it becomes not even a debate). Still, it’s rich fare, and if it feels like it could use a little more fleshing out, well, that’s to the book’s credit – not enough books leave you feeling like there’s more to say. Rating: ****

Finally, thanks to my recent class curriculum, I’ve been covering Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and it led me to be curious about Huxley’s follow-up, Brave New World Revisited (available for free at huxley.net). 81ldr2bwow7lA series of essays written over 25 years after the initial publication of Brave New WorldRevisited finds Huxley looking at his novel and assessing how accurate he was. His basic thesis? If anything, Brave New World was optimistic in thinking it would take us a few hundred years to get to that point; to the Huxley of Revisited, we’ll be there within decades. Revisited isn’t a novel, and it isn’t interested in being easily accessible; this is political theory, biological discussion, historical analysis, and more, all filtered through Huxley’s unique perspective. Revisited finds Huxley comparing his novel to Orwell’s 1984, discussing how Hitler and Stalin both change – and fail to change – some of his original ideas, noting the growth in advertising and television jingles, and just generally realizing that time has only made Brave New World more and more relevant. Sadly, the same applies to a modern reader, who will find some pain in Huxley’s comments about the perils of democracy being open to manipulation by sound bites and emotional bias, the willingness of people to be distracted by fleeting entertainments while real problems go unaddressed, and the unease of a society to ever be questioned. Yes, some of Huxley’s issues are out of date – he remains preoccupied with subliminal and hypnopaedic teachings, neither of which ever proved successful or worth continuing. But that goes for surprisingly little of this book, which instead draws out much of what makes Brave New World so uncomfortably relevant, allows Huxley’s brilliant and odd mind to shine through, and leaves you uncomfortable and disquieted about the state of the world. A compelling, powerful companion piece to a depressingly relevant novel. Rating: *****

Amazon: The Halloween ChildrenThe Call of AgonOur Only Chance | Brave New World Revisited
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Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley / *****

bravenewworld_firsteditionIt’s been maybe 15-20 years since I first read Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s iconic dystopian novel about a society engineered from birth for stability and calm. At the time I read it, I was a bit disappointed; while the world Huxley created was interesting, I couldn’t help but hold the novel up against Orwell’s 1984 and find it lacking. Mind you, some of that had to be Orwell’s themes of language and words – catnip for an English major – but even so, I largely dismissed Brave New World as a lesser, less interesting book, and moved on.

Coming back to it all this time later (and putting it more in its proper chronology, as a work that could not have helped but to influence Orwell), there’s no denying that I underrated Brave New World in many ways, even if I still don’t love it the way many do. Like many dystopian novels, the central premise of the novel – the astonishing society that Huxley has created – can’t help but overshadow the middling plot, which feels a bit haphazard at times, and undeniably becomes didactic and preachy at others. (Before you say it: re-reading 1984 last year reminded me that Orwell has his own issues with plot and preachiness, to be sure. So I’m well aware of the issues.)

But for all of that, none of it really keeps Brave New World from feeling astonishingly ahead of its time – vivid, modern, and frighteningly relevant in so many ways. From the mass-produced entertainments to a tiered society engineered from birth to keep people in their proper place, from a medicated calm to a need to consume every new product, Brave New World doesn’t just feel relevant; it feels prophetic, hitting hard in ways that I didn’t remember or appreciate on that first read. Much of that, of course, comes to the ways that Huxley spends so many early chapters immersing us in his strange world: touring the birth centers, hearing the methods used to build castes, eavesdropping in on the sleep teachings – all of it helps to build Huxley’s vision of a world dedicated to stability, order, and structure. And that’s before we start dipping our toes into the bizarre sexuality on display at any given point…

So where does Brave New World fall short? For much of the early going, it’s great, giving us a Winston Smith-style hero who doesn’t fit in to this society, and wants to push against it all in ways both quiet and outspoken. It’s when Huxley abruptly shifts us to a new protagonist, I think, that the book stumbles; it ends up feeling like a jarring swap, a bump that throws out our investment in Bernard and this world, and forces us into a new perspective more closely aligned with our own feelings about this place. If anything, this secondary protagonist is a stronger one, and a more gripping one…so why take so long to introduce him, and why leave Bernard behind to the degree that we do? It’s a frustrating choice, and one that I still think holds the book back from being as great as it could be.

But, still, for all that, Brave New World earns its place in the canon and then some, simply by virtue of its rich imagination, and the thoroughness of its world. Even beyond that, there’s the intriguing character beats – I had forgotten, for instance, the way that one character’s dialogue so heavily draws on Shakespearean allusions, but done in such a way that it constantly reflects on the character in ways both direct and indirect. There are the religious themes, the economic comments, the blending of sex and violence – Huxley’s book is nothing if not ambitious, and if it can’t always tie it all together, you can’t help but forgive it for making the attempt in the first place. No, Brave New World doesn’t work flawlessly; no, it doesn’t quite hold up to Orwell’s towering achievement. But taken on its own terms, it’s a fascinating, ambitious, incredibly rich book, and one that’s hard to imagine the current wave of dystopian fiction existing without.

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Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood / *****

51nwvn-wm6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Dystopias are all the rage these days, and even setting aside some grim feelings about our current age, it’s not hard to understand why. Dystopias make for rich world building, sure, but more than that, they allow writers to play with heady concepts – the power of language (1984), genetic engineering (Brave New World), unfiltered modern communication (Chaos Walking), media circuses (The Hunger Games), and so forth. What’s rarer, though, is finding a dystopian novel with a sly, dark sense of humor about itself, laughing all the way through the apocalypse and beyond. And yet, that’s what you get with Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic tale that gradually starts revealing its roots in a dystopian society of sorts, filled with designer medications, profit-seeking corporations, medical research, and genetic engineering. You know, fiction.

In strict plot terms, Oryx and Crake is simple – it tells the story of Snowman, a human living in some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth. Mind you, this isn’t a radioactive blight, or some ashen McCarthy hellscape. No, the Earth of Oryx and Crake simply qualifies as post-apocalyptic by virtue of the fact that we rapidly realize that Snowman might be the last human being alive. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the last humanoid – not with that tribe of creatures so like us, but so different, living nearby. And as we watch Snowman’s awkward interactions with a set of creatures that don’t quite understand him, he thinks back to the world that was – and how he and his friend Crake, along with a woman named Oryx, just might have ended it all.

This dual-threaded story structure lets Atwood play around in a number of ways, exploring not only a landscape changed thanks to the tampering of man with genetics, but also with our own modern world, showing how our own habits could end up being our doom. In Atwood’s hands, Oryx and Crake becomes a Brave New World for the modern age, where it’s not ourselves we need to genetically engineer – it’s the world around us, from animals to diseases, and most especially, to our medications.

In the wrong hands, Oryx and Crake could turn didactic and preachy, a jeremiad against modern conveniences and our desire to be happy above all else. But Atwood lets the subtext carry its own weight, instead investing us in Snowman, his awkward place in a tiered society that doesn’t have much need of him, and his friendship with the brilliant, strange Crake. Without giving too much away, Atwood’s story becomes far more human and emotionally driven than you might expect from its epic world-building, and its depiction of the way the world ends is almost bitterly funny.

That, of course, goes for much of the book, whose absurd brand names, bad drug side effects, internet sites, and school settings all feel dead-on, pushed just one step beyond our current reality and into deadpan parody. There’s a dark winking to help the trenchant points go down, finding the absurdity in so much of our modern world and trying to help us laugh at it along with Atwood.

For all of that, I’m not sure Oryx and Crake quite sticks the landing; even knowing that there are two more books to follow doesn’t make the slightly open-ended ending here less frustrating or less arbitrary feeling, as though Atwood just picked a bit of a random point at which to end the book. It’s not a dealbreaker – not in a book whose characters are this rich, whose world is this intriguing, whose commentary is so well handled – but it is the one sour note in Oryx and Crake, a book that otherwise I absolutely loved, beginning to end, and the one that confirmed for me what I thought after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale years back: that I really need to make reading more Atwood a priority.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) / *****

52aa7aaba9d84acd43cb72fe41b895e4Evaluating Michael Radford’s 1984 film of George Orwell’s seminal, essential Nineteen Eighty-Four is a difficult task, even setting aside the uncomfortable modern parallels we’re all living through. As a film, in many ways, Radford’s adaptation doesn’t entirely work – it’s glacially slow, it feels like it’s often alluding to its plot rather than letting it directly unfold, and it exposes Orwell’s novel’s story for the weak thread it really is. The result is a film with only the barest story, and instead an entire reliance on mood, tone, and worldbuilding.

But, my God, does it succeed on that front, bringing Orwell’s bleak vision to vivid, haunting life, and slowly crushing the hope out of not only John Hurt’s brittle Winston Smith, but the viewer as well, doing justice to Orwell’s oppressive world and then some.

Radford’s film wastes little time plunging us into Oceania’s politics, opening in the middle of a rally where the crowds are incited into a spitting, sputtering, uncontrollable fury at the face of their hated enemy, only to have that hatred assuaged by the comforting, calm visage of Big Brother, projected onto a massive monitor in front of the crowd. And as the anger instantly fades, followed by loving tears, defiant salutes 1984(salutes which echo the crossed arms of Pink Floyd: The Wall), and belted anthems, the film lets its title cover the screen, as if to say, yes, we’re here now. It’s an effective, immersive opening to our story, emphasizing that the world we’re in is as important – if not more so – than any of our characters. Indeed, it’s some time before we spot Winston Smith in the crowd, doing his best to fit in, even if it might be against his own will. Here, as he will for much of the film, he struggles to stand out, looking like everyone else, from his bland outfit to neutral expression.

That’s more or less the approach Radford takes to much of the film. Everything feels muted and oppressed in Nineteen Eighty-Four – dialogue feels whispered, almost implied, as though every word is a stolen moment. Winston’s internal monologues are largely kept that way – internal – with many of his actions being the only way we can judge him. Every single moment of the film is overlaid with a constant stream of chatter, noise, and reporting from the omnipresent televisions – 1984-john-hurtit becomes inescapable, something you can’t get away from, and making those rare quiet moments all the more powerful.

The result is an odd adaptation of a classic novel, one that I can’t swear works if you’re not already familiar with the text. (It’s part of my classes’ summer reading, so I’ve read it recently.) 1984 is a book in which characters’ motivations are forced to be kept internal, and the film embraces that, telling its story largely through allusions and implications. Moreover, it cuts many of Orwell’s more didactic, lengthy passages, letting the film’s visuals tell much of the story. What that means, though, is that the story may not be accessible for those not already familiar with the book. Is that a problem? Undoubtedly…although, perhaps less so given the book’s ubiquity. Nonetheless, it makes it difficult to recommend as a film on its own terms.

And yet, as an experience, Nineteen Eighty-Four is astonishing, an incredible piece of mood and tone that immerses you in a dystopia more thoroughly perhaps than even the book. In Radford’s hands – and anchored by Hurt’s soulful performance – Oceania is brought to bleak, ravaged life, covered in grime, held together with duct tape and force of will. Big Brother lurks everywhere, and constantly watches. The Thought Police could be anywhere. And everything – everything – is held within and guarded, with a neutral front presented to the world. It’s oppressive, haunting, and disturbing – it’s Brazil without the dark humor, and even less hope of escapism.

The result is a film that should be seen, and experienced, even if I can’t entirely recommend it. It feels like it would almost work better as a music video or a silent film, playing on screens in a club, overshadowed by some ominous techno beat that drowns out the largely minimal dialogue, and lets the faces and performances tell everything. It’s a remarkable, astonishing film, one that stays true to the spirit of Orwell’s book, flaws and all. Should you see it? Yes…but approach it as a powerful work of style, mood, and tone, more than a typical story/plot.

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Hometaker, by Dean F. Wilson / ****

33234223And so, Dean F. Wilson’s “Great Iron War” series comes to an end. This is a series that’s undeniably grown on me over the course of its length; while I enjoyed the first novel in many ways, I couldn’t help but feel that Wilson wasn’t giving us enough backstory, enough depth, to really make the series work. Yes, there was a war; yes, there was an invading race, referred to as the “Demons”, but they felt faceless and unknowable. The action was great, the world interesting, but it was hard to invest yourself in this world, given that Wilson seemed so committed to a minimum of exposition.

And yet, over the course of these six books, Wilson slowly fleshed out his world, revealing new races and characters, exploring the hidden depths of his often sprawling cast, and turning the invading race into something more complex and interesting than I ever would have expected. Even better, he did it without ever really changing his style – he writes economically, clearly, and lets the story reveal itself through the characters, their dialogue, and the necessities of the plot. And over the course of the six volumes – each named after a key device around which that section of the war revolves – Wilson broadened his scope beautifully, letting us see more and more of his characters, investing us in their fates, and grappling with the hard questions that I had often assumed he was ignoring. Just what are the “demons”, and are they all as bad as we thought? What happens when the war is over? How do you win a war when they have corrupted children? And so much more – Wilson turned out to have thought about them, and let the story slowly grow to take them all on.

Hometaker is a satisfying ending to the series – have no worries for a vague or cryptic conclusion to things here. There is a decisive final confrontation, a conclusive ending to things, even while Wilson lets his world exist beyond the boundaries of the page. For all of that, it sometimes becomes a bit rushed; for the first time, the “Hometaker” device feels less critical to the plot, more of a plot device to get our characters where they need to be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – especially not when it delivers on a gripping three-pronged battle plan that takes up much of the book, brings great action, and constantly ramps up the tension – but what it means is that the stakes of this book are a little harder to grasp. Yes, this is the final book, and the final battle – but what, exactly, are they hoping to accomplish with this final raid? We’re never quite told, not clearly. More than that, while the final confrontation is deeply satisfying and nicely concludes the story, it feels like something our characters lucked into, not planned for; for the first time, Wilson’s plotting feels a bit rushed and vague, as though there are machinations and manipulations we weren’t present for. In other words, sometimes it feels as if the final confrontation happened not because the story led to it, but because Wilson needed it to happen, and that’s a bit frustrating.

None of that, however, really prevents the book from being gripping and exciting, as I’ve come to expect from this series. The action, as always, is riveting throughout, and told beautifully, and Wilson has invested us enough in these characters that the deaths throughout this book, the sacrifices, and the reveals hit us more than I would have ever expected from the first book, two years ago. More than that, there’s a genuinely satisfying ending, as Wilson leaves us time to see where the story is beginning to lead after this has all ended, letting us feel like there’s a world that will continue after this series ends. Is this final entry a little bit more rushed than the rest, a little more forced? Yes – but just a little. In general, it’s a satisfying, solid entry in a rich steampunk war series that I’m far more glad I read than I ever would have expected at the beginning of it all.

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Worldwaker, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

worldwaker_coverWorldwaker is the fifth – and penultimate, apparently – entry in Dean F. Wilson’s Great Iron War series. It’s the story of a dystopian future where earth has been invaded and colonized by a race of “demons” – but, more accurately, it’s the story of the rebellion that’s fighting back against that occupation. In short, it’s a war series, although one that mixes elements of steampunk, dystopia, magic, and science-fiction into its storytelling.

But it’s also a story that’s evolved over the course of its length, and in generally good ways. Wilson has always anchored his book in his characters, allowing their motivations, conflicts, and personalities to be as important to the story as the military action. Whether it’s the morally shady hero Jacob, the noble but weary General Rommond, the cold Taberah, or many of the others, Wilson brings them to life, and allows them to be flawed, complicated, and heroic in equal measure. But as the series has continued, he’s allowed that not only for his heroes, but for his villains as well – and the series has really soared as a result.

Starting in the previous entry, Landquaker, Wilson began exploring life among the demons. But Worldwaker takes that to a new level, as our heroes are forced to strike a temporary treaty with the demons to stop a group from ending the world in a twisted effort to bring about peace. That changes the tone of things quite a bit, and forces the characters to see that it’s never as simple as we like to think. More than that, though, Wilson does something else new here, splitting his heroes up drastically, and following them through three very different settings, each of which gives us a window into life under the Regime that we haven’t gotten before. There’s a scene in a Regime rally, for instance, that’s truly gripping, and helps us understand what life is like for those not in the Resistance.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t get the usual great action that Wilson delivers. His centerpiece here is an air battle that features men leaping from planes, air-boarding other craft, saving pilots who have been shot down, and all kinds of jaw-dropping feats that work somehow, thanks to Wilson’s writing and character work. More than that, it never feels overwhelming or confusing; instead, it feels coherent and beautifully staged, so that you can understand all of the various movements and tactics unfolding, and know exactly where everyone is at all times.

There’s definitely a sense that we’re entering the endgame of the series by this point, and that’s before Wilson starts bringing home the danger of the situation with some shocking deaths along the way. The Resistance is taking bolder actions, striking back harder, and making braver stands. But more than that, exhaustion is taking a toll on our heroes. They’re starting to question the fight, question their lives, and start thinking about what comes after. And it’s to Wilson’s credit that these are questions we genuinely want to see answered. After five books with these characters, I want some happy endings. I want Rommond and Brooklyn to find peace and calm. I want Whistler to figure out his place in the world. I want Jacob and Taberah to figure out a way to make it work. And while not all of those will happen – indeed, some of those can’t, by the end of this book – it’s to his credit that I’m invested in it and want to see it happen.

So bring on book six, Mr. Wilson. I’m excited to see how this all comes together.

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1984, by George Orwell / *****

1984_book_cover_2_by_ioski1-d3g8fcxI haven’t read 1984 since high school, and yet, it has stuck with me for nearly 20 years. I had never read anything quite like it before – nothing quite as thoughtful and intricate in its horrifically cynical view of the future. And its ideas about language – how controlling language, to say nothing of the past, could be used to control the population – floored me, and inspired me to think about media and literature in new ways.

And yet, over the years, what I had mostly forgotten about was how 1984 worked – or didn’t work – as a novel. I remembered the rich ideas, the complicated politics, the rich version of an all-powerful government that controlled its populace through manipulation of every facet of life, but what I didn’t really remember much about was Winston Smith, his inner conflict against Ingsoc and Big Brother, and his burgeoning relationship with Julia.

It turns out, though, that there’s a reason for that. It’s not that any of it is bad by any means; indeed, it’s hard to overestimate the impact 1984 has had on modern fiction, most notably on a cavalcade of YA fiction that borrows from its dystopian outlook. Without 1984, it’s hard to imagine having The Hunger Games, much less any of the slew of more generic YA knockoffs that came after that. Orwell immerses us in Winston’s worldview seamlessly and quickly, not only forcing us to understand the reality of life under Big Brother, but to see why he might want to rebel, as well as how difficult the very idea of rebelling is. And while Julia never really fully comes to life as a character, that’s almost intentional; she’s a symbol to him, and not a huge amount more.

But really, 1984‘s plot is far more simple and somewhat perfunctory than I remembered. Winston considers rebelling; he meets Julia and they begin an affair; things take a bad turn. That’s about it, really. So, sure, the plot is fine – it’s engaging and keeps you reading. But more than that, the plotting is there to underline the complex, fascinating world that Orwell has constructed. As we follow Winston’s journey – not only his physical one, but also his mental trips through his memories, his political evolution, his occupation, and more – Orwell is able to construct his horrifying dystopia, using every incident and detail to underline the power that Big Brother truly represents.

That comes to a head in the book’s final third, which only works as a result of understanding what this government is capable of – and what they seem to want. Without that, Winston’s final trials in the Ministry don’t work, nor does Orwell’s brutal ending. And yet, thanks to the construction of the world he’s invested his time in, it all feels…not right, exactly, but sadly plausible.

1984 undeniably has some issues as a novel. It’s occasionally didactic to an extreme, most notably in a long section in which Winston finally gets to read the official theories of the rebellion – a multi-chapter transcription of political theory. And, of course, there’s the appendix, in which Orwell combines world-building with a discussion of how language could be used to control thought – a long discussion which I found fascinating, but of course, I’m an English major, so I’m biased that way. And yet, even with those flaws, I can’t regard the book as anything less than a masterpiece, an incredible dystopia that’s more thought out, nuanced, pondered, and horrifically plausible than just about anything out there. More than that, it presents rich and complex ideas in an understandable, even entertaining way, and one that allows you to see their intention, their execution, and their impact on a society – something that an essay of political theorizing could never accomplish. It’s an essential piece of literature, one in which any shortcomings as a piece of storytelling are more than made up for by the importance and power of the ideas.

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