Review 1826: The New Wilderness

Dystopian novels are coming out of the woodwork these days, and they are not really my thing, but I read The New Wilderness for my Booker Prize project. That being said, I have read some excellent dystopian novels, the Maddaddam trilogy being one of them.

All of the land has been put under production to support the population of the City except the Wilderness State and possibly the rumored Private Lands. The City has become dangerous, though, with such polluted air that Bea’s little daughter Agnes was dying. So, Bea and her scientist partner Glen proposed an experiment—to go with a small group of people to live in the wilderness without making their imprint.

At the beginning of the novel, the Community has lived in the Wilderness State for several years. They started as a group of 20, but several have died. They are living under strict conditions. They’re not allowed to settle anywhere or build structures. The Rangers appear periodically to tell them to move to another Post.

The group has been making decisions by consensus, but it’s clear that Carl and his partner Val would like to be in charge. Glen seems to have little control over his own experiment.

A lot of the novel is devoted to the relationship between Bea and her daughter, who is growing up a bit feral. Eventually, Agnes becomes the main character, which was unfortunate, as I didn’t find her very interesting. In fact, the characters are mostly just used as emblems. They aren’t very dimensional.

Life in the Wilderness State is so brutal that I couldn’t imagine the City being worse. I can understand the comparisons to The Hunger Games that I saw repeatedly on Goodreads, even though no one is trying to kill anyone. I see more of a legacy of Lord of the Flies in Community politics.

I found that my interest in the novel came and went, mostly with Bea. She is not in the book, however, for large portions of it. For me, this novel was mildly interesting at times, but I wasn’t sure I believed very much in how Cook makes her characters behave. Right at the beginning, for example, a couple of characters die and the reaction of the rest is sort of, oh well, these things happen. An explanation that when you’re so close to death, you get inured to it eventually emerges, but I think Cook gets that wrong. Maybe that happens in war, but I think that a hunter-gatherer group would feel the losses as much, if not more, than anyone else, because the group is so small. This struck me as wrong from the start.

One more comment—a quote from Publishers Weekly calls the novel “darkly humorous.” On the contrary, I didn’t think that the novel showed any humor at all or even tried to.

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Review 1812: The Sunlight Pilgrims

Dylan MacRae has had a tough few months. Both his mother and grandmother have died, and he has been unable to save the family business, a small art cinema in London. That’s not all, because the melting of the polar icecaps is causing a new Ice Age, and the upcoming winter is forecast to be brutal.

Dylan has discovered that his mother purchased a small caravan in Scotland off the books before she died, so that he would have a place to live. On the eve before the cinema and his flat above it are repossessed, Dylan packs a suitcase containing a few things as well as the ashes of his mother and grandmother and takes a bus to the Clachen Fells in the Highlands of Scotland.

Upon his arrival, Dylan falls in love at first sight with Constance, another resident of the caravan park. She is an independent survivalist with a teenage trans daughter named Stella and two lovers. Temperatures continue to fall.

Dystopian novels aren’t usually my thing, but I became so involved in the lives of Dylan, Constance, and Stella that I enjoyed this novel of life doing its best to prevail in brutal conditions. Fagan has a talent for creating appealing characters. This is another winner from the author of The Panopticon.

The Panopticon

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The Year of the Flood

Review 1795: American War

In 2074, Sarat Chestnut is only six when her father is killed by a terrorist bomb while trying to get a permit for his family to move into the north and safety. The Chestnuts live in a United States divided by civil war with its coastlines eroded far back from global warming. As residents of Louisiana, they reside in a purple state, a state that while it belongs to the North (blue states) has many Southern sympathizers (reds).

After Benjamin Chestnut’s death, Martina, Sarat’s mother, is told that the fighting in East Texas is coming nearer and she should retreat to the refugee camp at Camp Patience in Mississippi. As a resident of Camp Patience, Sarat grows up witnessing terrible events and is slowly groomed by Mr. Gaines to be a terrorist.

In between the chapters about Sarat, El Akkad includes documents about the war leading readers to realize that even more horrific events are ahead and, to me at least, telegraphing Sarat’s fate.

Like most good dystopian novels, this one puts our world troubles into perspective and holds a warning for us. Although dystopia is not really my genre, I found this novel riveting. I read it for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1664: Greenwood

Best of Ten!

Greenwood starts with an image of the cross-section of a tree trunk, this showing the novel’s structure. The novel begins in 2038, the outer ring of the tree, and visits four different years in the past, the center being 1908. Then it returns through each of those years to 2038.

In 2038, Jake Greenwood is an overqualified scientist working as a forest ranger in one of the few forests left on earth after the Great Wilt. She is glad to have the job in a world of excessively rich people and have-nots. Greenwood Island is a sort of private park that entertains the very wealthy by touring them through the forest.

Jake doesn’t think her family has a connection with the Greenwoods of the island, once owned by the fabulously wealthy lumber baron Harris Greenwood, but a lawyer arrives saying that she may have a claim to the island.

The novel returns back in time to visit Jake’s ancestors at important events in their lives. In 2008, Jake’s father Liam’s girlfriend leaves him and then lets him know she is pregnant. Later, doing a carpentry job, he has a serious accident.

In 1974, Liam’s mother Willow, an environmental activist, lives with Liam in her van and travels around sabotaging logging equipment.

In 1934, Everett, who makes a little money tapping and selling maple syrup, finds a baby hanging on a tree outside his cabin. Although he at first tries to give her away, he begins to think she’s in danger.

In 1908, two nine-year-old boys are the only survivors of a massive train wreck. When no one claims them, the town puts them in a cabin and provides the bare minimum of their needs, the boys growing up almost feral. The boys cannot remember their names, so the town calls them Harris and Everett Greenwood.

The novel is beautifully written and like The Overstory is concerned with trees and their impact on the world. Its descriptions of forests are lyrical. The plot itself is at times so involving as to read almost like a thriller. This is an unusual and absorbing novel.

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Review 1529: The Second Sleep

There are some authors whose books I’ll buy immediately, and Robert Harris is one of them. This means that I haven’t always read what the book is about, and I seldom read the jacket to remind myself before I begin reading, even if I did when I bought the book. Generally speaking, Harris writes excellent historical novels. So, I was reading along, thinking I was in the 15th century, when I suddenly realized I was reading a dystopian novel set far in the future.

After a cataclysmic event, the world has gone through another dark age, and England has emerged into a pre-industrial-age society ruled by the church with a culture that is superstitious and suspicious. Christopher Fairfax is a young priest who has been dispatched by the bishop of Exeter to a small village, Addison St. George, to see that the recently deceased local priest, Father Lacy, is buried.

Upon his arrival, he notices right away that Father Lacy was a heretic, for he finds a library and a collection devoted to the past, before the Apocalypse. Such studies are considered blasphemous, yet the father has a cache of such objects as plastic straws, Barbie dolls, and iPhones.

Fairfax also begins to fear that Father Lacy’s death may have been different than an accidental slip from a feared local structure called the Devil’s Chair. When he investigates, he finds a huge mass grave where Father Lacy had been digging, but it looks like Father Lacy was chased up the slope, which then collapsed.

This is an atmospheric novel, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have Harris’s previous novels. For one thing, the idea of the world going into a familiar religious-based Dark Age after a cataclysm isn’t exactly original. For another, the ending is quite abrupt, and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to interpret what Fairfax and the others ultimately find. It’s disturbing, yes, but what does Harris mean by it? I was also confused about something unexplained concerning the title. Harris includes a quote at the beginning of the book that tells us that Western Europeans used to sleep twice each night, waking and returning to sleep after midnight. During his first night in the village, Fairvax awakens to realize that the villagers have all gotten up and gone out, despite an apparent nationwide curfew. All along I was expecting some weird explanation for this. Instead, Fairfax himself is incurious about it, and what the villagers are doing is never explained. Yet there’s the book’s title, which I assume does not refer to this event but to the second dark age.

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Review 1422: #MARM Margaret Atwood Reading Month—The Testaments

I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to read The Testaments. I had heard conflicting opinions. More importantly, I felt that The Handmaid’s Tale was just about a perfect book that didn’t need a sequel. The Testaments ended up co-winning the Booker Prize, though, so I had to read it for my project, and I also decided to read it in time for Margaret Atwood Reading Month.

The novel is narrated in documents: testimonies, a hologram hidden in a library, and finally the text of a lecture. The major narrators are Aunt Lydia, one of the founders of Gilead; Agnes, a girl raised in Gilead; and a younger girl named Daisy raised in Canada.

Aunt Lydia is busy recording a secret document telling tales of corruption by the leaders of Gilead. Her narrative takes us back to the founding of Gilead, when she, a judge, and all the professional working women were rounded up and “tested” for their ability to move forward. Agnes tells about how her protected childhood was destroyed by the death of her mother, the discovery that her actual mother was a handmaid, and the advent of her stepmother. At 13, she is to be forced into a marriage with Commander Judd, a much older man who has had many young wives who have all died. Daisy begins to find out secrets about herself after her parents are killed in an explosion.

So, what did I think of this novel? Well, Atwood always knows how to capture and keep her readers’ attentions. The book is fast moving and well written and should make many of the television program’s followers happy, which is its purpose. Did I change my mind about a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale? Not really, especially since it does its job in a way that is so often predictable. I also felt that the final chapter was very weak. Atwood has tied everything up nicely, but sometimes I prefer ambiguity. So, a mixed review from me, even though overall it was a good book.

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Day 1149: J

Cover for JJ is one of the books I read for my Booker Prize project, and I almost didn’t finish it. About one third of the way in, I considered giving it up. Jacobson spent almost half the book hinting around about the underlying secrets of the novel, during which time nothing much seemed to be happening. Finally, I decided to read some reviews to see if they would make me decide to finish it, and they were intriguing enough for me to continue.

This novel is set in a dystopian future, but this dystopia is not quite what we might expect. An event, referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED seems to color all of society. History is not studied, and reading books is not encouraged. Everything seems too politically correct, with nothing being outlawed but many things—like rock music and most forms of art—eliminated by general consensus. Because this event was precipitated by social media, no one uses computers anymore, and the only phones are landlines that cannot call long distance, called utility phones. Oh, and everyone has a Jewish last name through a program named Call Me Ishmael.

Ailinn Solomons meets Kevern Cohen, and they begin dating. They both feel like outsiders in their coastal village even though Kevern was born there. He is a paranoid person who checks his locks and the position of his rug several times before he leaves his home. Ailinn is an orphan who is new to town.

Ailinn is vaguely aware of being nudged in Kevern’s direction by her housemate, Esme Nussbaum. And Kevern’s paranoia isn’t unfounded as someone is keeping an eye on him, Professor Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky, a colleague of the Benign Arts deparment of Bethesda Academy.

Something is clearly going on, but Jacobson is evasive about it for most of the novel. Zermansky knows about part of it and his diary entries, at first unidentified, punctuate the narrative as do those of another unidentified character. Zermansky’s interjections are more annoying than revelatory, written in an ironic but elliptical style, and we don’t see the point of them for some time.

My main criticism of this novel is that it takes so long to be understandable. In the meantime, we are treated to an uninteresting romance between two characters we don’t care about. It’s not that they’re one-dimensional, they’re no dimensional. For this is a novel about ideas, not people.

The reviews promise a shocking conclusion and stunning deep secrets. Certainly something nasty is going on, but by the time I learned what it is, I didn’t care. There are enough hints along the way that the conclusion is not all that surprising. I’ve seen this novel compared to Never Let Me Go, but that novel made you care about the characters before it sprung its big reveal, and then it stayed with the characters afterward. This novel puts all its eggs into the basket of the big surprise ending, which isn’t that much of a surprise by the time you get to it.

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Day 993: Slipping

Cover for SlippingI have read two novels by Lauren Beukes and greatly enjoyed their mashup of crime fiction and science fiction. So, I thought I’d love Slipping, a collection of short stories, essays, and other writings.

Beukes’s writing is energetic and her ideas unusual, often gruesome. Her stories are often bizarre. But, oddly enough, after a while they seemed to be very similar. Most of them are set in South Africa in what appears to be the near future, although some are set on other planets. Many are violent; many have characters leading glitzy but vapid lives. They feature a lot of slang that may be invented. There is a glossary, but I didn’t notice it until it was too late.

“Muse” is a short poem about the difficulty of writing, in which the writer receives gloves made of “muse skin” with barbed hooks in the fingertips.

link to Netgalley“Slipping” is about athletes who are artificially enhanced competing in a race. One of them is even a dead body. “Confirm/Ignore” is about catfishing. “Branded” offers advertizers a brand new idea for sponsorship. “Smileys” is a dystopian tale about a street vendor defending herself against extortion. “Princess” puts a startling interpretation on the story of the princess and the pea.

I don’t know why I felt this sameness, as the stories are obviously varied in nature, but I found myself not wanting to read more. I think some of the images were just to grotesque for me.

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Day 784: The Heart Goes Last

Cover for The Heart Goes LastStan and Charmaine are living in their car. They used to live a comfortable middle-class life, but the downturn was worst in the Northeast and both of them lost their jobs and then their home. There has been a breakdown in society. The streets are dangerous and normal services are defunct.

Charmaine has been earning a bit as a waitress in a bar, and Stan has been looking for work. He is even forced to go to his shady brother Colin for help when it has always been the other way around. Colin offers him a job, but Stan decides to wait a while, knowing that the job is likely to be illegal.

On the TV at the bar, Charmain sees an ad for the Positron Project, which offers employment and housing. When Stan and Charmain attend an introductory session, they’re not told very much except that if they return, they will not be allowed to leave. They must be ready to commit to the project.

Stan and Charmaine decide to give up their freedom for stability, even though Colin warns them not to go there. When they commit to the project, they find that the whole community is built around a prison. To create enough work around the prison, the staff must alternate one month inside the prison as inmates, one month out, sharing their house with another couple that is in when they are out.

This situation doesn’t seem to disturb them, and they continue on for a year. Then Charmaine becomes romantically involved with their male alternate, who calls himself Max. This relationship eventually leads to discoveries about the true nature of the project.

link to NetgalleyThe Heart Goes Last allows Atwood full rein of her acerbic sense of humor and biting satire. It is reminiscent of the darker excesses of the Maddaddam trilogy but without any very sympathetic characters. Instead, it gets progressively more absurd as it continues. Its references to the current political climate are obvious. Although I found this novel entertaining, I did not enjoy it as much as I have some of Atwood’s other novels.

Note: Caroline of Rosemary and Reading Glasses has written this fascinating post comparing this novel to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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Day 613: Brave New World

Cover for Brave New WorldIt has been many years since I first read Brave New World, and I didn’t remember very much at all of this acid dystopian novel. It takes a bitter, satiric look into the future from 1931, and like the best of futuristic novels, is somewhat prophetic.

Bernard Marx is an unusual misfit in a society structured around the contentment of its people, or contentment as is rigidly defined there. Family units no longer exist. Society is strictly tiered. Everyone is artificially born, and the lower castes are cloned in multiples. Each caste is conditioned chemically and psychologically from before birth to be content with its lot, the mental and physical abilities of the lower castes chemically limited.

Everything is designed around productivity and consumption. People spend their leisure hours in pursuit of pleasure and get their daily dose of the drug soma. The arts are obsolete, supplanted by a very limited science.

At first it seems as though the discontented Bernard will be the hero of this novel, but there actually is none. He likes Lenina Crowne but is afraid to approach her for fear of being rejected. Lenina is a bit attracted to Bernard and is getting flak from her friends for being too exclusive of late, for there is no concept of faithfulness in this society: “everyone belongs to everyone.” So, she agrees to go with Bernard on a trip to New Mexico to view the savages—remnants of society, apparently American natives, who have not been civilized and live within a barbed wire reservation.

Lenina is too conventional a girl to enjoy this trip, horrified by the dirt and squalor of life that is not antiseptic. But Bernard, who has heard his boss’s story of a lost girlfriend in New Mexico years ago, is intrigued to find this woman, Linda, and her son John, actually born of his parent. John is an outcast of his culture, because he is the son of a woman considered a whore for behavior her own culture believes is normal. He has educated himself from Shakespeare’s complete works. Bernard gets permission to bring Linda and John back to London, setting in train unforeseen consequences.

Huxley apparently firmly believed that future societies would be controlled by drugs and psychological conditioning. It is his interest in cloning and the power of propaganda that strikes more modern readers. I’m willing to bet he paid attention to the then-current theories of eugenics that were particularly popular in England and Germany. His choice of Henry Ford as a godlike image for that society is telling not only for Ford’s invention of the assembly lines, clearly a model for Huxley’s vision of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, but also for Ford’s own interest in eugenics.

I couldn’t help comparing Huxley’s vision of sexual freedom with that of Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, a book I really hated. There are other similarities too, John the Savage almost standing in for Heinlein’s alien-born Messiah, only finally shunning what he views as an immoral society rather than trying to start a religion. I think Huxley’s ideas are much more insightful, though.

That being said, I enjoyed this re-read only moderately. I appreciate Huxley’s deadpan humor, but a late section of the book, where Mustafa Mond explains his choices in life, is a bit too much like a sort of reverse didacticism, by which I mean that Huxley is not trying to make us agree with him, but trying to show us what is wrong with Mond’s ideas (or maybe I’m wrong—I believe Huxley thought that such controls over society were inevitable). In any case, any kind of didacticism in a novel is a good thing to avoid. Still, reading this novel after such a long time was an interesting experience.