book review: more than this

I really really liked Patrick Ness’ YA novel More Than This. The protagonist, Seth, wakes up in a world empty of people and figures it’s hell. He figures that because the last thing he remembers doing was killing himself. The first part of the book is about him exploring the empty world, which is surprisingly like the town he grew up in in England, and having these incredibly vivid dreams about his life back in Washington leading up to his drowning.

Then things change.

The book is so good at working with the reader’s and with Seth’s expectations of what this story should be like. There are many shades of the ideas behind the Matrix floating around in here, which is great because Seth’s conscious of the kind of world he’s in, and is critical of it, even while he’s flashing back to these (mostly) awful memories of life before. The whole “this isn’t right” aspect of the novel just builds and builds until you really don’t know what will/could happen next. I guess I’m saying it uses its science fictional elements perfectly to create a story about what it’s like being a human.

book review: lilith’s brood

Octavia Butler wrote these three books I read in a one volume collection called Lilith’s Brood. They’re sort of generational novels about humans who’ve been rescued by aliens after we destroyed most life on Earth.

In Dawn we follow Lilith as she’s awoken by the aliens on their ship and taught about what’s happened and what the aliens want them to do. See, the aliens want to incorporate humans into their genome (they’re biological collectors) and they want to put the humans back on Earth in a few carefully chosen areas so they can make them into something else. They’re totally fascinated by cancer, which allows the aliens to do all sorts of cool new things. Also the aliens have three genders including one that basically is there to manipulate DNA. The aliens want the humans to cooperate with them and choose Lilith to be their intermediary. By the end of the book she’s got the remaining humans ready to be rereleased on Earth, though she’s hated as a species traitor.

Adulthood Rites is about Lilith’s son and how he tries to get the rebel humans on Earth to accept their alien patrons. The humans who hybridize with aliens get to be practically immortal and have alien hybrid babies, while the ones who resist have all been sterilized and will grow sick and die. It’s kind of brutal. By the end of this book most of the resisters are sent to Mars where they can have children without interference from the aliens.

Then in Imago the protagonist is the first of the intermediary gender alien human hybrids that’s ever been born to a human mother who happens to be Lilith (families by this point usually have two human and two alien parents). This person is hated and feared and is desperate to find humans it can have sex with. By the end it does.

What I loved about the books was that they didn’t take the perspective of the human resisters. It’s always about the people who are adapting and accommodating themselves to the aliens, which is very interesting and different.

These books are weird because they’re pretty much all about the drive to procreate. Once the aliens get involved, people find the touch of their human lovers gross if they don’t have an alien with them. It was all very interesting but I didn’t quite get why everyone within minutes is pairing off and trying to repopulate the planet. It’s like there aren’t any other concerns that anyone has in these books beyond their bodily security and fucking. To me that’s weird, but that’s why I read science fiction.

booklog summary: august/september 2013

Every so often I get far enough behind in my book blogging I just declare bankruptcy and start fresh. This is one of those times. Here’s what I’ve read since my last book review:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller: Good post-apocalypse stuff. Realistic but not too depressing.
  • Time and the Batman by Grant Morrison: Kind of bullshit. Can’t remember why.
  • Zoo Station by David Downing: A cold war spy novel set in Berlin. I think I’ve now conflated an article I read by LeCarre into the plot, but I liked it.
  • Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire: Good rough early work, but man is his current stuff ever better.
  • Poor Yorick by Ryan North: Good, but not as crazy as To Be or Not To Be, which is gonads-out amazing and will get its own review.
  • 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa: I loved this 22 volume manga, even if the end is a little abrupt.
  • Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin: It took me forever to read this book, but that’s just because it’s oppressive and painful like the history it’s based on.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Really good. Different from Mechanique, more grown-up, but I can’t hold that against it.
  • The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno: Not as Encyclopedia Brown grows up as I wanted deep in my heart, but still more than decent.
  • The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling: Kidbrarian confession time. Before September I’d only read the first Harry Potter book and only knew the rest of them through Wikipedia. I have rectified that (and think the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite) (and was a little chagrinned that my MBTI says I’m Hermione when I wanted to be Sirius Black).
    Harry Potter MBTI chart

    Harry Potter MBTI – |

  • The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: The earlier stuff was more interesting before it got to the states.
  • The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson: A sort of post apocalyptic noir thing in a similar vein to Gun Machine, but not quite as good. Still decently readable.
  • Sorry, Please, Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu: Very good George Saunders-esque short stories. Highly recommended.
  • Penguin: Pride and Prejudice by Gregg Hurwitz: A comic depicting Gotham’s Penguin as a tragic villain. Much better than I expected, but not amazing.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I love love love the Tines (pack mind aliens. The story was fine but the politics got me angry. Totally worth it if you’ve read A Fire Upon the Deep.
  • By the Balls: Jim Pascoe & Tom Fassbender: Noir stories set in Nevada in the late-90s. Good pulpy stuff.

The last book I read is one I really liked and will get a full review later this week.

book review: half lives

When I received an ARC of Sara Grant’s YA post-apocalypse story Half Lives I was kind of interested but figured it wouldn’t be anything too special. That was about right.

There are two storylines to the book. In the contemporary timeline Isis is fleeing a global terrorist attack to a mountain in Nevada where her parents think she’ll be safe. She picks up three other teens on her way and then they shut themselves into the mountain. The other timeline is some indeterminate time in the future where a tribe of young people live on a mountain following the Just Sayings and living their cultish little lives, terrified of the terrorist beasties that are waiting for them out in Vega if they leave the mountain.

I liked the contemporary storyline well enough, though there were a lot of logistical things like spatial arrangements that were vague and suffered for it. There was a crossing the highway bit in Nevada where they were dodging speeding cars and then there were infected people in gridlock that just never made sense to me. I re-read the section to see if I’d missed something but it remained missing to my eyes after the reread. The romance and whatever was all pretty par for the course in a YA novel.

The future timeline was much worse. The big problem for me was the present tense narration and varying third-person points of view. Everything there felt so disjointed compared to Isis’ first-person past-tense narration. The climactic scenes were filled with anti-climax and it was always a little tough to figure out what had just happened (though since there’s nothing really surprising to the plot you can just assume that what you would have guessed ahead of time is what did occur).

So yeah. I didn’t really like Half Lives. There were some good bits, but overall it would be fairly low on my books to recommend, unless someone was specifically looking for generation spanning YA stories, or shifting language YA stories, or nuclear waste YA stories.

book review: the gone-away world

Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World is kind of a gonzo post-apocalyptic novel. One of the main characters is, in fact named Gonzo. But it’s also the story of how the world came to be this way, through the use of Go Away bombs that destroyed the world with no pesky fallout. Except for making the planet a place where nightmares become real.

The story starts with the narrator and Gonzo’s company of truckers and general bad-asses being called in to do a job, put out a fire, save the world. There’s a cataloguing of the various kinds of pencil-necks one finds in the world, ranked according to their dangerousness, and the idea that resonates through the book is introduced: being a professional means giving up your personhood to be part of a machine.

Can you see why I liked this one?

But then the first chapter is over and the trucks are rolling towards doom and glory and we drop back to childhood. We learn about being trained to fight ninjas by a daft elderly man, and having lots of sex as a political student, and absurd stupid wars featuring absurd terrible soldiers (and fearsomely brilliant ones) and terror and friendship. It’s awesome. And funny. And there are mimes.

I liked this better than Angelmaker, but that might be because I wasn’t trying to figure out how seriously to take it the whole time. It was the kind of crazy awesome book the world needs more of.

movie review: cloud atlas

After reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas I would have said it was the perfect example of a book that couldn’t be filmed. Now, to prove me wrong, there’s a Cloud Atlas film by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.

It’s really good. [SPOILERS AHEAD]

I mean, yes, when adapting a story that has 6 storylines and a unique structure (the book starts with a story from the 1850, tells half of each story which extends into a post-apocalyptic future and then goes back through time to finish each story) into film, it’s going to be changed. And the Wachowski’s are not making a subtle film here, so the changes are not going to err on the side of subtlety. The biggest change was intercutting all the stories together, so you bounce from Neo-Seoul to 1970s San Francisco to a Pacific voyage back to the 1930s composer all at once. And it worked. Each of the stories did have its own tone to it, but the reuse of actors in all these different roles made it feel like one movie.

Obviously, everything was less detailed than in the book. The conflicts within characters, obviously couldn’t come to the fore as much. If you love the book, this might bother you. I felt that most in the 1970s nuclear plant story and the 1930s composing story. If I hadn’t read the book I think I’d have been wondering where the depth to those storylines was. The movie had to pick one viewpoint character for the nuclear story, and chose wisely in sticking with Luisa Rey, but a lot of the intrigue in the book version of that story for me had been in the indecision about things. Similarly with the composing story we don’t have the sense of interiority that the book gave us.

But the simplicity of film worked so well in the two futuristic storylines. The story of the post-apocalyptic Valley people was done in excellent dialect and the interior parts of Zachry’s fear of the devil could be shown dramatically with the devil all around him. Visually, Neo-Seoul was great: the streets made of light for flying cars were awesome, and this was also where the best fight scenes were. I did kind of hate the facial prosthetics the white actors were wearing to look Korean. I had to think of them as something a bit more alien than Korean people to keep my cognitive dissonance down.

There were also a few very “movie” moments that I could have done without. Ending the film was obviously going to be difficult because of how it abandoned the novel’s structure. The Adam Ewing ending of “And now I am off to join the Abolitionists!” was such a Hollywood happy ending I had to check my copy of the book to see if that was wholly made up (it was not, but is expressed as a hope in a journal, not a dramatic fireside confrontation). The other big ending change was turning far-future Zachry into the person telling the whole story on some far planet. Which, again, was not subtle. And the 1970s “Don’t call me a wetback” line seemed gratuitous, though I guess it fit the kind of movie that era would produce.

But those quibbles are just that. I love stories that are cut up and told like this. Where you’re looking at the commonalities between stories and drawing connections in the process of watching. After the film was over last night one of the people in the theatre said “I have no idea what that was about but I think I liked it.” Nobody said anything similar when I was done watching Skyfall last week. Cloud Atlas demands something from the viewer that a lot of movies don’t, and I want more movies like it.

book review: the dead-tossed waves

When I read Carrie Ryan’s YA novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth I enjoyed it, partially because of how the zombie story and the escape and the doomed teen romance all worked together. The Dead-Tossed Waves is the sequel (and second book in the series), and I didn’t like it as much. It is entirely possible I am getting zombie-fatigue.

Gabry, the hero of this story is the daughter of the hero from The Forest of Hands and Teeth. I quite liked that there was this generational split and that the reader could see Gabry’s mom with different information than Gabry herself had. The big arc for Gabry is how she goes from a desire for safety and security and following the rules to escape and challenge and doing things she didn’t think possible. I’m glad it got where it was going because I couldn’t stand Gabry’s whininess in the first part of the book.

There’s a forbidden love triangle between Gabry, and two boys: Catcher and Elias. Catcher’s been bitten by a zombie (directly after their first kiss – talk about punishing transgression) which makes romance there difficult. Elias is looking for his sister and is so capable but keeps too many secrets (for no real reason other than the plot demands it).

I was also disappointed that there was so little nautical adventure, considering the title. There were tantalizing mentions of pirates but none actually appeared in a book named for the sea. Maybe they’ll be in the third. The end is set up for a direct sequel, not a next generation kind of thing.

It’s not a bad book. There’s a good clever puzzle Gabry solves using Shakespeare to find their way through the gates in the forest, which I quite liked. It pushes a little hard on the doomed romance angle for my tastes; it feels more like the Edward/Jacob setup than a Peeta/Gale situation, but that’s probably because Gabry feels much more like a Bella than a Katniss, at least early on in the book.