Dystopian worlds; and a review of The Uninvited, Liz Jensen

I’ve read a few reviews of Revolution that have said it would be a more interesting show if (well, if several things, but the relevant one here is if) instead of starting fifteen years on from the blackout, it had a chronological plotline starting from the blackout. In fact (said these reviews), very few dystopian world pieces of media really show you how they got there. They’ll talk about how they got there, in greater or lesser degrees of detail, but that won’t be the plot of the story/show/movie/book.

There isn’t anything wrong with doing it this way, to be sure. The point of a dystopian setting is roughly the same as the point of many speculative fiction settings; i.e., to explore ideas about how to be a person means when the present-day understanding of the rules of personhood don’t apply. And it’s hard to write a book about the world as we know it changing to accommodate a new reality. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of very many — can you? There’s Life As We Knew It, which scared the poop out of me by coming off way too plausible, and there’s The Uninvited (more on that in a bit), and then…what else? Maybe zombie media do it? (I don’t really read zombie books much.)

The Uninvited is a book about the breakdown — slow at first, then faster and faster. It begins with a rash of incomprehensible deaths. Here and there across the country are reports of very young children killing their caretakers in shocking, brutal ways. But Hesketh Lock’s main concern is a series of apparently unrelated sabotage-suicide cases in various large-scale businesses. Each of the saboteurs claims that he was forced to act this way by young, malicious creatures of local legend — djinns in the Middle East, trolls in Scandinavia. As Hesketh tries to keep his loved ones safe from these new epidemics, he also struggles to understand the patterns and reasons that underlie the inexplicable changes to the world he lives in.

The build-up to the apocalypse (if, in light of the ending, that’s what you want to call it) is very good, very creepy. It starts small, one child, one murder; then shifts to the business investigations Hesketh is doing. The recurring elements in these investigations — the folklore, the sabotage, the suicide attempts — are disturbing in just the right measure. The saboteurs are claiming possession and then dying before they can say much more about it. Meanwhile, the child violence is spreading. Hesketh’s narrative voice is perfect for this. He is on the autism spectrum and is very attuned to patterns.

What worked best about The Uninvited (for me) was its relatively small focus. The details of the global catastrophe — the saboteurs bringing down construction sites, factories, airports, and so forth — kick off the book, but then they are mostly let go in favor of the pandemic of child violence; specifically, in favor of the aspects of the pandemic that directly affect Hesketh. Who has a young stepson called Freddie. It won’t be spoiling anything a sensible person wouldn’t guess to say that Freddie is affected — I won’t say to what degree — by whatever is affecting so many other children in this world. Around the edges of Hesketh’s single-minded focus on Freddie are the changes to the rest of the world. Emergency services are unable to keep up with all the cases of violence; infected (?) children wander the street in hierarchical gangs trying to avoid the vigilante justice of terrified adults. A few scientists are trying to study the children to figure out what has happened to them.

I liked it that the point of Hesketh wasn’t his autism spectrum disorder. The point of him — it turns out — is his fatherhood. He loves Freddie and will do anything for him. This isn’t something you see played out very often with autistic characters. In particular, I liked it that the book doesn’t depend on his being autistic. There are a lot of books where autistic narrators are used as the same brand of unreliable narrator as children — that the reader can see more than the narrator can about what’s really going on. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I’ve seen enough books that do it to where I’m a bit tired of it. It was refreshing that The Uninvited wasn’t that.

While the shift from normalcy to panic in the world works well, I didn’t think the shift from panic to the new normal was quite as well considered. You don’t get any real sense of what the world is going to be like with this new reality, neither on the grand scale nor on the small scale of just Hesketh and his family. The resolution of the mystery of the child violence was unsatisfying to me. It doesn’t hit you hard when Hesketh realizes what’s happening, and it hardly gets played out at all. It’s just sort of, My God, THIS is what’s happening. Fin.

So, the build-up was good, and the resolution not as good. It was fun for a change to see how the world turns into one of the postapocalyptic landscapes that seem to be all over our media these days.

Do y’all like seeing the world fall to bits in fiction, or do you like it better (as people must, I guess? since that’s what movies of this type tend to feature?) when the world has already fallen to bits and the people are settled into their new normal? Can you think of other examples of books/movies/shows where you see the adjustment? I seriously can’t think of any besides the Pfeffer book. GOD that book was scary.

I received an e-galley of The Uninvited for review through NetGalley.

Review: The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Here’s what happened. The lovely and beautiful Jeanne, who has probably the best blog name out there and is also just an awesome person, sent me The Gone-Away World for my birthday last year. It came in the mail and was a complete and delightful surprise, and I was so touched, and I started reading The Gone-Away World right away because Jeanne said it was one of her favorite books ever. Immediately had no idea what the hell was happening. There were, like, pigs? And some sort of pipe disaster that maybe had something to do with radiation? And lots of made-up/repurposed words that I didn’t understand? And I was like, Oh hell, not only am I not going to like Jeanne’s favorite book, I’m not going to like the favorite book she sent me as a present. To avert this disaster, I swiftly shelved it on my shelves and did not read it anymore. Because apparently I subscribe to the ostrich school of problem-solving.

PSA: Ostriches don’t really do that. You may continue to use them as a metaphor as I have done above, but do please be aware that they don’t really bury their heads in the sand. I mean, how would that even work? Would they dig it with their beaks? In which case the danger would have definitely already eaten them/passed by the time they dug a hole deep enough to bury their heads in? Would they use preexisting holes? What if they weren’t near a hole?

Anyway, I realized recently that it had been almost a whole year since Jeanne so sweetly sent this book to me and I ungratefully failed to read it, and I was like, Oh screw it, I am the worst gift recipient in the whole world, I am going to read this book already. If I hate it I’ll just say, It was very inventive!

The Gone-Away World is a difficult book to describe. It’s a dystopian novel about a world only made livable by the Jorgmund Pipe, now on fire and threatening the realm of safety that has been carved out in the wake of a war that has left whole chunks of the world missing. As our narrator and his friends set out to repair the Pipe — a dangerous mission from which they know they will not all return — we are sent backward in time to hear the story of the narrator’s life before the war, and his friendship (really his brotherhood) with Gonzo Lubitsch.

Reading Jeanne’s review, I observe that she, too, had a difficult time getting into this book. It’s a difficult book to get into! The first chapter drops you in media res, and you think you know exactly what kind of world you’re in — post-nuclear probably, lots of radiation poison and other unpleasant fallout — but can I just tell you now? That is not the world you’re in. When the book finally reached the point of explaining all the things that had baffled and alienated me in the first chapter, it turned out to be an incredibly inventive sort of dystopia, the sort of thing that has weird and new possibilities that you wouldn’t have thought of and haven’t seen before. So that was excellent. I was completely surprised by how much I liked the parts of the book that dealt with the destruction and rebuilding of the world. It was a new, fascinating, awesome kind of dystopia, and I was sad when the book ended because I wanted to see more of that world.

(I realize I just said the book was inventive, which is what I said I was going to say if I didn’t like the book, but I did like the book. It’s just difficult to talk about it without saying it was inventive.)

The structure of the book, another thing that maddened me because I hate it when a book/movie/TV show is like “APOCALYPTIC SCENE OF CATASTROPHE” and then flashes a scene of bucolic pleasantness with a caption of “Six months previously”, turned out to make much better sense than I initially thought. This is a deliberately vague remark, the purpose of which is to assure readers who, like me, have trouble getting into the book, that there is a method to Nick Harkaway’s madness. Have faith, and he will pay thee all. Is what I’m saying. The sensibleness of flashing back will strike you in time, and you will go “Oh that’s why he wrote it this way.” I promise that will happen.

The writing didn’t charm me as much as it did Jeanne — sometimes it was funny, but sometimes it felt arch and fake. That wasn’t a huge deal, though, because so much insane stuff kept happening. So much insane stuff. All the insanest stuff. Basically,The Gone-Away World does not so much zig when you expect it to zag, as KAPLOOEY when you expect it to zag. And I say that in the best possible sense. As events unfold, there will be points at which you think you know what’s going to happen, but I promise you, you do not know what is going to happen. Like, at all.

Thank you, wonderful Jeanne! I am a dumb bunny for not reading The Gone Away World sooner, and I’ll definitely be trying Nick Harkaway’s new book Angelmaker when my library gets it in.

Lots of other reviews! Check them out here.

Review: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness

Dear heavenly God. This book. Listen, everyone: Monsters of Men is being released in America on the 28th. That gives you just about enough time to go get the first two books in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, and read them before Monsters of Men comes out. I strongly advise this course of action if you have not already read the series. Do it now. You will thank me later.

I started writing this post during Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and that feels fitting because if there is any set of books for which I am grateful to book bloggers, it is the Chaos Walking series. I wouldn’t have read this series, or probably even looked twice at it, without the blogosphere’s ardent recommendations, and that would have been terrible because it’s quickly become one of my most favorite series in all the land, surpassing books by authors I have loved for much longer. Like, I asked myself which could I more easily live without, the Chronicles of Chrestomanci or the Chaos Walking books? If one of them were going to be lost forever to human history, and I had to pick which one got to survive, I’d pick Chaos Walking. And y’all know how I love Diana Wynne Jones.

I shall continue to honor spoiler-free September for this book, but I really can’t talk about it at all without spoiling the first two books to some extent (as in: who survives the first two books). If you haven’t read The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, please return to the first paragraph and follow its instructions before continuing reading this post. You will be happier in your life.

Where to begin? There were so many good things about Monsters of Men that naming just one, or even naming a few, feels completely inadequate. When the book opens, Todd has just freed the Mayor to command the human armies against the Spackle; Viola has gone to meet a scouting party from her colonization ship. The war against the Spackle proceeds along predictably horrifying lines, and even though you know the Spackle are justified, and the Mayor is evil sauce, you can’t help aligning yourself with the humans. Given your pick of humans and aliens, you’ll pick humans. Meanwhile, back at the scouting party, there is a different kind of awesome as Viola is reunited with two of the people who raised her on the colonization ship. Ness absolutely nails this: Viola has been through so much since she saw these people last, but in their minds she’s still the girl they’ve known all her life, and they are responsible for taking care of her.

Ness basically nails everything. There is not a false note in this whole damn book. Monsters of Men introduces a third narrator, the Spackle 1017 whom Todd let go in The Ask and the Answer. I was afraid this was going to feel put on, but that fear was, of course, unfounded. The Spackle’s narration gives us the aliens as they see themselves, complicating (of course) the war between humans and Spackle; and it also gives us his side of the events of The Ask and the Answer, which are even sadder than we knew at the time, and more heartbreaking than I would have anticipated. And, y’all, I anticipated a fair amount of heartbreak.

From the utter bleakness that was The Ask and the Answer, I thought Monsters of Men was going to be unmerciful, and it wasn’t that. Terrible things happened to major characters, but there were also moments of pure joy. I am thinking of one specific scene about two-thirds of the way through that filled my heart with happiness. If you’ve read it you probably know what I mean. Something happened that I desperately wanted to happen but did not think Patrick Ness would allow to happen, and I cried like a baby and read that scene over and over again. It is one of the greatest strengths of these books that Patrick Ness never ever fails to get the emotion he’s aiming for. I want to read these books a million times. Monsters of Men is a perfect conclusion to the Chaos Walking series. I have no complains whatsoever and will now go and reread that one scene again because it makes me cry just thinking about it. WITH JOY.

So many thanks to Heather at Candlewick Press for the review copy she sent me of this book. I was going insane waiting for it to come out in America and would have perished if I’d had to wait until September. Also, my family and friends were impressed that I got an advance reader’s copy, and I believe it was as a result of this that my mother, my friend, my sister, and my sister’s boyfriend all agreed to read this trilogy, and they loved it. Of course. How could they not? (Well, Captain Hammer has only read the first book so far, but he liked it and will assuredly like the subsequent books even more.)

Other reviews, probably including some spoilery ones, proliferate. Go ye to the Book Blogs Search Engine. And once again I would like to extend my strong and heartfelt thanks to Ana, who convinced me to read this series in the first place, kindly told me in April whether Todd and Viola were going to survive, and encouraged me to ask Candlewick Press for an ARC when I was shy.

Absolutely spoiler-free review of Mockingjay

I have had Carly Simon’s “Mockingbird” stuck in my head for the past week and a half. Except instead of “bird” I keep hearing “jay”. Mock–ye-ah; ing–ye-ah; jay–ye-ah. It’s gotten kind of old. All the time I was reading Mockingjay I’ve had this song in my head, and ever since then. To my joy, I read the end of Mockingjay at the bookshop ages before I started reading the library copy for real, so it didn’t fall under no-spoilers September. This worked out nicely for me because the rest of the book is pretty intense, and I am not positive I wouldn’t have cracked under pressure and read the end in spite of my no-spoilers rule.

(No, I wouldn’t have. I didn’t with Jellicoe Road and I didn’t with Half a Crown.)

Right now I just decided that no-spoilers September means NO SPOILERS WHATSOEVER. No spoilers in my reviews either. Yeah, I can totally do it. Here is my spoiler-free summary of Mockingjay, which also contains no spoilers for the first two books. Following the events of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are both in difficult situations. Gale too. (Y’all, the background of my laptop just turned Mockingjay blue. Is this a sign that I’m doing right by avoiding spoilers?) After some further difficult situations, each more fraught with moral implications than the last, the characters who survive carry on in the world created by the way they acted.

(Is no-spoilers September as unreservedly awesome for you so far as it is for me?)

Many have been the complaints and mighty the displeasure at the bleak turn the Hunger Games trilogy takes as it approaches its end. But I thought the bleakness made sense. You can’t have a difficult situation of the Mockingjay sort (I am consistent like a piston with this no-spoilers month) (yes, “consistent like a piston” doesn’t make sense. But neither does “chilling like a villain”, and people still carry on saying that) without it working out poorly for a certain number of the characters. Or, to steal the words of Mssrs. Croup and Vandemar, you can’t make an omelet without killing a few people. Mockingjay takes a direction that is consistent with the first two books and, artistically speaking, inevitable.

Yes. Artistically speaking, inevitable. When I’m forced to avoid spoilers, I start to sound like a slightly douchy creative writing undergrad. True story about me: I’m better with spoilers.

(This review is mostly a joke about how lame my life is without spoilers. If you want to read proper and spoilery reviews, hit up the Book Blogs Search Engine, because everyone has been reading this book in the last couple of weeks, and they have had a lot of feelings about it.)

The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness

Y’all.  For serious.  Patrick Ness.

The Ask and the Answer has caused me to lose the power to form sentences.  I am not even lying.  I was sat there in the Bongs & Noodles right after I finished reading the book (which isn’t officially out yet – I love it when the bookshop doesn’t care), and someone asked if the seat next to me was taken.  I believe my exact words were “Nnng blfff chair sit.  I mean, no,” and then I wanted to tell them all about The Ask and the Answer and how intense and terrifying it was.  You know how some books make you want to talk about them?  And you have to really try hard not to, because you know if you start talking you’re going to babble?  That is The Ask and the Answer for me.

Patrick Ness, not afraid to go to the dark place.  Dark like exploring how a person who participates in slavery can come to sympathize with it; i.e., triple extra dark.  So dark that if it were Lindt chocolate IT MIGHT EVEN BE TOO DARK FOR ME, and I say this as a girl who loves the 80% cacao Lindt chocolate.  And I expect there will be spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go in this review, because I can’t help it; but only minor spoilers for The Ask and the Answer.

Todd and Viola have been separated by the old Mayor of Prentisstown, now styling himself as the President of New Prentisstown (what used to be Haven); and each of them are hostage for the other’s good behavior.  As Viola recovers from being shot, the Mayor tries to convince her that he’s working for the good of the planet.  Meantime Todd works alongside Davy Prentiss (you know, the kid that just shot Viola), supervising a herd of enslaved alien creatures (Spackle).  The Mayor asks more and more of Todd, always threatening him with Viola’s death-

(I keep writing “the Mayor” and thinking of hand sanitizer.)

Yeah, so Todd becomes an overseer for this massive herd of Spackle, while Viola, in the healers’ house, is asked over and over by the Mayor to persuade the healers – one in particular – that the Mayor means to create a good civilization for them. Mistress Coyle, the one in particular, isn’t having any of it.  She and some of the other healers prove to be part of an underground guerrilla fighting group called The Answer, and she tries to get Viola to fight on her side.  Essentially Todd and Viola are both fiercely recruited for opposite sides of a war for the world, even though all they really want is to find each other again.  Never sure what to believe, they do come to identify with the people with whom they have fallen in.  In spite of being elaborately and repeatedly manipulated.

These books are so bleak!  And good!  And bleak!  Viola and Todd have to grow up a lot in these books, and make fantastically difficult decisions while being unable to trust the main people in their lives.  Because, of course, they want to be the main people in each other’s lives, but they have been separated.  They are not even sure whether they can trust each other.  It is bleak, but it is really about the power of love (like the bleakest possible ever book on that theme), and the identities we create for ourselves (and that others create for us).

If you haven’t read The Knife of Never Letting Go, you should get on that, and then read also The Ask and the Answer.  They are painful and sad and all about redemption.  (I wish Todd would get to read his mum’s notebook already.  I know it’s going to make me cry but I want to know what she says.)  I am desperate to read the third one, Monsters of Men it is apparently going to be called, which is not coming out even in the UK until next year.  Hmph.

Other reviews: things mean a lot, Persnickety Snark, Karin’s Book Nook, Kids Lit, YA Reads

Let me know if I missed yours!

Siberia; August 15th

It’s August 15th!  Happy Independence Day, India!  Where my excellent friend is and I hope she is having a good time teaching children!  And Happy Assumption of the Virgin Day, Catholics!  I didn’t go to church today despite its being a holy day of obligation, but never mind, I will go another time.  And, says my newspaper, and Wikipedia agrees with me, it is also happy birthday to Phyllis Schlafly, which I normally wouldn’t mention except it’s such a coincidence because I was just thinking about her the other day reading The Handmaid’s Tale!

(When I was in high school and my mum was getting her degree in theology, she had this book called Texts of Terror, by an excellent scholar of Biblical feminism called Phyllis Trible.  And I always scowled at it blackly on the bookshelf when I saw it because I thought it was Phyllis Schlafly, and I knew I didn’t care for Phyllis Schlafly.  And then one time I pulled it out and looked at it properly, and discovered it was close readings of several Biblical incidents involving harm to women.  Not Phyllis Schlafly at all.  Phyllis Trible is someone totally different.)

But on to Ann Halam‘s Siberia, which I read about on Sharry’s blog.  Another YA dystopia book – apparently I can’t get enough of these.  In this case, Sloe and her mother grow up in a snowy wasteland of wretchedness, having been banished thither due to her mother’s scientist proclivities.  The unpleasant future here includes not only lots of hateful government taking people off and killing/banishing them, but no wild animals at all left in the world.  Sloe’s mum is the secret guardian of “seed kits”, which contain the seeds of animals that will allow the earth to be repopulated someday.  Their mission is to bring the kits eventually to a city where they will be safe.

This didn’t really work for me.  Maybe I am dystopia’d out.  This world didn’t feel real, and neither did Sloe’s quest to bring her little seed animals to safety – how could they really use them to repopulate the earth, with the government in power?  They’d just get shot!  I didn’t get a sense of the way the government works, or how the world had ironed itself out (like where were the luxury people that apparently exist?  I don’t know!  It was confusing!), and I didn’t think the seed kit animals were well-explained.  Plus, here are some spoilers for you, I was mad that Sloe’s mum was alive in the end.  I thought the story lacked an emotional punch, and I think it was partly because the environment didn’t seem terribly threatening (as evidenced by Sloe’s mum’s survival).

On the other hand, I was reading it at the hospital, an atmosphere not conducive to reading pleasure, and I have to admit, I was flying through and possibly not paying much attention to it.  I think it could have done with some more fleshing out of the world they live in, but my other criticisms may be completely unfair.  And why am I mad that the mum survived?  I always want people’s loved ones to survive in dystopian books!  Sheesh.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist dystopian satire.  It was sort of a box-tick read, but it was very good, and well-written, and I’m glad I read it and I never ever want to read it again.  In slightly-future America, now a fascist misogynist theocracy called Gilead, Offred (but June, really) is a Handmaid.  This means that she has viable ovaries, and is responsible for producing babies.  Once a month she has sex with the Commander to whom she belongs, and her life is sharply circumscribed – she can’t read, can’t walk in public by herself, can’t talk to other men.

The book is not a straightforward narration of events – what fun would that be, for a Bad Future America?  June’s narration tilts between times, the present and the past and the little she can imagine of her future.  We gradually begin to get a picture of June’s life as a Handmaid – dancing around forbidden subjects with fellow Handmaids and other members of the household, trying to navigate changing relationships with the Commander and his Wife, who used to be an awful Phyllis Schafly person in the time before Gilead became a fascist theocracy.  And June talks about her life before, her husband and daughter, and the events that led up to where she is now, including her time in a women’s indoctrination school.

The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel upset – or, actually, as I have been rigorously trained not to say that anything makes me feel anything, I felt upset when I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Obviously that’s the point!  I just don’t think I’m going to read it again.  She just makes it seem so viable – they draw a comparison with Iran, and I’ve been reading about Iran, and it’s scary.  Like, June talks about the speed with which she has adapted to her new life: it’s been only a few years, but already she is shocked to see the clothes on women from other countries, skirts to the knee, and lipstick.  I don’t know – June’s life has become so small, even from what it was at the indoctrination school.  Upsetting.

Something else that upset me: June tells stories about her friend Moira, a feminist who went to her same college, and who was at June’s same indoctrination school.  Moira is brave and rebellious – she swears and gossips and escapes from the school – and June admires this.  But still she recognizes that she isn’t as brave as Moira, and she tries to imagine that Moira finds a way to be free.  “Moira is right,” she says, almost at the end.  “I am a wimp.”  (I’m not brave either.)

Oh, but (spoilers here!) there was one of those lovely unresolved endings that I like so much.  I like these because then things always end happily.  In my mind, June escaped and  she found Luke and she went through the Phyllis Schafly person to find her daughter, and then she got her daughter back, and they moved to Canada, the true North strong and free (yeah, I know that song), and lived happily ever after.  I love it when grim books let you decide what happens in the end.

A bit I liked, about the pre-Gilead days:

There were places you didn’t want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on lights.  These things you did like prayers; you did them and you hoped they would save you.  And for the most part they did.  Or something did; you could tell by the fact that you were still alive.

And this, from one of the women who indocrinates June.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia.  Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it….We seemed to be able to choose, [in the old days].  We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.  How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable.  They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers.  We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.  It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

I want to read more Margaret Atwood.  I love how she writes.  I only didn’t give this five stars because it gave me a nightmare.  Dammit.  Without even being true!

Other reviews: Book Nut, The Book Lady’s Blog, The Luscious Literary Muse, Books for Breakfast, The Bluestocking Society, Books and Other Stuff, Violet Crush, It’s All About Me, read warbler, things mean a lot, Valentina’s Room, Reading Reflections, In Spring It Is the Dawn, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Rebecca Reads, Boston Bibliophile, and let me know if I missed yours!