Full House Reading Challenge – The Mandibles – Lionel Shriver (Contains Spoilers)

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2016

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When every other country in the world changes its currency to the Bancor, the United States finds itself with a problem. When it doesn’t accept the currency, the dollar quickly loses its value and prices start to rise. The Mandibles find their much relied on inheritance disappears and they suddenly are left with nothing. The novel covers their reactions to events from 2029-2047. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Most recently added to TBR.

This book was a struggle at times. In fact, it took me a month to read it. It is testament to Shriver’s high quality writing that I kept going. She certainly can string a sentence together. That is not the problem with this novel.

Nor is it the idea which I think is a solid one. In fact, given the current economic situation (particularly with Brexit causing so many worries in the UK) some of it seemed a little close to actual reality. There seemed to be dramatic possibilities in the idea of the once privileged losing everything. I always enjoy the rich taking a tumble.

The problem is that nothing really happens. Or it happens off page. An awful lot of  this novel is taken up with dinner party talk – or the equivalent when no one is having dinner parties anymore. In some ways, this is an interesting way of marking the changes in society  – with the way that a simple event changes – but it just isn’t very exciting. There are lots of intellectual debates about what might happen next which would be fine if this were an economic treatise but it’s novel and so it fell a bit flat.

I had some issues with the names in this novel – Willing, Goog, Fifia, Bing. It felt as though Shriver were trying a little hard. And the slang that these young folk used never really rang true and I never got used to it. Maybe that is just a sign of my age but it just sounded false.

When, at last, it feels like things are as bad as they can be, Shriver again doesn’t give  us the details but jumps past it all to a future where things are kind of settled again. The Mandibles are ousted from their house by their neighbours who play on their middle class naivety by pretending their child is ill. Willing, the teenage son, suggests they need to walk to their Uncle’s farm, a whole state away. This, I thought, would make for interesting reading. At last, something terrible was about to happen on the page. But no, this walk and their time on the farm was not described – perhaps because, in actual fact, their surviving this walk would have stretched incredulity to its limits. I felt cheated all the same.

The final chapters are largely taken up with the modern day equivalent of a dinner party where the young folk all sit around and discuss what became of everyone else. Not a very satisfying way of tying up loose ends. Again, there are some clever ideas about the way the world turns out but I felt I was being lectured to rather than being shown events unfolding.

Finally, the ending is a cheat. Nollie, Willing’s ancient aunt has been carefully lugging a box of her old manuscripts around with her from pillow to post. Willing thinks she may be becoming old and senile but, it becomes apparent that their is something precious in the box. Nollie has a large quantity of gold which it just so happens, she can now convert into currency in their new home in the state of Nevada – the one state that has not opted into the new economic rules. So there is a happy ending. Although the last line of the novel suggests that the future might not be exactly perfect, the whole thing ended a bit too nicely. Overall, it was disappointing.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – The Kraken Wakes – John Wyndham

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Genre: Dystopia, Disaster

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5Unknown

Published: 1953

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The first sign that anything is amiss is when strange globes start to appear over the sea and then sink under the waves. Nobody thinks anything of it at first but then ships start to disappear and worse, islands start to be attacked. Mike Watson and his wife, Phyllis are caught in the reporting of the events as they quickly escalate. 

Unlike a lot of disaster style fiction, this novel takes you through events as they happen rather than what happens afterwards. At the beginning, Mike and Phyllis Watson are watching icebergs flow past them. Clearly something has gone very wrong. They decide that an account needs to be written of what has brought the world to this sorry state.

There are three separate stages to events. The first is the seemingly harmless phenomenon of strange red balls in the sky that seem to disappear under the waves. Next ships start to disappear and attempts at discovering what may be beneath the waves end with ships being destroyed along with strange creatures starting to invade islands and coasts. When people start to fight back and the creatures are curtailed then the icebergs start to mysteriously melt and the flood waters start to rise.

Mike and Phyllis are journalists and this is apparent in the report that Mike writes. There is a distance between them and events – with them often reporting back about events that they have not actually seen. Consequently the reader is a little distanced from it as well. There was little in the way of emotional response from Mike even when he describes having to get away from it all because he is stressed by events.

Wyndham allows Mike to comment on world affairs and reactions and this is much more successful. The comments about Russian and American reactions and about Government propaganda were apt and clever. The character of Bocker, who in the beginning prophesies doom, goes through many stages in the book – starting off being ostracised until finally he is the only one who has actually got anything right. This shows how the media works to create heroes and villains when it suits them.

I found the ending a bit disappointing. Perhaps because it seemed a bit too neat. It reminded me a little of my disappointment at the end of H G Wells The War of the Worlds. It was almost like a cheat. Or like Wyndham had got fed up with telling the story. Apart from that, this was a very enjoyable and very clever tale of disaster and the way that Governments respond to them.

Books Read in 2015 – 48. burners by Bob Mayer

Genre: dystopia

Narrative style: third person, chronologicalUnknown

Rating: 2 and a half / 5

Published: 2015

Format: Kindle

I received a copy of burners through Librarything’s Early Reviewers program.
burners is a dystopia, set after The Chaos when humans and cyborgs fought to the near destruction of the planet. Now humanity is separated into burners, people, middlemores and evermores, according to how long they live for. The world is run by dealer who decides, according to DNA, who will live in each group.
I was quite interested in this story at first. It begins with Grace and Millay, twin sisters who have managed to swap places between burner and people. The action begins straightaway as they fail to meet up and both are nearly captured. However, the pace was not sustained and the twists and turns started to seem less convincing particularly the sudden appearance of Ruth, the cyborg, just in time to save someone from death.
At first, I was intrigued by the different sections of society, what they meant and how they had come into being. There are a lot of references to poker and to the hand you have been dealt which were interesting but could have been expanded into something more. Again as the novel progresses, I became less convinced. The explanation of how the categories came into being was a bit too simplistic and left me with questions that the novel did not answer.
Each chapter is separated into sections from the various’ characters points of view. This did add to the tension but I also found it a little frustrating as some of the sections were quite short and then you were off again to another character.
The ending was sudden but I guess that is how you make someone read the next book in the series. I would have liked a bit more closure as I had a lot of questions, however, I don’t think I will be reading on. While this is an interesting idea, I felt it could have been better executed.

Books Read in 2015 – 44. A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person from various points of viewUnknown

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1977

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Bob Arctor is an undercover agent trying to find the source of a batch of Substance D, an extremely addictive narcotic. He has to report back on his friends and housemates who are also being watched by the powers that be. As a part of being undercover, he too has to take the drug. As it takes hold of him, he becomes more and more divorced from himself and more and more dependant on the drug. 

It is hard to know how to put this novel into words. At its centre is Arctor’s swirl downwards into addiction. His paranoia and inability to recognise himself increase with his addiction and it is hard for the reader to tell what is real and what is not.

At the start, we are informed that Arctor has a scramble suit that he wears so his superiors cannot recognise him and with that is the name ‘Fred’ which he uses when he reports back on the household that he lives in. It is during one of these reports, he learns that Bob Arctor is under suspicion and another layer of surveillance is added when his superiors start to watch the house as well.

It all starts to get a bit messy inside of Arctor’s head. Watching the videos, he has to report on himself and his housemates. He watches in a safe house, in his scramble suit, with other scrambled individuals, watching other houses. It could easily be one of his housemates in the suit and he would never know. As he watches and continues to take the drug, he starts to not recognise himself on the TV and begins to refer to Arctor in the third person. He gets more and more paranoid and his superiors think that he may be losing it. He is put through a series of absurd tests by men in lab coats that talk in riddles. Eventually, they decide he needs to go into rehab because the drugs have finally broken him.

The novel is a difficult read. Dick says that the instances of drug taking, psychosis and withdrawal were all true and it certainly is unflinching in its description of the horrors of drugs. Dick also says that he does not consider it to be novel with a moral and if he means in terms of his attitude towards the addicts in the novel, that is probably true. There is no judgement. These people just are who they are, having come to a point in their lives where they can do no other than take drugs.

However, I do think that there a sense of morality with regard to the way that addicts are treated and the way the powers that be try to solve the ‘problem’ of addiction. This is shown in a couple of ways. First of all, once Arctor is no longer useful as an informant (and they admit that they used him to get to Barris, one of his housemates) they quickly remove him, not forgetting to charge him for becoming an addict while undercover. He is removed to a facility to withdraw but it is clear he will never be the same again.

Dick suggests that the facility – which is in need of addicts to get funding – may actually be the source of Substance D that Arctor was supposed to investigate. They create the addicts by growing and selling the drug which then secures their future as a clinic. This is suggested by two colleagues who have tried to control Arctor’s descent into addiction so that when he withdrew, he might be able to investigate. Unfortunately, he is too destroyed to do so.

At the end, I was relieved to have finished reading because the narrative was making my head hurt a little. There is a small ray of hope at the end, when Bruce (who it may be assumed is Arctor) sees the Substance D plant growing and picks one for his friends. But whether this will lead to anything other than more addiction, it is difficult to say.

Books Read in 2015 – 39. Divergent – Veronica Roth (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia

Narrative Style: first person, chronologicalDivergent_(book)_by_Veronica_Roth_US_Hardcover_2011

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In the future, society is divided up into factions based on personality types – abnegation, amity, cantor, dauntless and erudite – and all children must choose their faction when they are 16. While undergoing the tests that will help her decide, Beatrice discovers that she is another type altogether – she is divergent. She is warned to keep this secret at all costs. 

It is almost inevitable that I would compare this to The Hunger Games, having read that series fairly recently. Unfortunately I didn’t find this scenario quite as convincing. Although I understand the point that Roth was trying to make, it just didn’t ring true the way that the world of The Hunger Games did. Also, it meant that some of the characters seemed a little one sided as they were representing an entire personality type. Nevertheless, the story has a lot of tension and so I did want to find out what happened next and I didn’t have any problem reading to the end.

I liked the fact that the setting was recognisably Chicago and the way that this suggested a not too distant future. The landmarks are used well by Roth and are not merely window dressing. I particularly liked the parts where they climb the ferris wheel and when they zip-line off the Hancock Building. Having been to the top of the Hancock Building helped me imagine how terrifying that moment would have been.

As with Katniss, I did find Tris a little annoying. As I have said before, I am sure this is mostly because I am not a teenage girl anymore. At times, she did seem wilfully blind as to what was going on about her but I guess that was supposed to add tension to the story. I wasn’t sure whether Roth meant the reader to be one step ahead of her or not.

I enjoyed all the descriptions of initiation and the problems that Tris and the other initiates faced. Roth offers the reader two forms of authority  – two ways of being Dauntless – as the contrast between Four and Eric is described. Obviously this relates to the transition of teenagers into adults and learning about the correct way to be in charge. At times, this was a little trite but again this may be merely an adult perspective.

The romance between Tris and Four wasn’t too distracting from the action. Four was one of the more interesting characters – he was more ambiguous at first. The only point I found unconvincing was when he was part of the simulation and Tris miraculously brings him out of it due presumably to the intensity of their love. That was a bit nauseating.

Obviously, the book is part of a series and ends in such a way that you are supposed to rush off and buy the next one. I don’t really feel compelled to do that. I will probably read the next one but I am in no rush to do so.

Books Read in 2015 – 24. The Giver – Lois Lowry

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Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person from one point of view

Rating 3/5Unknown

Published: 1993

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Jonas’s world is perfect. No one is ever hurt or upset. Their roles are carefully chosen and everyone fits right in. Even death has become something to celebrate with the ceremony of release for the old. However, as Jonas discovers when he is given the role of Receiver of Memory, underneath the surface there is pain. But there is also love and passion and colour. Jonas has to decide whether the love is worth the pain.

Reading challenges: eclectic-reader-challenge-2015/- genre: Middle grade / Young Adult adventure

This book is interesting rather than exciting. At first, it seems that there is no problem with Jonas’s world. Everyone is happy because no one can remember or process upset or dissatisfaction. Everyone is the same. There are hints of the extent that the society is controlled – for example when Jonas takes an apple home that should have been eaten as a snack – but it isn’t until Jonas receives his new role at age twelve that the reader gets to see exactly what is missing from this society.

Jonas is to be the new Receiver of Memory. He has to visit The Giver who passes on the memories physically to him. Some of the memories are good – they are of family get togethers and having fun in the snow. Others are painful, memories of war or injury. Most interestingly, it transpires that Jonas’s people cannot see colour so that everyone is literally the same. (It isn’t explained how this has come about but I’m going to assume it was some genetic cleverness that somehow bred out the ability to see colour.) Jonas has already had hints that he can see colour and once he can, the world of his community seems terribly dull.

Quickly Jonas learns that nothing is quite what it seems. He discovers exactly what happens when people are released and realises with horror that some people – himself included – are allowed to lie to everybody else about what actually happens in their jobs or when people are released.

I was quite interested up until this point. The importance of memory – be it good or bad – cannot be doubted and when The Giver and Jonas decide to give some memories back to the community, I thought it would be quite exciting. However, the story just fizzles out from this point onwards and I think Lowry squandered what she created. Jonas runs away, taking with him a small child who is about to be released. They obviously quickly run into trouble away from the community as they have very little food and the weather is not controlled, unlike in the community. Jonas’s death seems inevitable although Lowry makes it into a spiritual experience where Jonas remembered one of the more pleasant memories he had been given.

This left me wondering exactly what point Lowry was trying to make. Obviously, Jonas died because he separated himself from the community so was she suggesting that any regime, however horrible, was better than individualism. It would have been more interesting to see the effect that the memories that were released had on everyone in the community but that is never mentioned.

Ultimately, this was an interesting idea that I feel was underdeveloped and left me with a bit of a sour taste. In the end, I just wasn’t sure what Lowry’s message was and that made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Books Read in 2014 – 65. Maddaddam – Margaret Atwood

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative style: Third PersonUnknown

Rating 5/5

Published: 2013

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: This picks up the story at the end of both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood with the earth decimated by a man-made plague. Toby and Ren have found Amanda, currently being held by two Painballers and are contemplating their next move when Jimmy appears. The action continues from this point. 

My expectations were high for this book. I had enjoyed the first two and really, I meant to read this one much earlier. I was half expecting to be disappointed. Could it possibly live up to my hopes?

Of course, this is Atwood we’re talking about. If anything this was better than The Year of the Flood. This was largely due to the Crakers being back on centre stage and Jimmy also. Although Jimmy wasn’t always an active participant, his character was inseparable from the mythology that he gives to the Crakers who treat his hat and watch as sacred objects. There is a lot of humour and also a lot of affection in Atwood’s creation of a religion for the Crakers. I particularly liked the way that they mistook the curse ‘Oh fuck’ for a cry to a deity who would come to help.

Zeb’s backstory added colour to the story of Crake and helped to explain events of the other two novels. It was enjoyable watching him switch identities and jobs, always managing to just get out of trouble. The love story between Toby and Zeb was also enjoyable. There was a refreshing lack of sentiment in their relationship. Toby was easy to identify with as she learned to put her insecurities to one side as the future of their group was much more important than any personal issues she may have.

I was a little troubled about the alliance between the humans and the pigoons at first. I wasn’t convinced that it wouldn’t just seem ridiculous but Atwood even managed to pull that off and they became more human than pig in the end.

The idea of teaching the Crakers to write and so be able to pass on their creation story to other generations was inspired. Atwood gives them childlike voices but never belittles them and their lack of guile. Perhaps this is what we would have to be like in order to actually save the current world.

The end of the novel is both sad and full of hope. There are deaths and battles but also births – babies that are half human and half Craker. The hope lies in the Crakers, their new mythology and the potential of the new species. It seems that the future is at least a little rosy.

Books Read in 2014 62. Tears in Rain – Rosa Montero

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from different points of view. Largely chronologicalUnknown

Rating 2.5/5

Published: 2012

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Bruna Husky is a technohuman or a replicant. She is also a private detective. One morning, her next door neighbour – also a rep – goes mad and attacks her before plucking out her own eye and dying herself. More stranger murders / suicides start to happen and reps become equally feared and despised. Bruna is called upon to investigate and soon finds herself involved in a conspiracy that goes right to the very top. 

I was offered this as a free kindle book from Amazon when I downloaded some classic sic-fi. There was a choice of four and this seemed the most interesting. Otherwise I don’t think I’d have picked it up. I prefer my Science Fiction to be of the dystopian kind not the robots and aliens kind.

Having said that, this did have dystopian elements. There was certainly a strong moral objective about difference and equality and at first, I thought I would enjoy it more than I did. It was clearly indebted to Bladerunner, both in its choice of heroine and in its landscape but I didn’t mind that. Bladerunner is a great film and there are certainly worse things to base a novel on.

The main problem was the writing was a bit flat. I’m not sure if this is a problem with the translation or also present in the original but there was little in the way of style and the narrative was often slowed down by the leaden prose. There was the misuse of the word literally –  as in she was literally sick everywhere. Oh, I know that the OED have added this use of the word to its definition because it is so widespread but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. There were redundant sentences of the “it really had been a dreadful night” variety which just irritated me. I found that the writing distracted from what could have been a rollicking adventure.

The characters were equally flat. Bruno’s personality was all over the place. She was whatever was required of her by the narrative rather than having any personality of her own. The other characters responded to her and were equally without personality. Some appeared and disappeared without really even touching the narrative and you had to wonder what the point was.

In the end, there were few surprises. It was always obvious who the love interest would end up being, who the bad guy was and what the outcome would be. When I finished, I felt as though a good had idea had been wasted. But maybe that’s not quite what I mean. After all, Bladerunner was the good idea and there is probably no way for that to actually be bettered.

Books Read in 2014 – 60. High-Rise – J. G. Ballard

Genre: Dystopia, anti-heroes

Narrative Style: Third person three different perspectivesUnknown

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1975

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Robert Laing quickly spots the careful class demarcations when he moves into the high-rise. Whilst ostensibly for the rich, it quickly becomes apparent that some are not as rich as others. These demarcations follow the floors with the lowest on floors one to ten and so on. When the electric start to fail, panic and violence quickly ensue. Before long, everyone has returned to a savage state and society has completely broken down. 

This has what is perhaps my favourite opening line ever – “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” This raised my expectations quite highly. The plot then moves through those three months. Unfortunately they don’t quite live up to this powerful opening line.

The story is told from the perspective of three men – one from the lowest ranks, Wilder; one from the middle, Laing; and one from the top, Royal who is one of the architects of the high-rise. Before civilisation starts to break down, there are already petty jealousies and rivalries about who can use which swimming pool and which lift. This seemed realistic enough and it was easy to see how such grudges might escalate into something bigger.

However, I wasn’t convinced by the triggers for the escalation. Very quickly, it seemed, people were no longer leaving the high-rise and hunting in packs for people from the other floors. Once that had happened, there were very few places for the narrative to go. Nothing else really happened and it felt like events levelled out. They didn’t really get any worse and there was clearly no way for them to get better.

That wasn’t the only problem. I couldn’t really decide what point Ballard was trying to make. I suppose that the high-rise was meant to represent a microcosm of society with the three levels representing upper, middle and working class but because these were all from the same class, the point didn’t quite work. At the end. only Laing is left eating his barbecued dog suggesting perhaps that the middle classes are the ones that will survive and then because they wait it out passively. I’m not sure what sort of moral lesson that is supposed to be.

This is as much about masculinity as it is about class and the three men show different ways of being male. Wilder, as his name might suggest, is very much ruled by his sexuality, Laing is more refined, preferring to wait and see what happens and finally Royal is a leader, at least for a while, by virtue of his money and his penthouse apartment. This also relates to stereotypical versions of masculinity and class e.g. the beastlike working class male. The women in this novel are underdeveloped, there to largely be raped or rescued depending on the man in question. That also was disappointing.

Ultimately this was an interesting idea which was well-written but just didn’t quite work for me. This is the second Ballard I’ve read lately that has left me a little cold but I’m sure I will be tempted again as the initial ideas just sound so interesting. They have made a film of this, to be released next year and it maybe that it will work a little better as a film. I’d certainly be keen to see what they do with the material.

Books Read in 2014 – 46. The Rapture – Liz Jensen

 

2014tbrbuttonGenre: Madness, Dystopia

Narrative Style: First Person, Chronological

Rating:4/5download (13)

Published: 2009

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When Gabrielle Fox starts work at a secure psychiatric unit for teenagers, her main concern is coming to terms with her paralysis following a horrific accident. She is understandably vulnerable so that when she meets Bethany, a crazed adolescent who killed her own mother and has visions of an apocalyptic nature, she starts to wonder whether the visions could have some truth to them. 

Reading Challanges: The TBR Challenge.

Time on Shelf. Two years. No reason, just kept slipping to the bottom of the pile. 

I love a good thriller and apocalyptic fiction is always good for that. In that respect, this certainly did not disappoint. It was a roller-coaster ride from the very first moment that Bethany and Gabrielle met. Bethany senses an unique audience in Gabrielle, due to her own vulnerabilities and it isn’t long before Gabrielle is taking the girl’s visions seriously.

It was easy to suspend my disbelief and Gabrielle’s own sense of the ridiculousness of believing Bethany is quite acute. As events progress, there is barely time to draw breath, never mind doubt what is happening. Jensen draws parallels between religion and the notion of the Rapture and believing in Bethany’s more disturbing vision of the future and suggests neither is more ridiculous than the other.

The characters were well drawn. Gabrielle as the destroyed woman, grieving for the use of her legs and the man she lost in the accident is full of insecurities that were easy to relate to. Bethany was at times monstrous but at others sympathetic. The romance between Gabrielle and the physicist that she takes Bethany’s drawings to was convincing and sexy. I’ve never been quite so relieved to discover that a man wasn’t cheating as when he revealed that the subterfuge had been for a completely different reason than Gabrielle had assumed.

The ending is brilliant – a clever take on the Rapture that everyone in the novel is waiting for – but it is also depressing. And, of course, this is as it should be. I’d have been disappointed with anything else but at the same time I longed for things to be different for them.