The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleConfession time: I watched the first two episodes of the Amazon version of this book back when it first came out, and then a few months back I thought I would start it up again, since I’d be reading the book for book club. Ten minutes into the episode, I realized I had pulled up episode three of the second season instead of the first. Ten minutes of watching, just slightly baffled, not sure why the show seemed so off.

As you may guess, that’s kind of how I feel about this book. Part of this is because the book and the show are not the same at all, except for the very basic premise, and part of it is because the book does such weird things with that premise that I could barely keep up with what was going on.

The basic premise: that the Axis powers won World War II, and Germany and Japan have divided up the United States, east and west, respectively.

In the book, we stay on the Japanese side of the States, where lots of things are going on. There’s a guy who sells pre-war American merchandise to wealthy Japanese collectors, and who wants very badly to sell nice things to one couple, and also maybe sleep with the wife? Then there’s another dude who works in a factory that makes counterfeit collectible merchandise, and he leverages his knowledge of that illicit fact to start a business creating fancy post-war American jewelry, which is not in any sort of demand but he hopes it could be. Then there’s yet another dude who is some sort of German spy type fellow who wants to make a deal with some high-powered Japanese, but when his Japanese contact is held up he has to decide between making some potential waves or losing the deal entirely.

Also, meanwhile, in a DMZ area between the two halves of the States, there’s a chick who gets involved with a dude who is a little obsessed with this book that everyone else in this book is also obsessed with, in which that author posits what would have happened in a world where the Allied powers won the war, which is not what actually happened in our world but is not a terrible approximation of what could have happened, I guess? And so they go to meet the author, but weird things happen, and weirder things happen when the woman arrives, and this whole plotline is so strange, I can’t even.

This book, the one I read, is far more interesting academically than entertainingly. I like what Dick does with the ideas of class and race and what it’s like to live as a second-class citizen in what used to be your own dang country. I also like how he uses the I Ching to talk about ideas of destiny versus free will. There’s a lot of thinky thoughts to have while reading this book. But as a story, as something with a beginning and middle and an end and a plot and characters and all that? Eh. It’s all right. It kind of makes me want to go watch the show, which takes a much more story-focused tack from that basic premise, but then I remember those ten minutes and I’m like, eh.

Recommendation: Eh. Unless it’s for book club, in which case there’s a lot of good stuff to talk about and it gets a solid “Yeah.”

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

Before the FallI was pretty interested in this book when I first heard about it, as it’s by Noah Hawley who is responsible for the excellent TV series Fargo (and the weird series Legion, but I watched that well after reading this book). The holds list was surprisingly long for what I thought was a fairly obscure book, so I decided to leave it alone and just grab my library’s copy when it finally came back for good.

And, honestly, that kind of sums up my feelings about this book. Pretty good, wouldn’t wait in a long line to read it.

I liked a lot of things about this book, and I think (for better or worse) that my favorite bit is the premise. A private jet crashes on the way from Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland and two people survive — the young son of a fabulously wealthy Rupert Murdoch type, and some random dude who was invited by the Murdoch type’s wife to join them. These two are left to grapple with life after a harrowing incident that is compounded by the kid’s dad’s celebrity. How did this happen? Does it have to do with [insert scandal here]? Who’s this schmuck who just so happened to save this kid’s life? INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW AND WE WONT STOP ASKING ‘TIL YOU TELL US. That sort of thing.

And for that, the book does take an interesting look at the world of pundit-based news and the 24-hour news cycle and the public’s seemingly unending need to know things that literally no one actually wants to know. This is where the book is very good.

The other part, the part with the answering of the questions… it’s all right. I like the way Hawley looks through all of the characters’ points of view, even the ones who end up dead, and connects all their lives together to get them on the plane. But, and this is kind of a spoiler, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph, he spends all this time building up the characters and their backstories and then the big whodunit reveal is not any of those people we’ve spent time getting to know. I mean, I’m glad none of them are plane crash causers, but… seriously?

My other problem with the book, and I will grant that others probably see this as a benefit, is that the book is written very visually. You could copy and paste most of this book straight into a film script with no problems. It’s kind of cool in small doses — I did enjoy a scene in which a dude in the bathroom uses the soap dispenser (hand dryer? Something like that) — but after a while I was like, come on dude, let’s just get on with the story!

But let me be clear that overall I quite enjoyed this book. The writing is great, the characters are interesting, and Hawley knows how to keep you turning pages. It just, for me, had just enough issues to leave me wanting to have read something very slightly different.

Recommendation: If you like Hawley’s stuff, you’ll certainly like this. Unless you only like Legion. This is nothing like Legion.

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

The Collapsing EmpireGUYS JOHN SCALZI HAS A NEW BOOK OUT! I mean, did. Like three and a half months ago. But I am behind on my reviews, and maybe you are behind on your John Scalzi books, and if so, we can meet together here!

If you’ve read even one John Scalzi book — well, maybe two, there’s one that’s very different and I never finished it — you know the Scalzi oeuvre: One part science fiction, one part snarky humor, and a dash of F-bombs. This first book in a new series follows that formula pretty well, except for the F-bombs. There are a LOT of F-bombs in this book, such that even I, with my mouth resembling a sailor’s, was like, dang, dude, can we dial that back a bit? So. Forewarning.

If you’ve read any of the Old Man’s War series, you’ll be even closer to this new series, which includes much of OMW’s military style and crazy intrigue and crazier subterfuge, but in a whole new universe with new exciting characters to get to know and a fascinating quasi-scientific plot.

On one end of this universe you have the capital of the planetary system, where a new and rather reluctant Emperox is being crowned. She is meant to keep the Interdependency working smoothly, but from the time of her coronation it is obvious that that is going to be rather difficult, what with warring noble houses and also a terrible scientific secret.

On the other end of the Interdependency, at a planet smartly called End, you have the man who discovered this secret, living with his kids and trying to stay under the radar. When a member one of those aforementioned noble houses on End starts doing some odd political machinations that don’t make a lot of sense, the scientist realizes it’s time to send his son to the capital to explain just what exactly is going on with the space highways (vast oversimplification on my part) that rule the system.

In between these places we meet an F-bomb-loving noble-house type who really just wants to sell her dang plants but who gets drawn into the plots on both ends of the system when she takes the scientist’s son aboard her ship.

Put these all together and you have the beautiful space opera brain candy with a little bit of social consciousness thrown in that I love from John Scalzi. It’s super fun, kind of ridiculous, and I already can’t wait for the next in the series.

A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab

A Conjuring of LightMan. I was suuuuper excited for this book to come out earlier this year, and very upset that it took my library like three whole weeks to process it and get it in my grubby little hands so that I could devour it whole. I mean, not really, eating library books gets expensive. But my plan was to read it in, like, one sitting, and also to love it and cherish it forever and ever.

Best laid plans, and all that.

A Conjuring of Light picks up right after A Gathering of Shadows, with the Triwizard Tournament (still too lazy to look up its real name) just ended and Kell kidnapped to White London, where Holland is trying to pawn off the magic inhabiting and controlling him onto Kell. As one does. Holland fails, which seems good for Kell, except then the magic demon whatsit called Osaron decides to take over Red London, which is decidedly bad for Kell.

This leads to the pretty decent part of the book, which is all the plotting and planning on the part of pretty much everyone who’s ever been in this series to figure out how to save Red London, and by extension Red London’s whole world, from Osaron, who is off collecting bodies to control and using citizens as weapons against their own people. There’s machinations and sabotage and intrigue and I am so many kinds of for that. But then there is also this quest plotline where our pirates go off to find a MacGuffin to defeat the magic monster, which we know where it is because one of our characters sold it a while back and you just have to go to this mysterious floating market and trade away the thing you hold dearest in the world and ohhhhhhhhhhhhh my goodness why are we doing this when we could be plotting and planning and punching things in the face?

I wasn’t super on board with that part, is what I’m saying. Also not super on board with the continuing and completely unnecessary romance subplot, or the big boss fight at the end, or basically any time Kell and Alucard interact in this book. One thing I am totally on board with is the way Schwab handles the Big Reveal I’ve been waiting for this whole series, in that it just happens without a ton of fanfare and everyone’s like, yeah, no, that makes sense.

Overall I liked this book just fine; it’s a decent conclusion to a decent series that is mostly fun brain candy. But I wouldn’t read the series just to get here, is what I’m saying.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

KindredI thought this would be a pretty slam-dunk book for me. The internets love it, it’s got time travel (!), it’s got complex social issues, somebody loses an arm… I mean, these things are catnip to me. Maybe not the arm thing. A little bit the arm thing. Whatever.

And, I mean, I found this book interesting, and compelling, and fascinating, but I just can’t bring myself to say it was a good book.

The story, and this is definitely the best part, involves a black woman from 1970s California who finds herself randomly and inexplicably transported back to early-1800s Maryland, when and where slavery is alive and well and not terribly friendly to educated black women. At first she goes back for brief periods, to save the life of a young white man when he gets himself into various types of trouble, but her visits get longer and she finds herself actually living in the household of this white man, as not quite but essentially a slave. She soon realizes that this household, and this man, are part of her lineage, and she feels obligated to protect all of it to protect herself, but that’s incredibly difficult when she can’t actually, you know, protect herself. Throw in her white husband who hitches a ride with her during one of her trips back and ends up playacting as her master, and you’ve got yourself a crazy, twisty, complex story about race.

So that’s great, right? It is. It’s sobering and fascinating to see how easily the 1970s characters adapt to life in the 1800s, how easy it is to do something you know is absolutely wrong when you know that doing what is right will probably get you killed. It’s awful to watch a child grow into a slave owner, and to see slave families broken up. It’s frustrating to see parallels in the characters’ thoughts and actions with the thoughts and actions of seemingly reasonable human beings today. This is a super important book.

But. For as much as I appreciated the issues of the book, and the crazy plot that tied them together, I couldn’t ever really get into the characters outside of their assigned places in the story. I didn’t really care about Dana, our heroine, or everyone else whose names I’ve already forgotten; they were just pawns in the greater chess game of the book. This is possibly the fault of, or just in addition to, the fact that my reading brain has never really gotten into the writing style of books from the 1970s, which rely heavily on the telling and are generally quite unsubtle. This book had a little more subtlety going for it, but I never found the writing especially exciting.

And possibly that’s on purpose, of course, and perhaps the point is that, hey, this whole thing that’s being written about race relations is really important and pretty sentences and deep characters are going to take a backseat to that. But the heart wants what it wants, and it didn’t quite want the book it got here.

Recommendation: Even if it’s not up to my apparently exacting standards of “good”, it is a book that you should read and that you should make everyone you know read, too.

Weekend Shorts: Awesome Dudes For a Change (Plus One Lady)

I have been listening to a LOT of audiobooks lately, which is super awesome, except when I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of blog posts. So, please enjoy these very short takes on some pretty awesome audiobooks about pretty awesome people!

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
As will be my caveat for, oh, all of these books I’m talking about today, I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book except that he’s that dude what took over The Daily Show. But I got an audio copy of this book for free for some unremembered reason, and had some listening time to kill, and so… voila!

And wow, this is a seriously good audiobook. Noah is a great narrator, which makes sense with the TV show host thing, and he has some amazing stories to tell. He talks about growing up during apartheid, and goes into great details that I’ve sadly already forgotten about how his black mother and white father left him in a very weird limbo, both socially and legally speaking. He also talks about his abusive stepfather, who is not just a regular jerk but an attempted-murdering jerk, which is crazy and awful. But of course my favorite stories are the ones that are a little happier and/or weirder, including one about working as a young copyright-infringing entrepreneur in the suburbs and another one that can’t be true but also can’t not be true about a dance performance at a Jewish center starring solo dancer… Hitler.

Yeah, so, basically now you have to go listen to this. You’re welcome. (Seriously, listen to it. It’s awesome.)

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
Here, again, my knowledge of the authors was “Anderson Cooper is that silver fox guy, right?” and also “Gloria Vanderbilt is… probably a Vanderbilt?” Yeah, I know, I’m shaking my head, too. This is a memoir that I would never have picked up except that my book club wanted to read it, and, well, it was so awesome that I did that thing where I make a second book club read the same book so I can talk about it all over again. So good, guys.

The premise of the book is that basically one day Cooper realized that his mother was old and that he didn’t know a lot about her life that wasn’t more or less public knowledge, so he started emailing her to ask her questions about her life before him, and a little bit about her life with him. Those emails became this book, and with the addition of the authors as narrators this book became an amazing audiobook. Seriously, try not to cry when Gloria Vanderbilt is crying in your ears.

If you’re like me, you will learn way more than you ever thought you even remotely needed to know about this Gloria Vanderbilt person, but you will also be totally okay with that because she’s endlessly fascinating. She was born into a branch of the Vanderbilt family but lost her Vanderbilt father almost immediately after her birth, and so she was raised by a very young socialite mother and also a nanny and her grandmother and there was a giant custody battle and the newspapers were involved and there was scandal and things were just crazy. Then, when all that was sorted out, Vanderbilt got herself into a bunch of really terrible relationships and marriages, plural, and was generally kind of a hot mess. Then she settled into being an adult, more or less, and became pretty well known for her designer jeans and made a point of working even though she could totally have lived on her inheritance and she made several babies including one Anderson Cooper. He tells some pretty good stories about himself as well, including how he came out as gay and how he basically tricked his way into a reporting career, which seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

Then it all comes together at the end with a discussion about, you know, life, the universe, and everything, including whether or not fate is a thing and if optimism is just fooling yourself, so, you know, I didn’t mention the crying earlier for nothing. If you haven’t had a good cathartic existential crisis lately, this book is probably good for one. But in a good way! If that’s a thing.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am almost embarrassed to include this book in this post, because I remember so very little about it and I will do it absolutely no justice with my words. But I do want to include it, because even if I can’t remember the details, I can remember how good I thought it was while I was listening to it and how important it definitely is.

The book is written as a letter from Coates to his son in the aftermath of all the everything that’s been happening lately, race-wise. Coates writes about his own experiences as a black man in our world, and the uniting idea of the book is the idea that black people are seen and regarded and experienced as bodies moreso than people. This is a strange concept to think about, but Coates frames it in a way that makes a lot of sense and will leave you thinking all the thinky thoughts after you’re done with the book.

I might recommend this one in print, though, because while Coates is indeed an excellent narrator, listening to him read his book is more about the experience of hearing the way his words flow rather than the experience of receiving information. Not that that’s a bad thing. His words flow very nicely.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeI’m pretty sure we’ve established in this space that I love a good World War II book, and especially one of this recent spate of “World War II books about places that are not London or a concentration camp”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that fascinates me and pretty much everyone else about this time period, but it probably has something to do with the whole good vs. evil thing and how, ideally, this is a time never to be repeated and from which we can learn many dozens of things. One hopes.

The first part of that, the good vs. evil thing, is of course not that simple, and this idea is explored pretty interestingly in this book. We have two main protagonists: a young blind girl living in France with her father, and a young mechanically-minded boy living as an orphan with his sister in Germany. Both leave their regular lives very quickly, she to coastal France to help her father hide a very valuable stone, and he to a military school to become a good German soldier.

The girl’s story is rather a bog-standard World War II story, with the hiding and the rationing and the French Resistance and et cetera. Doerr tries to dress it up with this valuable stone business, but that’s a really weird and unnecessary side plot so let’s pretend that never happened.

The boy’s story, on the other hand, is more of a bog-standard coming-of-age boarding school story, except for the whole “becoming a good German soldier” thing, and I found that absolutely fascinating as someone who also loves a good boarding school story. Trying to do well in school and fit in and not succumb to peer pressure are such universal sentiments, and it’s hard not to sympathize with this boy who really just wants a better life and this is his only way to get one.

Another big idea explored in this book is the importance of the radio (and communication in general) during the war and beyond. It’s amazing that in this time, broadcast radio is so ubiquitous that the Germans are confiscating radios and creating their own stations and broadcasts to keep people from knowing what’s really happening, but meanwhile resistance fighters were communicating via the radio and German soldiers have to take radio receivers out and scan the dial and hope to happen upon the right channel at the right time to hear the right words that would help them take down their enemies. It’s not unlike the current ubiquity of the Internet and the way that some countries censor it or create their own version of it to give to their people. It’s fascinating and also incredibly frustrating to see history repeat itself like this.

I will admit, though, that for all that intriguing content I didn’t end up being super into the book. That stone business is kind of really very awful, as I said, but also I had a hard time getting into Doerr’s writing. The best thing he does in the book, I think, is make his chapters very short and snappy so that when the point of view changes you keep reading to get back to that other narrator, and then the other, and so on until you’ve read the whole book and are like, huh.

On the plus side, after discussing this twice at book club I can say that it is a very good pick for your next book club meeting, as you will get a lot of different opinions on the book and there are a lot of different aspects of the book to talk about. I’m not sure I’d read it again, but I’d definitely go to another book club or two about it!

Recommendation: Read it and then make all your friends talk about it with you.