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.”

Trillium, by Jeff Lemire

TrilliumI can’t remember where I first read about this comic mini-series, but whatever I read made me think it would be a perfect buy for my library. Now that I’ve read it, well, there are definitely a couple of people I can recommend it to, but not as many as I might have hoped. My library people are not quite as into the super weird as I am, and this is super duper weird.

So there’s a woman, Nika, who is a scientist of some sort on a space base of some sort whose job is to make headway in speaking to the planet’s native inhabitants because they have a bunch of pretty flowers that are the only cure to a terrible terrible plague. Unfortunately, her diplomatic mission is cut short when the plague arrives even closer to her base, so she goes in for a last-ditch effort. To her surprise, she is greeted by hundreds of the formerly well hidden natives, who invite her to eat one of those precious precious flowers, called trillium, and suddenly things get a heck of a lot weirder.

Nika ends up finding a portal of sorts that leads from her base in 3797 to the Amazon jungle in 1921, where she meets a soldier named William, who has been seeking a lost temple, the same one that Nika comes out of. But just as Nika’s colleagues have designs on the trillium flowers, William’s compatriots have plans for the temple that do not involve keeping it sacred. The two of them soon get separated, and as they try to protect themselves and their homes and find each other again, they are beseiged on all sides by people trying to stop them, going so far as to rewrite their histories and swap their lives.

It’s… very confusing. But also pretty cool. The artwork is striking in its sketchy, blocky-ness, with subtly distinct color palettes for each world that become more obvious in some of the crazier panel layouts, including one issue that is read across the top, flipped, and then read across the bottom. I also like that the writer gave the flower-bearing natives an incomprehensible language that is actually just a cryptogram, so that if I were a less lazy person I could indeed figure out what’s up with them. I bet the internet could tell me, though, so problem solved! I also like the way the author subtly plays with gender roles, giving each of the characters equal agency and helplessness, even when their lives are eventually swapped. And the worldbuilding! The space base is okay, but I love what Lemire does with Earth 1921, slowly building it up so that we can see that William is from a completely different Earth than the one we live on. So cool.

I think the best part of this book is that it is a limited eight-issue run, so it has a nice beginning, middle, and end to it when collected. I love my ongoing series, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes you just need a neatly packed story, and this is a good one. I will definitely be checking out more from this writer in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of weirdness and spaaaaace.

Rating: 8/10

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

My Real ChildrenThis was kind of a sneak-attack book for me — I had heard good things about Jo Walton when her book Among Others came out but never got around to reading it, and then suddenly this book was out and I was like, sure, maybe I’ll read that one, and then I had a gap between books I needed to read for one book club or another and this book sitting on my desk and it was obviously fate.

Which is an appropriate sentiment for this book, actually. The story starts off with a woman named Patricia stuck going senile in some old-folks home in England with only her family’s visits to break the monotony of the building. Except that it’s not just one family that visits her, but two. When one set of children visits her, she can’t imagine how she ever thought there were others, but in between visits she remembers both sets, and her respective lives with them, equally well. She starts to wonder — why does she remember two separate lives? Where did her life split apart?

And then she remembers.

The book from there cuts back and forth between Patricia’s dual lives as Pat and Trish (and other name variations, too). In one life, she experiences a happy and fulfilling personal life but lives in a horror show of a world; in the other the world is a progressive wonderland but her personal life is a shambles.

Both lives are equally compelling, though, and I was just as happy about the small gains in Trish’s life as I was about the great gains in Pat’s, and even once I figured out that there wasn’t terribly much plot to the book I absolutely had to know what happened to both of them. Walton’s worldbuilding is amazing as well, especially for worlds that are basically the one I live in. Brief mentions of current events here and famous people there let me know that neither of these worlds is exactly like my own, which I thought was a smart touch. And it’s interesting what really struck me about the different worlds — moon bases are awesome, sure, but in one world there isn’t wifi in Patricia’s nursing home! How can she possibly survive?

And oh my goodness, Walton knows how to stick a landing, with both of Patricia’s lives slowly but surely unraveling into her state at the beginning of the book in only a slightly less terrible way than in, say Still Alice and then a Big Life Question asked and [spoiler not spoiler] totally not answered except that I know what I think the answer is and I don’t like it on an emotional level but on a rational level it makes perfect sense but hmmph. It’s a book that’s kept me thinking about it for weeks now.

Jo Walton, where have you been all my life?

Recommendation: For fans of alternate universes and life-encompassing stories, and those who wanted to like Life After Life but thought it was too complicated.

Rating: 10/10

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneAfter finishing up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened on our insanely long road trip, we clearly needed something a bit longer itself to fill the rest of our driving time. I had actually had this book loaded into my iTunes for about a year, having planned to listen to it on some other road trip that I guess never happened, but when Carl claimed in early December to be the last person to have read it, I was like, shoot, I’d better get on that.

And… it was pretty good? Scott and I decided early on in the audio, read surprisingly delightfully by Wil Wheaton (I will definitely listen to books read by him again!), that neither of us would have gotten past the first few pages of this on our own. Listening to it together, on the other hand, made for some delightful snarking at Cline’s love of lists and also some bonus understanding when only one of us was laughing at some pop culture reference.

Those references are probably why I wasn’t over the moon about the book, actually. Scott and I were both born in the mid-80s, right around the time period that this book is kind of frozen in (let me get to that in a second). So although I had at least some knowledge of most of the pop culture of the decade, and lots of knowledge of others (WarGames, I love you!), I didn’t have the deeper understanding of someone who is actually old enough to remember the mid-80s.

As to the story proper… okay. It takes place in a future world where Second Life never existed because it was invented as something called OASIS first. OASIS is way better, with fancy virtual reality technology that lets you actually move yourself around the virtual world with, like, your feet and stuff, and also OASIS has incredible market share to the point where its world and currency are thriving while the “real” world falls apart and has things like neighborhoods made entirely of vertical stacks of mobile homes. Classy, that.

Our protagonist, Wade in real life and Parzival in the OASIS, is part of a giant and complicated 1980s-themed scavenger hunt, basically, started by the guy who created the OASIS on the occasion of his death and the prize of which is like a billionty-twelve dollars and ownership of the guy’s company. Wade, who lives in one of those aforementioned stacks, is very interested in the money and is also super interested in the guy and the company and is therefore the first person to find the very first part of the scavenger hunt.

The story basically goes along from there as your classic quest story, with adventures and setbacks and evil enemies and all that, and that part is really fantastic. Especially toward the end of the book, once all the background has been exposited and all that’s left is to finish the scavenger hunt, the story is really engaging and I was like, OMG what is going to happen next? But it’s the whole first half or so of the novel, and some bits and pieces afterward, where Cline is setting up the universe and letting all of us non-80s folk know about the pop culture we’re about to find ourselves immersed in and also where he just apparently could not figure out how to show rather than tell, that the story feels kind of loooooong and booooring. And, really, I like a good list or run-on sentence as much as the next person, but it turns out that if you read them aloud in your narrator voice they are… not nearly as fun as you might hope. Blast.

So for as much as I enjoyed listening to Wil Wheaton read me this story, I might actually recommend eyes-reading this one so that when Cline gets bogged down in 80s minutiae you can just skip right ahead to the next exciting bit, or doing like I did and listening with a friend so that you can talk over the narration about what the heck is even going on in this crazy universe.

But do read it, because the parts that are good are pretty fantastic.

Recommendation: Best read by actual or self-taught nerd children of the 80s, also people who like quests and/or Wil Wheaton.

Rating: 8/10

A Mutiny in Time, by James Dashner

A Mutiny in TimeOkay, so, twenty pages in I knew this wasn’t the book for me. However, I promised my younger brother that I would read it and he is not the type to forget a promise made to him, and also the book is really short so whatever, I read it. And it was soooo bad.

Basically, this is the first in a series that is similar to The 39 Clues — two precocious kids find themselves in the middle of a crazy plot that extends hundreds of years into the past and are the only ones who can solve the puzzles and save the world, with the help of a slightly older but still underage guardian. I don’t know if there are trading cards with this series, but there’s definitely an online component and I’m sure there’s lots of money being made.

Anyway. The premise here is that a history-loving kid, Dak, has a great idea to let his science-loving “BFF forever” Sera into his science-loving parents’ lab, and she goes ahead and finishes building their time travel device, as a ten-year-old is wont to do. But of course, it’s not quite that simple, as the two kids are living in an alternate universe where some shadowy organization (the SQ) runs everything because they’ve changed history in their favor, and the kids end up recruited to a second shadowy organization (the Hystorians) dedicated to putting history right, but before they can learn all the things they need to save the world the first shadowy organization attacks the second one and Dak and Sera and Riq (a language-lover) end up going back in time by themselves.

There’s… kind of a lot going on. And it happens really really fast, because there are not many pages in this book and they have to invent time travel and then use it and then solve some puzzles and then fix this first problem in history. So the last part is like, look! We’re in Spain in 1492! The voyage to America must be the problem! Oh no, we’re being attacked by an SQ operative! Oh, good, we’re saved by a Hystorian! Now we’re on a boat! Now we know how to solve the problem! Now we’re in the brig! Now we’re not in the brig! Now we’ve saved the day!

The speediness wasn’t the only thing that bothered me, either. The very first thing that made me wary of the book was the naming. Dak Smyth. The Hystorians. Riq. Brint. Fraderick. I get it, we’re in an alternate universe where people don’t know how to spell. Awesome. But then also I noticed that this book was ostensibly about history and didn’t teach me a darned thing. Sure, Dak spouted off a bunch of history stuff, but considering what universe he lives in I’m not sure how true it is. And even when we’re actually on Columbus’s ship and the kids are trying to stop a mutiny, I was like, well, was there a planned mutiny? Are these SQ mutineers real people? I’m thinking maybe or sort of.

Probably a lot of what I didn’t like was caused by First-Book Infodump Syndrome, but I can’t imagine the series is going to get vastly better. Maybe if I were ten again I would be totally into this — my brother certainly loves it at fourteen — but as it stands I’m glad I have Liar and Spy on my TBR pile to cleanse my brain.

Recommendation: Probably for the tweenage history buff or series devourer in your life.

Rating: 4/10

Regarding Ducks and Universes, by Neve Maslakovic

How could I not read this book, with a title and cover like that? Impossible.

It also helps that the book is a bit of a sci-fi romp, a biiiiit like Shades of Grey or The Android’s Dream with the science and the touch of satire and the all-around amusement the author obviously has with his/her own book. I’m a fan.

The fun science here is a bit baffling, but once your head gets around it it’s pretty cool. Basically, in the late-ish 1980s of an alternate history (I mean, already alternate before this crazy thing happened), there was a Mad Scientist type who managed to split off the universe into a Universe A and a Universe B that share a timeline and population up to said split, but then anything that happens after the split is one-universe-only. So if this split happened tomorrow, there would be a You A and a You B who are exactly alike tomorrow, but in thirty years maybe one of you is a movie star and the other is not, or one of you lives in Iceland and the other in California, whatever. Awesomely, the Mad Scientist (I think, it could have been someone else) also invented a transporter thing that allows for people from the two universes to travel between them, provided they don’t go seeking out their alters (i.e. You A seeking out You B) without permission from said alters.

Are you confused now? Good!

Because of this crazy science, the book is pretty exposition-heavy at the beginning, which is slightly annoying. But then you start getting into the plot part, and that’s pretty darn interesting too. Here we have a Felix Sayers (who totally wishes he were related to Dorothy) off to visit Universe B ostensibly for funsies, but actually because he’s just found out that he’s really Felix A and that his parents lied about his birthdate for some unknown reason. He’d like to figure out why the lying, of course, but he’d also like to make sure that Felix B hasn’t gone and written the mystery novel that Felix A has been meaning to get around to, someday, you know, maybe. Things only get stranger when two competing research teams start following Felix A around and he finds out that he might already be a bit more important to history than he ever hoped to be.

I had a lot of fun with this book. There’s confusing science, of course, but there’s also a healthy dose of vintage mysteries with Sayers and Christie, and some social commentary on environmentalism and social media and e-books that is amusing in small doses, though Maslakovic goes a little too far every once in a while. But! Anyway! Otherwise delightful. Also, there are fun side stories including some corporate espionage, violations of the Lunch-Place Rule, and illness by almost-dog. You know, normal stuff.

“There is something to be said about being unreachable, especially when you are trying to avoid being prodded by your boss to engage in regulation-breaking activities of the sourdough kind.”

Recommendation: For fans of the sci-fi romp, Agatha Christie, and sourdough bread.

Rating: 9/10
A to Z Challenge

Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld

I would like to thank my connections at the Twinsburg Public Library for letting me check this book out while I was hanging out at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. This is one of those books that I can’t find in Jacksonville, and I really wanted to read it, so it worked out quite well!

This is the sequel to Leviathan, which I read a year ago and loved a lot. To recap the basics, it’s the Great War as it would have been fought if only the Axis had giant machines to fight with and the Allies had fabricated animals that did things like fly and poo shrapnel.

Right. In this book, our future archduke becomes a bit of a prisoner of war aboard the Leviathan and decides to escape; our girl-pretending-to-be-a-boy soldier is tasked with a secret mission that works but goes a little bad in that she’s now stuck in Istanbul without a quick way back to her ship. Conveniently, his archduke-ness is also hiding in Istanbul, and they meet up again quickly to help some revolutionaries who might be able to help both of their situations.

I was not as excited by Behemoth as by its predecessor. Deryn, the soldier, is no longer as badass as she previously was… I mean, she’s still fighting and doing awesome things, but she spends less time being like “I’m awesome and you can’t argue with that” and more time mooning over his archduke-ness, Alek. I dislike mooning. I also wasn’t as taken with Alek, though I’m not sure why… I guess I just felt that I didn’t really know what was going on with him, between his men being deceptive and he being really quite daft.

I will probably read the conclusion to this trilogy, but I won’t be waiting as excitedly as I was for this one.

Recommendation: If you liked Leviathan you will want to read this, and I recommend Leviathan to anyone who likes an alternate history or some steampunk.

Rating: 7/10

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon (3 December — 15 December)

Criminy, this was a hefty book. Not really in length, though 400 pages is nothing to sneeze at, but more in that there was a lot of stuff happening all at once!

Meyer Landsman (or just Landsman, really) is our protagonist, and he starts the story off by being called out of his fleabag hotel room to another fleabag hotel room a few floors down to check out a dead body — because he’s a cop, not because the hotel staff are weird or something. Landsman is off duty, but when he notices the chess board set up in the room, he takes the case anyway, due to his longstanding hate-hate relationship with his father and chess, among many other family issues. Of course, when Landsman goes to investigate the death, it turns out that the body didn’t belong to just some random person, and in fact the biggest of the bigwigs in the area might not be pleased that Landsman is poking his nose in.

The first thing you need to know about this book is that it’s got an alternate history going on. I may have known that at one time, but I had forgotten, and I spent a few pages trying to figure out why Chabon was insisting that three million Jews lived in Sitka, Alaska. When he mentions that, oh, there also aren’t any in Jerusalem, I said, “Ohhhhhh,” and was much better able to follow the story from there. So, yes. Israel hasn’t happened, Sitka is where the Jews live because of some American niceness that is about to end and leave said three million Jews looking for somewhere else to go, and Landsman only has a few weeks to tie up (or, if need be, “tie up”) all of his unsolved cases before he doesn’t have a badge anymore. Woohoo!

Also, this book is less about the “who killed Mr. Dead Person” mystery than I would have liked, and much much more about all of Landsman’s problems — a chess-wizard dad who didn’t pass those genes on to his son, a sister that died in a plane accident a few months back, an ex-wife who once aborted a fetus for him and who is now his commanding officer, a cousin who once looked up to him enough to become his partner but who now just pities him, the alcoholism that lets him live with all of these people… the list goes on and on. Some of these problems intriguingly work themselves into Landsman’s Dead Person investigation, some of them just hinder it.

I was kind of dissatisfied with the ending for reasons that I keep attempting to type and then erasing, because I’m not really sure what I didn’t like about it. The various threads get tied up, for the most part, but I can’t even remember what happened at the end even though I keep going back to it right now! I guess that’s the moral of Chabon’s story… weird things can happen, but at the end of the day it’s unremarkable business as usual.

Rating: 7/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007)

See also:
books i done read

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld (14 November — 15 November)

Um. I loved this book. A lot. I really didn’t expect to. I mean, I read Westerfeld’s Uglies series, and I thought it was pretty okay — entertaining, adventurous, and the like — but this is some seriously excellent stuff!

Maybe I forgot to tell myself that I love steampunk, I don’t know. Leviathan starts right at the beginning of World War I, immediately after Franz and Sophie are assassinated (by poisoning, this time). The usual suspects go off to war, but it’s not trench warfare on the menu today, but a machines vs. nature showdown. See, in this world, there are Clankers and Darwinists (and neutral people, of course, but they aren’t as exciting). The former love their giant walking machines; the latter love their giant whale zeppelins. And when I say whale, I mean that oh, also, Darwin has figured out DNA in this world and the Darwinists evolve their zeppelins and the like by splicing together interesting bits to make battle animals and flying implements that are alive. That’s pretty darn cool. Let’s work on that. 🙂

So the background of the story is excellent, and then the two main characters, who share chapter-time, are pretty awesome themselves. We first meet Alek, the only son of Franz and Sophie, who is whisked away in the middle of the night to go hide from the people who’d rather he be dead. Of course, he’s fifteen, so he’s not too good at the “shut up and hide” aspect of this whisking. Our other protagonist is Deryn, a girl who is passing as a boy (called Dylan) so that she can join the Air Service and go flying. She is also fifteen and a titch full of herself, but she thinks awesome things like, “Hey, all you sods, I can fly and you can’t! A natural airman, in case you haven’t noticed. And in conclusion, I’d like to add that I’m a girl and you can all get stuffed!” Deryn’s kind of a badass.

Oh. And the illustrations are magnificent. As are the endpapers. Keith Thompson is my new artist-crush. 🙂

This is the first in another trilogy, I think; I can’t wait for the next one!

Rating: 9/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2009)

See also:
Blogging for a Good Book

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry (24 March — 25 March)

Charles Unwin is a clerk at the Agency; he compiles the notes of his detective, Travis T. Sivart, and files them away nicely under titles like “The Oldest Murdered Man” and “The Man Who Stole November Twelfth.” But on this day, he is mysteriously promoted to detective in place of Sivart, which does not suit Unwin, who likes his clerk’s job and has no interest in detecting. He makes his first case to find out what happened to Sivart, and soon realizes that this case will take more skills than what he can learn in his Manual of Detection.

This book was weird, and also awesome. There’s not much more I want to say about it because I’m not sure which are details and which are clues. The weirdness is along the lines of Jasper Fforde’s — an alternate universe where weird things happen and it’s okay. The man who stole November twelfth did, actually, make the whole city skip from Monday straight to Wednesday.

Berry’s awesomeness is much in his writing. I had to read aloud this (long-ish, sorry!) passage to Scott after I read it because it’s just so brilliant:

“On the twenty-ninth floor, another long hall, another lone window at its end. But in place of the carpeting of the thirty-sixth, here was a buffed surface of dark wood, so spotless and smooth it shone with liquid brilliance. The floor gave Unwin pause. It was his personal curse that his shoes squeaked on polished floors. The type of shoes he wore made no difference, nor did it matter whether the soles were wet or dry. If the shoes contained Unwin’s feet and were directed along well-polished routes, they would without fail sound their joyless noise for all to hear.

“At home he went about in his socks. That way he could avoid disturbing the neighbors and also indulge in the occasional shoeless swoop across the room, as when one is preparing a breakfast of oatmeal and the oatmeal wants raisins and brown sugar, which are in the cupboard at the other end of the room. To glide with sock-swaddled feet over a world of glossy planes: that would be a wondrous thing! But Unwin’s apartment was smallish at best, and the world is unkind to the shoeless and frolicsome.”

Rating: 9/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2009, Support Your Local Library Challenge)