The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the FloodAnother road trip, another Margaret Atwood plague-apocalypse book. So it is written. But it’s probably a good thing we were listening to this on a road trip with few other listening options, because the beginning of this book is rough and there were a couple of times we might have thrown in the towel on it.

In the first book, the narration trades off between the post-apocalypse Snowman and his pre-apocalypse alter ego Jimmy, and it’s fascinating because you want to know how Jimmy became Snowman. But in this book the narration trades off between pre- and post-Flood Toby and pre- and post-Flood Ren, with most of the narration at the beginning of the novel coming pre-Flood, so a) there’s a lot of timelines to follow and b) if you’ve read Oryx and Crake you already know what the Flood is so there’s not much suspense on that front.

But once the story gets going, it gets interesting. A lot of the story is focused on the God’s Gardeners group that is briefly mentioned in the first book and which is a sort of religion/cult/commune based on vegetarianism and pacifism and the worshipping of saints like Dian Fossey and E.O. Wilson, which yes, totally. It is pretty cool to see the Gardeners from the perspectives of Ren, who came to the group as a ten-year-old, and Toby, who as an adult is rescued into the group from a rather more terrible life. It’s also fascinating to hear (because audiobook) the sermons of Adam One, the leader of the group, which are interspersed between chapters and whose tones change to match the world outside, and the hymns which are actually set to music for the audiobook. Super neat!

The other big part of this book is that it tracks the story of Oryx and Crake, giving background to the tertiary characters of that book, fleshing out the world outside of Jimmy’s view, and moving just a bit farther forward in time than the end of that first book. On the one hand, this is pretty neat and makes the world that Atwood created that much larger and more real. On the other hand, there’s almost too much overlap between the books to the point where you’re like, oh, Jimmy’s having sex with yet another character in this book? Jimmy meets Ren for the fifty-seventh time? FANTASTIC.

But I really do love the world-building, and I cannot get enough of Atwood’s gorgeous sentences, so it’s all good. I will definitely be picking up MaddAddam when it is time for another road trip!

Recommendation: For fans of plague fiction and the world of Oryx and Crake, although it’s probably not strictly necessary to read them in order.

Rating: 7/10

p.s. One of the God’s Gardeners is called Eve Six and I cannot help but wonder if Atwood is an X-Files fan.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeI brought this audiobook to listen to with my husband on a recent road trip, which was a great idea except for the fact that I haven’t listened to an audiobook in ages and I think I may have forgotten how to do it. I found myself often asking Scott to explain something that had just been explained thoroughly by the narrator, or backing up a track or two after a rest stop because in the five minutes I was away from the car I forgot everything that had happened. I will partially blame this on the narrator, who had a voice that was so soothing that I literally fell asleep to it, missing an hour or so of story that I wasn’t willing to make Scott listen to again.

But the parts that registered with me were super fascinating, so as soon as I got back to work I procured the print copy and proceeded to start the thing all over again, which was good because I missed more little details than I thought I did. It was also good because Atwood throws in a few “If only I knew then what I knew now”s which were all the more terrible for having that future knowledge.

I didn’t know when I picked this book out that it was going to be another in this year’s spate of superflu-type reads, but hey, it’s a theme, let’s go with it! The story starts after Some Terrible Thing has happened and a dude called Snowman is the only person left in the world except for a group of people he is sort of in charge of and who don’t understand clothes or body hair or meat-eating, for not-yet-explained reasons. Snowman tells them stories of Oryx and Crake, who are painted as vaguely god-like creatures who watch over this strange group, but it’s clear there is more to these stories.

So we jump back in time (yay!) to when Snowman was a child called Jimmy, living on a tech-business compound with his scientist dad and ex-scientist mom. His compound, and others like it, are basically gated communities designed to keep out the diseases rampant out in the pleeblands while the scientists work on curing them or at least genetically engineering ways to avoid them. Enter strange animal hybrids like the rakunk, bobkitten, and pigoon, the last of which is a breeder of new organs for humans, which is… cool? Anyway, Jimmy makes friends with a new kid in school named Glenn but called Crake, and as you can probably guess he plays a bit of a role in Jimmy becoming Snowman, and in the creation of Snowman’s odd friends.

The book is a great and terrifying bit of world-building, with great scientific advancements contrasted with some awful and/or disgusting ones that are going to put me off my chicken nuggets for a while (but not long, which is the worst part). There is fascinating commentary on all sorts of topics, from genetic engineering to scientific ethics to the exploitation of minors to the vulgarity of the internet, and Atwood is so good that I found myself agreeing with pretty much every side of every argument. I’m even kind of rooting for the Noodie News to exist… wait, it probably already does, doesn’t it? I am NOT googling that. I just googled that. It totally exists. Canada, you’re so weird.

Aaanyway, I quite enjoyed this book and I am super excited that there are two companion books that exist so that I don’t have to think too hard about my next road-trip listen. I’m just going to have to stay awake this time!

Recommendation: For anyone not sick of super-flu (haaa) and anyone who likes thinky speculative fiction.

Rating: 8/10

Graduation Day, by Joelle Charbonneau

Graduation DayAnother day, another dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA series ending. I just can’t seem to stop myself reading about all the ways my future is going to go horribly, terribly wrong, it seems.

I tend to prefer my bleak futures in standalone as most of the trilogies lose me at their middles or, sometimes, their beginnings. This particular series kept me intrigued the longest of any I’ve read, but it still lost me in this last book. These landings are just hard to stick, I guess.

In the first book of this series, we saw teenagers literally dying to get into the best (okay, only) college, winning mostly with their intelligence and a little bit with their fists. In the second, we saw them literally fighting again to get into the best classes in said college, and then Charbonneau dropped the higher-ed allegory in favor of a resistance movement story line that was still pretty interesting.

Now the resistance movement story line makes way for the government conspiracy story line, as our hero Cia finds out that the resistance fighters are actually just pawns of the University leaders in some long-con game whose players are not altogether clear. Cia knows she can’t trust one former good guy, but she’s not sure where her other good guys or even bad guys stand, and she can’t ask or everyone will know she knows… whatever it is she actually knows. I don’t have a head for conspiracies, you can tell.

It gets worse, though. There’s a vote coming soon on Testing reform which would get rid of all the unneccessary violence and death and memory-wiping, and when Cia mentions all the conspiracy stuff to her boss, the University president, the president gives Cia the task of eliminating the opposition through, you know, necessary violence and death. Cia is like, no way, well, okay, if that’s the way it’s gotta be, and she recruits her most- and least-trusted fellow students to carry out the minimum amount of murder possible.

And you know me, I am slightly more fascinated by political machinations than the next person, but Charbonneau lost me after the third or seventh or eleventeenth good-guy/bad-guy reversal. And then when she finds herself in a position where she’s (SUPER SPOILER) eliminating the baddest bad guy who turns out to be a good guy who made a deal that requires his death to prove that Cia’s the right kind of leader in the eyes of the actual bad guys so that she can become a leader and then subvert the bad guys as a good guy? I just. Can’t. Even.

We won’t even talk about the farm upstate. Uggghh.

But even though I was alternately baffled by and annoyed with the plot, I still couldn’t put the dang book down even though I was reading it in tiny print in a terrible format on my phone, because Charbonneau can write a page-turner. I also appreciated that, extraneous twist nonsense aside, the book was primarily about how good and bad are nebulous constructs, how the people who are trying to take down an obviously bad system are not therefore obviously good people, and how and end to the fighting isn’t an end to the fight.

It’s not a perfect book, but the series overall is definitely my favorite of the genre and I will be looking out for more books from Charbonneau in the future (I don’t think I’m going to go read her glee club mysteries, though).

Recommendation: Don’t read this particular book unless you’ve read the series, but do read the series if you feel like death and violence accurately encapsulates your own school career.

Rating: 6/10

City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau

City of EmberAnother pick for my library book club — this one I hadn’t even heard of until I found four copies of it in my children’s section, and then I figured, hey, if we already have a lot of copies of it…

Also my coworker said it was good. I’m not that lax with my book club picks, y’all.

So this book. It is yet another post-apocalyptic kids book, but the twist to this one is that you find out at the beginning that some people called “Builders” built (naturally) the titular city after some catastrophe and left time-locked instructions to be passed down mayor-to-mayor for a couple hundred years so that the future residents could come back to wherever their ancestors started.

Except, of course, the instructions get lost, and now Ember is a couple decades past its expiration date and barely hanging on to its stores of canned food and lightbulbs, which are super important because when the lights go out they ALL go out, and there’s no sun or moon hanging around to help out.

Our hero Lina finds the instructions shortly after they’ve been baby-nommed, but with the help of our other hero Doon she sets off to solve the mystery of the instructions and of the weird way that Ember’s mayor has been acting lately.

And… that’s practically the whole book. It’s super short and super fast. It’s also the first book in a series of four, which is part of why it seems so fast — as soon as you reach what feels like the midpoint, the book is over and it’s time to go buy the next one. I was not warned of this! At least it’s not a cliffhanger; if you take the book as standalone, which I am likely to do, it ends in a place where you can kind of make up your own ending.

I enjoyed the trade-off in narration between Lina and Doon, and I liked that they were young enough that there was no dang love story mucking everything up (though I’m sure that’ll come in a few books…) and that they shared pretty equally in responsibility for solving the instruction puzzle and attempting to follow through on said instructions and generally trying to make their town a better place. And I’m intrigued by a a lot of the details that didn’t get explained in this book — the unknown area outside of Ember’s light, the reason for building Ember in the first place, why Ember wasn’t made self-sustaining in the first place — all those sorts of things that will probably get explained in later books.

But I probably won’t read those later books, because there was so little to the book as it stands that I’m just not invested. Like Divergent, if I had had all the books sitting in front of me it might have been a different story, but sadly, I did not. I will definitely be foisting the series on all my little library patrons, though, and I am positive they will tell me all about it when they’re done.

Recommendation: For kids who haven’t yet delved into post-apocalyptic/dystopian worlds and/or are slightly too young for The Giver.

Rating: 6/10

Legend, by Marie Lu

LegendRemember how I didn’t want to read Divergent because a friend of mine kind of wanted to set it on fire? Well, that happened, and also that same friend subsequently read Legend and wanted to marry it and have its babies, so it ended up on my list of things to read. And then I actually liked Divergent, so I figured this would have to be pretty good, and so when I was done with Independent Study and it was the most handy book on my desk, I picked it right up.

I may have made a couple of mistakes, there. And reading the acknowledgements may have been another. Ugggh.

Okay, so, story-wise, this book sounds pretty cool. It’s got a dual narrative, which I like a lot, split between the genius military girl June and the flunky criminal Day, the former of whom is charged with apprehending the latter. You get to view the world from the point of view of the haves and the have-nots, and because June is chasing Day you get some of that fun repeating narrative where one person sees things just a little differently than the other, which is always good.

There’s also an ingenious background to the story, which is that it is set in a future world with fighting factions blah blah, not the important part, the important part is that there is some big test that people have to take and June scored perfectly and Day scored so badly that he was sent off to the mines or whatever, and this is the story of what happens after that test. Not the story of ending the testing, like The Testing series or The Hunger Games, but the before part of that where everyone is still more or less okay with the whole thing. Awesome.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book to be terribly well-written. The twists and turns were obvious almost from the beginning, except for the ones that came absolutely out of nowhere to push the story along (cough codebreaking cough), and many of the problems faced by our characters were really the result of poor planning unbecoming of an alleged military genius.

But of course you can probably blame that last part on the fact that this book turns into a love story between our two narrators, which barf, and also which, according to my interpretation of the acknowledgements, could have been avoided altogether if we had just stuck with the Les Mis template. Or we could have had Javert and Jean Valjean making out, which, actually, would sell really well amongst certain of my friends. A free idea to you, if it hasn’t already been done (let me know if it’s been done)!

So, in the end, it’s kind of a wash. I wanted to like the book, and I liked a lot of the parts of the book, and maybe if I hadn’t read it immediately after something that was doing all the things I wanted it to re: love stories it wouldn’t have been so grating. But I did and it was and it just wasn’t fun or interesting enough to lure me into the next book. (But if you’ve read the next book and think I would like it, I might reconsider.)

Recommendation: For those who need yet another horrible future to worry about, and those who want something just a little different from the current crop of YA dystopias.

Rating: 5/10

Independent Study, by Joelle Charbonneau

Independent StudyI read the first book in this series, The Testing, last fall and I liked it quite a bit, for a contemporary YA dystopia (well, it’s more post-apocalyptic, but same idea) anyway. There was a conspicuously missing backstory that bothered me, but I figured we’d learn about it more in time.

And… we… kinda not really but sorta do? I mean, we don’t learn anything terribly useful, but the point of this book is that Cia is asking questions and trying to figure out what the heck is up with this whole American Gladiators University selection process, so it’s not like Charbonneau doesn’t know what I’m interested in, here.

But first there is more Gladiators, as the colony students who passed the entrance exams now have to compete a second time to actually get to stay in the University, because of course they do. They have to compete against Tosu City (read: The Capitol) students who didn’t have to kill each other to get there, but of course if you’re trying to get into college a little death is par for the course, yes? I mean, no?

And then once that’s over, there are classes, and Cia gets to be an unwilling Hermione, taking all the classes without even the help of a time turner, and also is working with resistance types to try to make the University system safe and normal again.

It’s all pretty standard stuff, but I love the way Charbonneau writes and also how she seems to know what I want in my ridiculous YA dystopias. The love straight line still exists, and is still not at all twue-wove-y, and also the ending! The ending was completely what I was expecting up until the point where it was not at all what I was expecting but oh so interesting and I am so happy that Graduation Day comes out in less than three months because I have got to see how this plays out.

Recommendation: If you have any fondness for YA dystopias, this’ll be right up your alley, and there’s way less kids-killing-kids action than the last one.

Rating: 8/10

World War Z, by Max Brooks

World War ZI had been meaning to listen to this book ever since I found out that it was a full cast recording, and especially since I found out that the full cast included such people as Jeri Ryan and Nathan Fillion. Yes, please! Unfortunately, all of the library places I tried to find the audiobook in had only the original, abridged version (without Nathan Fillion, the horror!) and I was having none of that. So I watched the movie instead, which was pretty okay but obviously not anything like the book.

Finally I found the unabridged version and took it on a road trip in November, but then it turned out that the book was about two hours longer than the road trip — and of course I couldn’t finish it without Scott present since he had listened to it with me — and so I didn’t finish listening to it until another road trip over a month later. So if I have failed to remember things correctly or at all, that is the reason why!

The premise of the book is that it has been written after the Zombie War, aka World War Z, a decade or so when humans became zombie-like creatures and ate brains and temporarily took over the world until such time as the non-zombies figured out how to fight back. Different areas tried different tactics for keeping the zombies at bay, with varying success, and so Max Brooks the character went around the world to talk to all sorts of people and collect their stories for posterity.

The stories are ordered roughly chronologically from the beginning of the zombie plague to the end of the war, and they are all pretty interesting. There are stories from military people and civilians; those who lost everything and those who managed not to; those who came out of the war decently sane and those who went crazy or feral. Some stories I especially liked: the one with the guy who made boat-loads of money selling useless zombie cures, the one with the woman whose plane is shot down and who makes it to safety with the help of a pal on the CB or ham radio or whatever, the one with the girl whose family protects her at all costs, the one with the guy talking about the officer who went nuts, and the one where Nathan Fillion talks to me about who cares what. Swoooon.

If you can time your road trip right, I have to say that this is a fantastic book to listen to, because the short stories give you lots of good stopping points when it is time for gas or lunch or whatnot. And, as mentioned above, it is a full cast recording and so instead of one dude talking at you for twelve hours there are, like, forty people talking at you for a few minutes each.

On the minus side, there are a lot of foreign dudes (and I do mean dudes, lots of dudes) in the book and the producers of the audio did not always procure appropriately foreign dudes to voice those characters, so sometimes there are cringe-worthy fake accents and sometimes there are descriptions of a particular kind of dude who is then played by an obviously not-that-kind-of-dude.

But it’s still a good listen, and I would definitely recommend it for your next twelve-hours-or-more road trip. I may need to bust out my print copy at some point in the future and see how it reads, though, as I mostly remember the individual stories that I liked best and not really the whole arc of the novel.

Rating: 8/10

Wool #5: The Stranded, by Hugh Howey

Wool #5Oh, heeeeeyyyy, Wool, long time no read! You can stop giving me that pointed Look from the middle of my giant work-based TBR pile, now, although I will be sad to be sending you back to your home library, where it will be more difficult for me to foist you onto unsuspecting readers.

“The Stranded” (The Stranded?) is the final, novel-length installment of what we’re apparently calling book one of the Silo Series, because that’s not confusing at all. And it is chock-full of people and places and stories and craziness to rival those first four installments, don’t you worry. Let’s see what we can make of it.

So we ended the last story with our friends in the main silo headed off to war with themselves because of secrets and treachery, and this one picks up pretty shortly thereafter, with the war all but decided in favor of the secret-keepers. The Jerk Dude in Charge is training up an apprentice to join him in jerky in-charge-ness, but of course said apprentice, Lukas, is infatuated with our good friend Juliette, who is sitting pretty in a second silo plotting her revenge and having illicit phone conversations with Lukas while the boss is away. Meanwhile, the soon-to-be losers of the war have built a radio that is receiving all sorts of transmissions, and the isolation of their silo is clearly not going to last much longer.

This story was a pretty good conclusion to this… story… (criminy, Howey!), with lots of questions more or less answered and just enough questions raised or outstanding to set the stage for the next series. It was a bit overlong, with some scenes seeming repetitive and others not seeming to advance the plot much (though who knows with all the stories left to tell), but I wasn’t too sad about spending the extra time with Juliette and Lukas and even, to a certain extent, Bernard aka Jerk Dude. I felt like Howey did a good job of explaining just why Bernard was such a jerk and how jerk-ful-ness might actually be a useful skill in this very strange world and I even found myself a little annoyed with the naïveté of our ostensible heroes, which I think is good writing.

I am very intrigued to see where this story goes with the Shift series, though I am not in any rush to go out and get those stories; my brain is content to sit and think about this set for a while first.

Recommendation: Absolutely go read the first story, right now, go do that, and then read the rest of the series if you’re interested in a different, deeper, world-building experience.

Rating: 8/10

The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau

The TestingAfter the surprising death-fest that was Lexicon, I figured, what better way to recover than reading an unsurprising death-fest? Yeah, I probably have issues. This is a book that my coworker will not read, no matter how much I think she’d like it otherwise, because it involves kids killing kids, so bear that in mind if you are likewise squeamish.

I described this elsewhere as a sort of nerdier The Hunger Games. The aforementioned kids are chosen not by random and not to hunt each other for televised sport, but by being the best and brightest and to compete against each other (hunting if necessary) in absolute, memory-wipe-controlled privacy in a bid to enter The University. I’ll stick with the SAT, thanks.

I knew going in, what with all the similar comparisons to The Hunger Games being made, that there was going to be that cage match, kill-or-be-killed part to the book. But it’s actually kind of worse. Once the story gets to The Testing, you find out that even though the first part of the test is just knowing history and some basic technology and survival skills, the punishment for a wrong answer is injury or death, because of course it is. There are also tests of the students’ ability to work with each other, which some students take advantage of to indirectly cause injury or death, the cowards, and then there’s the “survival in our post-apocalyptic landscape” portion which devolves into the expected cage match pretty quickly.

So be ready for violence and sloppy eating, is what I’m saying.

The not-violent part of the novel is where I had the most trouble, though, because I had a hard time seeing how all this carnage actually did anything useful for the government. They took all the smartest high school graduates and then killed most of them so that the remaining could lead what would necessarily be a dumber nation? This makes sense how? I felt a little validated near the end of the book when Cia asks the same question, and based on how the book ends I have a feeling we’re going to get some more of that information in the sequel, but it would have been nice to have at least some explanation of what’s going on from the beginning.

On the plus side, though, I really liked what Charbonneau did with Cia, making her pretty smart and logical but not overly badass and therefore much more relatable to me in particular, and also giving her a love straight line that she’s not, like, super invested in because hey, she’s got other things to worry about! I was doing a little dance in my chair over this fact, and I hope that it catches on with the actual target audience of this kind of book so that I can see more realistic relationships in the future.

The other characters are not terribly well fleshed out (which, I mean, Cia’s got other stuff to worry about than giving us full backstories, here), but they are used well to show that Cia as a first person narrator does not really understand everything that’s going on around her and also that there’s more than one way to be a smart and logical person, which is nice to see.

I am definitely looking forward to the next book in the series, which takes place in the University portion of this education and promises to answer at least some of my many questions about this horrible future world that we should probably avoid creating.

Recommendation: For those who can handle kid-on-kid violence and also want a little intelligence mixed in with it.

Rating: 8/10

an RIP read

Weekend Shorts: Wool #3 and The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, Some More

Goodness, it has been so long since I actually read these stories that I can only hope I will remember all the good parts! With any luck I will be getting back into the swing of this, though, and there will be more short story goodness in the future. Especially this Wool series; it’s turning out to be really quite awesome!

wool 3Wool #3: Casting Off, by Hugh Howey
After the expectedly-not-as-great-as-the-first-story second story of this series, I was a little bit nervous about continuing on. For no good reason, it turns out! This installment opens with our newly minted sheriff, Juliette, heading out for a cleaning, which is a very bad thing indeed. She ponders just how she got herself into this predicament, which naturally segues into the actual story of how she got herself into this predicament. Yeah, it’s not the most original opening, but I am a total sucker for its kind and so this story scored points with me right from the beginning.

Howey gets into the meat of the political shenanigans here, with our new sheriff attempting to do her job and certain people making that basically impossible but with a shiny veneer of helpfulness that makes it hard for Juliette to argue. Unfortunately, the people who are actually being helpful to our sheriff are the ones who are about to make boatloads of trouble and make our opening happen. But it’s what happens after that opening sequence that makes me really super-duper excited for the next installment…. Man, I wish these stories were longer, so that I could say more about them, but on the other hand I can read more of them if they’re shorter, so…

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast“We Were Nearly Young”, by Mavis Gallant
Dang, this story. I didn’t really catch it while listening to the podcast, but I caught the gist of it in the discussion afterward with Antonya Nelson and thought it was pretty intriguing. Then I found a copy of the story here, and eyes-read it, and kind of fell in love with it.

The story itself is about a group of twenty-somethings all living in the same run-down building in Madrid in the fifties, being poor but being together and therefore being more or less happy, until such time as one of the twenty-somethings ruins the status quo. The group dynamics reminded me a bit of something like The Likeness or The Secret History, and so of course I was sold.

But what really makes the story so wonderful is the language Gallant uses, which is just so pretty that even though I wasn’t paying enough attention to it being read I knew it was a beautiful story. A line that especially drew me in in the print version: “It was not the English bun-face, or the Swiss canary, or the lizard, or the hawk; it was the unfinished, the undecided, face that accompanies the rotary sprinkler, the wet Martini, pussyfooting in love and friendship, expense-account foolery, the fear of the open heart.” Mavis Gallant, this is not the last time we shall meet.

“A Day”, by William Trevor
Where the last story was a bit confusing to me on first listen, this one dragged me right in. In it, a woman called Mrs. Lethwes spends a day pondering another woman called Elspeth. Elspeth is a bit of a mystery figure at first, is she Mrs. Lethwes’s sister? Friend? But as the story progresses, Trevor fills in more details about the Lethwes family and this Elspeth character, at least how Mrs. Lethwes sees and imagines them, and you (well, I) start to feel like you have totally had this particular day before in your life, up to and including all the attendant alcohol.

I think the best part of this story (spoilers?) is that you never find out what’s actually going on outside of Mrs. Lethwes’s head. Is Elspeth the way she imagines her? Is this day going to end the way Mrs. Lethwes thinks it will? Is it all just the alcohol talking? I DON’T KNOW AAAAHHH! And I love it.