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.

Weekend Shorts: Wool #2 and X-Men #1

Short stories! Possibly not-so-short reactions to them! Happy Sunday, everyone!

Wool #2: Proper Gauge, by Hugh Howey
Wool #2You may remember that I read the first Wool story a month ago and was like OMGOMGOMG. I still feel that way about that story, and if you haven’t read it I demand that you go do it now. I’ll wait.

After reading that amazing story, I knew I was in trouble for the sequels. So I waited patiently, attempting to forget the details of the first story and calm my pants down in general, all the while reminding myself that this next story would be the beginning of a series rather than a standalone and that it would be different in many ways and so let’s maybe lower that expectations bar, okay?

It worked! Proper Gauge is very definitely a different story than the original, but I found it an excellent scene-setting and tension-building story, and I am glad that I got the omnibus from the library so I can go read the rest of the stories as soon as I finish writing about this one.

In this story, the events of the original have just happened and it’s time for the mayor to appoint a new sheriff. The deputy doesn’t want the job, but has someone in mind — a no-nonsense mechanic who lives at the bottom of this strange silo world. The mayor uses this nomination as an excuse to get out of her top-floor office and go see the world some, but as she and her deputy friend walk the many many stairs down to see this mechanic, they find out that a) she might not really want the job and b) others might not really want her in it.

It’s not, like, super exciting, but as the mayor heads down into the deeps we find out more about this weird silo business and how it works and how people interact and this is all stuff I was curious about after reading the first story so I declare it a good thing. The main plot details are pretty predictable (as are the knitting puns and the casual but hopefully not continual sexism) but I liked the way Howey made them happen. I am excited to see where this goes next!

Rating: 7/10

X-Men #1: Primer, Part 1 of 3, by Brian Wood
X-Men 1So even though I got into this comic kick with The Unwritten, this issue is actually my very first single-issue comic experience. I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little shocked at how short these issues actually are! And now I have to wait a month for the next one! Disappointment, I have you.

I picked this up just yesterday, actually, and couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve always liked the idea of the X-Men, and have watched some movies and cartoons here and there, and when I found out that this new series would have a cast full of lady X-Men, I was like, well, you can have my money for at least this first issue.

And probably the next one, let’s be honest. This story starts off with some bacteria hanging out in the nothing before the something, and one kicks the other out of… whereever… into the somewhere else… anyway, not super important, basically there’s a dude and a chick and they’re siblings and the chick is set on revenge. Meanwhile, Jubilee is bringing a baby home from Bulgaria (as you do), and is also being followed by some creepy dude, and so she calls to let the other X-Men know about this and then Storm, Rogue, and Kitty Pryde come out to extricate Jubilee from a moving train. As you do.

That’s, I mean, that’s basically it, except for the reveals about who the mysterious people are, but hey, there’s a train! And it’s moving! Oh, and at some point it jumps track so it can be on a collision course with another train! So basically I am totally happy. Two thumbs up!

Rating: 7/10

Wool #1, by Hugh Howey

Wool #1I… I might be in love with this story. You can marry stories, right? And still be married to your husband? I’m pretty sure bigamy is okay if it’s with words. Don’t tell me otherwise.

Ahem. Right. Anyway. So I was a bit… not spoiled, that’s not the right word, maybe more like unprepared? Sure. I was unprepared for this story going in because I knew, and now you know, that it’s the first story in a series of short stories (sounds familiar…). I had seen a few things (read: a lot of things) about Hugh Howey, self-publishing superstar, and the omnibus edition being published by a “real” publishing house, and I thought the series sounded kind of interesting, and then I saw that the first story as an ebook was free on Amazon (still is, as of this writing), and I was sold and I read it and I got to the end and I was like, wait.

So it turns out that this particular story was originally just the one story, start to finish, holy crap awesome, and then it turned out so awesome (awesome!) that Howey was like, I guess I could write another one. Or four. (This is also how we got the Thursday Next series.) So if you go into this expecting, say, a cliffhanger ending or the start to a story arc, you will be disappointed. By that. Not by the story. The story is awesome.

Sorry, I know that this is terrible, what I am doing, calling this story awesome and thereby overinflating your expectations, and now you will read the story and be like, well, I guess that was okay? But I cannot help it, so if you are planning to read this story, just take all of my awesomes and turn them into, like, pretty okays. Decents. Not bads.

I really went into this story more or less unknowledgeable because I smartly forgot why I thought the series was interesting (the upside to terrible long-term memory?), but if you require more motivation than repeated use of the word awesome, here’s what I will give you:

There’s a dude, and he lives in some sort of silo, and he’s decided that he wants to go outside, which is apparently not a good idea in this possibly post-apocalyptic world in which people live in a silo.

That’s it, that’s all you get, because anything else is just going to spoil things for you because this story is like 50 pages long and kind of runs on suspense. Just go read it! It’ll take you not very long.

And then come back here and talk to me about this story because omg I need to say more words about this thing!

Recommendation: What do you think?

Rating: 10/10

Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot

Blueprints of the AfterlifeWhat a weird freakin’ book. I was in as soon as I heard sentient glacier, but I almost gave up on it when I got to the first chapter and there was an obese lady growing body parts on herself and demanding food from her foster brother who suffered from “ennui” attacks that made him feel all the feelings. And then said brother was told to write a book that he may or may not have already written, and I was like, I have read this book already, am I really going to have to do it again?

But then in the second chapter, there’s a new protagonist, and another in the third, and lots of people to follow around and see what’s going on and figure out how their stories fit in with everyone else’s and it was more like a better book I had already read and I was much much happier.

This is very much one of those books you just have to go with and hope to figure it out later, whether because the book finally tells you what this whole building Manhattan thing is all about or because you think about it long enough and you realize that that thing that made no sense two hundred pages ago makes a little bit of sense now.

It’s also one of those books that doesn’t really have a plot to speak of. There are little mini mystery things that propel each protagonist’s set of chapters, but overall the point of the book seems to be to paint an absurdist picture of the potential future of humanity and maybe throw a moral or two at you while it has a chance. I can’t always get behind that kind of story, but it worked on me here.

And let me just say that I would read The Abby Fogg Story and Boudinot needs to get on that. For all that the stories are weird as all get out, the characters in them are fantastic and utterly relatable (well, maybe not the ones from the first chapter, they’re just wacky) and I’m still a little worried about them. Life is rough, guys, especially in Boudinot’s world.

Recommendation: For lovers of the strange and strangely wonderful.

Rating: 9/10

The Long Tomorrow, by Leigh Brackett (25 August — 27 August)

I love the blurb on the cover of this book:

“By far Leigh Brackett’s best novel to date and comes awfully close to being a great work of science-fiction.” — New York Times

When I saw that, I thought, “Hmmm. What does that mean? Is this just an okay work of science fiction?” And I’m still not sure what the Times reviewer was thinking fifty years ago when he wrote that, but I can certainly make a hypothesis.

The only real science-fiction-y aspect of the novel is the fact that it takes place in the future, after a World War III nuclear holocaust has destroyed all the cities in the world. After this catastrophic event, the government has outlawed cities (too much of a target) and pretty much everyone has taken to being a New Mennonite and living just like the Amish do today. Part of the new religion preaches the comfort of being ignorant, thus keeping people from wanting to invent another nuclear bomb.

But a couple of kids in the Youngstown, Ohio area (not sure exactly where they’re meant to be, but I recognized a couple of city names nearby, Andover and Canfield) are more curious and less mindful of their parents than they should be and end up hearing about and lusting after a forbidden city called Bartorstown, where men are purported to be able to learn things and to be allowed to remember what the world was like 100 years ago, before the bombs and terror and whatnot. These kids set off to find the city, but since no one talks about it for fear of being stoned to death, and they can’t even really be sure the place exists, the quest is a little harder than they expect.

I rather enjoyed this little book! It has just the right combination of adventure and reality, and the main character, Len, is really easy to relate to. The novel is really more about Len’s physical and emotional journey rather than his destination, and there’s a lot of really good commentary about the human condition. And, for a dystopian novel from the fifties, the writing is pretty darn clear and concise. Good marks all around. (Also, Brackett’s a chick and worked on The Empire Strikes Back, which is like plus ten more points.)

Rating: 7/10

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Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.