I was looking forward to this week’s theme of Nonfiction November the most, because one of my favorite parts of being a librarian is “reader’s advisory.” Reader’s advisory is when you chat to a person about what they enjoy reading, what they’re interested in, what they’re looking for, and recommend a few books to them as books they might enjoy reading. (I don’t get to do this a ton as an academic medical librarian, but it does still come up sometimes). I view this as a book blogger version of that.
For this, I thought I would select out a few of my favorite fiction books and seek out nonfiction books that would pair well with them. If you read and enjoyed the fiction, consider checking out the nonfiction. Of course it will also work the other way around! If you’ve read the nonfiction book and enjoyed it, consider checking out the fiction.
First Pairing: Sled Dogs
The Call of the Wild
Buck is a spoiled southern dog enjoying a posh life when one of the family’s servants steals him and sells him away to be a sled dog for the Alaska gold rush. Buck soon goes from an easy life to one of trials and tribulations as the result of humans fawning over a golden metal, but it might not be all bad for him in the wild Alaskan north.
Gold Rush Dogs
Jane G. Haigh
Dog lovers and history buffs will delight in this collection celebrating the beloved canines that offered companionship, protection, and hard work to their masters in the Far North.
Why pair it?
Buck, the main character (and dog) in The Call of the Wild is trained to be a sled dog for the gold rush (not the Iditarod). This nonfiction book is about the gold rush dogs.
Second Pairing: Women in Ancient Japanese Court Life
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her. She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.
Diary of Lady Murasaki
The Diary recorded by Lady Murasaki (c. 973 c. 1020), author of The Tale of Genji, is an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shoshi. Told in a series of vignettes, it offers revealing glimpses of the Japanese imperial palace the auspicious birth of a prince, rivalries between the Emperor’s consorts, with sharp criticism of Murasaki’s fellow ladies-in-waiting and drunken courtiers, and telling remarks about the timid Empress and her powerful father, Michinaga. The Diary is also a work of great subtlety and intense personal reflection, as Murasaki makes penetrating insights into human psychology her pragmatic observations always balanced by an exquisite and pensive melancholy.
Why pair it?
Fudoki features tales being told by an aging empress that illuminate women’s lives in ancient Japan. This nonfiction period piece is a diary by a real woman with an insider’s view of the same court life. Although not written by an empress, she was an empress’s companion.
Third Pairing: We’re Living in the Future the 1800s Scifi Imagined
The Time Machine
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time. But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line
This is “the Word” — one man’s word, certainly — about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the “one man” is Neal Stephenson, “the hacker Hemingway” (Newsweek) — acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) — the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson’s In the Beginning… was the Command Line is a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.
Why this pairing?
Wells and Stephenson are both considered masters of the scifi genre. In this nonfiction piece, Stephenson explicitly draws comparisons between modern culture and the one envisioned by Wells in The Time Machine.
Fourth Pairing: Scandinavia Is Perfect….Or Is It?!
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.” These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities. The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit. Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
The whole world wants to learn the secrets of Nordic exceptionalism: why are the Danes the happiest people in the world, despite having the highest taxes? If the Finns really have the best education system, how come they still think all Swedish men are gay? Are the Icelanders really feral? How are the Norwegians spending their fantastical oil wealth? And why do all of them hate the Swedes?
Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians, on and off, for over ten years, perplexed by their many strange paradoxes and character traits and equally bemused by the unquestioning enthusiasm for all things Nordic that has engulfed the rest of the world, whether it be for their food, television, social systems or chunky knitwear.
In this timely book he leaves his adopted home of Denmark and embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success and, most intriguing of all, what they think of each other. Along the way a more nuanced, often darker picture emerges of a region plagued by taboos, characterised by suffocating parochialism and populated by extremists of various shades.
They may very well be almost nearly perfect, but it isn’t easy being Scandinavian.
Why this pairing?
The Unit is a unique dystopia in that it is set in Sweden and takes various aspects of Swedish culture to their dystopic extremes. Since Scandinavia often comes across as idealistic, it was interesting to see a dystopia set there. This nonfiction work takes a long tough look at Scandinavia and exposes the minuses (in addition to the pluses) of living there.
That’s it for my pairings! I hope you all enjoyed them. I know that I certainly found a few new books for my wishlist!
Earth is overcrowded and overheated but people still don’t want to become colonists to other planets. The colonies on the other planets are so boring and depressing that the colonists spend all of their money on Can-D — a drug that lets them imagine themselves living in an idealistic version of Earth. The only trick is they have to set up dioramas of Earth first. The drug is illegal on Earth but the diorama parts are still created by a company there. When the famous Palmer Eldritch returns from the far-flung reaches of space, he brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, that doesn’t require the dioramas. What the people don’t know, but one of the manager of the Can-D company soon finds out, is that Chew-Z sends those who take it into an alternate illusion controlled by Palmer Eldritch.
I love Philip K. Dick, and I have since first reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So whenever I see his books come up on sale in ebook format, I snatch them up. I picked this up a while ago for this reason, and then randomly selected it as my airplane read on my honeymoon. Like many Dick novels the world of this book is insane, difficult to explain, and yet fun to visit and thought-provoking.
The world Dick has imagined is hilarious, although I’m not sure it was intended to be. Presciently, Dick sets up a future suffering from overpopulation and global warming, given that this was published in 1965, I find it particularly interesting that his mind went to a planet that gets too hot. Even though the planet is unbearably warm (people can only go outside at night and dusk/dawn), they still don’t want to colonize other planets. Colonizing the other planets is just that bad. So there’s a selective service by the UN, only instead of soldiers, those randomly selected are sent to be colonists. The wealthy can generally get out of it by faking mental illness, as the mentally ill can’t be sent away. This particular aspect of the book definitely reflects its era, as the 1960s was when the Vietnam War draft was so controversially going on.
I don’t think it’s going out on much a limb to say that drugs had a heavy influence on this book. Much of the plot centers around two warring drugs, and how altered perceptions of reality impact our real lives. One of the main characters starts out on Earth hearing about how the poor colonists have such a depressing environment that they have to turn to drugs to keep from committing suicide. But when he later is sent to Mars himself as a colonists, his impression is that in fact the colony is this downtrodden because no one tries very hard because they’re so much more focused on getting their next hit of Can-D. The Can-D has caused the lack of success on the planet, not the other way around. Whether or not he is accurate in this impression is left up to the reader.
Then of course there’s the much more major plot revolving around the new drug, Chew-Z. Without giving too much away, people think Chew-Z is a much better alternative to Can-D, but it turns out chewing it puts you under the control of Palmer Eldritch for the duration of your high, and if you overdose, you lose the ability to tell the difference between illusion and reality. The main character (and others who help him) thus must try to convince the humans that Chew-Z is bad for them before they ever even chew it. The main character has another side mission of getting people off of Can-D.
It sounds like a very anti-drugs book when summarized this way, but it felt like much more than that. People chewing Chew-Z can come to have an experience that sounds religious – seeing the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (a stigmata in Christian tradition is when God shows his favor on someone by giving them the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion. In this book, the three stigmata are three bodily aspects of Palmer that are unique to him). However, the experience of seeing the stigmata is in fact terrifying, not enlightening. The drugs thus represent more than drugs. They represent the idea that we could possibly know exactly what a higher power is thinking, and perhaps that it might be better to just go along as best we can, guessing, rather than asserting certainty.
All of this said, a few weaknesses of the 1960s are seen. I can’t recall a non-white character off the top of my head. Women characters exist, thank goodness, but they’re all secondary to the male ones, and they are divided pretty clearly into the virgin/whore dichotomy. They are either self-centered, back-stabbing career women, or a demure missionary, or a stay-at-home wife who makes pots and does whatever her husband asks. For the 1960s, this isn’t too bad. Women in the future are at least acknowledged and most of them work, but characterizations like this still do interfere with my ability to be able to 100% enjoy the read. Also, let’s not forget the Nazi-like German scientist conducting experiments he probably shouldn’t. For a book so forward-thinking on things like colonizing Mars and the weather, these remnants of its own time period were a bit disappointing.
Overall, though, this is a complex book that deals with human perception and ability. Are we alone in space? Can we ever really be certain that what we are seeing is in fact reality? How do we live a good life? Is escapism ever justified? Is there a higher power and if there is how can we ever really know what they want from us? A lot of big questions are asked but in the context of a mad-cap, drug-fueled dash around a scifi future full of an overheated planet and downtrodden Mars colonies. It’s fun and thought-provoking in the best way possible.
4 out of 5 stars
Picking up where Unwind left off, UnWholly finds Risa and Connor managing the Graveyard full of unwinds themselves with no adults in site, and Lev struggling to find a purpose now that he’s both free of clapper chemicals and under the watchful eye of the government. Into the mix comes Cam, the first ever “rewind.” He’s been assembled completely from the parts of unwinds of every race and religion. And his creator intends to meddle with the runaway unwinds too.
I picked this up right after finishing the first on audiobook, because finding a fast-paced story with a good narrator can be harder than it sounds. So once I found that with the first book in the series and I saw the rest of it had the same narrator, I figured I may as well continue along with it. While I found the first book engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself periodically bored with the plot in this one, and also found it more difficult to suspend my disbelief than before.
The basic premise is that Connor is all torn up over having the arm of his once-rival (who also just so happened to threaten to rape his girlfriend, Risa). He thus holds Risa at arm’s-length (pun intended) because he’s afraid of what his own arm will do. While I appreciate the fact that it must be truly atrocious for your boyfriend to now have your attempted rapist’s arm, I think the fact that Connor lends the arm so much agency is a symptom of one particular idea in this world-building that just doesn’t work for me. The idea that body parts have their own spark of soul or agency or thought. It’s rife in this entry in the series, and it’s just plain weird to me. I can understand a character not bonding with a transplant that was forced upon him. I can understand it being weird for loved ones. I don’t, however, find myself able to suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone’s arm has their personality in it so much that the person who it was transplanted onto would be afraid of it. It’s an arm, not a piece of brain or even a heart. The author does provide links to sources about transplant recipients feeling connected to the person whose body part they received or having memories or what have you. I appreciate that. But for me personally this plot point just does not work. Other readers may be able to suspend their disbelief better than I was able to. I for once can’t imagine not going near my own girlfriend because I was afraid of my arm. I also just disliked how much agency Connor removes from himself for his own temper. If he hits the wall when he’s angry it’s not him hitting the wall, it’s the arm hitting the wall. The arm got mad. The arm got out of control. There’s just a ridiculous lack of agency there, and I’m not super comfortable with that level of lack of agency being in a book marketed toward teenagers, who are at the best point in life for learning agency and responsibility.
I similarly have a hard time believing, from a neurological perspective, that the rewind boy, Cam, could exist. His brain is dozens’ of peoples all wound together. I could believe replacing a brain piece here or there with transplant technology, I couldn’t believe mish-mashing many together and having them actually function. Let alone with the only issue being that Cam struggles to learn to speak in words instead of metaphors. While Cam did strike me as grotesque, he mostly just struck me as an impossibility that I was then supposed to have sympathy for because he’s a person with his own feelings…but are they really? The whole thing was just a bit too bizarre for me.
On a related note, I found the scenes where Cam wakes up and learns to talk and slowly realizes what he is to be very tedious to read. They move slowly, and there is an attempt at building of suspense, but it is clear nearly immediately that Cam is a Frankenstein’s creature like experiment, even without Cam himself knowing it right away.
The other big new character is Starkey, a boy who was storked who is brought into the Graveyard. He’s basically exactly the same as Connor (he’s even still a white boy), the only difference being that was a stork and that he has no Risa to ease down his temper. I found his characterization to be uncreative, even if the building up of strife between the storks and the rest of the unwinds was a good plot point. It would have been better if the leader of the storks was more creative. Similarly, Starkey’s two main assistants are a black girl and an Indian-American boy. Just as with the first book, non-white people exist, but only as seconds to the white people. Why couldn’t either of them have been the leader of the storks?
All of these things said, there was still a lot of plot to keep the interest. I’ve barely touched on a couple of them. The world is still engaging, even if it’s hard to suspend the disbelief for it. I doubt I’d keep reading if I was reading this in print, but the audiobook narration makes it feel like listening to a movie, and it’s the perfect match for my commutes and doing dishes and such. Plus, now I’m curious as to where else the plot will go. I’m betting it will end up going in a direction I find it even harder to suspend my disbelief for, but it’ll be a fun ride seeing where that is.
Overall, fans of the first book may be disappointed by the slightly more meandering plot in this one. The addition of two new characters to follow will be distracting to some readers while others will find it adds to the interest and suspense. Some readers may be turned off by the continued lack of diversity in such a large cast of protagonists. The plot is engaging and the world is unique, though, so fans of YA dystopian scifi will probably still enjoy it.
3 out of 5 stars
In the near future, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life debate explodes into a war called the Heartland War. The only way the war could reach a peace was to come to an agreement. There would be no abortion but when children are between the ages of 13 and 17 their parents can sign an order to have them unwound. New scientific technology allows doctors to transplant all of a person’s body parts. They will then “live on” in a “divided state.” Teens whose parents choose to sign an unwind order for them are rounded up by juvie cops and brought to Harvest Camps to await their fate. Some families, particularly from fundamentalist branches of all faiths, believe in tithing 10% of their children, and will have a child simply to raise them to be a tithe. Additionally, many children end up unwanted and living in State Homes, where they are all given the last name of Ward–for ward of the state.
Connor is a light-hearted bad boy who just accidentally found his own unwind orders in his parents’ desk and immediately goes on the run. Lev is a tithe who is on his way to Harvest Camp. Risa is a ward of the state, and she is on a bus to be unwound, because she isn’t deemed exceptional enough to justify her upkeep. A series of events throws them into each other’s lives and leaves whether or not they will be unwound in question.
This was recommended to me years ago, but when I first read the description I was skeptical that the book was anything but Pro-Life propaganda. Years later I decided to check it out again, and most reviews mentioned how neutral the book was. Additionally, I read some interviews with the author where he stated he genuinely was trying to present a neutral story that analyzes some tough questions, so I thought I would give it a shot. Ultimately, the author has succeeded at creating a future world that is fascinating to visit and that also analyzes medical ethics in a creative way. I would honestly say the book is much more about medical ethics, particularly in regards to transplants, than it really is about abortion rights.
The basic plot is that three very different teenagers are supposed to be unwound but then find themselves on the run instead of actually at Harvest Camp. The book is in the third person but from the limited perspective of one character, and that one character switches around. It is predominantly Connor, Risa, or Lev, but it is also sometimes someone like a juvie cop or a parent. Sometimes this narrative structure works really well, providing many different perspectives on the same event or issue. Other times it feels too contrived. The perspective switches at just the right moment to keep the reader in the dark, or to reveal something we wouldn’t otherwise know. Sometimes this structure builds suspense and other times it kind of ruins it. Overall, though, I enjoyed the structure and found that the multiple perspectives really added to the world and the story.
This narrative structure is enhanced by clippings from real, modern-day newspaper articles and blogs, as well as fake advertisements and news from the future the book is set in. Partially due to the Audible narrator, who did a fantastic job at the ads, I really enjoyed these snippets of media from the future. They are very tongue-in-cheek and adult, but will still appeal to teens reading the book for their over-the-topness. I found the modern day news articles to be less interesting, and mostly felt a bit like scare mongering. They read as a bit heavy-handed in pushing the “this could really happen!” angle.
I did find it a bit frustrating that all three of the main characters are white and straight. While it is acknowledged that a few people (primarily adults) could be GLBTQ, the assumed norm is straight and cis, no matter what social organization is in control. Whether it’s mainstream society, rebels, or anyone in-between. The norm is always straight cis. Similarly, while the author does include non-white people to a much greater degree than non-straight/non-cis people (there are a wide variety of ethnicities and religions represented in the society), they are all secondary characters. One thing that really stuck out to me was that at one point in the book we meet a Chinese-American girl who is being unwound because her parents wanted a son, and they just kept trying until they got one and then picked a daughter to unwind, because they couldn’t afford all the kids. She’s also got an interesting punk aesthetic to her. What an interesting main character she would have been! Can you imagine her in the role of Connor? They are both running away from being unwound, and she could easily have taken that main character role. It just bothers me when a book has three main characters who are all in a similar situation due to society-wide problems, and yet they are so non-diverse, with just a nod at gender by having one female character.
With regards to the female character, Risa, I must say I was very disappointed to have one plot point be an attempted rape of her, and her then being saved by a male character. First, we only get one female main character and then she naturally is almost raped. Then naturally she must be saved by someone else. The whole scene sickened me, especially when I thought about teen girls reading it. It was just a completely unnecessary plot point. I once read an article that talked about how often rape scenes (or attempted rape scenes) are a sign of lack of creativity. I don’t think all of them are, but this one certainly came across that way. Unnecessary and a convenient plot point without thought to how it would affect the readers.
In spite of these characterization and style complaints though, the plot is very good, and the world is fascinating. Characters in a natural manner talk about and explore the ethics of life, when life begins, and who has the right to life, as well as who has the right to end it. The plot is fast-paced, and I read as quickly as I could to find out what happened. There are also a couple of twists at the end that rocked my socks off and left me immediately downloading the next book in the series.
All of that said, I have a few questions about the world that were never addressed. First, if everyone who is unwound is between the ages of 13 and 17, how does that work out with transplantation? People have not yet finished growing at 17, especially their minds. Does this mean a 67 year old woman would have a 15 year old’s arm if she needed a transplant? If so, that sounds very grotesque to me, and I wonder how society has learned to deal with something so mis-matched. This isn’t particularly addressed, except to say that sometimes it’s weird to look at someone with two eyes that don’t match. Similarly, the world at large isn’t really talked about at all. The kids who are trying to escape being unwound don’t even consider running into another country but they never explain why. How has the world at large reacted to the United States’ new law? Is there any country that would be a safe-haven for unwinds? Are there other countries following suit? The international impact is woefully underaddressed.
In spite of these various shortcomings, the plot and the world still sucked me in. It was a quick read that left me wanting more.
Overall, fans of dystopian ya looking for another series to whet their appetite will definitely enjoy this one. It’s a completely different dystopia from most of the ones that are already big, and I am sure YA readers who are currently teens themselves will find the idea of their parents being able to sign an unwind order on them chilling. Dystopian YA fans should definitely give this one a go.
4 out of 5 stars
How to Enter: Enter to win by clicking here!
Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL
Contest Ends: October 14th at midnight!
Disclaimer: The winner will have their book sent to them by the author. The blogger is not responsible for sending the book. Void where prohibited by law.
In an alternate history, the personal fax machine, not computers, became the quintessential technology, and one company, BelisCo, is running much of the United States. San Jose is now run entirely by BelisCo, and it boasts all the best of modern planned living: adult-only zones, smoking and non-smoking zones, clean and reliable transportation, and legal weed. Marcus Metiline is a PI in San Jose, and his whole world gets turned upside down when he agrees to take a job for BelisCo itself.
This is one of my accepted ARCs for 2015, and I went for it due to its interesting slight twist on the noir genre. I was intrigued at the idea of a PI in an alternate world where fax machines were the status quo instead of PCs. It felt almost like a steampunk. Techpunk? There should be a world for this when the old tech isn’t steam-power. In any case, although I found the world very interesting and I enjoyed visiting it, the plot left me dissatisfied.
This book is an enjoyable read even when the plot is doing weird things. The sentences flow smoothly, and the settings and characters are clearly rendered. I really enjoyed this alternate world. I liked it so much that I was disappointed by how little time we spend in it. Marcus is quickly scooped out and plopped into another world, and I didn’t like that one nearly as much or find it as interesting. The first world Marcus inhabits is creative and new. The other worlds are more dull and are things I’ve seen before.
It’s difficult to review this book without giving much away, but suffice to say that there is physics in the book, and while I appreciate the fact that science of it is good and well-explained, it also is a physics I’ve seen in scifi many times before, and I don’t think this particular rendering brought anything fresh to the table.
There are three really important characters in the book: Marcus, the owner of BelisCo, and a doctor. All three of them are male. This makes the book read a bit like a boys’ club, and it bugged me. The book would have instantly been more unique and interesting if, say, Marcus had been a hard-boiled woman PI. When every main character is basically the same (an intelligent white male), it’s just dull.
So, the non-spoiler reason of why I wasn’t into the plot is that I felt it took things just one twist too far, rendering things a bit ridiculous. If you want more explanation, see the spoiler-filled paragraph below.
Basically, Marcus finds out that San Jose is some sort of Matrix-like simulation aka not the real world, and he is encouraged to break out of it. When he does, the buildings of San Jose start falling apart and people are mad at him. We discover that the reason for this is that the simulation was being done on a bunch of cancer patients. The science here didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but basically they would live longer if they were in the simulation, giving them more of a chance to beat the cancer. Everyone entered the simulation through Marcus, and they had to keep him believing it to keep the experiment going. This whole experiment is highly illegal, and they blow up the building to get rid of the evidence. There are then hints that there are more worlds and simulations than these. First, I found the whole we’re in a simulation and this isn’t real life thing to be a very been there done that plot. It took us out of the much more interesting simulation world and into a computer simulation that I’ve seen before. The second twist of it actually being cancer treatment and them needing Marcus to stay in the world just sent the whole thing off into left field for me. Particularly since I found the science of the cancer treatment to be weak compared to the physics earlier. While I appreciate to others it may read more like a cool idea, to me it just took things on a path from super interesting to I’ve seen this before to wtf was that. It just really didn’t work for me.
Overall, readers who are intrigued by the world in the summary and who don’t mind multiple plot twists and a predominantly male cast will enjoy this read. It is well-written and interesting, but readers expecting to linger in the fax machine world of the plot summary should know that this world is soon left behind.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy in exchange for my honest review