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Book Review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (Series, #3) (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne, Bob Walter, and Robbie Daymond)

December 11, 2013 3 comments

An egg with a handprint on it sits in a nest.  The title of the book and the author's name are in gold near it.Summary:
The world has been mostly wiped out by a virus released by Crake, who thinks he’s helping save the earth with a cleansing flood.  The survivors who are left are some of the scientists who worked with him, some people who were following a crunchy granola earth-centric cult known as God’s Gardeners, and Painballers–dangerous drug addicts who survived a gladiator-style fighting ring.  There’s also the Crakers.  Genetically engineered by Crake and the scientists, they’re a new version of humans who are herbivorous and naturally poly.  They also are only attracted to sex when the women are in heat and visibly blue, thus preventing sexual violence amongst themselves.  The God’s Gardeners, scientists, and Crakers comes together to try to survive in this world and defend themselves from the painballers.  Toby, a God’s Gardener, ends up leading and educating the Crakers.  She also rediscovers Zeb, the God’s Gardener leader’s brother who she previously had a crush on.  Zeb tells her the story of how his brother, Adam, came to be mad.

Review:
I was under the impression that this was supposed to be a set of two companion novels, not a trilogy.  So when this book was released, I was surprised and excited.  The prior two books left the reader hanging, not knowing what really happened after the flood, and I was eager to find out what did happen.  I wish this book had lived up to the creativity and excitement of the second one, The Year of the Flood.

At first it appears the sole narrator of the book will be Toby, the woman from The Year of the Flood who flees to God’s Gardeners to escape her dangerous stalker and slowly grows in strength.  Slowly, though, she begins to share narration with Zeb, who tells her his and Adam’s background stories.  Interspersed in this is Toby’s evening bedtime stories to the Crakers, who insist upon this and treat it with respect and ritual.  Eventually, one of the Crakers tells some of the evening stories.  The format isn’t bad, although it’s odd that when Zeb is telling his story to Toby, she’s talking about him telling the story to her in the third person.  So the book will say “Zeb remembered” or “Zeb thought,” instead of just having Zeb take over the narration of the story.  It felt especially odd since the audiobook had the narrator change from the female voice of Toby to the male voice of Zeb who proceeded to refer to himself in the third person.  Similarly, although the bedtime stories to the Crakers were well-written, easily elucidating a bedtime story and letting the reader imagine the questions and comments from the Crakers that we don’t actually hear, a lot of the stories didn’t feel as if they added much to the book.  They felt a bit like page-fillers.  I get it that Atwood is trying to show where religion comes from (blind trust in a fallible person), but it felt a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary to me.

Toby’s character progression from a strong, creative, firecracker of a woman to someone who second-guesses herself, bemoans her inability to properly defend people, and moons after a man obsessively was rather jarring and disappointing.  I’m all for Toby having a love life, and I think her having one as an older woman is something we don’t see enough in literature.  But I don’t feel like her excessive pining and worrying over it was totally within character.  Similarly, she seems to lose all ability to trust in herself and her capability in defending herself and others in bizarre situations.  The one thing that did feel within her character was her taking the Crakers under her wing.  These flaws in the characterization of Toby are kind of a big deal since she’s the only female narrator out of three narrators, and since she was such an amazing main character in The Year of the Flood.  She deserves to have more of the story and more presence of personality than she gets.

That said, Zeb’s backstory is interesting and lends a lot of light to some of the mysteries from the previous two books.  In some ways they were the best parts of the book, since we get to revisit the incredible pre-flood world Atwood created.

In comparison, the post-flood world is dull and lacks creativity.  It’s essentially a bunch of survivors living in a jungle with some genetically engineered humans.  The only extra or special thing added into this basic formula is the Crakers, and they are not that engaging or interesting.  They’re mostly just a little creepy and off-putting.

The main conflict of the plot is rather predictable, although the ending is a bit of a surprise.  The end of Toby’s story moved me the most, and that’s not a surprise since she is by far my favorite character in the series.  The end of the book makes it clear that this is really more about the Crakers and the basis of their society, which I think explains my lukewarm feelings about the book.

The audiobook narrators all did a lovely job emoting the various characters they played.  The choice of having a male narrator speak for Zeb’s story even though Zeb isn’t actually speaking was a bit odd, though.

Overall, those who enjoyed The Year of the Flood the most of the first two books will be a bit disappointed in Toby’s characterization and probably find the post-flood world a bit dull, although they will still enjoy seeing the end of Toby’s story.  Those who preferred Oryx and Crake and have a liking of or interest in the Crakers will likely enjoy this finale to the series the most.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Oryx and Crake, review
The Year of the Flood, review

Series Review: The John Cleaver Series by Dan Wells

March 6, 2013 3 comments

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Notebook paper with blood on it.Summary:
Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver is not a serial killer.  At least not yet.  John’s therapist believes he has Antisocial Personality Disorder, commonly known as sociopathy, although he can’t legally deliver the official diagnosis until he’s 18 years old.  But both his therapist and himself hope John can learn to control his illness in the meantime.  An illness John refers to as Mr. Monster.  This becomes more difficult as a serial killer shows up in his town.  John starts to wonder if he can harness Mr. Monster to find and kill the killer.  A killer he soon learns is supernatural and ultimately faces.  The demons continue coming to his town, and John feels his grasp on control and an ability to function in average society slipping.  Are there really more and more demons coming to his town? Or is it just his sociopathy getting the better of him?

Review:
This trilogy starts with an incredible bang, but makes a slow trajectory downward to end on a whimper.

The first book is incredible.  It bashes ableism on its head by featuring a main character who is a teenager struggling with a mental illness, and not an easy one to identify with either.  People with APD lack empathy, which can make it difficult to empathize with them in return.  Wells carefully crafts a realistic yet sympathetic teenager with APD.  His struggles to defeat his mental illness and be a functioning member of society are great to see in a novel period, let alone in a YA one.  On top of this, we have a single mother running a business with the help of her just graduated high school daughter and part-time help of her teenage son.  It’s the perfect mix of non-traditional and yet not off the wall family to have as a backdrop for John.  We have all this, then, with a thriller plot that starts with the hint of a serial killer then deliciously builds to the revelation that the killer is a demon.  This fantasy element fits perfectly in with what is hot in YA right now, giving an interesting, unique main character an appealing wrapping.

Knife under an x.I was stoked after reading this and had high hopes for the trilogy.  The middle book maintains some of the elements that made the first book amazing but missed on others.  On the plus side, John is still who he was in the first book, although with more confidence.  He tries to date, and his family has their own struggles.  Although the thriller pacing is less deftly done, it still works in the context of this book, particularly since the middle book of a trilogy is traditionally setting things up for the last hurrah of the final book.  Plus this book manages to accomplish two things.  It has John learning more about himself and his mental illness and it shows him learning more about demons.  It ends on a powerful note with him inviting one of the demon’s friends to Clayton County to face off with him.  He’s tired of waiting for things to come to him and is ready to go on the offensive.  Thus, although this book wasn’t as strong as the first, I had high hopes that it was setting us up for a powerful final book in the trilogy.

Things really fall apart in the final book, which is what makes the trilogy taken as a whole disappointing.  Everything is building toward the final book.  Toward what John ultimately learns and what he ultimately becomes.  Unfortunately the answers to both of those questions are a major let-down after the unique and albeism-smashing features of the first two books.  In the climactic scene, John’s mother sacrifices herself to save her son.  When he loses her, he realizes that he is feeling feelings.  He’s feeling the pain of losing her.  When he realizes this, the lightbulb goes off in his head that he stopped feeling feelings when his father abandoned them.  It was just him trying to deal with his broken family.  I shit you not.  And then he decides he has been healed by his mother’s death.  His mother’s sacrifice opens him up to letting himself feel things again. What. The Fuck.

Burnt paper background to book title.First of all, going numb after being badly emotionally hurt is a real thing.  But it’s not a real thing that would be mistaken by a therapist as Antisocial Personality Disorder. And being numb doesn’t mean a person starts daydreaming about killing everyone around him and the girls he has crushes on in particular.  Numb is not the same as lacking empathy, and it honestly doesn’t even take a therapist to see that.  Numb looks and feels different from sociopathy.  They are not the same thing and simply could not be mistaken for each other.  If we decide that perhaps Wells didn’t mean to imply that John was simply numb and didn’t have sociopathy, then we can only read this as saying that John’s father abandoning the family *caused* his son’s sociopathy and that his mother’s sacrifice cured it.  I’m sorry, but your dad running off does not give people Antisocial Personality Disorder, and it certainly isn’t cured in the span of 10 minutes by someone sacrificing their life for yours.  (By the way, does anyone see the heavy-handed religious symbolism in that? Because it is definitely there).  The cause, as with many mental illnesses, is officially unknown but is believed to be a combination of genetics and severe environmental factors such as child abuse (source).  Since John is not abused, then we can only assume that in his case his APD is genetic.  It is utterly ridiculous to present the matter as his APD being caused by something as simple as a parent leaving.  Similarly, there is no cure for APD.  People do not get magically better overnight.  It can be managed so a person may have a healthy, normal life, but it does not just disappear.  The symptoms do sometimes become less severe on their own in a person’s 40s (according to the DSM-IV-TR), but John is not 40, and he doesn’t suddenly get better thanks to aging.  The whole climax of the series turns the series from being about a person with a mental illness learning to function and do positive things into a story about how a father abandoning his family destroyed them and almost ruined his son for life.  The former is unique and powerful.  The latter is heavy-handed and preachy.  Plus that whole dynamic belittles mental illness and makes it out to be just overcoming a bad part of your life, rather than the very real illness that people deal with every day.

So what we have here is a trilogy that starts as one thing and ends as another.  It starts as a thriller with a unique main character demonstrating dealing with mental illness in an engaging, realistic manner.  It ends with a thriller that quickly goes from spine-tingling to heavy-handed and preachy.  It is unfortunate that this preachiness also gets the facts about a mental illness wrong and presents these false ideas to a YA audience in such an attractive, fantastical thriller wrapping.  Ultimately the writing is good but the last book in the trilogy takes a nose-dive when it comes to facts and the realities of having and living with a mental illness.  Thankfully, one can read the first or first two books in the trilogy without reading it all.  There are not major cliffhangers that compel the reader to continue on, and the first two books stand on their own well enough.  I’m disappointed that the series as a whole is not something I can recommend whole-heartedly.  I’m disappointed that after starting out so strong, Wells went so far astray.  That doesn’t change the quality of the first two books, though, so I still recommend them. But only if you’re capable of leaving a series partly unread.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap, Audible

Books in Series:
I Am Not A Serial Killer, review, 5 stars
Mr. Monster , review, 4 stars
I Don’t Want to Kill You, review, 3 stars

Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

February 20, 2013 6 comments

An African woman's face in silhouette against a reddish background.Summary:
The Nigerian-Biafran War (or the Nigerian Civil War, as it is also known) is seen through the intertwining lives of four different people.  The daughter of a wealthy Igbo couple, Kainene, with a fierce business sense.  Her fraternal twin sister, who is also the beautiful one, Olanna, an academic in love with a revolutionary-minded man named Odenigbo.  Kainene’s boyfriend then fiancee, the white English writer Richard.  And Ugwu.  Olanna’s houseboy who came to them from a rural village.  Their lives are irreparably impacted, and in some cases destroyed, by the war for a cause they all believe in, but that the world largely ignores.

Review:
I originally intended this Nigerian book to be my final read for the Africa Reading Challenge 2012, but even though I started it in November, the audiobook took over three months to get through, so it ultimately missed counting for the challenge.  I thought it was much longer than my usual audiobook fare, but a quick check of the listen length shows that it is 18 hours and 56 minutes long, which is only about 7 hours longer than my norm.  So why did it take me so long to finish?  Well, I just didn’t enjoy it that much.

I believe I was expecting something else from Adichie, since I had previously read her book Purple Hibiscus (review), which is far more character driven than this novel.  In this novel I would say the main character is actually the war, and that is something that simply does not work for my reading style.  Perhaps also playing into this general feeling I got was the ensemble cast.  Instead of getting to know just Olanna, for instance, and seeing her life before, during, and after the Nigerian-Biafran War, truly feeling as if I was her and living it through her, the reader is constantly jostled around among four different people.  It left me unable to truly connect to any one of them, which left me feeling like they were just there as a device to let Adichie talk about the War.  And it was truly an awful, horrible war precipitated by a genocide of the Igbo people, and it absolutely deserves to be talked about.  It’s just for me this type of ensemble piece with the War as really the main character isn’t the best method for me to learn about a War or an atrocity.  I prefer to get to know someone and see it through their eyes.  Given what I had read of Adichie’s work before, I was expecting that level of connection, just with multiple characters, but that is just not what happens in this book.  Perhaps it was too large, too sweeping, too much for one book.  I’m not sure.  But I was left without an emotional connection beyond the horror at the war atrocities, and that simply is not what I am looking for when reading a fictional piece set during a war.

As far as the plot goes, it was interesting but it was a bit confusing.  Part of my confusion could have been because I listened to it, but from my understanding when I was listening, first there was an affair, then we jumped back to before the affair, then we jumped forward, then we jumped back to a different affair that came before the first affair.  It was profoundly confusing.  Particularly with a child referred to only as Baby (with no explanation about this for quite some time) who also randomly shows up and disappears.  There was already so much going on with four different main characters and the war that this non-linear plot felt unnecessarily extraneous and confusing.  However, it is possible that this plot is more clear when reading the print version, as opposed to the audio version.

The language of the writing itself is pretty, and I found periodic astute insights that I’ve come to expect and enjoy from Adichie.  For instance,

Why do I love him? I don’t think love has a reason. I think love comes first, and the reasons come later.

Passages like these are what helped me enjoy the book to the extent that I did.

There is one plot point in the book that truly distressed me, so I feel I must discuss it.  It is a spoiler though, so consider yourself spoiler warned for this paragraph.  Throughout the book, the narration style is third person limited, which means that it is told in third person, but the reader knows what is going on in the main character’s head and is generally limited to that character’s perspective.  The point of view is switched around among the four main characters, one of whom is Ugwu, the houseboy.  We thus get to know him as the houseboy, he gradually grows up, and then later he is conscripted into the Biafran army.  At this point, he participates in a gang rape on a waitress in a bar.  I read a lot of gritty things.  I routinely read books offering up the point of view of sociopaths or serial killers.  I’m not averse to seeing the world through a bad person’s eyes, or through the eyes of a person who does bad things.  But it has to be handled in the appropriate manner.  I felt that there was entirely too much empathy toward Ugwu in the case of the gang rape.  Adichie sets it up so that he walks in on his fellow soldiers gang raping this woman, and he says he doesn’t want to participate, they question his manhood, he admits in his head that he is turned on by the view of her pinned to the ground crying with her legs held apart having just been raped by a different soldier, and he participates.  I think what disturbed me the most about this passage was how the narration makes it seem so ordinary.  Like it’s something any man would do in that situation.  Like it’s only natural he’d be turned on and get a hard-on from seeing a woman forcibly pinned to the ground so she can be gang raped by a bunch of men including himself.  I think it’s awful to treat men like that.  To act like they clearly are incapable of standing up for what’s right or that they’ll get a hard-on any time they see an orifice they can physically bang.  Men are human beings and are entirely capable of thinking with more than their penis.  Now, obviously there are men who rape, but there has got to be more going on there then I have a hard on and there’s a woman who I can stick it into.  To treat rape that simply is a disservice to men and women’s humanity alike.  Part of the reason why this reads this way is that we don’t know Ugwu well but we know him well enough to think that he’s an at least moderately decent young man.  We don’t see a gradual downfall.  No one holds a gun to his head or even implicitly threatens him with death if he doesn’t participate.  It makes it seem like war makes men, even moderately good men, rape, as opposed to war simply providing more opportunities for rapists to rape.  That is a perspective that I do not endorse, that I do not enjoy having sprung upon me in my literature, and that I found triggering as well.  I was shocked to see it in a book by Adichie.  Shocked and disappointed. It left me wishing I could scrub my brain of the book.  Wishing for those hours of my life that I spent listening to it back.

Now, let me take a moment to speak about the narrator, Robin Miles.  Miles is an astounding narrator.  Her audiobook narration is truly voice acting.  She is capable of a broad spectrum of accents, including Nigerian, British, and American, and slips in and out of them seamlessly.  She easily creates a different voice for many different characters.  I absolutely adored listening to her, in spite of not enjoying the book itself.  Her performance of this book is easily a 5 star one.

Overall, though, the high quality narration simply could not make up for a story that failed to hit the mark with me on so many levels.  It covers an important time period in Nigeria, and the highly important human rights issue of the genocide of the Igbo, but the style in which it does simply misses the mark for me.  If this was all, I would still recommend the book to others who are more fond of a more impersonal, sweeping narration style.  However, I also found the treatment of rape in the book to be simultaneously offensive and triggering.  For this reason, I cannot recommend this book, although I do recommend the audiobook narrator, Robin Miles.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi (Audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton)

October 11, 2012 2 comments

Man standing next to an alien creature.Summary:
Jack Halloway–disbarred lawyer now contracted prospector on the planet Zarathustra–just wants to collect his massive amount of money from discovering a large sunstone vein.  He seems to be doing fairly well at finagling ZaraCorp into giving him the sizable portion of the profits that he totally deserves, but one day some local creatures that he dubs Fuzzies invite themselves into his home.  Small and cat-like, only with hands, the Fuzzy family quickly endear themselves to him.  When he shows them to his ex-girlfriend, a biologist, she starts to suspect that they are sentient. And sentience would mean a cessation of all mining on the planet.  What’s a morally ambiguous guy to do?

Review:
I picked this up for three reasons.  1) It was on sale at Audible. 2) I read John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream and found it hilarious. 3) It’s narrated by Wil Wheaton.  It is certainly an entertaining read, but I must admit it was not quite up to the level that I was expecting from a Scalzi/Wheaton collaboration.

This book is interestingly a reimagining of a YA series written in the 1960s (starting with Little Fuzzy).  I have not read the original but I can tell you that this is not a YA book.  It is definitely your more general adult scifi.  Scalzi explains this as a tradition in scifi movies and tv shows that he thinks should also be carried out in books.

Scalzi’s writing is humorous, although, with the exception of the first couple of chapters, not to the laugh out loud level found in The Android’s Dream.  I particularly enjoy how good he is at giving personality to non-human characters, such as the Fuzzies and Jack’s dog.  The first half of the book is hilarious and well-plotted, complete with adorable aliens, a dog who can trigger explosives, and velociraptor-like native creatures to add to the danger factor.  The second half of the book, though, falls into this void of courtroom proceedings.  I know some people enjoy reading that, but it felt so stark and lacking in life compared to the much more fun first half that included things like the Fuzzies making sandwiches from Jack’s limited Earth supplies.  I’m not really a courtroom procedural reader myself, and frankly the two halves of the book almost felt like two separate books entirely.  I’m not sure what else could be done, though, since the basic plot is proving the sentience of the Fuzzies, which given the parameters of the world that this takes place in, can basically only happen in the courtroom.

As an animal rights advocate, I appreciated the basic storyline that just because you can’t hear creatures communicating doesn’t mean they don’t have relationships and caring amongst themselves.  I wasn’t a fan of the way that sentience was determined with such a human bias or that killing a Fuzzy is only considered truly heinous if it is established that they are sentient.  I would have preferred an ultimate conclusion rejecting speciesism, rather than the quite conservative focus on proving the human-like qualities of the Fuzzies.

Wil Wheaton’s narration was great for the first half of the book.  It’s Wil Wheaton. If you’re not sure if his acting style is for you, just look up his scenes in The Big Bang Theory.  I found his narration very similar to his appearances there.  My one complaint is a bit of a spoiler, so consider yourself warned.  His voice for Papa Fuzzy really grated on my nerves.  It was just so….blech. And not adorable Fuzzy-like.  Otherwise though, he’s a good match for Scalzi’s work.

I don’t often comment on the cover, but I must say that I don’t think that this cover does the book justice.  I particularly dislike it when a cover tries to draw out an alien creature that frankly comes across as much more adorable within the book.  Also, even the background of the planet itself doesn’t look right.

Overall, this is a witty piece of scifi with adorable alien creatures that call to mind websites like Cute Overload.  I recommend it to fans of scifi who also enjoy some courtroom proceedings in their reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Germline by T. C. McCarthy (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Donald Corren)

August 23, 2012 2 comments

Silhouette of a man standing in a tunnel holding a gun.Summary:
Oscar is a reporter and lands an assignment with Stars and Stripes to go over to Kazakhstan and report on the new war between the US and Russia over resources needed for technology.  This is a new kind of warfare. One fought mostly underground, and with the soldiers permanently wearing suits. Plus they’re fighting side-by-side with Genetics–human-looking robots who are all female and all look alike.  Oscar started out just wanting a Pulitzer in between his drug addiction, which is easily fueled in Kaz. But Kaz changes people.

Review:
It’s been a while since I ventured in military scifi. I usually stick with the more sociological/psych experiment or cyberpunk areas of the genre, but this one just stuck out to me.  I think its combination of aspects is just intriguing–a drug addicted journalist, a future war on earth, underground warfare, and robots.  It certainly held my attention and flamed my interest in military scifi, plus it wound up counting for the MIA Reading Challenge, which was an added bonus.

Oscar is a well-rounded character. At first he seems flat and frankly like a total douchebag, but that’s because he’s a depressed drug addict. We learn gradually what landed him there and how he grows out of it with time.  It’s an interesting character development arc because although many arcs show how war leads to alcoholism or drug addiction, in Oscar’s case although it at first makes his addiction worse, it ultimately helps him beat it.  Because he ultimately snaps and realizes that the drugs are not helping the problems. They’re just making them worse. This is so key for anyone struggling with an addiction to realize. Pain in the present to feel better in the future. And McCarthy does an excellent job showing this progression without getting preachy.  Sometimes you want to throttle Oscar, but you ultimately come to at least respect him if not like him.  I wasn’t expecting such strong characterization in a military scifi, and I really enjoyed it.

The world McCarthy has built is interesting. The war itself is fairly typical–first world countries butting heads over resources in third world countries. But the content of the battles and the fighting methods are futuristic enough to maintain the scifi feel.  There are the Genetics of course, and they are used by both sides. It’s interesting that the Americans use only female Genetics, and that is explained later on.  There are also different vehicles and weapons that are scary but still seem plausible. Of course there’s also the suits the soldiers permanently wear, the front-line tunnels (the “subterrene”).  It all adds up to a plausible future war.

Now, I will say, some of the battle scenes and near misses that Oscar has seem a bit of a stretch. I know odd things happen in war, and anyone can get lucky, but. Everyone’s luck runs out eventually.  It seemed sometimes as if McCarthy wrote himself into a corner then had to figure out a way to make his main character survive.  Escaping danger is fine, and necessary for the book to continue. But it should seem like a plausible escape. And if you have one that seems miraculous, it seems a bit excessive to me to have more than one.

The audiobook narrator did a fine job, in my opinion. He didn’t add anything to the story but he also didn’t detract from my enjoyment.  I will note, however, that he pronounced “corpsman” wrong, saying the “s,” which is supposed to be silent.  This only came up a few times and didn’t really bother me, but some readers, particularly ones who have been in the military themselves, might be bothered.  Nothing else was mispronounced, and the voices used fit the characters nicely.

Overall, this piece of futuristic military scifi showcases both war and addiction in an engaging manner.  Some readers may be off-put by Oscar at first, but stick it out. It takes many interesting turns. Recommended to scifi fans, whether they generally like military scifi or not.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (Audiobook narrated by Anna Fields)

Silhouette of a person standing next to a pillar against a yellowish-green sky.Summary:
When the world goes through an apocalypse consisting of virulent strains of the flu, lack of food, and nuclear warfare, one wealthy family manages to survive because they saw it coming.  Made up of highly intelligent and highly educated people, such as doctors and scientists, the family creates a 200 bed hospital and uses this as their home base.  But there is a serious fertility problem, and how they address it just might change the core of humanity.

Review:
I love reading classics of scifi.  It’s endlessly fascinating how different people in different times imagine a future (or an apocalypse).  This award-winning book had the bonus of being written by a woman, which isn’t always easy to find in older scifi.  I also was intrigued by the cloning theme.  How would someone in 1977 view something that was, as yet, nowhere near as close to a reality as it is now, with our cloned sheep?

The book starts out incredibly strongly.  So strongly, in fact, that I actually had nightmares from it, which never happens to me ever. I am basically a rock of horror and scifi, but this one creeped the bejesus out of me.  It’s that creepy combination of incest and cloning.  The family are really not people you would want retooling the world.  They’re everything that can be (and usually is) bad about the 1%.  They’re selfish, self-centered, snobby, and routinely employ nepotism.  I found the incest in the first third of the book talking about the first generation of the family to be an interesting metaphor for how the elite can become so backwards and grotesque from sheer isolation.  It’s powerful and moving, and a scenario that will remain in my mind.

The second third of the book focuses in on a woman, Molly, from the first generation of clones.  This is disturbing in its own way, because they don’t just clone everyone once and have done with it, no.  They clone everyone multiple times until there are clusters of the same person at different ages wandering around.  They call these clusters “brothers” and “sisters” with the name of the original person as the name of the group, even though the individual ones have their own names.  It is profoundly disturbing.  This second third looks at the society of clones that the original family unintentionally made.  It’s fascinating in its own way and an interesting different way of telling a post-apocalypse story.  Often we get only the first generation, but here we get multiple generations.

The last third, unfortunately, didn’t live up to the first two-thirds of the book.  Without giving too much away, it looks at a boy who came about by natural methods who gets integrated into the clone society at the age of five.  They decide not to clone him and give him brothers for unclear reasons.  This last third then looks at his impact on the clone society.  I didn’t feel that this worked as well for multiple reasons.  For one, it’s almost as if Wilhelm freaked herself out and backed off from the profoundly disturbing story she was telling and went a more conventional direction.  That was disappointing.  For another, I found it disappointing that she chose to make this game-changer a boy.  I expect women scifi authors to be at least a bit cognizant of the need in scifi for more female main characters.  In this one, the first third is a man, the second third a woman, and the last third a boy.  That is not the best stats from a woman author.  I also found certain parts of this to be very boring and slow-moving compared to the first two-thirds.  That makes for odd pacing in a book.

Of course, my complaints about the last third backing off, being more conventional, and being rather dull don’t take away from the first two thirds at all.  They bring about so many interesting societal questions.  For instance, is the incestuous nature of the elite necessarily bad or will it one day save humanity?  Will cloning remove something that makes us human, even if they look right?  Is it better to cling on to technology at all costs or release it and go back to simpler times?  And what about sex?  Is monogamy natural and polyamory unnatural?  Or is polyamory more welcoming and loving than potentially possessive monogamy? The questions go on and on, which is what is great about scifi.

As for the science itself, it is quite well-done.  Wilhelm clearly thought through both keeping a closed-off community alive and cloning and bringing to term embryos.  She also put thought into the scientific basis for why clusters of clones would be different from individual humans, touching on psychology and twin studies.  I was a bit irritated that she bases the survival of these people on cloning farm animals, when that is not a good use of their limited land resources.  Studies have shown many many times that a combination of farming vitamin-rich plants and hunting/gathering are the best use of limited land resources, so this particular element rang a bit of bad science.  However, I am not certain how much land usage had been studied in the 1970s, so that could possibly just be a sign of the times.

Now, I did read the audiobook, so I should touch on the narration.  Overall, Anna Fields does a very good job.  I really enjoyed that they chose a female narrator for a book written by a female author.  It let me almost imagine that Kate Wilhelm herself was reading it to me.  Fields mostly strikes a good balance of changing voices for different characters without going over the top.  The one exception to this is when she narrates children.  The voice for that made me cringe, but they mercifully speak only a few times.  Mostly, Fields reads smoothly and is easy to follow.  She narrates without accidentally putting her own interpretation onto the work, which is ideal for an audiobook.

Overall, then, this is a fascinating classic of scifi.  It examines the apocalypse through the lens of the elite, thereby analyzing and critiquing them, but it also looks at possible consequences of cloning and ponders what ultimately makes us human.  Although the last third of the book is a bit less creative and more conventional than the first two, it is still a fascinating read.  Recommended to scifi fans, particularly those with an interest in group dynamics.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Audiobook narrated by Mike Chamberlain)

June 16, 2012 3 comments

Robot face with red eyes.Summary:
Cormac Wallace reviews the surveillance tape taken by Rob (robots) during the New War–the war between humans and robots.  He thus recounts the history of the war to the reader.

Review:
Basically this is supposed to be World War Z only with robots.  It falls incredibly short.

What makes World War Z such an awesome book (beyond the fact that zombies are better than robots) is that it is a mock oral history of a war.  This is a thing that actually happens after a war in real life.  Oral historians go around and gather real information from the survivors about the war.  Although the NPR style narrator frames the chapters, they are all given by different survivors from their own perspectives.

The problem with Robopocalypse is that it tries to use the same method for a very different story.  Much as Wilson may want a robot war to be like a zombie war, it ISN’T.  And it shouldn’t be recounted in the same way.  Wilson sort of realizes this, because he has Wallace recount the war by watching the “black box” surveillance of Rob.  The thing is, though, that really doesn’t work in book form.

A)  Why would Cormac write down something that is already available visually?  Why wouldn’t he just copy/pasta the videotape and send it out?

B)  The chapters swing wildly between Cormac describing what he’s seeing on screen (insanely boring) and random first hand accounts from everyone from himself to dead people. Yeah. Dead people have first-person accounts in this book. THAT MAKES NO SENSE.

Also, the pacing is off.  The build up to Rob attacking is painfully slow, but Rob taking over misses a lot of the details that would be interesting.  Similarly, details as to how people all over the world start collaborating and beat the brilliant Rob is sped up and glossed over too much.  Essentially, things that should have more space in the book have too little, and things that should have very little space have too much.

I have to say that the narration by Mike Chamberlain did not help matters any.  His voice is practically monotone, and he adds nothing to the story.

The concept of a robot war is a good one, although I admit to having more loyalty to zombies.  However, the format used in World War Z just will not work in a robot war.  Wilson should have focused on one small group of people or actually tried out the whole oral history thing.  This bouncing around between perspectives and verbally recounting surveillance footage simply does not work.  I cannot recommend this book. There is simply far better plotted scifi out there.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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