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Book Review: The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

White egg balancing on one side against a red background.Summary:
In the near future world with no war and totalitarian governments there’s an ever-looming threat of starvation thanks to overpopulation and diseases attacking the crops.  The governments have responded with worldwide one child policies and psa campaigns to encourage homosexual relationships.  Englishman, Tristram Foxe, lives in a skyscraper with his wife, Beatrice-Joanna and works as a social studies teacher.  But his advancement suffers both from his status as a person with siblings and as a married man with a child.  When he discovers that his wife is cheating on him with his passing as gay brother who works for the Infertility Bureau, his world falls apart just as the world around him tilts from totalitarian regime to cannibalism and pagan fertility rituals.

Review:
When I picked up this book, the summaries I’d seen were nowhere near as clear or straightforward as the one I just wrote for you.  I’m not sure I would have ever picked it up if I’d had an inkling of an idea as to what I was getting myself into.  All I saw was a dystopian overpopulated future by the same author as A Clockwork Orange (which I know some people loathe, but I think has a lot of interesting things to say).  This book is….very strange, and I honestly am not exactly sure what Burgess himself is saying, although some of the characters say some horrible things.

The first half of the book reads like a treatise by a Quiverfull (Evangelical Christians who believe in having as many children as possible, more info) with some terror of a hyper-liberal future where people are denied their right to choose to have children (funny how they fear that but don’t get that pro-choice is all about protecting a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own reproductive organs but that’s another rant for another day), and people are forced into being gay/lesbian.  I know this sounds like it could be an interesting flip-flop of current times, but it didn’t read that way for me.  It read as a lot of homophobia and yelling about how population control goes against god’s plan and going against god’s plan sends the plagues.  Seriously.  That’s how it reads.  But, I traveled on because this is Anthony Burgess, and characters don’t have to be likeable.  They could be used to show the opposite point.  But that’s not really what happens.  What happens is that this set-up gets ditched for a mad-cap dash through sociology.

The last half of the book is kind of an interesting sociological exploration of how the world moves through the liberal/conservative/military cycle.  It is mad-cap and bizarre, and as a person with a BA in History, I really  enjoyed seeing a country move through those cycles at rapid-fire in a slapstick humor style.  This part of the book felt like an entirely different book in fact.  But I also think only a certain type of person would enjoy it. (Like, oh, Political Science and History majors).

As for character development, there is none.  Everyone ends up pretty much where they started after having lived through the cycles of political change.  It really reminds me a lot of playing Civ or SimCity where you move artificial people around to illustrate greater points.  I enjoyed this alright, but I would have preferred stronger characterizations or at least some growth.

So, is the book a phobic conservative dream of what a liberal society would look like?  I don’t think so.  I think Burgess actually presented each part of the political cycle as awful, including the fall into tribal-feeling paganism.  It sort of felt like the book was saying that someone somewhere will always be unhappy no matter what the political/sociological situation is.  Depressing, huh?  And yes I know it’s dystopian and lot of people think dystopias are innately depressing, but personally I think they can frequently offer a lot of insight and hope for the future.  This just felt a bit defeatist.  With some Quiverfull and homophobic characters to boot.

Overall I’m left feeling decidedly no reaction either way to this book, which is not what I was expecting from Burgess.  I was neither offended nor enlightened and mildly entertained but I could have had the same entertainment from playing Civ on my computer.  I think this book best appeals to readers who also enjoy studying political science or the history of societies, but even they should proceed with the caution that this is decidedly a mad-cap, non character-driven look at those topics.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Devil Tree by Steve Vernon

February 29, 2012 4 comments

Image of a tree surrounded by fog.Summary:
In a valley near a river in the wood near Indian territory lies a tree.  A tree that sends out its roots throughout the valley and demands blood.  It is in this valley that the godsman Lucas and his wife Tamsen find themselves wrecked and at the mercy of not just the man Jonah Duvall and his Indian bride Jezebel, but also at the mercy of the tree.

Review:
I decided to dip my toe into magical realism via a genre I love–horror.  It turns out it’s not a genre that works for me, although Vernon does it well.

Magical realism is a style in which magic is blended into the real world and characters view it as a natural, normal part of the world.  It is more realistic than fantasy but less realistic than traditional horror, for instance.  Personally, I could not get into an evil tree that wouldn’t let the inhabitants leave the valley.  I think, perhaps, I would have if the characters themselves had been more modern, but they have an antiquated magical feel to them as well.

The books’ main themes are sexual disloyalty and cannibalism.  The story seems to be saying that these negative qualities are possible in all humans, but the tree draws them out.  All I can say is that although these themes are ones that interest me, they just didn’t do it for me in this story.  I reiterate that I think the issue is simply that magical realism is not my style.

The tale is not badly told, although the strongest portions of the story are the flashbacks to Tamsen’s and Lucas’s lost prior loves.  Those tales are unique and beautiful, and I can’t help but wonder what made the author choose to tell them as flashbacks instead of as the central piece.

It is difficult to write a review of this book, for although I recognize that it is well-written, it is simply not for me.  Some combination of the style and the order in which things are told just didn’t work for me, although there is nothing easily pin-pointed as being wrong with it.

Overall, this is a well-written story that will appeal to fans of both the grotesque and magical realism.  You must have a tough stomach to be able to handle this tale, but also an ability to immerse yourself in a world of magic just below the surface.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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