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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: The Craigslist Murders by Brenda Cullerton

August 9, 2011 12 comments

Woman holding bloody item behind back.Summary:
Charlotte works as an interior designer to the wealthiest of the wealthy in NYC.  She thus has a window into their world and attends their parties, but is not actually a part of it.  The wealthy women annoy the crap out of Charlotte as they remind her entirely too much of her cruel, social ladder climbing mother, yet she simultaneously needs the income to stay afloat in notoriously expensive NYC.  One day when attempting to purchase a designer item cheap off of craigslist, she finds the solution to her pent-up rage.  Periodic murders of the wealthy elite women via responding to craigslist ads.

Review:
I view Charlotte as the female and decidedly less insane version of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.  Both characters are a part of the wealthy, elite world that they simultaneously hate.  Both obviously have antisocial personality disorder.  Both murder people to deal with it.  The similarities end there, though, as Charlotte is decidedly less far gone than Patrick so there are no chapters of non-sensical rants.  Also this book is far less violent.  Charlotte murders by whapping women in the back of the head with a fire poker.  Her murders are about killing the women, not torturing them.

Honestly, this book reads as delicious fantasy to anyone who has ever lived in a city and bumped elbows with the craziness that is the world of the 1% (the wealthy elite).  Charlotte’s rage is our rage, and she deals with it in a way no civilized person would, but as Charlotte herself says when discussing the news of a murdered wealthy woman:

She’d been killed by her own personal assistant, news that Charlotte believed had come as a terrible shock to everyone in the city except the thousands of other personal assistants who dreamed, daily, of doing the same thing. (location 1101)

Yes, exactly.  This book rages against the privileged in a way most of us can only dream of doing.  And it works.

Charlotte is more than a murderer, though.  She’s a well-rounded character.  The reasons behind her murders and state of mental health are gradually revealed in a skilled manner throughout the book.  First we know Charlotte as a frustrated worker.  Then we see her murder.  Then we gradually start to see the real Charlotte beneath the facade.  A woman who was a little girl whose spirit was broken by her mother.  No one in her world, not even her therapist, offers her any real help, so Charlotte deals with her issues the only way she knows how.  It’s an excellent commentary on why quality mental health care and loving communities are so necessary.

The one issue I had with the book itself is the ending.  I won’t spoil it, but basically I’m not sure exactly why Cullerton went there with this narrative.  I can’t help but wonder if she’s planning a sequel.  I sort of wish she would write one to address some lingering questions I have, but perhaps that’s her point.  Perhaps she chose that ending to make the reader continue to think about the situation even after finishing the book.  If so, then it definitely worked.

I also find the cover infuriating, because the weapon the woman is holding looks nothing like the weapon used in the book, and that sort of thing that is mentioned repeatedly in the story shouldn’t be messed up on the cover.  Obviously that’s not the author’s fault, though.

Overall this contemporary fiction with a twist is a delightful read.  If American Psycho intrigued you but the graphic violence and sex turned you off, definitely give this book a read.  It features similar themes with less violence and more well-rounded characters.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Amazon

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