Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #104: The Circle by Dave Eggers

I found this book to be one of the more terrifying books I’ve read this year, or any year, and as my final Double Cannonball review this year, I strongly urge everyone to read and discuss this book. The Circle is far from a literary masterpiece, but I believe it should be mandatory reading nonetheless.

Mae is a 20-something in a dead-end job but with a close childhood friend who has made it into the upper echelons of The Circle, the world’s largest and most powerful internet company which operates out of a luxurious and futuristic campus in California. Mae is brought on board through Annie, and rapidly rises in the ranks due to her willingness to re-shape her life to meet the needs of The Circle and to guarantee that her very ill father continues to get the medical care he needs courtesy of The Circle. She soon learns that the “Three Wise Men” who founded the Circle have an ultimate goal: to “complete” the Circle, which –stripped of the double-speak and mystery—translates to the social control of every living being on the planet under The Circle’s mantra of “democracy” and “transparency.” Every man, woman and child will ultimately wear a camera and/or a chip monitored by The Circle, so that their every movement can be observed at any time. Political and social leaders will become “transparent,” voting mandatory, extracurricular activities and opinions molded and refined, and so forth. This will end crime, say the Three Wise Men and their acolytes like Mae, while preventing disease, abuse, and corruption and fostering democracy, health, sharing, contentment.

Mae finds herself spending all of her days tweeting and posting and texting, taking thousands of surveys, signing umpteen digital petitions, growing her friends network, defining her product preferences, and spouting Circle mantra to her ever-expanding global audience as she is catapulted into the role of visible face of The Circle to an outside world rapidly becoming absorbed by The Circle. Her parents and former boyfriend are horrified by the loss of privacy and individuality that association with Mae and The Circle demands, but all those who warn against the accruing power of The Circle are met with internet-generated smear campaigns, scandals –and worse.

 I will admit that the encroachment of social media into every aspect of our lives and the way it has stupefied people—especially the younger generations—has me frightened for our future, but Eggers has done us all a tremendous service by taking us the next not-too-distant step into the world of The Circle, with all its Brave New World/1984-style implications.

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review # 83: Shift by Hugh Howey

The last of Howey’s brilliant three-part trilogy delivers a fitting end to this metaphorical treatise on the state of our world, and what it will take to redeem it from its headlong rush into folly. The “Silo Saga,” as the trilogy has unofficially come to be called, tells the story of the remnants of mankind hundreds of years into the future, now living in vast underground silos, which are slowly but surely facing their end days.

The two main characters driving the action of this final third are Juliette, first introduced in Wool and then the heroine of Dust, and Donald, the engineer of the silos who has awakened (literally and figuratively) to the original insidious design behind them.  To sum up the action thus far: Juliette is a strong-willed young woman from the mechanical depths of Silo 18, who asked too many questions, challenged too many rigid conventions, and ended up condemned to death by being thrust outside her silo into a toxic environment to die. However, a suit secretly modified by her supporters enabled her to make her way to what turns out to be a dead Silo 17, apparently devoid of humanity and partially flooded. When she discovers a handful of survivors living in its depths, she vows to return to her own home, solve the mystery behind the silos, and enlighten her people who in her absence have suffered a bloody insurrection. Her return to Silo 18 is met with suspicion and distrust by many who have been indoctrinated for life to believe that they are all there is of the surviving world, and she faces an uphill battle to bring the survivors of Silo 17 back into society while breaking the isolation of Silo 18.

Juliette’s lover Lucas, meanwhile, has managed to get into clandestine radio contact with Donald over in Silo One, and together they begin to unravel the terrifying conspiracy behind the Silo design. Donald has just been awakened from hundreds of years of cryogenically-induced sleep and is in a race against time –and against his nemesis Senator Thurman–to save the many thousands living in isolated Silos from the endgame that was plotted by Thurman back in the beginning.

Okay, all that said, Shift has a very different feel than either Wool or Dust.  The reader is no longer in the dark as to who and what is going on, the plot is dense and more convoluted, with more overtones of a cinematic thriller.  It is truly edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the end is as hopeful as you can get for a dystopic novel. It did leave me with a bunch of questions that I felt Howey left unanswered, and while it is true that an author is not obliged to wrap up all loose threads, in this case I would have appreciated it. Still, a great and highly recommended read.

Robert’s #CBR5 Review #04: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Another “oops, forgot to cross-post this review” from my blog. Only two months behind. It’s fine.

The trick to creating a successful dystopian novel is to convince the reader that the wild alternate future could occur. Margaret Atwood has done it three times now with the first two books in her Oryx and Crake trilogy and the modern sci-fi classic The Handmaid’s Tale. The novels are all meticulously researched, pulling from current events, culture, and science to connect to the present understanding of the world and society.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret AtwoodIn the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood relies on historical research to drive the creation of the Republic of Gilead. Various governments and social structures are combined into a believable vision of a religious totalitarian regime where women have no power in their own lives. Atwood uses everything from the mythology of the Bible and actual military revolution to push a realistic worst case scenario to its uninterrupted conclusion.

The research helps make the novel believable. Research alone, however, cannot create a compelling read. The Handmaid’s Tale generates suspense by structuring the story like an upside down pyramid. We meet Offred (Of-Fred) after the government of the United States has been overthrown and turned into the Republic of Gilead. Offred recalls how the rights of women were taken away one by one until everyone who didn’t immediately flee the country was trapped within its borders.

The broad narrative of social revolution shifts to a slightly more focused slice of life story about a typical handmaid. Continue reading

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #22: World War Z by Max Brooks

imagesCA2HV7YNThis book is so brilliant. Read it! This instant! Is that not enough? Do I need to write more? Must I pad this glowing endorsement over three paragraphs? Go on then.

I picked this up for two quite different reasons:

  1. I am a zombie nut, I love it all from Romero to The Walking Dead to Shaun of the Dead. I embrace zombies as a low-brow horror staple, an indictment of modern consumerism, and a commentary on the lack of individuality seen in modern western society
  2. Some of my mates worked on the Malta portion of the making of the film (apparently Brad is a very nice man).

Whatever your reasons for coming to this book, I promise you won’t be disappointed. This ‘oral history’ is tense, gory, heart-rending, scary and funny. The fictional compiler has travelled the post-zombie holocaust world, gathering the stories of soldiers, politicians, historians and ordinary citizens. It’s brilliantly written, with every ‘interviewee’ coming across as a believable person who has lived through unimaginable horror and loss, and survived to tell the tale.

I suppose my only criticism of the book lies within its narrative conceit. Because the contributors have all survived the massed ranks of the global undead, the sense of jeopardy and Armageddon that are so central to Romero and Darabont’s work are lacking. However, none of that matters when you’re in the grips of a tale about the fall of Tokyo, or the use of canine units in winning back USA from the zombie hordes.

Did I mention that this book is brilliant and that you should read it?

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #28: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Even more than with her debut novel Mudbound, Jordan has a powerful story to tell in When She Woke, and a moral (or two) she clearly wants to impart to her reader. Jordan has a highly creative imagination and a strong feminist streak, and her story—loosely modeled on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and drawing inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—packs a punch. All that said, I think Jordan was a little too busy trying to get her point across to notice that her story was morphing from sci-fi to romance to action thriller to political tirade, and getting weaker all along the way. And it’s a pity, because the conceit of the book is fascinating.

Hannah lives in the near-future, where nuclear war has ravaged some American cities, where right-wing religious zealots have taken over the U.S. government, and where crimes are punished by “chroming” the skin color of the criminal—yellow, blue, green or red. Hannah wakes up in a cell, bright red all over after she is convicted at trial for murder. Brought up properly in a Christian family, Hannah had nonetheless been seduced into a love affair with a widely-loved and respected—and married–evangelical preacher, and upon discovering her pregnancy, chose to abort it rather than endanger her lover’s reputation and marriage. Abortion is illegal and she is caught, tried, and punished with an indelible scarlet, all the while refusing to name names.

Thus begins the story, but it rapidly escalates as Hannah is released into a half-way house with other “Chromes” who are being “re-educated” under the dominance of uber-religious sadists disguised as teachers. When she and her friend Kayla abandon the facility, they face the uncertainty of survival on the streets—not only is the general populace violently hostile to Chromes, but there is an association of vigilantes called “The Fist” which hunts and kills Chromes. Fortunately for Hannah and her friend, there is also an active “pro-choice” underground movement which plucks the women off the streets in the nick of time and funnels them towards Canada, where abortion is legal and where they can be “de-Chromed.” So far, so good, even if we get the distinct feeling we are reading a cross between Hawthorne’s “Letter” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

And that’s where the action stumbles, the plot crumbles, and the book loses a few stars in my view:  Hannah faces a rather creepy kidnapping, a brief side-trip into red slavery, a steamy divergence into lesbian action, a philosophical tete-a-tete with a female priest, and a final inexplicable and doomed reunion with her former lover, the evangelical celebrity now promoted to head the government’s Ministry of Faith. No matter how Jordan chooses to end her story at this point, the creative momentum is lost in a swirl of melodrama and political harangue.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

As a general rule, I avoid young adult books turned into hit movies, but after my daughter—a high school English teacher whose tastes I respect—taught The Hunger Games to her class, I decided to give the series a try. One long weekend later, in which I devoured the popular Collin’s trilogy borrowed from a neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter, I can unreservedly say that the books are a worthy contribution to the young adult genre, with a wealth of social and political commentary about war, totalitarianism, political leadership and personal responsibility all woven into the fabric of a compelling adventure story.

Since most people have either read the book, seen the movie (based on the first of the series), or read a review, I won’t bother going into plot details, except to observe that author Collins very clearly modeled her high-tech dystopic society on a very old one—ancient Rome, to be exact—where the decadent capital survives solely based on the exploitation of outlying districts whose slave labor services the needs of the Roman populace under the watchful eyes of the centurions.  At one point, it is explained to the heroine Katniss that the name of this dystopia—Panem—actually comes from the Latin expression panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses,” a metaphor used by the Roman poet Juvenal to decry the deliberate erosion of a citizenry by providing diversions to gratify the population’s most shallow needs in exchange for abdication of responsibility.  This is clearly the case in Panem’s Capitol, where shallowness and excess—in fashion, in food, in entertainment (the Hunger games, for example), in thought itself—is the norm, and stands in sharp contrast to the poverty, the desperation, the struggle to survive in the Districts. And just as Rome fell, so too must Panem.

[A relevant aside here, if I may. It didn’t seem to me to be much of a stretch to read between the lines of Collin’s descriptions of Panem, and see today’s ubiquitous advertisements hyping prestige, youth, sex, and beauty. Our children and teens are already plugged into their “circuses”– iPod, iPads, and video games–while their parents watch endless hours of reality television, Superbowl extravaganzas, fantasy, and gore.  Bread and circuses, American-style.]

Panem’s annual Hunger Games were highly creative, horribly bloody, and grotesquely fascinating, and to me they resembled nothing so much as an elaborately-designed video game, complete with disasters, monsters and enemies hiding around every corner.  Indeed, Hunger Games video games are reportedly in development right now, and are sure to be in the hands of our children soon, a fact which raises some pressing questions about the corrosive effects of these killings games on those who participate in them. Collin’s chose adolescents to serve as the “tributes” in the Hunger Games, and then places us—her readers– inside the Games through the minds of Katniss and Peeta, where we get to experience not only their horror, terror, and grief inside the Arena, but as importantly, the mental and emotional deterioration that they and all the “victors” experience in the aftermath of the Games.  I found the lengthy, almost clinical, descriptions of disassociation, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic shock that afflicted the Game victors—many for decades—the most affecting parts of Collins’ story.

Obviously, this trilogy speaks to youth on many different levels. But Collins chose to write not a fairy tale, but a story which offers some dark truths about the world. And for that, she is to be commended.

xxperksxx’s #CBR5 Review #2: The Passage by Justin Cronin

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Justin Cronin’s The Passage is an epic story. To try to summarize the plot would be doing the book a disservice. The plot line is deep and so full of curves, it would be impossible for me to accurately explain this book without one, spoiling all of the good parts; and two, writing a 15 page document full of half starts and “oh yea, I forgot to add”’s. Suffice it to say that my quick retelling of the book (without including any spoilers) is in no way an indication of how truly amazing this book really is.

Picture it- the military develops a very secretive virus. Said virus is injected into 12 “expendable” death row inmates and one little girl. Invariably, the military loses control of said individuals; they escape and infect essentially the entire planet. Therein lays the basis of the story. Intertwined throughout the story are the rich narratives of multiple different characters – some of which span entire life-times – so rich and authentic you feel as though you aren’t simply an observer in the story, you are an actual participant.  This story encapsulates the best of multiple genres – fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

Cronin has an unabashed knack for creating a dystopian world that feels genuine and realistic. His character develop is almost eerie in its ability to make you form unnatural attachments to the characters (some of this may be due in part to the length of the book – clocking in at a monster 912 pages, this book is not for the timid reader). Cronin is an absolute master of suspense; however, you are left in a constant state of abatement. I felt like from the beginning, there was a constant state of panic/urgency in all of the interweaving stories; yet there never actually came a point where everything climaxed. I do feel like I need to quantify that last statement – this is the first book in a trilogy. I’m hopeful that the climax will come WITHIN the series; but as a stand-alone book – while entertaining, absorbing and absolutely engrossing, it does leave the reader wishing for a final culmination of sorts.

This book is a frantic page turner. I found myself desperate to continue reading to find out what happens; while simultaneously trying to slow down to ensure the story wouldn’t end. I’m currently reading The Twelve, the second book in the series, and I am just as entranced by the follow-up as I was with the original. If you have an aversion to sci-fi/fantasy/horror, please take a chance on this book. I promise you won’t be disappointed.