Review of Casting Off (Wool #3) by Hugh Howey

Wool3Title: Casting Off (Wool#3)

Author: Hugh Howey

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Broad Reach

Format: Electronic (Kindle)

(Note: minor spoilers below)

The self-published serial sensation continues in the third book with a new sheriff in town. Juliette has been recruited from the depths of the silo to serve as sheriff of the subterranean city. Before she can become acclimated to her new role, she finds herself on the case of investigating the death of Mayor Marnes. She also becomes intrigued with the previous sheriff’s decision to step outside of the silo, bringing certain death due to the toxic wasteland that occupies the outer world.

In the midst of her investigation, Marnes’s deputy commits suicide, apparently over a broken heart from his friend’s (lover’s?) assassination. But there seems something is afoul. There’s a conspiracy brewing in the IT department and it has something to do with an 8×2 inch viewing screen. Can Juliette uphold the law and get to the bottom of this conspiracy or will she suffer the same fate as the Mayor, the deputy, or the previous sheriff?

After a slight letdown of the second Wool book, Casting Off comes back with a fantastic episode. I am really not aware of anything else like this series in fiction. It is different from a television series of episodes in that no character’s life is safe. Already we have the three main characters from the first Wool book killed off. Moderate time spans occur through each of these novellas, giving the reader a fast-moving plot with a sense of wonder and uniqueness.

The third book was good in many respects. It dug deeper into the broad conspiracy taking place in Silo 18, it brought emotion and a little romance to the underground dwelling, and ultimately left the reader with a new understanding of who is in control in the vast political network in this post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Juliette’s character was portrayed very well and I loved the moment where she was able to share a moment with an amateur astronomer as they looked up through the toxic cloud sky and spot a lone star shimmering. It was symbolic in terms of hope that people could form new relationships again after a devastating disaster and that perhaps, one day, the air would clear and they could lie beneath a cloudless sky and gaze out at the expanse of stars.

Hugh Howey pulled off another great book in the series and like many other readers, he has me completely hooked.

Review: Feed by Mira Grant

feedTitle: Feed

Author: Mira Grant

Rating: 3 star

Publisher: Orbit

Format: Paperback

It’s been twenty years since the Rising — a zombie-apocalypse resulting from a virus that was meant to cure illnesses. But the pandemic hasn’t overtaken all of humanity and the human-zombie population has approached an equilibrium.

In this dangerous world are two siblings, Georgia and Shaun Mason, who have pursued blogging as a career. Like Hunter S. Thompson, they are gonzo journalists, on the road reporting news. Making news.

After Georgia, Shaun, and their friend Buffy land a job to follow the presidential campaign of Senator Peter Ryman, they find themselves in the middle of a vast political conspiracy that threatens to change the whole political landscape of what is now America.

For those who are uncertain, Feed is not a horror novel. In fact, much of the novel is slow-paced, serving more as a satire and political thriller in a dystopian setting. Mira Grant has created a believable relationship between the two siblings and throughout the narrative we read the very different blog entries the two have created. Shaun is a risk-taker, often purposely devoid of protective clothing in the midst of a crowd of zombies. Georgia reports straight news with her own liberal politics bleeding through her posts.

It may seem ironic that she is covering a Republican candidate in Senator Ryman, but he is more of a moderate compared to his VP candidate, Tate. In fact it is this political bias that in many respects gives away too much of the novel. Issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are brought up and are used to blame right-wing politics as more of the reason for the degenerated society than the zombie infestation.

While a novel like this should not be without political opinion (for example, I love George Orwell’s 1984), I found it off-putting the way religious fundamentalism and conservatism was portrayed. It completely misses the worldview many in this group adhere to, dumbing them down to mindless, religious zealots. In fairness, this is similar to the reaction I had after reading Dan Simmon’s right-wing leaning, Flashback. Ultimately, the black-and-white portrayals leave many of the characters paper-thin, much like the megalomaniac enemies we find in James Bond films.

What Mira Grant did well is forming real relationships with the characters and more importantly, giving real consequences for their risks and actions. There is a lot of emotion and empathy the reader gains for the characters. The first couple hundred of pages move along quite slowly, exploring the possible political and social scenarios that would accompany a zombie-infested America, but the narrative picks up in the second half of the novel.

Feed is a novel that was good, but not great. The writing is sufficient and the premise of the story is different than most of the other zombie novels and movies out there. If you are looking for an action-packed horror novel, stay clear. If you are looking for a cerebral dystopian novel with emotional bonds between characters, this may be the book for you. I was glad I read it, but am not rushing to the bookstore to pick up the next novel.

Review: Proper Gauge (Wool #2) by Hugh Howey

wool2Title: Proper Gauge (Wool#2)

Author: Hugh Howey

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Broad Reach

Format: Electronic (Kindle)

The first book in the Wool series follows the underground city’s sheriff as he contemplates and finally decides to exile himself to the potentially toxic, post-apocalyptic world. In book two, Mayor Jahns and her deputy, Marnes, climb deep into the depths of their silo city to seek a new and promising recruit for sheriff to replace Holston. Descending over a hundred floors down leads them to discover that things aren’t as they thought and there is a threat that is growing in power and authority.

The second book, while twice as long as its predecessor, is still a short one (barely exceeding 100 pages). But don’t be deterred — its length suits the story well. In Proper Gauge, we gain a much better sense of the world in which the citizens live and the political workings within it. The story is slower paced than the first book, but still full of intrigue and emerging conflict.

Howey has embraced the electronic model of publishing, a form of media that can take advantage of serial, short-lengthed fiction. Like an episode of the television show, Lost, the reader longs to understand more about the silo cities. Why are they built so deep? How do they survive? How does the society remain stable? And like the show, each story ends with a kicker — a cliff hanger of sorts, answering some questions, but leaving more ahead.

The second story, while enjoyable and well written at its core, is somewhat of a bridge novella, enriching the world and introducing new characters, but falling short in delivering an overall conflict-climax-resolution that was more evident in the first book. But it was still a delight to read and I look forward to reading the rest of the series with enthusiasm.

Review: Wool, #1 by Hugh Howey

Wool1Title: Wool, #1

Author: Hugh Howey

Rating: 

Publisher: Broad Reach

Format: Electronic (Kindle)

I am late to the game in discovering Hugh Howey’s Wool series. The premise is that in a post-apocalyptic future, citizens live in a silo that extends many levels below the earth. Their only interaction with the outside world is through a camera that overlooks the decayed landscape.

The first volume is the shortest, with a word count that categorizes it as a novelette (~12k words). The story is straight-forward. Holston, the sheriff of the underground city, spends years watching criminals and willful participants climb the grated steel steps to the outside world. Their death sentence serves an even higher motive than justice — to clean the dust and grime off of the camera lens before succumbing to the toxic air.

Holston cringes when his wife, Allison, utters the binding and fateful words, “I want to go outside.” It’s not a passing thought to make such a statement, but a legal contract of sorts, and her utterance places her in the queue to die, cleaning the camera lens. As Holston argues with her, he learns that she has become absolutely convinced that their worldview is a farce — that the outside world is no longer toxic and that a march up the fateful steps is actually a march to freedom. She has evidence to prove it and is convinced she will see Holston there one day. Three years after her death (escape?) is where this story takes place and Holston contemplates climbing these steps, not knowing what result it will bring.

This story (and the following series) has gotten glowing reviews. I will say that they are justified — to a point. What you shouldn’t expect with Wool is a literary masterpiece or a story that transcends the current trend of dystopian fiction. In many ways this is just another post-apocalyptic novel. What you get in the first volume is a gripping narrative that hooks the reader from beginning to end. Each word and each page are devoured to answer one question — is the outside world deadly or not? There are a few characters that we begin to learn and appreciate, some of which continue into the subsequent series.

The title of the series, for which there is no better name, is taken from steel wool, which is used by the criminals in their penetrable HAZMAT suits to clean the lens. The first story is really just a hook for the following books in the series. It answers one big question, but leaves many more remaining. It is a good story in its own right and accomplished with me just what it is intended to do — get the reader to go buy additional books (#1-5 are collected in an omnibus edition). It took me less than a minute to do so.

For those who enjoy dystopian fiction or have a curiosity for the psychology and political interaction of people when they are thrown into desperate situations, this is the book for you. Hey, the first book is free, so give it a shot. But I must warn you — you likely won’t stop there.

Review: Flashback by Dan Simmons

Title: Flashback

Author: Dan Simmons

Rating: 

Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books

Format: Hardcover

I usually try and refrain from talking politics on this blog. I have not amassed a large readership that I fear of alienating, nor am I selling any kind of product that I fear will suffer from making political statements. Essentially, I just don’t have the desire to turn this blog into a political mouthpiece. But after reading the novel, Flashback, I fear it is impossible to avoid the subject.

At first glance, Flashback appears to be a typical dystopian novel. I thought it at first seemed inspired by a hallucinatory narcotic novel by Philip K Dick or perhaps paying (self-acknowledged) debt to Robert J. Sawyer’s Flash Forward. Perhaps there is some inspiration from past writers, but the novel serves an entirely different purpose.

Set twenty-something years in the future, a struggling society finds solace in a drug called flashback. The drug allows a person to vividly relive past experiences. Ultimately, the drug brings out the worst in people and women are raped to lock in a memory that can be recalled hundreds of times over.

The protagonist, Nick Bottom, is a detective who falls into the allure of flashback after his wife is killed. His life and career fall into shambles, he becomes alienated from his son, and he spends all of his remaining resources on reliving time with his wife. There appears to be no end in sight to Nick’s destruction until an allucrative businessman from Japan hires him to solve a murder of who killed his son.

Nick, who is out of money (and thus, out of flashback), takes the case and soon finds himself wound up in a huge conspiracty. His path intertwines with ihis son, who remorsefully is connected with a gang of teenagers who are bent on murder and rape to gain memories to relive. Nick must overcome his drug addiction to save his son from an untimely death and ultimately save himself.

I will mention that I love the idea for the plot. I also love Dan Simmons writing and I thought his Hyperion Cantos was absolutely brilliant. He really is my kind of writer — out of the box science fiction with a literary flair. And while I enjoyed reading this novel as well, I just couldn’t get over the obtuseness of the politics involved.

The dystopia that Simmons pictures has the Islamic Caliphate ruling all of Europe. Several states of the US have seceded and most of those remaining do not pay taxes. And it’s all Obama’s fault. Simmons refers to Obama’s foreign policy as being one of “appeasement” that began with a speech given in Egypt and perpetuated into global destruction. This theme runs throughout the course of the novel, wearing the reader down with what really is a hyperbolic extension of liberal politics.

In many ways, I align myself with conservative/libertarian school of politics, but I found Simmons vision to be an untruthful exaggeration. Yes, this is fiction, but real examples are given of what brings about America and Europe’s collapse. It seems that perhaps Simmons himself was on flashback, reliving Bush-era military adventurism while writing this novel.

Politics aside, the novel is interesting and Simmons does an excellent job of tying the characters together. In traditional Simmons style, there are references to Shakespeare and other literary figures, giving the novel its unique fingerprint. The characters and plot never rose to the grand scale of Hyperion and I felt at times that Simmons’ dialog seemed a bit artificial in trying to pull off the grittiness of the future. Nick Bottom, while somewhat a loser, is still a character we can feel empathy toward as he attempts to make up for lost time.

I did enjoy reading the novel and for those who can look past the politics, it is a joy to read. If you are new to Simmons, there are better choices of novels, but Flashback still delivers an entertaining read.

Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Title: Ship Breaker

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Rating: 

Publisher: Brilliance Audio

Format: Audio CD

Review:
It’s probably unfair of me to even try to rate Paolo Bacigalupi’s venture into YA novels. First of all, I found his debut novel, The Windup Girl,  to be brilliant, leaving me with expectations that are perhaps a bit unrealistic. Secondly, I am not well-acquainted with many of the current young adult novels (aside from bestsellers like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and *gasp* Twilight). What makes me even further unqualified is the fact that I didn’t actually read the novel, but rather listened to the audio version. If you had any sense, you’d stop reading now and ignore the rest of my review.

But alas, here I am, rating and reviewing Ship Breaker. The novel begins with the main character, Nailer, crawling through an abandoned ship duct to gather copper wiring. Economic conditions are dire in Orleans and gathering recyclable materials from sunken ships is the only opportunity for a teen to make a living. While Nailer is scavenging for material, the duct collapses and he nearly drowns in a pool of valuable oil. His misfortune continues when he is confronted by his drug-addicted and abusive father. Making matters worse, a devastating hurricane soon strikes the city, nearly taking Nailer and his father with it.

After the storm settles, Nailer and his crew boss, Pima, come across a sunken, luxurious yacht. They board the ship, eager to claim their new found wealth, but their lucky strike has one survivor — a rich girl named Nita. Her life is the only thing that separates Nailer and Pima from a new life. It is a bad time for Nailer to get a conscience and he must decide if he should save the swank girl or collect his treasure. Either way, his father will come looking for him, and won’t play nearly as nice.

As one would expect from Paolo Bacigalupi, this novel is a dystopian adventure that is bleak to say the least. It is certainly more mature than the other YA books I have read, sparing no violence or grim imagery. Nailer is a likable character — he has conflicting emotions about the swanks and his father, but is generally a moral creature. I sometimes questioned his motivations (such as when he returned to his abusive father after he nearly drowned), but he is a teenager and teenagers don’t always do things that make sense.

The story and world building are good. The settings of the abandoned ships are rich with imagery and Bacigalupi is effective in drawing the reader into the story. It’s a hard novel for me to criticize, but I will admit I was hoping for something more. I would have liked to understand the economic conditions of the world in greater depth — why ship breaking was such a valuable operation and why the raw material couldn’t be used to manufacture goods of their own. It would be believable with an anarchic society, but the light and heavy crew were highly organized and worked directly with major corporations.

Nit picks aside, Ship Breaker, is an enjoyable read and I will likely pick up The Drowned Cities to explore the world in greater depth. If anyone is looking for a dark YA dystopia or wants to explore more of Bacigalupi’s works, Ship Breaker is a good novel. If you are new to Bacigalupi, I recommend that you start with The Windup Girl.