book review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

33641244

 

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman
★★☆☆☆
Little, Brown and Co. 2017

 

Well, that was… anticlimactic.

I’m sure there isn’t a whole lot that needs to be said about The Power, as I’m rather late to the party with this one: it’s set in a dystopian future where suddenly girls have developed the ability to generate electric shocks from their fingertips. The novel mainly follows four characters: the feisty British girl Roxy, the American politician Margot, the Nigerian journalist Tunde, and the teenager Allie who escapes from her abusive foster parents and turns to a self-made religion.

So, it’s undoubtedly a great premise, but problem #1: I was bored to death by each one of these characters, and I was also frustrated by the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. The entire book is narrated in a third-person omniscient POV, but is broken up into chapters whose headings are one of the four characters’ names. But, the head-hopping always felt arbitrary; for example we’d have a chapter called ‘Roxy,’ where the focus is actually on Allie, and it was all a bit ironic given the fact that everyone in this story just blurred together anyway. I do not need to personally care about the characters to enjoy a book, but I do need there to be a certain level of intrigue, a certain understanding of why this person’s story in particular is worth telling, and I just didn’t get that from any of the four protagonists here.

But, my bigger issue with The Power was the distinct lack of narrative. You’d think, with the amount of literary fiction I read, that I wouldn’t need a clear-cut plot to keep me engaged, but I’m learning that with SFF, a good idea alone isn’t nearly enough to sustain my interest. I can’t help it – I want a good story. And there just wasn’t one to be found in these pages. The narrative felt scattered and uneven, potentially interesting plot threads were underdeveloped, and the pacing was either rushed or stilted. Each chapter would read as a solitary vignette before we skipped ahead another year and the characters would be doing something else entirely, and while the sections themselves were counting down to some big event – ‘9 years to go,’ ‘8 years to go,’ the section headings would read – this didn’t provide enough tension or intrigue to counteract the boredom that mainly characterized my reading experience. I wasn’t wowed by the ending, either. I did think the novel’s framing device was effective, if a bit heavy-handed, but I put this down feeling nothing but relief to finally be done with it.

And I mean, it’s undeniable that the premise is brilliant and that certain themes in this book are fascinating. As others have observed, this is less a book about gender than it is about power; gender may be the vehicle that Alderman chooses to use, but it’s less a ‘feminist dystopia’ than a relentlessly dark fantasy that interrogates humanity’s innate blood-lust. But the fact remains that this was just so, so much better in concept than in execution. I thought Alderman’s writing was simplistic and downright lifeless, which is also how I felt about her Jewish lesbian romance Disobedience, another book that fell short of its potential for me. I was hoping that my experience with this one would be different as it’s a completely different genre, but I think I should just accept that I don’t get on with Alderman’s writing.

You can pick up a copy of The Power here on Book Depository.

Advertisements

book review: Severance by Ling Ma

36348525

 

SEVERANCE by Ling Ma
★★★★☆
Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2018

 

There are a lot of elements from Severance that we’ve all seen before – the global pandemic which brings an abrupt halt to civilization as we know it, the few survivors trying to forge ahead in the absence of a structured society, the juxtaposition of before and after narratives. But the similarities to Station Eleven or Bird Box end there, because what Ling Ma does with Severance is fuse the post-apocalyptic survival genre with anti-capitalist satire, and it works almost startlingly well.

Both wry and meditative, Severance offers a positively haunting commentary on corporate greed and what that means for the individual, and that awful paradox of being trapped inside a system that you feel guilty having any part of. The fictional Shen Fever was pretty awful; rather than offering a quick death it would essentially turn people into zombies who performed rote tasks ad infinitum – it’s heavy-handed but it works – but the most horrifying part of this novel was probably how much of the directionless millennial narrative resonated, and the amount of decisions these characters had to make at the detriment of their happiness just to survive, both before and after.

I did think the book’s structure could have been more cohesive as a whole, and I felt like Ling Ma didn’t really know what she wanted to do with the ending, but ultimately I loved this strong and unexpected debut. I can’t wait to see what Ling Ma does next.

book review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

34409176

 

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker
★★★★☆
Random House, January 15, 2019

The Dreamers is a wonderfully eerie and speculative novel about an epidemic that takes hold of a college town, in the form of a gentle disease which causes people to fall into a deep sleep that they cannot be woken from. As long as these individuals can receive medical care and be fed intravenously they are in no immediate danger, but the more people who fall prey to the highly contagious sickness, the more difficult it becomes to look after the sick.

This is a mesmerizing character-driven novel. Station Eleven is going to be brought up frequently in conversation with The Dreamers, and I know that comparing books to other books can get tedious but in this case it’s with good reason. Emily St. John Mandel’s influence can clearly be seen on the construction of The Dreamers, with its omniscient narration flitting between a panoply of characters who are all affected by the sickness all in different ways, their narratives occasionally intersecting but each with its own distinct arc. But Karen Thompson Walker’s novel is not without its own unique spin – the disease is much more contained than the one that devastates civilization in Station Eleven, and consequently this isn’t so much a survival novel as it is a novel interested in examining its central concept – sleeping, dreaming – through lenses of disparate psychologies and philosophies and sciences, which all come together to tell a story that’s as thought-provoking as it is readable.

The only reason I’m dropping this to 4 stars is that there was a bit too much ‘isn’t childbirth miraculous aren’t babies astonishing‘ in a few of the characters’ narratives and it got to be a bit much for me, but that’s strictly a personal preference. Everything else I adored. Karen Thompson Walker’s writing is both assured and understated in the best possible way, and the way she builds tension is just spectacular. I could not put this book down.

Thank you to Netgalley, Random House, and Karen Thompson Walker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

Suicide_Club_October_17_EDIT_NEW_3.indd

 

SUICIDE CLUB by Rachel Heng
★★☆☆☆
Henry Holt, July 10, 2018

 

Suicide Club is a book full of brilliant concepts that never develop into a convincing or engaging narrative. It’s a speculative novel set in a near-future New York society in which death is illegal and the pursuit of immortality is all-consuming. 100-year-old Lea Kirino is a model citizen; she has a high-level job on the New York exchange, which now deals in trading human organs, she has a genetically beautiful fiancé, and she’s being considered for a promotion. But things change for Lea when she spots her estranged, fugitive father for the first time in 88 years, and she comes in contact with a group called the Suicide Club, which advocates for the right for everyone to live and die on their own terms.

So it pretty much goes without saying that this is a fantastic premise; where Suicide Club falls apart is in the execution. It starts out on a promising enough note – the worldbuilding at first seems impressive, and Rachel Heng does a good job of integrating her new terminology into the narrative so that it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s not until you get a decent amount of the way in that numerous holes begin to develop – and it’s not so much in the nitty-gritty details as it is in the overarching concept. If society is still comprised of so many “sub-100s” (people with a ‘normal’ lifespan), how has death become such a cultural taboo? And why don’t these groups revolt against those in power to gain access to their technology? Why is Lea so closely monitored for a supposed suicide attempt after she’s hit by a car; does no one ever have a genuine accident in this society? In some ways this reminded me of Felicia Yap’s Yesterday, another underwhelming speculative novel whose premise falls to pieces if you look too closely.

But the biggest problem with this book was the protagonist, Lea. I don’t even know where to begin. I was sort of buddy reading this with my friend Hannah, who at one point said that the only logical explanation she would accept for Lea’s behavior was if she were revealed to be an alien at the end of the book. Spoiler alert: she isn’t. But I think that just about sums it up. Even though Lea has a lifespan of 200-300 years (so she’s technically only middle aged), she’s still 100-years-old, so you’d think we’d see some wisdom and life experience occasionally reflected in her behavior. Instead, she is the world’s most wooden, immature, simple-minded character, who makes the most incomprehensible decisions and shows absolutely zero critical thinking skills. This would be convincing characterization for an 11-year-old girl; not a 100-year-old New York businesswoman. Her backstory too is laughably incongruous with her characterization, and her character development is hackneyed and unrealistic. Despite the questionable worldbuilding and positively dull narrative, I think this book could have been saved if we’d been focusing on someone other than Lea.

Which brings my to my next point, which is that we follow another character for a few chapters, Anja, a Swedish immigrant living in New York with her mother who is being kept alive in a vegetative state. Anja is vulnerable, complex, sympathetic – everything I hoped Lea would be – and it makes no sense to me why we follow Lea’s journey so closely at the expense of Anja’s. The split between their chapters is probably 70/30 in Lea’s favor, which makes me wonder how Lea can come across as so under-developed when she has more than twice the narrative that Anja has.

So all in all, a disappointment. But it’s worth noting that this is a debut novel, and a rather ambitious one at that. The writing itself was solid, and again, the premise was brilliant, so I think Rachel Heng shows promise. I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here – though hopefully it’s somewhere with a more convincing and sympathetic protagonist.

Thank you to Netgalley, Henry Holt, and Rachel Heng for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

33858905

THE END WE START FROM by Megan Hunter
★★★☆☆
Grove Atlantic, 2017

The End We Start From is Station Eleven meets Exit West – a literary soft apocalypse refugee story set in a near-future Great Britain. Except, it’s a pared down, sort of anemic version of both of those novels. It was well written, but for the most part left me cold.

This novella doesn’t use names and doesn’t fixate on details – instead it’s about humanity, the connections we make, the ways we adapt to change. Although Megan Hunter does an impressive job at delving into these themes in so short a story, there was too much left unsaid for me to be able to really connect with this on an emotional level. London is submerged underwater, the unnamed narrator gives birth to a baby, she and her husband are separated, and I should care, but I don’t.

Hunter’s prose is worth mentioning as it is undoubtedly this novella’s biggest strength. It’s poetic and lyrical, incisive and creative… but strong prose isn’t enough to elevate this past 3 stars. Bottom line: I finished this book and thought ‘what exactly was the point of that?’ There just wasn’t anything particularly unique or innovative about this story. Reading these 160 pages wasn’t an entirely unpleasant way to spend my time, but I can’t say it made much of an impression on me. I have a feeling that when I look through the books I read in 2017 at the end of the year, I’m going to see this one and say ‘wait, what was that again?’

Thank you to Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and Megan Hunter for the electronic copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: American War by Omar El Akkad

32283423

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, April 2017

It’s hard to say where exactly Omar El Akkad went wrong with American War, because on the surface, this appears to be such a well-constructed novel. El Akkad ties in the story of our protagonist, Sarat, with his imagined vision of a second American Civil War in a way that’s comprehensive and undeniably steeped with tragedy. The world building in this novel is immense, with various news articles scattered like historical set pieces throughout the narrative. But when you look closer, there are too many gaping holes.

What about the current social climate in America, with all our institutionalized racism and police brutality, suggests that we’re moving toward a post-racial, colorblind society? How can El Akkad draw so heavily on the first American Civil War for his narrative and completely ignore the question of slavery and racism? How can the South continue to use fossil fuels when the rest of the country no longer does? How did the Mexican annexation of a large region of the U.S. come about? How on earth did every country in the Middle East come together in the span of about fifty years (?!?!) to form a republic?

These are just a few of the questions American War left me with. Maybe they’re not the point. But I can’t help but to feel like a novel which goes to such great lengths to set the stage for this future-alternate history needs to be able to provide the reader with satisfactory answers.

My second issue with this book is that it’s dull, tedious, and downright boring. If I hadn’t been reading this for a book club, I would have strongly considered DNFing, which as you guys know, I never do. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Sarat, who felt more like a caricature than a well-developed character in her own right, or about the background characters who littered the narrative without much depth or individual personalities.

I was really disappointed by this book. I thought that a novel about a second American Civil War would be difficult to read because of what a realistic possibility it is, but American War was never able to convince me that it was anything other than highly imaginative fiction. Maybe I could have forgiven that if the plot or characters held my attention, but they didn’t. It was such a relief to finish this.

book review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

227463

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess
★★★★★
originally published in 1962

I’m seeing the play adaptation of A Clockwork Orange off Broadway in a couple of weeks, so I thought it would be a good idea to read the book first. I read one paragraph and thought ‘oh god, what am I getting myself into?’ before deciding to soldier on anyway. Now, since I’m guessing this has been the experience of just about everyone who has ever read the first paragraph of A Clockwork Orange only to put it down after that, my advice is: push through it. By the second chapter it gets easier, and by the fourth or fifth you’re practically fluent in nadsat.

But let’s back up. The most notable thing about A Clockwork Orange is that it’s written in Anthony Burgess’s invented argot, ‘nadsat,’ which draws on Cockney, Malay, and Russian. You’re thrown into this hybrid language immediately without any explanation, and it’s a little disorienting, which I think was the effect that Burgess was going for. But it works, beautifully. It draws the reader into Alex’s world, and somehow serves to desensitize from the brutal violence that Alex and his gang inflict on others. The relief you feel at being able to understand the language washes over you in stark opposition to the horrors that the nadsat is masking, and it’s a uniquely unsettling experience. I was completely drawn in by the effect that Burgess created here.

Thematically, this book is absolutely fascinating. Burgess constructs a vaguely futuristic totalitarian state that draws on elements of both communism and capitalism, which makes sense given the social climate that Burgess was writing in, in 1960s Britain. This book raises a lot of questions about humanity, free will, and the symbiotic relationship of the state and the individual. What value is there in free will if an individual doesn’t choose to be good? Is it better to choose to be evil, or to be forced to be good? What’s so striking about A Clockwork Orange is that we don’t have a hero worth rooting for in this dystopian society, but it’s still a powerful commentary on governmental injustice and youth violence. I was very moved by Alex’s story, and it’s a testament to Burgess’s skill that he was able to evoke pity for this character who should by all accounts be irrevocably loathsome.

I really enjoyed reading this, as much as you can ‘enjoy’ a brutally violent book. I don’t recommend this lightly, but if you can handle this kind of dark fiction, reading this book is a surprisingly rewarding experience.