Book Review: Afterland by Lauren Beukes

afterland-by-lauren-beukes

Rating:  ★★★1/2

Afterland is about the Manpocalypse. How could I not pick up a book about the Manpocalypse? (And yes, they really call it that in the book.)  Anyway, we follow a mother, Cole, and her son, Miles, across the country as they attempt to flee back to their homeland.  They are being chased by Cole’s crazy sister Billy, who wants to sell Miles’s boy-specific-body-fluids on the black market, and the goverment, sort of.  I say sort of because the goverment, disappointingly, doesn’t come much in to play in the present timeline.

Now before I start this review, I want to say that I mostly enjoyed this book.  The writing was hard-hitting and edgy.  The characters were flawed and sympathetic.  The story moves along at a good clip most of the time.  However Beukes’s books always seem to leave me unsatisfied. I feel like they are blurbed and advertised in a way that promises something the books never deliver on.

 In this case, it was the world building.  I wanted to know what the world looked like with most of the men gone. I wanted to know what happened to all those male-dominated fields. Did commercial air travel come to a dead halt?  What about construction?  Was there some sort of emergency training program to get women involved in those fields?  What happened to some of the immune men? Am I to believe they are all under government protection? They didn’t go off on their own and start a cult where they were worshipped by women?  Or worse, abducted and held prisoner? I don’t know. I just wanted to see more. I wanted a tour of what the world looked like post-Manpocalypse and we’re given a frustratingly narrow view.

There is a point, about midway, where Cole and Miles encounter a religious cult.  The plot seems to slow quite a bit here and begins a lot of preaching about God and His plans which grew tiresome for me very quickly.

Otherwise I enjoyed this for the most part. I think if you go into it knowing you won’t be getting to see all those things I was hoping for, you could enjoy it.  The writing was the best part for me and in places reminiscent of The Mere Wife, but unfortunately falls just short of the mark of being a great book.

Afterland can be found on GoodReads and Amazon if you’d like to check it out.

Favorite SciFi Sub-genres

Part of what I love about science fiction is that it covers so many different topics.  Sometimes when I mention to others that I love science fiction, I feel like I occasionally get a funny look or two.  And then I wonder how many awesome books the person sitting across from me has either read without really realizing it was science fiction, or missed out on because they turned their nose up at something with the label.

So I thought I’d share some of my favorite sub-genres with you today, along with a few suggestions to check out if you’re looking to try some of them.

Apocalyptic / Post-Apocalyptic

I love stories about the end of the world.  Granted- my favorites are those that usually explore the darker side of human nature, books like Wanderers and King’s The Stand, but I also like hopeful stories that explore the survival of humanity as earth is becoming uninhabitable (e.g. The Calculating Stars).

What intrigues me about them is the way the human need (instinct?) to survive effects each character.  Will they do whatever it takes?  Will they commit unspeakable acts in the interest of protecting themselves and their families? Or will they come together and unite for a common cause?

First Contact / Alien Invasion

I love all fiction with aliens for a few different reasons.  The easy answer is the almost limitless opportunity it gives an author to exercise the limits of their imagination.  What kinds of tech do they have?  What kind of rituals do they practice?  What sort of hierarchy does their society follow?

But the more complex answer is that alien civilization can act as a sort of mirror, reflecting back all the ugly and beautiful truths about our own civilization.  It gives the reader a chance to question why things are the way they are, how they came to be that way, and how we could set ourselves on a path to change (hopefully for the better).

Dystopian / Utopian

This is an easy one and probably the most accessible to those who aren’t necessarily fans of SciFi and Fantasy.  I like dystopian because I think it’s interesting to consider how the in-book society evolved into what it became.  Qualityland, for example, is very obviously derived from Amazon’s dominion over the retail space.  On the other hand, utopian books examine what it might mean to try and please everyone, or put them all on an even playing field.

Science Fiction Thrillers

And of course- probably my most favorite genre of all- the science fiction thriller.  Not because they have any higher purpose, but because they are damn entertaining.

There are a couple other genres of SciFi I’m hoping to explore this year.  Topics that interest me or genres in which I’ve only read one or two books, but have enjoyed, despite not having had the time yet to dive deeper.

Biopunk

Biopunk is described as “derived from cyberpunk [that] focuses on the implications of biotechnology rather than information technology” (Wikipedia).  I read, and once very much enjoyed, Borne, but I’d love to see what else exists in the genre and how it is deployed.  The big one I have slated for this is Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, but I’ve talked about that particular book quite a bit recently and wanted to spotlight something different.

Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is described as a “combination of low-life and high tech” (Wikipedia, Sterling Bruce, Burning Chrome by William Gibson preface).  Infomocracy probably fails on the first count.  I don’t think either of the two main characters are necessarily “low life”, but the book has a very urban, gritty, feel that I think qualifies it.  Last year I listened to SerialBox’s Ninth Step Station that I’d say qualifies as cyberpunk also.  Another book most people are probably familiar with is Ready Player One.  I loved them all and I definitely want to read more.

What are your favorite science fiction sub-genres?

Book Review: A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen

A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen

Rating:  ★★★

This is a story about what happens after the “end of the world”. We follow four characters and their intertwining stories: Moira (or MoJo) an ex pop star trying to escape her past and stay hidden from her father, Rob, a widower figuring out how to move on with life after the tragic passing of his wife, Krista, a woman trying to make something of herself and forget her terrible childhood, and Sunny, Rob’s daughter, a kid growing up in a post apocalyptic world.

The story started fairly strong. I liked all the characters. They seemed fully fleshed out. They were mostly likable. They had their own wants and needs and desires. Their stories and the way they intersected was interesting, even if a little mundane (think wedding planning, parent teacher conferences, etc.).

Here’s the thing. When a book says “post apocalyptic” I’m expecting there to be much less civilization present. The world building didn’t make a lot of sense to me for a post apocalyptic story. Most of the Earth’s population was wiped out by a flu virus (think 1 billion left alive out of 7 billion). Some people have gathered in the cities and are trying to rebuild. They still have internet, cell phone service, and apparently french fries and cheeseburgers. Most people suffer from what they call “PASD” or, “Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder”. They go to group meetings for support. They hire bounty hunters to find their loved ones.

Some pockets of people reject that way of life and go out to start a new way of life centered around farming. Others apparently remain as bandits and gangs in the deserted lands between the cities. The world just seemed too populated to really be considered “post apocalyptic”. Was the flu a major disaster? Sure. But nothing about the world really felt like it ended. Things in post apocalyptic life in the metro centers seem mostly normal. There is still flight travel and buses and customs checks and such. I guess in the end I just didn’t buy into the world building.

It was really driven home when one random character states the metro(s) of New England are still struggling due to winter storms while Minneapolis was doing alright. Minneapolis gets more snow then much of New England. South of New Hampshire and Vermont (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut) winter is actually pretty mild. Where I’m from, it’s rare that snow lasts more than a week. New England just isn’t that fragile. I realize this is one tiny line in the whole book, and yeah, sometimes southern New England has a brutal winter, but as a whole it felt overwhelmingly under researched.

Another example (warning, spoilers ahead) is when the government decides that Sunny would be better off without her dad because her dad, who holds a job and raises her alone and yeah, is grieving, but otherwise okay, is “unstable”.  And in order to rebuild society, family units need to be stable.

You know what will screw up a kid real fast? Being ripped from a loving home. Again, I just don’t buy it. Whatever Rob did was done out of love. He was not abusive. He did not abuse alcohol or drugs. He was providing. Taking a seven year old away from her only family is about the quickest way I can think of to destabilize them. Sure, government workers are sometimes incompetent, but in this book none of it rang true. (Aside from the very obvious, why doesn’t Rob just pack up with Sunny and move?!)

The nature of this story is more sappy sweet than I like, and for it to work there are a lot of conveniences built in. I did read through it fairly quickly, and it could be entertaining if you are willing not to look too closely at it. People will likely compare this to Station Eleven, and those comparisons aren’t entirely inaccurate, but unfortunately, A Beginning at the End is simply not as well done.

A Beginning at the End releases on January 14, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher who provided an ARC for review.

B&N Memorial Day Sale Book Haul

For Mother’s Day, my tiny human gifted me with books, via a gift card and her wonderful grandmother!  I hadn’t spent it because I was waiting for something I really, really wanted to buy, but then the Memorial Day sale popped up in my email and Barnes & Noble was offering an additional 20% off on top of sales… so I ended up getting five really good sounding books I hadn’t known I wanted.

 

Redemption Road by John HartRedemption Road by John Hart: This book looks as if it follows a few different characters and perhaps the general narrative of a whole town, which is the kind of story I love when it’s done well.  The blurb clues you into some dramatic sounding narratives: a boy plans to take revenge, a good cop gets out of prison, a body found on the steps of an abandoned church.. If Hart ties all these narratives together I think it could be amazing.  I did read the first few chapters, and it seemed like maybe it was turning into a mystery rather than the “literary thriller” it promised, but I remain optimistic.  It has a 4+ rating on GoodReads with a significant amount of reviews, so that’s usually a good sign.

The Couple Next Door by Shari LapenaThe Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena: I remember in 2016 when this book came out, I was seeing it everywhere.  I’ve been a little burnt out on my usual fare lately, so I figured I’d give a try.  It’s about a couple who attends a dinner party next door and leaves their child sleeping alone in their apartment.  They check on her every half hour- but when they come home. She’s gone.  The question is, whodunnit?  I read the first few chapters of this too- the writing is nothing fancy, but it’s not bad.  The action kicks off right away with a brief glimpse of the dinner party and the couple next door, before Anne and Marco return home to find their daughter missing.  Detective Rasbach immediately suspects the Conti’s, meanwhile, the reader is hoping he’s wrong.

The Dead Lands by Benjamin PercyThe Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: This is the only science fiction purchase I made.  It caught my eye because I’d never heard of either the author or the book before.  I feel pretty well versed in the SFF genre- maybe not because I’ve read widely, but I’m pretty well aware of any releases in the past few years.  This has a decent number of reviews, but the overall rating is pretty low at 3.44.  Usually that’s a good reason for me not to put it on my TBR let alone buy it, but the blurb gave me serious Fallout vibes so I had to go for it.  It’s about an outpost set up on the ruins of St. Louis called the Sanctuary, and a rider coming in from the wastelands to bring them to a place where civilization is thriving.  Fingers crossed it’s better than a 3 star read for me.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon: This is historical fiction based on The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhonthe true story of the disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater in New York in 1930.  I love all things Depression era.  The speakeasies, the organized crime, the cars, the clothes, the style, the music, the influx of Italian and Irish immigrants trying to live the American dream.. I think no matter what angle you take, this time period presents an opportunity to tell some amazing stories.  But mostly I’m excited for a trifecta of lying, cheating, maybe murderous women plotting (what I suspect is) the perfect revenge.  I took a peek at the first few pages, and the writing is absolutely perfect for this time period, moody and yet elegant.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice FeeneySometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney: This book has got one of the best hooks I’ve seen in a long time:

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie.

I sat down to read the first couple chapters and ended up reading the whole book.  It’s a twisty turny insane ride.  Is it far fetched?  Yeah.  Do I care?  Nope.  Full review up soon!

 

Book Review: The Stand by Stephen King

TheStand_SK

Rating:  ★★1/2

“In America even scummy douchebags like you should be able to catch a cold.”

M-O-O-N, that spells unpopular opinion. I do have oh so many of those. Laws, yes.

I don’t want to write this review. Really I don’t. I don’t want to say that this is far and away my least favorite King book ever. I don’t want to tell you that the Satan versus God war was total bullshit, or that King does much better when he writes general Good Vs. Evil stories.

I don’t want to tell you that Randall Flagg is totally lame. That Brady Hartsfield would bend Flagg over his knee and give him a fucking spanking and send him off to his room without supper.

“To be polite, she sipped a little more of the dreadful Kool-Aid.”

But I have to say these things you see, because The Stand is 1,400 pages of boredom. I did not drink the dreadful Kool-Aid.

I have been thinking long and hard about this. Pretty much ever since the book started. (That was on April 15. Laws, yes, almost two weeks ago.) And I can’t precisely articulate what exactly it is that I find so boring about it.

“That was the whole world, after all, nothing but thoughts and plots.”

Maybe because so much time was spent on the opening, on the beginning of the flu. Was the flu horrifying? Yeah, in a “Oh God what if this happened for real?” sort of way… Could King have done more with it? Why, Laws yes, I think he could have. I would have liked to see the panic overtake the cities, the mass exodus, the cars crashing, the people stomping each other into the dirt and turning ugly in a fight for survival, the panic power of a single sneeze in a crowded room.

King, your Constant Reader knows you are capable of this. Instead I was given passing references to the military blocking off roads and shooting people down, a code name for a super secret evil government plan that didn’t seem like it ever manifested. It was all hinted at. I don’t like you when you’re subtle Steve. I much prefer when you take all the ugly people are capable of and slap me across the face with it. That’s just the kind of girl I am. Maybe I’ve got a little R.F. on my shoulder.

“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”

But that’s not all. I was more than a little annoyed at the hints of brilliance, being reminded of what was to come. I saw the beginnings of Cujo in there, The Kid trapped in a hot car surrounded by evil wolves. I might have glimpsed pieces of Dreamcatcher. The beginnings of Under the Dome, little ideas sprinkled all around.  All these quotes I’ve included?  I highlighted 30 others, and will cherish them all.  But a 1,400 page book has to be more than a string of good quotes.  Maybe it’s a matter of not aging well, I don’t know. Might I have liked this if I had read it 30 years ago, when it was first released? Yeah, maybe. As it stands, I was disappointed, and maybe that isn’t fair, but it is what it is.

All my favorite things about King’s work are there. The characters being real people, average Joes and Janes. The underdogs. The minute details, the Baby, Can You Dig Your Man’s? The pure nostalgia of his work. And somehow they didn’t come together in a way that made me love any of it. Did I love Glen? Sure. Nick? Sure. Tom Cullen? Yes. Kojak? You can bet on it. But Larry, Stu, Ralph, Joe, Lucy, Abagail? I really didn’t care. They were, to quote the book, No Great Loss.

“The flu didn’t just leave survivor types, why the hell should it?”

I think my problem, in the end, was the distance between the good and the evil here. There’s something wildly impersonal about this story. Randall Flagg wants to be evil just for the sake of being evil. Brady Hartsfield is the same, but he’s not afraid to do his own dirty work. In fact, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Mind-fucking people into being bad for you just doesn’t carry the same weight as Brady throttling a car into a crowd of people in need, just because he can. Just because he wants the world to suffer with him.

There were some high points. That chapter that glimpses the second wave? The non-survivor types the world left behind? Absolute gold. As far as I’m concerned, it was the best chapter in the book. That, was what I wanted more of. If we’re going to use third person omnipotent, we should be using it for exactly this. The Kid? From what I understand, he wasn’t in the original, which baffles me, because he too, was one of the highlights. Like a Junior Rennie with his brain fully intact.

“That was an act of pure human fuckery.”

There were consistency/continuity errors. The ending was hugely unsatisfying. Many character ARCs are never given legitimate conclusions.  I now understand why people thought King couldn’t write women.  At one point Stu offers to get Frannie a washing machine.  A washing machine, for when the electricity comes back on so she won’t have to break her back doing all the laundry.  And what does she do?  She throws her arms around him and kisses him.  Uh-uh.  Not in my house Stu Redman.  You better get yourself a goddamn washing machine or you better find a fucking time machine and travel back to 1958.

Beyond all that, it was incredibly messy for a King book.  There were the bizarre alternating timelines spliced into the middle, sudden in their appearance and just as sudden in their disappearance.

“After all, the only practical compensation for having a nightmare is waking up and realizing it was all just a dream.”

The foreshadowing and the supernatural didn’t jive with the ending we were given. Minor spoiler: at first it seems like the people who are immune to the flu are the ones who dream, and people who aren’t regular dreamers, die.  Kojak, one of the world’s only surviving dogs, is a dreamer.  Later, it’s explained that children who are the product of two immune parents are also immune.  Well which of these is the determining survivor factor, genetics or dreams?  I’ll accept either answer but I won’t accept both.  Either the dreams make them safe or they don’t.  If it’s not the dreams, those shouldn’t have been happening until after the plague had done its work.  If it’s genetics, then in theory wouldn’t any survivors also have to have surviving family members?  The whole premise fell apart because the book couldn’t decide if it wanted to be fantasy or science fiction.

I just can’t express it any clearer than to say I was disappointed. When society caves in on itself, and King writes books about it, I expect the worst of his characters. I expect there to be Johnny-do-good types with questionable pasts. I expect there to be charming, cunning, wolves in sheep’s clothing, who mostly win, until they don’t. Instead I got a world full of mostly decent people who do bad things with one oddly levitating demon pulling their strings.

“‘The Lord is my shepherd,” he recited softly. “I shall not want for nothing. He makes me lie down in the green pastures. He greases up my head with oil. He gives me kung-fu in the face of my enemies. Amen.'”

God bless Tom Cullen, Laws yes.  That’s all I have to say about that.

In case you don’t trust me (why the hell should you? wtf do I know?) The Stand can be found on GoodReads here, and Amazon here.