BOOK REVIEWS

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book.
Imagine walking into some art gallery and coming across a piece of art that just blows your mind. Later on, when you walk past it again, you actually stop and read the artist’s statement, which consists in the usual meaningless art-speak. And you look back to that work and think “this is so fucking pretentious”. That’s how I feel about Version Control which is all flash and no substance.
Once I finally slogged my way through this 500+ page book I felt cheated. It had so much potential and Dexter Palmer clearly had some great ideas…sadly these were lost in the midst of inconsistent world-building, poor characterisation (the female characters are atrocious), and a surprisingly uninspiring storyline (I mean, how could you manage to make travelling be boring?).
Palmer took every opportunity to satirise every single one of his characters, in what basically amounted to satire for the sake of satire, which, if you ask me, fell flat as it had nothing smart to say. I’m not sure at what point exactly I became aware of it but Palmer clearly loves taking the piss out of millennials. And he does it in a way that brought to mind those segments on Ellen where she makes fun of millennials because they don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone (quality humor, not).
At first the dialogue in this novel rang true to life. There were tense or awkward pauses, character misunderstanding someone else’s choice of words, conversations could lead to nothing or suddenly escalate into arguments. But then I couldn’t help but to notice how frequently characters would just have these very long monologues in which they ranted about everything and nothing. Which, yeah, some people do go on (I am doing so right now), or end up having longwinded and heated rants…but every-single character? And that’s when I realised that the characters in this novels were like the characters in a film by Woody Allen (they all speak like Woody Allen regardless of their age/gender/personality). And that kind of killed any enjoyment I had left for this book.
The rant-y to of my review reflects the many rants that are in this book.

The Story
Even if the premise for Version Control reminded me of What If, a novel I didn’t particularly care for, I was intrigued by it. The story is set in the near-future (more on that later) and follows five main characters: we have Rebecca Wright, a recovering alcoholic who is now in her late thirties and works “part-time as a customer service representative for Lovability, the online dating service where, eleven years ago, she’d actually met the man who was now her husband”; Philip, said husband, who is a brilliant scientist devoted to his work on the ‘causality violation device’ (which, in a running gag, and much to the scientists’ annoyance, gets called ‘time machine’); there is Rebecca’s BFF from college, Kate, who is a superficial bimbo (more on that later); Carson, a scientist who works under Philip and is on-and-off again dating Kate; and Alicia, “the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab” who is Not Like Other Women. There are some minor recurring characters, most of whom we get to see only in certain environments (like the two security men working in the lab) so that we never really learn about them.
Rebecca and Philip have lost their son, but they don’t speak of him or how he died. Philip spends most of his time working or talking about the ‘causality violation device’ (CVD) while Rebecca mopes a lot around the house thinking of how much she wants to drink. I was expecting this to be a story that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, one that would make you question whether the ‘strange’ sensation felt by Rebecca was a sign of her spiraling mental health or something of a more fantastical nature. But this wasn’t that kind of novel. And, as I previously mentioned, at first I didn’t mind. The story was more intent on creating some realistically awkward or fraught encounters between the various characters. Rebecca’s marriage is in trouble and her relationship with Philip isn’t great. She doesn’t get particularly along with Alicia while Philip gets into a heated argument with Rebecca’s dad (who is a Unitarian minister). Kate’s derisive comments about ribs and watermelons force Carson, who is black, to question whether she’s racist. Carson is also getting pretty pissed off at one of the security guards, who keeps calling him Carlton (“acting white”). No one gets along with anyone, and the story is very much about that. Palmer seems to delight in putting his characters in the most uncomfortable situations possible. Philip’s work is repeatedly made fun by the media and one snooty potential investor, Rebecca’s knows very little about anything so is frequently made to appear dumb, Kate acts like the Basic White Chick, and Alicia is openly rude to others, especially other women (but it’s okay, cause she’s driven and Not Like Other Girls). Now and again Palmer remembers to mention that some people feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with their reality, but this is a minor thread in a story that is much more concerned with ridiculing its characters and with giving really detailed descriptions or explanations about minor aspects of this ‘near future’. The main ingredients of Palmer’s story are 1) useless millenials 2) women who don’t care or don’t have what it takes to have a career 3) unfunny caricatures.
He had a lot to say on a myriad of other topics, but this often came about when two characters were having a discussion or argument about this (sexism, racism, conflict between religion and science). He dedicates many passages to modern dating, seeming to lose himself in his own ‘hilarious’ vision of the future of dating (which isn’t as original as he seems to be suggesting: “the whole idea of meeting someone in a physical place, to talk to them in real time, was so twentieth century”) or in unnecessarily long digressions about automated ‘autonomous cars’ or of how in schools kids no longer need to interact with teachers but they get taught via tablet (and Palmer spends a chapter on the “Daily Pre-School-Day Diagnostic” kids have to complete each morning).
We are only given a flashback into Rebecac’s life, and rather than reading about her childhood or learning more of her relationship with her parents, we read of a period in her twenties which she aptly describes as ‘Blackout Season’. We never get why she chose to study English or what future she envisioned after her completing degree, what we get instead are scenes featuring Rebecca and her college ‘friends’, all of whom are jobless or doing temporary or part-time jobs they don’t care for, and they spend their time going to bars and clubs, getting drunk and loud, flirting and sleeping with guys that are ‘no good’. After a few years one of them meets the ‘right’ kind of man and soon the girls disband their friendship group (because if a woman is ‘seriously’ dating someone she can’t keep her friends, duh). Rebecca has a few mishaps on online dating sites, meets Philip, and the two get married even if they have nothing in common or no chemistry. Their son dies, and things start going a bit sour between the two of them. And of course, eventually, the CVD does play a role in the story.
As I said, or wrote, Palmer mostly writes scenes in which his characters have awkward encounters and exchanges with each other. And, while I initially liked this aspect of his narrative as I am a fan of hysterical realism, by the halfway mark I was no longer impressed by them, in fact, they struck me as forced and unfunny. Sometimes I like reading scenes that verge on the surreal (I’m very basic, I like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers) but there were moments in Version Control that were just jarring and poorly written (I’m talking about that scene with Alicia and the magazine…it wasn’t funny, it didn’t make sense, it was out-of-character, the tone was just off).
The second half was very much a rehash of similar scenarios and exchanges, and the ‘wrongness’ felt by Rebecca never amounted to anything substantial. I was expecting a twist at some point or some reveal a la Black Mirror but nada. The story remains concerned with exploring boring and tired dynamics between characters that were little other than dull caricatures.
What was the point in the story? An excuse for Palmer to write about ‘what ifs’ or detail minor aspects of everyday life in a future America ? Did this story require 500+ pages?
Time travelling is picked up now again, but for all Philip’s & co talk about the CVD, they spent far too little time talking concretely about what would happen if their machine were to work. Instead they use a lot of scientific language that seemed more intent on confusing non-sciencey readers.
Maybe I could have overlooked plot-holes and never-ending diversions if Palmer’s narrative had offered us some character interiority, but this third pov remains never delves into character motivations. Giving us a glimpse into Rebecca’s mind would have made her into a far less one-dimensional and incomprehensible character (it was frustrating not knowing why she acted the way she did).
As stories about time travel go, Version Control offers nothing new.

The ‘Future’
Palmer’s near future is really unconvincing. He refers to things that in ten and twenty years will be outdated, he sticks to this running gag of the president interrupting people’s TV viewing or phone calls but we don’t know when he was elected, what kind of president he is, what America’s political landscape looks like. And Palmer seems wholly disinterred in anything remotely non-America (as in we have more or less no clue on what is going on in the rest of the world).
The story takes place in ten or possibly even twenty years and yet his future feels very ‘2010’. Yes, he imagines what shopping for clothes will be like, but what he envisions has already kind of been predicted (having one’s body scanned and being given an item of clothing that will fit you without needing to step in a fitting room). But what about other things? Rebecca is an alcoholic, will the future be able to provide more effective and long-term treatments ? What about cancer? Climate change? Wait, how come Palmer totally skims over climate change?
Palmer’s future offers nothing new. Futurama was far more innovative that this. And I couldn’t help but to notice that in this future one of the security guards who works at the lab was worried that he had to teach his daughter what same-sex love was….which, how likely is that? Unsurprisingly Palmer’s future struck me as very straight and gender normative.
Although Palmer has no qualms about using scientific language at length, I think he glosses over his CVD machine (which is funny considering how often this machine gets mentioned) as he’s more worried with detailing all the ways in which advancements in technology will strip erode any remaining notions of privacy (but millennials being dumb aren’t concerned by that).

The Characters
It’s kind of ironic that although Palmer writes about sexism (by having Alicia point out how hard it is to be treated like her other male colleagues rather than an ‘oddity’) his portrayal of female characters is kind of questionable (and in poor taste).
Rebecca: she’s our main character and is defined by three things. 1) she’s Philip’s wife 2) she was mother 3) she’s an alcoholic. While Philip is allowed to have a personality (not a nice one but still) and goals, Rebecca is made into this pathetic cliché of a woman, who isn’t intelligent or empathetic, she’s isn’t a great mother nor a great daughter not even a great wife or friend. She has 0 drive and 0 interests outside of alcohol and Philip. She doesn’t confront Katy when she notices that she’s being racist, even when Katy later on asks her whether she thought that she’d said anything offensive, she’s jealous of Alicia because women can’t like other women, she doesn’t care for her job (cause married women don’t really want to work and would rather be housewives who spend their time shopping, drinking wine, and trying to stay a size S. Which..yep, Palmer has given us some great representation here.
I didn’t care for Rebecca. We never know why she does the shit she does, she has no concrete history other than her ‘Blackout Season’ and her feelings for Philip just were largely MIA from the page.
Katy: she’s awful. She’s dumb and superficial, is a crappy friend and person, spouts racist shit and is obsessed by the fact that she’s dating a black guy. Why waste any time on her? I really got the feeling that Palmer wanted to show how insincere female friendships were (especially if one of these friends has blonde hair). Katy is just as passionless as Rebecca. She has no interest outside of men, gossip, and alcohol.
Alicia: she’s the kind of character that some (I said some not all) male authors believe to be ’empowering’. She loves what she does, she’s smart, straight-talking, tough. She takes no shit from anyone and most men in this novel are attracter to her. Women, on the other hand, hate her because they are clearly ‘intimidated’ by her. Rather than making Alicia into a likeable or sympathetic character Palmer decides to make her into a truly awful bitch who behaves appallingly and doesn’t understand why other women are not like her. She’s also reduced to who she sleeps with, rather than being allowed to be a character in her own right.
Philip and Carson: these two were stereotypes of the scientific guy who doesn’t understand social etiquette. Philip spoke in this really donnish way that just never rang true (and I happen to know quite a few pedantic men). But the things Philip talks about where just…really? And why did he have to be so socially inept ? Just because you are a scientistic doesn’t mean that you could never speak of something without using scientific jargon.
Other characters: caricatures. They had a static role, perhaps played a part in a running joke or something.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a story with more speculative elements but dio mio! The whole dynamic between Rebecca and her genius scientist husband was so cliched and boring. And Palmer’s future would have been passable if it had been rendered in more detail or if it hadn’t been so intent on making fun of millennials. And 500 pages of this? I get it women who are not like Alicia (who of course posses traditionally ‘male’ personality traits) are bimbos who are incapable of forming meaningful relationships or saying meaningful things or having interests outside of men, diets, and gossip. Ah ah. So funny.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins — book review

220px-The_Ballad_of_Songbirds_and_Snakes_(Suzanne_Collins).pngIt’s a yikes from me.

Did the world really need The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes?
I think not.

Full of unnecessary exposition and weighed down by self-indulgent fanservice, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a train-wreck of a novel. The story lacks rhyme or reason, things happen only to advance the plot (regardless of whether they make sense because what is even logic?), there are no stakes (Coriolanus having to eat cabbage soup and not being able to pay taxes are hardly sources of tension), the characters are ridiculous and one-dimensional, frequently the writing veers into the ludicrous, and the author doesn’t trust her readers to reach obvious conclusions by themselves.

Having recently re-read the Hunger Games trilogy, I was reminded of how good a writer Collins is.
One of the strengths in THG series lies in Katniss’ first person narration which brings immediacy and urgency to her story. In THG Collins’ exploration of the ethics of violence and the conflict between survival and sacrifice struck me as being both nuanced and intelligent. There was also a certain ambiguity that allowed, nay encouraged, readers freedom of interpretation.
Which begs the question…Collins, what happened?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes may be the prequel to THG trilogy, but it’s an altogether different beast. Which would have been fine by me if it had been ‘different but good’. What we have instead here are simplified discussions about human nature (are we inherently bad? Do our circumstances shape who we are ? Are we responsible for what we do in order to survive?), an unconvincing story that is dragged-out for 500+ pages and is populated by goofy characters.

The novel strives for depth, yet its attempts to address the nature/nurture question and other moral quandaries result in a clumsy and overt parable that is leagues from being a satisfying or insightful philosophical inquiry into human nature. An example of this would when Dr. Gaul assigns Coriolanus Snow and other mentors homework along the lines of: “Write me an essay on everything attractive about war.”
What follows is a predictable and cringe-y scene in which they express their different opinions (shocking I know). Was that the only way to include a discussion on the ‘positives’ of war? It seemed a desperate, and rather pathetic, attempt to throw into the story some ‘serious’ material. Just because the characters who are talking about these things have ancient-Roman-sounding names that doesn’t make their conversations any more meaningful or thought-provoking.
Not only does the character of Dr. Gaul exist to tick the ‘mad scientist’ box (I will get to her in due time) but she’s also there so she can explicitly ask characters ‘challenging’ questions regarding their moral and political tenets. So subversive and illuminating is she that she says things such as: “Who are human beings? Because who we are determines the type of governing we need” and “What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. The tributes. And you, too. How quickly civilization disappears.”
We also have characters like Sejanus Plinth who although District-born has spent the last few years in the Capital, and he comes out with: “You’ve no right to starve people, to punish them for no reason. No right to take away their life and freedom.”. Did this guy just suddenly realised what kind of world he lives in? After years of Hunger Games he’s like ‘nah, that’s wrong. Humans should be free.’ (as if he doesn’t know that his words will have consequences?).
Away with Plato. Move aside Nietzsche. Sontag? Get out of here. There is a new philosopher in town.

Corny philosophising aside, the writing was weighed down by obvious statements which made the characters seem rather simplistic. Worst still we have cheesy gems such as “you’re mine and I’m yours. It’s written in the stars”, “although he didn’t believe in it, he tried to channel her telepathically. Let me help, Lucy Gray”, “The cabbage began to boil, filling the kitchen with the smell of poverty. ”
What in the world? I’m supposed to take this seriously?

The third person narration didn’t do the novel any favours. Most of Coriolanus’ thoughts and feelings aren’t articulated so that his character is given no new depths. Collins’ shies away from portraying him as a truly morally corrupt yet self-delusional person, making him into a not very convincing ‘he’s not that bad’ kind of guy. He’s an orphan who is tired of eating cabbage soup and not having money. Boo-hoo. His personality is just so tepid…he’s sort of ambitious, sort of a liar, a ‘sort of’ kind of person. Look, I wasn’t expecting the next Ripley or Humbert Humbert but Coriolanus is such a non-entity. While the narrative makes it seem as if he’s this cunning and charming guy, Coriolanus’ no Machiavelli. His elitist views are exaggeratedly rendered, so much so that they make him into a caricature of the contemptuous heir. Even those scenes in his family apartment or the ones where he’s with Tigris or Lucy Gray did not make Coriolanus any more believable or sympathetic. His ‘arc’ as such was merely motivated by his desire for wealth. As the descendant of a powerful yet crumbling Aristocratic family he believes he’s entitled to more than just cabbage soup for dinner. And of course, he hates Sejanus because ‘new money’.

From the first chapters characters are classifies as either good or bad. Throughout the course of 500+ pages they don’t change. Their thin personalities remain fixed.
Because of this the cast of characters is entirely forgettable. Although their names may appear on a page, their personalities remain largely non-existent. Coriolanus’ fellow students and mentors….did they even possess an individuality ? With the exception of holier than holier-than-thou Sejanus, these ill-defined Academy kids soon morphed with one another. What they say or do matters very little. They are mere accessories to Coriolanus’ story (we get it, although they have been indoctrinated to believe that the Districts are scum, they are not entirely entirely desensitised to violence or cruelty).
Lucy Gray was just so ridiculous. She seems one of the few random characters to have a normal name, and yet there was something comical about the way a ‘distressed’ Coriolanus would shout out her name. While the narrative did seem now and again aware that she was treated as an object, the way she’s depicted seems to corroborate this. She just didn’t convince me as an actual human being. At times she seemed a twelve year old Marie Sue, at times she seemed to have walked off the stage of a musical, and yet we are meant to find her intriguing?
The adult characters are unintentionally funny. From the ‘deranged’ Dr. Gaul (who speaks only in cliches and is not at all intimidating) to Dean Highbottom (whose surname merely brought to mind Neville Longbottom) who for some reason I don’t care enough about doesn’t like Coriolanus. These two, similarly to the other characters, do not leave their assigned roles (in this case ‘the mad scientist’ and ‘the bitter guy who for reasons holds a grudge against the protagonist’).
The characters in this novel are clownish. They have wannabe-Roman names, they speak in clichés and come out with uninspired maxims.

The world-building relies on readers having read THG. Which is weird given that this is not a sequel.
Panem is a dictatorship because reasons.
The novel also has a weak sense of place. The Capitol is barely delineated. The Academy is a building, Coriolanus lives in an apartment, and the Hunger Games take place in an arena. The architecture of these places is obviously irrelevant. Who even cares about descriptions of the characters and their environment? (I do).

Minor spoilers ahead
One of the first things that did not seem very rational was that the Capitol assigned the tributes to eighteen-year olds. Sure, the childhoods of these Academy students were marred by the war, but in comparison to the tributes, they’ve led a fairly privileged existence. But however rich their education may be, they still lack experience. They have little insight into the entertainment industry and just because they’ve discussed war strategies doesn’t mean that they could give any useful battle tactics. One thing is theory, the other one is practice. Yet, we are supposed to believe that the powers that be
decided that this particular group of students will mentor the tributes for the upcoming Hunger Games. The reason for this ‘mentorship’ is to make the Hunger Games more popular, garner some extra views or I don’t know. To me this seems an ill-conceived plan.
Anyway, let’s go along with it: mentor=more entertaining Hunger Games. Okay, so why am I meant to believe that the same people who are working extra hard to make the Hunger Games more interesting would let the tributes starve for a few days in a zoo cage? So they can collapse and die as soon as they enter the arena? Why even bother with the mentors then?! It was quite clear that the only reason why the tributes end up in a zoo cage is to remind us readers that to the ‘civilised’ citizens of the Capitol, District people are less than ‘animals’.
There were so many scenes like this. They did not make sense but they are theatrical. Characters are attacked, killed, and or tortured for effect. For all she writes about violence and human nature, Collins’ will often sacrifice believability for exaggeration. The whole thing with Dr. Gaul and her snakes was laughable. She’s such a crudely drawn figure that it was impossible to feel intimidated by her actions. The violence in this novel seems closer to that of splatter film.
The Hunger Games themselves are not only boring but they are described in a yawn-inducing way. The games section reminded of how in THG films they occasionally showed the game makers watching Katniss to make up for the fact that in the book we had Katniss’ narration to fill the moments of ‘quiet’. There was something so impersonal about these Hunger Games that I really did not care to see the way they would unfold (we know who is going to win anyway).

Shockingly enough, I struggled to finish this novel and ended up skimming a few pages in the final section. I’m baffled. What is this mess? What was it trying to achieve? It adds nothing to the THG. Coriolanus is not nuanced nor is he believable. If anything he seems a very different shade of evil to that of President Snow. We still don’t know much about the war. We get it, the Capitol suffered at the hands of the ‘rebels’. Collins’ tries to make this particular Hunger Games more significant by making characters come up with ideas that will be implemented in the following Hunger Games (like the sponsors or whatnot). For some reason Collins’ has to ‘foreshadow’ later events or can’t help but to reference mockingjays (“the show’s not over until the mockingjay sings”) and ‘the hanging tree’ song. What was the point in Tigris? She had a small cameo in the …why try to make her ‘important’? Especially since her role in this prequel in pretty irrelevant.

With so many pages did we really need to have passages in which earlier conversations reappear in italics? Why not trust that your readers will be able to remember what Coriolanus is referring to?

Last but not least: I am so done with the ‘muttations’. They were the weakest aspect of THG trilogy and to dedicate so much page time to them is just…

Moral of the story: approach prequels with caution.

My rating: ★✰✰✰✰ 1 star

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro — book review

000219247Never Let Me Go is a bleak novel, that is made ever bleaker by the way in which our narrator normalises her horrifying reality. Although this is a work of speculative fiction, Kathy’s world does not seem all that different from our own one (there were many moments which struck me as quintessentially British). Although Kathy’s recollection of her childhood is incredibly evocative, Kazuo Ishiguro keeps his cards close to his chest, so Hailsham School’s true purpose remains out of our reach. Yet, the more we learn about the guardians and the various rules imposed on Hailsham students, the more we grow uneasy, and suspicious, of Hailsham.
Kathy’s rather remote narration deepens the novel’s ambivalent atmosphere. We know that in the present, years after Hailsham, she works as a carer but we don’t really know what that entails.
Although Kathy doesn’t mythologising Hailsham, or her time there, her narration possesses a nostalgic quality. Ishiguro captures the intense, and ever-shifting, friendships we form as children. Kathy feels a certain pull to the brazen Ruth. Their fraught relationship frequently takes the centre-stage in the novel. There are misunderstandings, petty behaviours, jealousies, and all sorts of little cruelties. Ruth’s is an awful friend, yet I could see how important her presence was in Kathy’s life. By comparison Tommy seems a far simpler person, and I could definitely sympathise with his various struggles at Hailsham.
Ishiguro excels when he writes about ‘memory’. At times Kathy questions the accuracy of her memories, wondering whether what she has just relayed actually happened or not. There is regret too over her past actions or words she’d left unspoken. She also tries to see a scene through someone else’s eyes, hoping perhaps to gain some insight into others.
The novel poses plenty of complex questions and challenges definitions of ‘humanity’ and ‘freedom’. It definitely provided a lot food for thought.
As provoking as Never Let Me Go was, I can’t say that it moved it me as much as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

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“But our memories were diminishing day by day, for when something disappeared from the island, all memory of it vanished, too.”

The Memory Police reminded me of a book I recently read, called Amatka. Given that the former was first published in 1994 and the latter is a fairly recent release I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Karin Tidbeck had read Yōko Ogawa’s novel. Similarities to Amatka aside, I still felt an odd sense of familiarity while I was being first introduced to the weird world of The Memory Police. Perhaps this recognition is due to having read another book by Ogawa called The Housekeeper and the Professor. On the surface these two books do not share much in common given that The Memory Police has been classified as a work of speculative-fiction while The Housekeeper and the Professor could be easily described as a heartwarming slice of life. And yet—in no small part thanks to Stephen Snyder, the translator—these works were obviously written by the same person. They both focus on ordinary moments—such a meal times, stroll around the neighbourhood, the sensation of a particular object in one’s hands—paying specific attention to the seemingly mundane feelings and thoughts that can cross our minds during our every-day lives. And of course, both books provide in-depth examinations of the role and significance of ‘memory’ . The two narratives approach this exploration of this faculty in very differentiating manner and with widely different results.

Ogawa, similarly to Kafka and Beckett before her, doesn’t really provide a reason for the way the world in The Memory Police is the way it is. Readers, alongside the narrator, are to accept that the inhabitants of this mysterious island ‘forget’ things and beings. Once they collectively forget something, that something looses its significance and, as they no longer have a memory of it, the people can no longer recall what it is, or whether it had a particular significance to them. They cannot name it or struggle to reconcile themselves with it. They are unable to prevent this process, their passive acceptance of their circumstance is weighed by a sense of inevitability. The protagonist of this novel is also unable, and unwilling, to counteract this processes of forgetting as to question the ‘system’ would undoubtedly attract the scrutiny of the memory police, individuals tasked with ensuring that the islanders obey the rules.

Unlike many other dystopias out there, the narrative is not concerned with creating a tale of change, rebellion or of a future hope. Rather, the story is very much an analysis of how difficult it is to understand or trace the repercussions of forgetting something as vital as a photo. As the narrative progresses our protagonist, alongside the majority of the islanders, forgets most of the things and beings that had until then had a meaning and role in their lives. The protagonist’s relationship with everything and everyone is frail as there is always the threat that she might forget someone or something dear to her next.
The story left me with the impression that the more these characters forgot and the less humane they seem to become.

The narrative of this book is deceptively sedate. The majority of the characters are conditioned to this frankly frightful scenario, and because of this we often see them as they speak of everyday-things or just trying to get by.
The storyline posses this unhurried and indefinite quality that suits the increasingly grey and meaningless world the novel’s protagonist lives in.

In a certain way it is the very fact that the book focuses on a steadily aimless world that limited the range of its tone and subject matter. Although it’s understandable that the protagonist is so resigned to forgetting this also created distance between the reader and her character.
Other characters are often addressed by nicknames—such as ‘old man’ and ‘R’—furthering this feeling of distance between us and the story. While this is intentional, and it does convey the slow corrosion of individuality and personality occurring with each new disappearance, it also forces readers into a role of impassive observants, watching silently as the characters are stripped of their human qualities.
Nevertheless, I do think that this book deserves plenty of praise and I’m looking forward to read more by Ogawa.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Amatka : Book Review

Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded down)Untitled drawing (10)

I was hoping for something original, for something unapologetically bizarre, something à la Yorgos Lanthimos…sadly Amatka delivers its predictable peculiarities in such a flat and listless way that I find little to praise about this novel.

Amatka features a Soviet-inspired world that is far from the ideal utopia. Children are raised away from their parents (emotional bonds are considered to be stunting) and each individual has a ‘function’ in the community (in Amatka most people work in a mushroom factory). A society free of spontaneity and individuality, where citizens are constantly under scrutiny and monitor one another (ringing any bells?), where they become alienated from their work *ahem*Marx*ahem*, where there are strict rules and a Kafkaesque vision of bureaucracy..and where, surprisingly enough, things are not quite as functional as they seem.

Vanya is sent to Amatka in order to collect information on the hygiene habits of its citizens. She is a housed with three other people, which to her seems weird given the amount of space in their building. Apparently a large number of citizens has disappeared from Amatka and many have fallen ill due the harsh work conditions, their depressing environment (the quality of light is poor, the weather is cold), and poor diets (mushrooms in every single dish).
An aspect which I initially found interesting was that in the new objects can maintain their form only through the repeated utterance of the object’s name (most of the objects have labels…I guess in case people forget what a certain thing is called). However, I found the ‘gloop’ aspect…underwhelming. It matched my general feelings for this novel: ‘gloopy’.

The story’s characters have been bred and raised in a rigid and stark world and readily believe that they merely function as cogs in a machine, that they have to work together (meaning: do not ask questions) to make things run smoothly. Suspicious behaviour of any sort will be reported…so, yes, they are all somewhat apathetic given the circumstances they are in.
However, you would think that once Vanya begins to question the system that has raised her her character would reveal some more depth, some sort of conflict, some emotion, some…anything! But no. She just does things automatically, we never hear her inner thoughts and we are just meant to buy that she is ready to go against the grain. Sure.
Even in her subversion, in her great ‘rebellion’, she manages to be pathetic. She has no backbone, no wit or will, she is pretty ‘gloopy’ (which might not make sense but I think the word suits her barely-there-personality). The blurb makes it sound like she falls in love but I didn’t see any such thing. She notices the heat radiating from Nina’s back and that’s…love? Apparently, yes.
The other characters were as interesting as Vanya (meaning, not one bit). The were merely a backdrop to Vanya’s ‘investigation’ (a term that does not really describe what Vanya gets up to).
Some parts of the city were well-rendered (they are described in vivid details) but for the most part Amatka never comes together. Especially once Vanya starts ‘exploring’ it.

The story isn’t concerned with the events that led to this grey reality which allowed for more time on Vanya’s own circumstances…which were incredibly boring. The story occasionally broaches some interesting topics but its execution is far too formulaic (one can easily predict within the first few chapters what will happen next). It presented us with a bleak view of humanity where an excessive need for ‘order’ and ‘control’ should bring about the absurd, the fantastical, but sadly, all of this was buried beneath layers of blandness.
I think some dark/black/any humour would have given this novel a better edge (I love Richard Ayoade’s film adaption of The Double, the one with Jesse Eisenberg, which share a few similarities with Amatka). Perhaps this story would have worked better on film…but on paper it fails to do anything new, and what it does is less than competent.
The prose just describes Vanya’s actions and if she is sweating or not. Tidbeck’s style is simple, which I guess you could say that it is done purposefully—as to match Vanya’s world—but it didn’t keep engaged. A shopping list would have more vitality, an IKEA manual would show more flair.

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THE FEVER KING: BOOK REVIEW

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The Fever King by Victoria Lee

★★✰✰ 2.5

Although I’m no longer an avid reader of YA books The Fever King sounded really good so I had rather high hopes for this one.
At first The Fever King reminded me of some of some of my favourite YA. It has a not-so-far-in-the-future setting similar to the one in Proxy and Control and to start with the magic and witchings reminded me of Half Bad and Burn Mark. Sadly, The Fever King is a rather formulaic dystopia. The characters, the ideas, the plot, everything was so predictable and needlessly frustrating.
➜The writing was okay for the most part but there were a lot of purply phrases which stood out (for the wrong reasons).
WHAT in the world is going on with Noam’s stomach
:
-“Tar oozed through Noam’s stomach
-“a warm beat of familiarity took root in the pit of Noam’s stomach
-“twinge in his stomach that felt suspiciously like embarrassment
-“Noam’s stomach twisted a little tighter
-“the pit of Noam’s stomach shriveled
-“his stomach was full of hot tar
-“his stomach was a mess of buzzing insects
-“an uneasy wave pitched in Noam’s stomach
-“[his] stomach swollen with something rotten
-“he felt like he’d swallowed grease, oil sloshing around in the pit of his stomach
Noam’s stomach is mentioned more than 30 times! Also what is this—“Noam’s blood felt sharp“—supposed to mean?!
The plot is the usual YA: protagonist looses parents, gains some powers, becomes part of an organisation, things are not as they seem, etc etc. The story felt rushed which didn’t help the characters or their setting.
➜Noam Álvaro becomes adjusted way too quickly to his new life as a witching under Level IV.
➜Level IV…what is going on here? The way this division operates is far too woolly for my liking.
➜The conflict between Atlantia and Carolinia wasn’t very clear cut. The world building was just poorly executed. The world seemed reduced to two opposing forces (or better yet, two opposing people) and we never get a clear impression of Noam’s world. The story is set in the future but it could have easily be se in an ‘alternative present’.
➜While this book tackled a lot of relevant and or difficult topics (there are the Atlantian refugees, the treatment witchlings face, genocide, abuse, and the list goes on) it does it in a somewhat superficial way.
80% of the story consists in Noam and or other characters saying variations of: “you have no idea what you are talking about”, “you don’t know nothing about nothing”, “you don’t know what I’ve been through”, “you are so privileged”. It sort of got old. Fast.
➜Initially, I liked the way in which magic works. Witchlings need to learn physics, maths, and so forth in order to be able to use their powers. Then as the story progresses magic no longer has such a pivotal role.
➜The story tried to be dark and gritty but was mostly cheesy. Just because your characters wear very tight trousers and go partying that doesn’t make them “edgy”.
➜The love ‘subplot’ was also too rushed and difficult to believe.

Overall, I felt that this book tried hard to be a more dark YA that tackles current social issues in a sort of futuristic alternative world. The narrative attempts a certain ‘damaged+rebellious youth’ aesthetic which didn’t really work for me but might as well work for younger readers. In some ways the story and its characters would have been better suited if they had been in a comic or a manga rather than a novel.

 

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The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter by Sam J. Miller

“When I failed to weigh in on whatever theory or fact or opinion was passing around the room, he touched my arm and said, “What do you think, Otto?” Was that because he was a kind and generous person? Or did he know the game I was playing—the game of hunger, of lust, of trying to be good—and could play it just as well as me?” “Marriage is a very solemn engagement, enough to make a young creature’s heart ache, with the best prospects, when she think seriously of it! – to be given up to a strange people; to be engrafted into a strange family; to give up her very name as a mark of her becoming his absolute and dependent property; to be obliged to prefer this strange man to father, mother – to everybody.”

I thought that this was a very compelling short story. With only a restricted amount of words Miller is able to render a vivid – and disconcertingly familiar – world in which polymer (programmable matter) has become all the rage.
Our narrator, Otto, and his boyfriend are hosting a dinner during which guests discuss the dangers and advantages of polymer. Otto is however distracted by the arrival of Aarav, and by the pull he has over him. Otto’s narrative is deeply nostalgic and is also able to convey an intense feeling of unease. There are the concerns raised over polymers – and its effects on our society –but also Otto’s worrying over his relationship with his boyfriend. The guilt and loathing Otto has for himself furthers this feeling of unease. The story then jumps forward in time and we find Otto’s world drastically changed by polymers.
Miller’s style fluently depicts Otto’s state of mind, and his writing is very effective in reflecting the themes of his story.

My rating: 3.75 stars

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