The Gone Away World ★★★★

[Reread a year and a half later, and I actually like this book MORE than the first time. My major complaints then were that the surprise ending was too much of a surprise. But rereading it now, and knowing that surprise already, moved my focus from “Tell me what happened” to “tell me how and why and when and where ALL of it happened.” Which this book does, and does amazingly well. Already knowing the big twist made me focus on the actual storytelling. And what storytelling it is, beautiful and witty and enthralling. Yay.]

This is one of those reviews that is impossible to start. The book was intense, and well written, and wonderfully creative. But what could I possibly say that wouldn’t give everything away? This books almost *needs* to be experienced going into it blind.

It is written entirely in first person narrative, and the style is intensely personal. Instead of feeling like you’re just following the main character around seeing what he sees and hearing what he says, you know you are there, inside his head. Its one part stream of consciousness, and one part past-tense vivid reminiscence. The author writes ridiculously long run-on sentences, but in the sort of way where you don’t notice until you’re halfway down a paragraph and realize you’re just now finishing the thought that he started six lines ago. It grabs you, and holds your attention for several sentence worths of words. The book is also full of witty one-liners that make you giggle, or make you sad, or just make you apreciate words and all the varieties of things they can mean. And you want to share them as quotes, but you realize the moment you take them away from their surrounding context, they actually don’t mean the same thing anymore. They’re whole philosophies built into one sentence, but in fact they need the 500-some pages of background support to actually mean what you read.

The main character and Gonzo have been best friends since childhood. They are the perfect foils to eachother; One a man of action, the other a man of thought. Gonzo has a crazy idea, and he has to come up with the plan that wont get them both in trouble. They both study martial arts in childhood, from a silly wise old man who is most definitely not a secret ninja, definitely not. They go to the same college, and eventually somehow both end up in the special operations military, fighting a nonsense-war in a distant country. And then someone creates the Go-Away bomb and nothing in the world is the same anymore.

If this book has a flaw, it is that the climax has one of those mind-blowing revelations that’s supposed to be the BIG SURPRISE TWIST. And trust me, it IS a surprise twist, you don’t really see it coming. But as with most twists like that, the reader feels a bit cheated and used. 350 pages in, and you’ve been lying to me the whole time?! But I thought we were friends! And the other flaw with big twists, is that they never make one hundred percent logical sense. There are definitely plot holes where you go “wait, what about _____.” And I have to admit, one of the “great secrets” that you finally learn about is a little TOO overdramatic and silly. The only thing I could think of when I read it was that infamous moment: “Soylent Green is PEOPLE!”

The first three quarters of the book weren’t precisely slow, but they were excruciatingly detailed and very much thought out. The last quarter of the book is fast and dramatic in a jumping-out-of-a-plane sort of way, but where the parachute never opens, you just end up on the ground looking up at the sky and wishing you’d gotten that slow moment to actually look at what you were approaching and see the whole thing from a point of view where it actually all fits together.

And really, I think that’s all I can say about it. I refuse to actually give any details because I think it only makes sense when you read it, and maybe not even then. But its definitely not the sort of book you can describe to someone. If anyone out there has read it and wants to discuss it, I’d love to do that. Maybe you have some insights that fit the pieces of it together than the way in which I put them together, because I’m still seeing plot holes? Or maybe that’s the point, and its not supposed to make perfect sense….

Comparative Connie Willis

So I have a very mixed reaction to Connie Willis. I was first introduced to her writings about a year ago with “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” I was amazed. It quickly became, and still is, one of my favorite books. I’ve reread it twice since then. Its a light-hearted story set about 50 years in an alternate future where time travel has been invented, but its pretty much useless to everyone because you can’t take anything from the past, you can take anything to the past, and its physically impossible to change the order of events. So the only people who use time travel are historians, who go back in time to study and record events in detail. Enter Ned and Verity, two scholars from Oxford, who find themselves together in the Victorian age. Ned is hiding from a rich patron of the history department who needs him to find an artifact from the past, and she wont take no for an answer. Verity is worried that she has somehow accidentally changed the future by saving the life of a cat. And so they’re thrown into a hilarious series of events that witness the first jumble sale, the ridiculousness rules of victorian love stories, and the ugliest statue ever to have been created. Willis also pays homage to a classic of the time, “Three Men in a Boat,” and her story is full of references to other literatures of the times, Alice in Wonderland, and the mystery novels that were just becoming popular and would eventually pave the way for Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. (Infact, it was this book that first got me reading the Lord Peter Wimsey series, for which I am eternally greatful.)

That December, Blackout and All Clear had just been released and I was ecstatic. It was that great feeling you get when you are introduced to an author, and you love them, and it turns out they’ve written tons of books you get to go catch up on, and they’re even writing more books, and you know you wont run out of things to read for a long time. So it was with happy anticipation that the day after Christmas I curled up under a blanket and opened Blackout….

One hundred pages later I was into the story, but not enthralled. Two hundred pages later, I was bored. Three hundred pages later, I was bored and annoyed. Eventually I made it to the end of Blackout, but I was not impressed. Why had this gloroius author failed me so badly? How could she do this, to me, personally?! Where were the silly time-travel hijinks? Where were the witty observations? The unlikely heros, the mystery to solve, the comedy of errors, all were missing! Sure, I expected more dramatic and serious book, it was set during World War I, there’s only so much comedy you can create. But I still expected a coherent and interesting plot. I’d read 512 pages, and the only thing that’d happened was to get three historians lost in London during the blitz. They coudln’t find the way out, and they couldn’t find eachother, and they spent every one of those pages saying “its ok, Mr. Dunworthy will find me eventually, all I have to do is this…” The reader has spent those 512 pages knowing that they’re all within a couple miles of eacother, and they’ve all almost run into eachother three or four times, but they’ve just narrowly missed eachother. A tragedy of errors you could call it. In a lighter book, it’d be amusing, but in this situation it just feels sad, and slow, and, well, annoying. And it sure doesn’t advance the plot at all.

I almost didn’t pick up All Clear, but in the end I decided to give Willis another chance. I rationalized it by saying she intended the story to follow the pace of the war. Long periods of boredom interspersed with terror and drama. Slow to start, full of hope in the beginning, eventually giving way to exaustion and despair. Well… Yes, that’s about how my emotions went during the readings of All Clear. Not because I felt worry for the characters, or was invested in the story. But just because I eventually resigned myself to the fact that nothing I wanted to happen was ever going to happen. I wont even mention the ending. I like to pretend that the final two chapters didn’t actually happen.

Now, nearly a year later, I finally picked up her previous novel “Doomsday Book.” I had sort of decided that “To Say Nothing of the Dog” was mostly a fluke, and I didn’t actually like Connie Willis at all. Yes, Doomsday Book had won all sorts of awards, and everyone loved it. But then again, Blackout and All Clear won all sorts of awards too… But I was bored, and it had been sitting on my shelf for awhile now, and I thought, why not, just one more try. And lo and behold I enjoyed it! Not with the same love I still feel for Dog, but it was a good book. I could see why people liked it. And then I realized, wait, it has the exact same plot as Blackout and All Clear… Lonely historian accidentally trapped during the beginning of the Black Plague in Englang. In danger, but unable to return. Circumstances in Oxford keeping them from rescuing her. Connie Willis just did the lazy author thing, she just rewrote Doomsday Book, made it three times as long (but didn’t actually add anything to the plot) and set it during a revered and honored time in history hoping to get more awards for it.

And it worked. Getting the awards for Blackout and All Clear, I mean. I still don’t believe the novels deserved them. I think she needed an editor to stand up to her, hand her a whole package of red pens, and tell her to get to work cutting out about 500 pages, and make it into one novel. Then, I might have enjoyed it.

I think Connie Willis sees that more books get awards for being heart-felt dramas than get for being light-hearted comedies. But her skills really truly lie in the happy endings, and she needs to realize that that doesn’t make a book less important. Her voice with Dog was amazing, and perfect. Her characters well-rounded, and likable, and believable. Definitely not the case with Blackout/All Clear, and even a little shakey on Doomsday. Its a lesson I wish all authors would learn.

More pages does not equal a better book! Dramas and tragedies are not automatically more important than happy endings and comedies. Silliness does not decrease the long-term value of a story!

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing ★★★★

I am a fan of Jasper Fforde. And when I say I’m a fan, I mean I started reading his books in middle school. The Eyre Affair was the book I recommended to everyone. My family bought each new installment of the TN series the moment it came out. In highschool, we flew to England to be there for the very first Fforde Ffestival. We bought a whole new set of the TN series just to have the british covers, and so that Fforde could sign them. And when he came to our random unimportant city to do a book reading and signing, we saw him there too. And waved creepily from the back of the room when he asked if anyone had made it to the Ffestival. We are Jasper Fforde fans.

And yet, this book didn’t quite do it for me like his others. It was great, don’t get me wrong. Its still better than even the good sci-fi/fantasy I normally read. But I didn’t feel nearly the same connection to the characters that I’d become accustomed to. And while it was infinitely creative in the same way that Shades of Grey was, I felt it was a bit lacking in the intensity of its plot.

The “real” Thursday Next has gone missing, and the written Thursday has been thrown into the intrigues of the book world while trying to find her. In the process of which she gains a clock-work butler, meets the imaginary daughter of the real Thursday, promotes the Toast Marketing Board, and goes through the usual shenanigans with the cross genre taxis. And really, that’s all I can say about the plot. Not because I don’t want to give anything away (though I don’t!), but also because the plot wasn’t very involved or complicated by Fforde standards.

Mostly I felt that this novel was a chance for Fforde to show off his world-building skills. Which is great, I love the new wacky book world! It has his unique touch of slightly insane, completely illogical, but still possible to visually imagine and believe in!

This book was also chock full of the meta-references we’ve all come to love. I mean, who else could pull of writing a book, that’s set inside a book that we’ve already read, which is set inside other books that we’ve read! … And have it all actually sort of make sense! Sometimes though, it got to be a little much. I felt like he often broke narrative just for little reminders of Hey, you’re reading about the book world! Or Look how clever I am to think of this idea! Yes, yes, Jasper Fforde you are insanely clever. I admire you greatly! But don’t you think you could tell me a little more about this written Thursday Next? She’s not *our* Thursday, we know that, you’ve told us that, but you haven’t shown us that yet, not really. We can’t love her yet, because we just don’t know her!

I will give Jasper Fforde props for the ending. Since about page 10, when I realized that the title “One of our Thursdays is Missing” didn’t specify WHICH Thursday was missing, there were two things I desperately didn’t want to happen. I didn’t want it to turn out that the real Thursday was dead, and have the written Thursday become real and step right into our old Thursday’s shoes. I’m not sure I could have kept reading the series if that had happened. And secondly, I didn’t want it to turn out that the real Thursday had been mind-boggled into believing she was the written Thursday just to keep her safe from some other intrigue that was going on. And, Jasper Fforde, being the genius that he is, realized the readers might guess these things were possible! So what does he do? We take a little trip into psychological thriller, where characters try to convince our written Thursday that this is what’s happened. But of course, he never intended to cheat us in that way, and the real Thursday is found alive and well.

The Lathe Of Heaven ★★★

Before proceeding with this review, I have to admit something: I’ve never been a fan of Urusula K LeGuin. I know, I know, she’s written so many books, and won so many awards for them. She is considered one of the great feminist sci-fi writers, a collective which I should whole-heartedly support. I think its a prejudice that started in middle school when I read, and was disappointed with, A Wizard of Earthsea (which I haven’t read since then, and which I should probably go back and read again before I start disparaging it).

That said, the concept of this story, and the way in which le Guin approaches it, is fairly wonderful. Orr is a man living in a post, pre, and concurrant apocolyptic world, and he was born with a strange gift. Sometimes when he dreams, his dreams come true. His dreams actually alter the past, not the present or the future, so that when he awakes things around him have changed, but no one else notices because “they’ve always been that way.” Orr is not a man who likes to have that kind of power, he just wants it to go away. After turning to drugs to keep himself from dreaming, Orr is sentenced to Voluntary Theraputic Treatment and is introduced to a psychiatrist who specializes in dreaming. This doctor hypnotizes Orr in an attempt to get him to stop being afraid of his dreams, and by a function of being near Orr is taken along with him into the next “reality” and remembers the changes. The doctor sees this as an opportunity to make their world a better place to live, the only problem is, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Over the next few months, the doctor takes it upon himself to “fix” all the unhappiness in the world. The doctor orders Orr to dream of world peace, no more war in the middle east, and when Orr awakes planet Earth is united together… in a war against the aliens. As each session with the doctor creates a world that is less and less familiar, Orr begins to believe that the doctor is fundamentally damaging reality, but he has to overcome his own passive nature and take one vital step towards action to save the world from the excesses of the doctor.

I think my dislike of The Lathe of Heaven stems from the wordy pseudo-philosophical style in which it is written. “It was not standing there, Orr thought: not in the same way that he would stand, or sit, or lie, or be. It was standing there in the way that he, in a dream, might be standing. It was there in the sense that in a dream one is somewhere.” Now, normally I’m a big fan of prosetry (writing that is half prose half poetry), but I believe that it has to serve a purpose. There has to be a point the author is trying to make. In this instance, it is strangely out of character for Orr to be thinking in such philosophical circles. Orr is described as being flat, completely mentally balanced, and passive to the extreme. The other characters do not think of him as stupid, but as being simple, direct, and usually saying exactly what he thinks. So this particular quote, and others like it, just feel like the author’s self-indulgence and love of her own writing style (and I know it when I see it, I’m often guilty of this flaw myself.) Just because a sentence is purely beautiful, well written and meaningful doesn’t mean it belongs in the story. And when a novella is barely 150 pages, every word has to count, every sentence has to contribute to the story as a whole, and not just be a way for the author to expound her own brilliance.

Le Guin also has the tendency to get a little bit “preachy” in The Lathe of Heaven. This is her chance to tell you some of what she thinks is wrong with the world, and how *not* to fix the problems. It tells you what le Guin herself is afraid of seeing in our society, and some of the societies Orr dreams up are pretty scary. This novel asks the reader to choose between race and gender issues versus uniformity, freedom versus control, what makes the perfect world?

When the ending comes, it is with a jumble of psychadelic abstract images. The reader is left knowing that le Guin believes there is no “lathe of heaven,” there is no tool that can create the perfect reality, utopia cannot be found by shaving away the things we don’t like. We are just pieces of the puzzle, we can’t see the whole image, we can just attempt to find where we fit as individuals. (And I forgive her; sometimes, as authors, we can’t help but throw in some prosetry, because we think it sounds pretty.)