The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)

Dave Eggers’ The Circle is a near-future dystopia where one super-tech company (think Google + Facebook + Amazon) is attempting to integrate the entire human experience into an online sphere, where everything you do, buy, wear, and think is shared in a continuous stream with the entire world; with the ultimate goal to erase anonymity and make privacy obsolete.

The story’s main character, Mae, is a young woman, newly recruited to work at a tech company called The Circle, a dream-job for her. Mae is dazzled by the extravagant campus — gyms, pools, restaurants, a hospital, shopping, theaters, and more — and cutting edge tech at the company. While Mae expected to be part of a highly competitive and extremely hard-working group, it quickly becomes clear that working for The Circle is not a career but a lifestyle. Mae must not only meet her work deadlines and commitments, but become part of the social structure of the company: dedicating nights, weekends, and countless hours online during her days and nights connecting — endlessly — with her co-workers.

Also startling, is the lack of privacy she must adapt to: her medical records accessed and used to monitor her health; her entire online past uploaded and shared with the entire company; video monitoring her all day and night; and the constant reminders from her superiors that she is being watched and judged. All of this, she reasons, is the price one pays to work for the largest company in the world and to be at the fore-front of the tech revolution.

The Circle beings to announce more and more radical products and services — including hidden cameras stashed that can be bought and placed (undetected) anywhere in the world to send a constant video feed to the Internet — in becomes clear that the company plans to force the world to adapt to The Circle’s ideas of democracy, privacy, and accountability…without asking government for permission.

Two characters emerge as foils to devotion the employees of The Circle’s maintain: Mae’s high school boyfriend who is a critic of the direction The Circle is taking the world, and a mysterious co-worker, Kalden who Mae starts an illicit affair with and who shows her a different, darker side of The Circle. But Mae is in too deep, she agrees to “go transparent” and wear a camera and recording device 24/7 to ensure her complete honesty and makes her lack of privacy utterly complete.

Eggers has created a richly imagined and greatly detailed world and presents it to readers in such a straight-forward manner that it seems like an entirely plausible near-future. However, the book has some drawbacks that distract from the story; many of which seem to stem from a stereotypes about women that the author — perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not — renforces in this book. Among these flaws are the unevenness of his main character Mae, who Eggers tries to portray as a a woman smart enough to quickly become a star employee and charming enough to be quite popular, but is also naive, selfish, incompetent, and back-stabbing. It is unclear whether these are character flaws that stem from her personality, or from the fact that she is a woman. Furthermore, Eggers does what so many male writers do with their female characters by oversexualizing Mae’s character in ways that are out of step with women in general, and this character specifically.

Also of note is the fact that the author feels the need to repeatedly, and at length, lecture readers about the finer details of the plot. Instead of relying on his readers to deduce what dastardly things the company is getting up to, or allowing us to use plot clues to make sense of the dangers of a world without privacy might present, he uses character monologues — almost everytime it is male characters who are “mansplaining” to Mae what is going on at the company or in the world — once again suggesting that his female character is unable to comprehend on her own complex ideas and therefore must be to force fed them by her male counterparts.

This combination of gender-stereotype flaws are wearisome by the middle of the book, and seem practically condescending by the end of it, overshadowing some of the books more interesting ideas.

Echoes In Death JD Robb (2017)

For an introduction to the In Death series, see this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/in-death/

For a review of the In Death book that proceeded Echoes in Death in the series, view this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/apprentice-in-death-by-jd-robb-2016/

echoes in death cover

Echoes in Death, the 44th book in JD Robb’s prolific futuristic, science-fiction murder mystery series, opens with Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband, Roarke, discovering a naked and battered woman wandering the frozen New York City streets. After racing her to the hospital they learn that she is the young wife of a prominent surgeon. Once the hospital staff confirm her identity and concur that the young woman has been the victim of a brutal physical and sexual attack; Dallas and her partner, Peabody, arrive at her home to find her husband has been murdered, presumably by the same attacker as his wife.

On the surface the attacks appear to be a rape/murder perpetrated in the course of a home invasion. All evidence points to that conclusion: the home of a wealthy couple invaded, the couple attacked, and the attacker had left only after stealing artwork, cash, and jewelry. As the wife begins to regain her memories of the evening, and Dallas and Peabody interview friends of the couple, information that suggests that the husband abused his wife (and possibly a previous wife) comes to light and the cops have to work out whether she killed in self-defense or if someone else was involved in an elaborate escape plan.

Two fellow NYPD detectives approach Dallas and Peabody with evidence that links two of their cold cases with her murder investigation and all four detectives agree that the three cases are similar enough that the attacker most likely is a serial rapist who has escalated into murder.

Tracing the intricate relationships between the three cases, the team begin to uncover a pattern: the murderer is targeting prominent, wealthy couples in which the wife is extraordinarily beautiful. Dr. Mira, the department psychiatrist and recurrent character in the series, creates a chilling profile that suggests the killer is attacking “surrogates” who reminds him of someone he has long known and long wanted to harm.

Although this series can be formulaic and repetitive, this book felt reinvigorated and the plot and details kept it feeling fresh and fast paced. A dark series, too dark for those sensitive to graphic murder mysteries, but one that has fought to remain vital after forty+ books.

Thankless in Death by JD Robb (2013)

I was startled to learn that I had missed a book in JD Robb’s In Death series, a series which I have been reading for years. Even though the series is loosing a bit of its appeal after more than 40 books, for loyalty sake, I checked out the missed book, Thankless in Death, and read it yesterday.

An introduction to the series, and a commentary on the series and its author, was written by me and published on this site in 2015.

Devoted in Death is the forty-first book in the Eve Dallas “…in Death” series by prolific writer JD Robb (nom de plume for Nora Roberts, who has written hundreds of additional books under her real name). I have read all of the books in the series, many of them more than once, and always find they are well worth the read. The books are science-fiction murder mysteries set in the 2060’s, following the life and work of NYPD detective Eve Dallas. Despite the futuristic settings and high-tech gadgetry, the books are largely told in the traditional police-procedural style. The stories portray, in graphic detail, the murders committed (often in very dramatic ways) and the minutiae of police work required to solve them.

A moment of commentary here seems in order. I know that serialized books in general are dismissed as overly simplistic and often formulaic. Some readers would say that murder-mystery serials sensationalize crime and gore and sentimentalize the work of the police. Novels such as the In Death series may not be “literature,” but the author never sets out to write a Pulitzer, she sets out to entertain readers. I suggest that there can easily be room in any reader’s book list for novels such as these. It can be tiresome and confining to only read books at the high-end of the literature spectrum. While there is much value in books that demand a lot of their readers, there is also value in books that ask just a little. Books such as the In Death series demand only two things: that we come willing to be entertained (even if we have to suspend disbelief at times) and that, especially when we read serials, we are looking to form deeper connections to story’s main characters.

We meet Eve Dallas in In Death Book One as she is both becoming a NYPD detective and forming relationships with a slew of characters who will appear in most of the following books including: her billionaire lover-turned-husband, her hippy police partner, a savvy news reporter, an orphan turned rock-star, the police department shrink, and many more. My continued love of the series is largely tied up in these relationships, more so than the detective stories (although those are compelling as well). An abused former foster child, Dallas must open her life to welcome in more and more friends and loved ones, something that does not come easy. She must also deal with her unexpected celebrity resulting from both her sensational police work and her marriage. These caring relationships, and the steamy love life she shares with her husband, Roarke, are a nice counterpoint to the otherwise dark material of the books. (Another comment: the fact that her books include romance — and not just sex — is often cited as evidence of their inferiority to similar books written by men.) — Originally posted October 18, 2015

Thankless in Death finds Eve Dallas and her partner Peabody working to solve a double homicide in the days before Thanksgiving 2060. A husband and wife were murdered in what appeared, initially, a home invasion. Discrepancies on the scene do not sit right with Dallas, and she soon suspects that the couple’s adult son is their murderer. Once it becomes clear that her hunch is correct, Dallas and Peabody begin begin to work the case assuming that the son has gone into hiding. They are both shocked and angered when they learn that this was not a one-time crime of passion and the man has not run, but rather he has decided to use his new found “skills” to hunt down and kill everyone against who he has a grudge. Knowing that they are now dealing with a unstable serial killer, Dallas and Peabody are racing the clock to catch him while the try to puzzle out whom he plans to target and in what order.

Thankless in Death also finds Dallas and her husband preparing to host a large family Thanksgiving in their New York home — an event that makes our main character feel panicked and claustrophobic.  After spending most of her adult life dedicating herself to her police work, she still finds it a shock that she has a family that she has married into, and a family of friends and loved ones she has grown. While she feels fiercely protective of her extended family, she still finds it a tremendous challenge to have to welcome them — and their opinions, their drama, their chaos — into her life.  Despite her inclination to cut herself off from others, something she can easily justify since her work as a police detective is all-consuming, it is her husbands insistence that she make time for family and holiday celebrations that, in the end, fill Eve’s heart of love and gratitude.

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth (2017)

Carve the Mark is the newest science fiction YA novel (and first book in a new trilogy, I suspect) for Veronica Roth, the author of the wildly popular Divergent series. In this new book, Roth has taken a huge leap to outer-space, where she has created an elaborate a series of worlds, each with its own language, culture, religion, climate and political system. These far flung and diverse worlds maintain a fragile co-existence thanks to The Assembly, the universal law makers who travel around in a planet-sized ship policing and legislating. To aide the Assembly, each planet has three Oracles who predict the future and whose powers are harnessed to plan for disaster and avoid emerging conflicts.

The power-hungry Assembly has grown impatient with the current system in which they must rely on the vague and secretive visions of the Oracles. They begin to legislate the ways the Oracles divine the future and control how the predictions are “broadcast” to the universe. In short, they want the power to hear the predictions first and to be able to “interpret” them in ways that favor The Assembly’s power.

Adding another complex dimension to the story; each resident of the universe has a magical power, called their “currentgift,” which manifests itself at puberty. These gifts can vary from special culinary talents to the ability to kill with just a touch. What a person’s currentgift is can determine their place among their people: a poor child with an extraordinary gift may find he is elevated to the ruling caste; the child of an important family may be devalued if her gift fails to be useful.

The story’s action centers largely on the planet Thuvhe which is home to two peoples: the Thuvhet of the frozen northern latitudes and the Shotet of the southern hemisphere. Despite efforts by The Assembly, these two nations remain at war, each one convinced they are the rightful rulers of the planet. The Shotet are led by a cruel and violent ruling family, The Noavek’s, who have convinced themselves and their people that the Oracles have lied about their lack of legitimacy as rulers and set out to change the future by capturing the youngest sons of Thuvhe’s Oracle to see if they can force an alternative future from their minds.

As the book unfolds, two primary characters emerge from the — very, very large — cast. Cyra, the daughter of the Shotet ruling family, whose currentgift is the ability to cause immense pain or death to anyone she touches. Her violent, unstable brother, Ryz, leads their people in a bloody campaign to defeat their northern neighbors, the Thutve. His only use for Cyra is to torture and kill his enemies and he is blind to her growing unease with his tactics and the war he is waging.

Akos is a young man who, along with his older brother, was kidnapped from his Thuvhe family and raised as a captive of the Shotet. Tortured for years, the brothers are held as hostages because Ryz is convinced that one of them is fated to be the next Oracle of the planet. If that is true, Ryz hopes his years of abuse and brain-washing will allow him to control the future.

Roth seems to be drawing inspiration from Star Wars, X-men, Game of Thrones, and maybe a dash of Harry Potter. The combination is an ambitious, far-reaching, and deeply imaginative novel that transports readers into another universe, literally. The major drawbacks seem to be that the book is very humorless and relentlessly dismal, making it feel tiring at times to continue reading. Additionally, the book seems a but more complicated than necessary, but perhaps those details that seem superfluous now will illuminate the later books in the series. Overall an interesting, if complex, book.