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.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (2016)

“For anyone who has wondered what their life might be like at the end of the road not taken” — The dedication, Dark Matter

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What if you knew in advance that in making one single decision you could alter the course of your life forever, in ways you could not predict and were potentially irrevocable? Would you take greater care in making your choice, follow your instincts, or would you make one choice but spend the rest of your life obsessing over the path not taken? That questions burns at the heart of Dark Matter, a whip-smart science fiction thriller with surprising emotional depth and a rich, well-developed plot.

Jason Dessen, our main character, begins the novel as an average man, on a average night. A physicist of great promise turned mid-level professor of no real acclaim, Jason is struggling with envy over the news that his former roommate (and to Jason’s mind, a lesser scientist) has won a prestigious international prize. The news has rattled Jason, who is happy with his wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie; living an ordinary life in Chicago. But he cannot help, as he walks to a bar to a party to celebrate this colleague, think that he could have been him, that he could have done great things and changed the world…if only he had not chosen to marry Daniela and raise their son.

Beyond all possibility and reason, that exact night Jason is forced to see exactly what the “path not taken” looks like, when he is kidnapped, beaten, and drugged by a masked man who demands intimate details of Jason’s life and — just as he leaves him for dead — asks Jason, “are you happy with your life?”

What follows is a wild sci-fi roller coaster; filled with mind-bending physics experiments, inter-dimensional travel, cutting edge psychotropic drugs, as well as betrayal, lies, and murder. Jason is torn from his life and thrust into another, where he is — and is not — himself. He is presented with alternate versions of who he could have been and what he might have accomplished, if he had walked away from Daniela all those years ago.

While science fiction often tends to be emotionally removed; choosing to sacrifice plot for details of the world the author trying to create, Dark Matter goes in another direction. Crouch delves deep into the emotional landscape of Jason’s life and the wild turn it has taken. Jason’s deep and abiding love for his wife and son are the center of the story, propelling him away from the “alternate” versions of himself and back toward the family he so desperately longs to rejoin. He knows with certainty the path he has taken, not the one he has not, is the perfect choice for him.

 

 

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/

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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.

 

The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee (2016)

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In The Thousandth Floor, Katharine McGee has written a young adult science fiction novel that is sophisticated, edgy, and sexy. Driven by five excellently crafted narrators, with the story’s events unfolding in a spectacular setting, the book is both a fast-paced thriller and an emotionally-raw portrayal of the timeless need humans have to be find someone they trust to love them.

In the year 2118, the world has been dramatically reshaped by (invisible to the reader) environmental events, and the cities of the twenty-first century no longer exist. Constructed over the last century, The Tower was built to house the residents of New York City: a thousand floor building into which all of “Old New York” has been transported. Massive in size, the structure has been constructed to mimic the outside world, which is now too hostile for day-to-day living. Inside the Tower are hologram-generated views, manufactured weather, fake sunlight, genetically modified plants, a building-wide transportation system that mimics public transportation. In order to preserve the comforts and privileges of the rich, the Tower has been segregated by floor. The lower floors, dirty and crowded, are home to the poor; the middle floors are the dreaded suburban section of the Tower; and the upper floors — lush, glamorous, filled with every possible luxury –are reserved for the most wealthy families. For its residents, the Tower is where they spend every moment of their lives, with trips to the outside dangerous and expensive.

McGee’s 2118 is technologically and medically advanced; with hi-tech  methods of communication and travel, as well as a long list of new temptations: enhanced social media outlets, VR gaming, designer drugs, alcohol, and easy to find sex. Perhaps it is the fact that these indulgences are more readily available; perhaps it is the fact that the social stigma surrounding them has dulled; or it might be a result of the quasi-safety of the cloistered life in the Tower, but the teens in the story indulge in a myriad of risky behaviors in a manner that is socially acceptable. The freedom to behave like adults makes their lives seem far more sophisticated than their age would suggest and makes their stories far from childish.

Enter our five teenage narrators — Avery, Leda, Eris, Watt, and Rylin — who are all living  in the Tower. Living on the 1000th floor of the Tower is Avery Fuller, part of one the wealthiest families in world. Avery is a stunningly beautiful girl who was genetically modified by her wealthy parents to be flawless. Adored by all and worshiped for her beauty and money, Avery fears showing anyone her emotional flaws, and as a result she keeps a desperate secret from the world. She wants to find a boy who can see beyond her manufactured perfection and love her for who she really is.

Leda Cole’s family is newly wealthy and she navigates her new life in the glitzy world of the Upper Tower with less ease than her peers. After an illicit affair which she must keep secret, she develops a drug and alcohol addiction to deal with her heartache and insecurities. Hopeful that a romance with a boy she has loved for years will pull her out of her downward spiral, Leda becomes more and more desperate to win his love.

Eris Dodd-Radon is Avery’s rich and beautiful side-kick, whose happiness stems from her father’s endless supply of money and the sexual attention she garners from the most desirable boys and girls in the Tower. When her parents secrets are reveals and their family’s fortunes shift and she finds herself without the armor of money and power, she becomes more vulnerable and insecure than she ever imagined possible.

Watt Bakradi is a super-genius living on the lower floors, who puts his computer skills to use helping his family pay their bills and saving for college. He is in business of stealing — and profiting from — other people’s secrets, and he must walk a fine line between legality and profitability if he has any hope to move up in the world. When he falls in love with an Upper Floor girl, he must decide how many of her secrets he can exploit to win her attention without losing her.

Finally, we meet Rylin Myers, an orphaned teenage girl living at the very bottom of the Tower, supporting her younger sister with a series of terrible jobs and — at times — illegal activities. She wants more than anything to provide her sister a good life but she cannot help frequently unwinding with drugs, sex, and drinking. Her financial desperation leads her to lie and steal, even though it might not only threaten her chances at love, but her sister’s future.

As the story unfolds, the lives of these five characters draw closer and closer together, and the lies they tell one another grow larger and more complex. McGee writes a thrilling page-turner (I finished it in just a few hours!) that is filled with teenage characters who are — despite their futuristic setting and high-tech advancements — achingly real, with a yearning for love and acceptance that is universal.

The Fireman by Joe Hill (2016)

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The world is ending in this book’s beginning. “A manageable crisis was teetering on the edge of an unmanageable disaster.” A bizarre and terrifying plague that erupted first in far away lands has arrived in the US, much to the horror of Americans everywhere. Worse, scientists have no idea how the disease spreads, how to prevent it, or how to keep it from causing the death of anyone who becomes infected. Draco Incendia Trychophyton is a infection that causes first, black scales to erupt all over the body of the patient and within a matter of days, perhaps weeks for some, the person begins to smoulder. “Smolderers smoked on and off, always ready to ignite. Smoke curled from their hair, their nostrils, and their eyes streamed with water.” Then, when the patient grows to frantic with the disease, they erupt into flames, dying and in almost all cases causing fires to rip through the buildings they are in causing wide-spread destruction.

Within a matter of months, the far-flung outbreak has reached every corner of the country. Millions dead, whole cities burning to the ground, services cut off, civilization unraveling, and no hope of a end in sight. Residents of a small New Hampshire town who had grown accustomed to remote stories of the outbreak wake one morning (in the first chapters: this is not a spoiler) to find it on their doorstep. Harper Grayson — the story’s main character — and her husband Jakob Grayson find themselves suddenly on the front lines. Harper becomes infected at the same time she becomes pregnant; Jakob remains infected but quickly begins to lose his grip on reality as fear of contagion overtakes him.

The town in which they live, as everywhere on earth, is suddenly a battleground between the infected and the healthy; everyone is suspicious and practically manic with their fear. Soon, both sides are stockpiling supplies and weapons and creating two entirely new social structures, neither willing to peacefully co-exist. Harper escapes to a hide-out filled with infected who have learned to control the infection and who have formed a highly-structured, cult-like community in the woods. Jakob bands together with other uninfected people who sole mission is to stay healthy at any cost.

Over nearly 800 pages, Hill tells the story of this new dystopian world where old concerns fall away and new horrors emerge with startling rapidity, leaving all of the characters reeling from crisis to crisis trying to hold onto some humanity in the process. Although it is far too long of a novel, Fireman is exceedingly well-written and its characters compelling. You cannot help but root for the rag-tag band of protagonists, led by Harper, and you sincerely hope them make it through the chaos to find a more peaceful life. Conversely, the villains of the story are spooky, evil, and terrifying but just as well-written, it is easy to see how such people could rise up in the face of such an enormous disaster.

The primary drawback to the novel is its size; the author has so many pages to fill and at times the story falters and wanders away from the action in ways that could have been edited out. As with all dystopian novels, the heroes have to overcome many, many challenges but in a book this long the list of challenges begins to seem comic, by the end there is actually nothing left for them to endure. In the end, a great read heavily influenced by Stephen King’s* The Stand and Under the Dome, with a hint of hysteria of Salem witch trials and similar stories added into the mix.

*Note: Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Under the Dome mentioned here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-B

Joe Hill’s previously reviewed novel, Heart-Shaped Box, can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-D