Tagged: Dystopia

re:View – The 2016 Bookshelf: June

June was all about moving flats, so my contact with books was mostly limited to packing them in boxes, carrying them and buying new book storage. Managed to squeeze in a few reading hours though. You could say this edition of Bookshelf is all about monsters – human, superhuman and in between.


The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
This was my first book by Atwood outside the realms of sci-fi / dystopia and I struggled a bit initially when I realised this was all going to be about relationships – but Atwood’s brilliant style soon won me over. In many ways this is a long and mostly sad story of three women who didn’t have a lucky start in life and put themselves on an even unluckier path by choosing the wrong kind of men. Initially we are led to believe it’s all the fault of the mysterious Zenia – the Robber Bride, the Jezebel, morally decayed to the bone, seemingly born without a conscience, without any sense of female camaraderie – who lies and cheats her way through the lives of these three, bent on stealing their men and ruining their happiness. But as the story of each woman unfolds you can’t help but wonder if Zenia didn’t indeed do them a favour by relieving them of cheating husbands that were only preying on their gullible nature, helplessness or financial security. I still can’t decide whether I found this book uplifting or depressing. True, the women all come out of the encounter with Zenia stronger, if not necessarily happier, but all the female characters are either infuriatingly gullible and spineless, or else the embodiment of all female evil. It’s a bit like a war of different types of femininity in which nobody wins. However, Atwood’s writing style and world view is delightful and irresistible as always, so I still loved this book overall.
Pens: 4 out of 5

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re:View – The 2016 Bookshelf
February: Sherlock and the Beautiful Apocalypse

I wish that was the title of an actual book! This headline sums up my reading in February: More Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell mysteries, and more Ballard. I was already hooked on him after reading The Drowned World [review] and High Rise [review] last year, but Hello America has finally catapulted him right to the top of my favourite authors shelf.

Beautiful Apocalypse, by the way, is a song from the latest Kamelot album, Haven – the best metal album of the past year with a gloriously dystopian concept running through it.

But back to books: Here’s the February bookshelf.


A Monstrous Regiment of Women (Mary Russell #2) by Laurie R. King
As I mentioned recently, I was converted from sceptic to fan within a few pages of the first Mary Russell book [review] so of course I dived straight into the second volume. While the first book was collection of different cases, which saw Mary learning the ropes, this book is focused on one case: Mary gets drawn into a religious/feminist/political cult led by a charismatic but mysterious woman. When a few too many members fall victim to deadly accidents just weeks after changing their wills to benefit their “church”, Mary suspects that not all is as godly as it seems, and soon find her own life in danger. I enjoyed this even more than the first book because the case is more coherent, creating a pretty exciting page-turner. Mary has become a proficient detective in her own right while building an ambitious academic career in Oxford, which makes her so much more than Sherlock’s sidekick. I’m starting to think, actually, that Holmes is becoming the sidekick in this series – and I have to say I like it!
Pens: 4 out of 5

A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King
An old archaeologist friend of Mary’s from the first book returns from Palestine with an ancient scroll that may or may not be a letter from Mary Magdalene that could turn Christianity on its head, and is promptly murdered in London. Mary and Holmes, now happily married after their awkward courtship during the second book, go undercover to investigate the potential suspects. For Mary, this means posing as a helpless and naive secretary in the house of a predatory, misogynist colonel and his equally repulsive son. The transformation Mary has to undergo, both in appearance and in character, as she assumes this role really keeps this book going. The attention to detail that King puts into the creation of Mary’s alter ego easily lives up to any disguise Doyle ever came up with for the original Sherlock, and Mary’s internal struggle to stay in character – in which she succeeds brilliantly – prove her to be more than an equal match for the great detective himself. Otherwise, this book drags on a little bit and is probably the weakest in the series so far, but by now Holmes, Russell and their world have become so familiar that the lack of excitement is made up for by the comfort of spending reading time in their company.
Pens: 3 out of 5

The Day of Forever by J.G. Ballard
I got my hands on an original 1967 paperback edition of this and it’s beautiful – a collection of early Ballard short stories ranging from the furthest reaches of outer space to the depths of the human psyche. There’s a slightly depressing undercurrent running through these, giving you a feeling that, no matter whether you’re cast away on a distant planet with no hope of escape, or sitting in our house in a posh London neighbourhood, you’re inevitably doomed anyway. But I like doom, so that’s all right. And the worlds and landscapes of this book, whether in this world our out of it, are gorgeously imagined as is to be expected from Ballard. Overall a very enjoyable read.
Pens: 4 out of 5

Hello America by J.G. Ballard
This book is basically a cross of some of my favourite obsessions: dystopia, apocalypse and the America Dream. Ballard envisions the collapse of the US as a consequence of fossil fuel shortages and climate change in the early 2000s – which, in itself is close enough to home to be terrifying. Then, some hundred years later, he sends an exploration party out of a barely surviving Europe to check on some worrying radiation readings from the American continent, now a largely deserted and barren desert. This group of sailors, scientists and adventurers arrives in a gorgeously devastated New York City and heads west, much like the pioneers centuries before them, following in the traces of the original frontier. As they fight to survive in the grotesque post-civilisation landscape, each of them lives their own version of the American Dream. Soon they find they are not entirely alone there, and giant holograms of all-American heroes in the sky lead them to a glittering skeleton of Las Vegas overgrown by rainforest, where a President who calls himself Charles Manson rules over army of Mexican children and an arsenal of vintage nuclear weapons… I found myself completely hypnotised by this book. Ballard’s vision of this dead continent reverting to primal deserts and jungles is immensely visual; it turns the concept of America into a goddess that lies decaying in the debris of a shattered civilisation and leaves you grieving for everything you’ve ever loved about this country and what it stands for. In my case, that’s a lot – ever since I can remember I’ve been obsessed with America and its pop culture. From vintage cars and skyscrapers to neon signs and Hollywood heroes, Ballard pays tribute to all the little and big ideas we associate with America in a beautiful and disturbing obituary to an icon of our time.
Pens: 5 out of 5

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
December: A life less ordinary

December came and went and I was so busy working ridiculous overtime that I just made my 2015 Goodreads reading challenge by squeezing in a couple of graphic novels and short reads. So here’s the final batch of the 2015 Bookshelf. More dystopia, more Sin City and more cats.


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
I love dystopia so of course I picked this one up. Set in the the what-if scenario of Germany and Japan winning the Second World War and splitting up the US between them as occupied territory, this book follows a cast of characters from each side of the fence. There’s the American art dealer living in oppression, the Jewish US citizen just trying to survive, a range of German political leaders locked in a bitter power struggle, a Japanese government official struggling to stomach the doctrine of his Nazi allies, and a few shady characters of dubious allegiance working their various plots to stir up the system. I enjoyed this in much the same way as I enjoyed Nineteen Eighty-Four, hooked by the story but impatiently skimming through the lengthy political and philosophical ramblings. It’s a good book with a very clever meta level; the eponymous man in the high castle and the outrage he causes with his book speculating on what had happened if America had won the war is endlessly delightful in its irony. Obviously a classic of modern literature.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwoood
Being a massive Atwood fan I almost feel like a traitor saying this, but I’m seriously underwhelmed by her latest novel. It starts out so promising: A young couple living in a post-financial crash landscape of unemployment and poverty gets a chance to improve its desperate circumstances by signing up to a social experiment. The twin city of Positron/Consilience works on the principle that every resident alternates each month between living and working in the community and doing time in the town’s prison. The promise is a life in comfort and security; the price is total commitment for life: the city is sealed off from the rest of the world, and surveillance is everywhere. This highly regulated life soon takes its toll on Charmaine and Stan’s relationship, and as they start breaking the rules they uncover a sinister underworld in their perfect town, where disruption is dealt with silently and absolutely, where life-like robots are created in secret labs and where their friends disappear and come back not quite the same…or quite human. So far, it has all the elements of a breathtaking Atwood dystopia, very much along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale. The problem is, you just don’t care. Stan’s a bit of an arse, Charmaine’s a bit of a bitch, there’s not a single character I actually felt for in this book, which meant I really couldn’t care less what happened to them. And all the dystopian elements just feel a little bit sold under value – there are a lot of very good ideas in this book, they just aren’t developed to the point where they become really spectacular. Instead the plot just kind of fizzles out. I wanted it to strike me and leave my head spinning, like when I read Handmaid. Instead I closed the book and went: Meh.
Pens: 3 out of 5 (More like 2.5, and only because there are so many good ideas hidden in there! Argh!)

Sin City, Vol. 4: That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller
This is by far my favourite Sin City story, probably because it features so prominently in the first movie (one of my absolute favourites) and also because John Hartigan is just the most heartbreaking character in the entire series. On the last day of his career in the police department, Hartigan saves Little Nancy Callahan from a deranged killer who operates under police immunity, and spends the rest of his life paying for it. And then, just because he cares for what’s become of her, he ends up paying a little more. So, there’s the heart-wrenching story of those tow and their fragile relationship, plus the artwork in this volume is the absolute highlight of the entire series – especially Nancy’s iconic dance routine. Seriously one of the most gorgeous graphic novels and one I keep coming back to again and again.
Pens: 5 out of 5

Sin City, Vol. 5: Family Values by Frank Miller
A very short volume of much smaller scale than the previous stories, this book basically follows Dwight and Miho on a revenge killing spree. It’s fast paced and full of delightfully choreographed and captured fights – but what else would you expect when Deadly Little Miho goes to battle. More of a snapshot than a story, this volume may lack the depth of the other books, but it’s a quick and entertaining read for when you’ve got an hour to kill and are feeling a bit noir.
Pens: 3 out of 5

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
I tried. I really tired! I love Japanese literature and I love cats, but I really struggled through this little book. It’s basically a story of a couple living in a little house and a neighbour’s cat who comes to visit. Now, while this sounds promising to a Japanophile cat lady, sadly the story stops there. Aside from endless, slightly repetitive descriptions of the house and its surroundings, and the progression of the cat from “peeking through the window” to “owning the place” there’s very little here in terms of story or character development, or anything actually happening. (Until the end, which is sad and then a little less sad.) This book is currently being hyped as “poetic” by the booksellers, so maybe it’s poetry and I’m just not getting it. But overall, I feel I would have been better off snoozing for two hours with the cats than spending my time on reading it.
Pens: 1 out of 5

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
March: Worlds of (Mostly) Meh

Well, March wasn’t my best month for reading. I only (just) made it through four books, and one of them was a graphic novel so comparatively quick to read. That’s what happens when I pick up a book that doesn’t draw me in – I go into procrastinate mode and do everything else instead. (Although I did make a bunch of pretty DIY t-shirts in all that time I didn’t spend reading books.)

Anyway, with some delay here’s the Bookshelf for a rather meh-y March.


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re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
February: the apocalypse and beyond

Perhaps unsurprisingly, January’s reading journey to dystopia has led me on into the apocalypse. I guess the two often go hand in hand – certainly in the case of Maragret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, which forms the central part of my February reading.


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re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
January: a journey to other worlds

New year, new bookshelf! After finally picking up The Handmaid’s Tale I fancied some more alternative reality kind of stuff, so my reading journey throughout January took me from dystopian to prehistoric to post-apocalyptic worlds…and back again. Also as a new feature this year I’m trying to do Bookshelf on a monthly basis. I’ve still got quite a bit of otherworldly reading lined up so expect a similar theme for February.

As well as the books below I also read Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which has certainly been my book of the month and is, quite possibly, already my favourite book of the year. It’s so good it has earned its own dedicated review post. Check it out here – I really can’t recommend this book enough.


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