Feb 10, 2012

Guest Review of Filaria

Dystopian February is great because it enriches my love of reading other people's takes on dystopian books. As always I would like to express my appreciation to Lenore for coming up with the idea in the first place! Her posts and those who have shared their posts on her blog make it fun to see what everyone is reading and reviewing for dystopian fiction.  

Today I am honored to have Joanne Renaud visiting on the blog for a review of an adult dystopian novel she recently read. I think Joanne definitely has a unique (and honest) view on what she reads. For another example of this you can check out her review of The Hunger Games. Thank you Joanne for sharing your thoughts with me and the rest of my readers!

I picked up "Filaria" by Brent Hayward as part of ChiZine's Friday the 13th giveaway. The book stood out to me because I was in the mood for a science fiction dystopia, as it seems that many young adult dystopias these days are, more or less, Sweet Valley High novels with vaguely oppressive governments. I wanted something gritty, dark and adult, and "Filaria" seemed to fit the bill.

It started out well enough. It was confusing at first, but once I persevered, I got a pretty good idea of how the world worked. I really liked the world-building. It was bizarre as hell, but the weirdness was written in a way that creeps over you like a fungus… I was down with that.

"Filaria" is set in this massive underground habitat/resort in the distant future, when the sun has dimmed and gone red.  The habitat is tiered, with the wealthy plantation owners living on the top tier underneath the artificial suns; in the basement, the descendants of the "Public Works" sector live amidst flying rats and radioactive waste. There's also the reservoir level, with its polluted lakes and Hoffmann City, with its famous red light district; and connecting everything are the lifts (pods) which seemingly operate by organic technology.

Instead of hero or a heroine going on a quest, "Filaria" tells four stories with interconnecting characters… rather like a Robert Altman movie IN THE FUTURE!  You have Phister, a hairless, toothless young man from the basement trying to find his ex-girlfriend and getting hopelessly lost; there's Deidre, the pampered daughter of the top-level "Orchard Keeper" forced into exile; Mereziah, an elderly lift attendant who decides to finally leave the station he's been faithfully keeping for almost a century; and Tran so Pheng, a reservoir level fisherman who goes out searching for a cure for his beloved wife who is dying of the Red Plague. But, as all these characters find out over the course of the novel, some mysterious thing has breached the artificial sky, and the world is now breaking down.  Sounds good, right?

It was, for the most part. The writing was, if elliptical at times, compelling and descriptive, with a big emphasis on emotion that was almost operatic. The characters were well-drawn-- from earnest basement urchin Phister and brainy but clueless rich girl Deidre to ancient, prim Mereziah and bedraggled Tran So Pheng, intent on his quest to find a cure, or at the very least, answers-- and the pacing was kept at a brisk pace. I was really enjoying it until-- it all of a sudden ended. It practically ended mid-sentence, since the end resolved nothing. And I mean NOTHING. It was, seriously, like getting into a TV show and having it cancelled mid-season.

I half wonder if the author just got tired of writing and stopped, as all four plots end mid-step. Deidre is kidnapped and taken outside the habitat (by whom?) and is told that she might be the savior "of the species." Phister is implanted with the personality of a big important dead guy-- on yeah, and he also might be a savior, but we leave him as he's wandering off in the hopes of waking up more dead people (although we are not told any more that that). Tran so Pheng is still looking for his wife, and Mereziah, after meeting Deidre's dad, goes into a light. Is it THE light? Who the hell knows?

I wouldn't mind this so much if this was the first half of a two part book, but there's no signs of being any kind of a sequel, and the author apparently-- according this Livejournal entry-- prides himself on his lack of resolution. I'm not sure why. The ending is often the trickiest thing to write in a book-- nail it, and you can make a mediocre novel truly memorable; flub it, and you can wreck a truly good story. This felt like the worse kind of cop-out-- even worse than "and then I woke up" or "and then the aliens came." It was incredibly unsatisfying. If "Filaria" had a decent ending, I would have written a glowing review and declared it one of the best dystopian novels I'd read recently. But as it is, I can't recommend it.

This is really unfortunate, because the story was fun and the world-building is incredibly well done, but I really hate the idea of investing days in reading a book and it ending like a cancelled TV show. This felt far more like a half-finished draft than a complete novel. ChiZine looks like a great publishing house-- the design and packaging of "Filaria" looks like a million dollars-- and I'm happy they sent this to me for a promotion. But I'm afraid I'll have to pass on reading any more of Brent Hayward's books in the future. 

Joanne Renaud, who earned a BFA in illustration from Art Center College of Design, has been writing, drawing and painting as long as she can remember. She currently works as both an author and a freelance illustrator. Her novel, A Question of Time, is due for release in November 2012 from Champagne Books.

Feb 7, 2012

World Building a Dystopia

The problem and the promise of a dystopian novel both stem from the same place. When we start a book with dystopian themes we generally recognize much about the dynamics of the world, whether it is like ours or the opposite of ours, we as readers understand it through the lens of our current world. All speculative fiction, but especially dystopian novels, rely heavily on world building. This has long been the keystone to beloved fantasy and science fiction novels.  The issue with the dystopian novel is that the world building in away has to be even more detailed. I think it is easy to assume that the reader is able to fill in the blanks more easily when they are presented with a world that is like their own, but different. But actually I find the opposite to be true; the more like our world the future world is the more questions I have about the transition between the two.

Previous to my recent exploration into speculative fiction I had never really heard of the concept of world building. I actually, in fact, knew the first time I ever consciously registered the phrase. I was listening to the first episode of the Writing Excuses podcast (when they were just a few episodes into recording them) when Brandon Sanderson first mentioned something in passing called world building. It was interesting because the other people on the show knew immediately what he was talking about and he also made the assumption that people listening would too. I, for one, didn't have a clue. I was listening to a podcast about writing yet being faced with a concept I didn't know and was pretty sure I didn't care about. I had spent the previous decade learning about the craft of writing I was convinced that the phrase "world building" had nothing to do with the type of books I wanted to read. This was still on the fringe of my science fiction awakening,

It is interesting how this awakening helped me turn a corner into other great pieces of speculative fiction and exposed me to the concept of world building. It has gone from a tangle of words that mean nothing to me to one of the most important elements of a book for me. Especially when it comes to dystopian fiction, it can be the make or break element. What do I mean when I say world building? This is the government, economy, history, and environment of a speculative fiction setting. World building is all the elements that set the dystopian world apart from the world we currently live in. A dystopian world is supposed to be the future of our own; it should be a world we recognize, and it is the elements of the world building that show us how things are different. The better the world building is the better sense we get of the threat of the dystopian future.

We often become attached to certain books that get an elevated status in our mind. One dystopian book that has achieved this for me in 1984. It was one of the first books I ever read that impacted me in a significant way and it was also the first dystopian piece of literature I ever read.  It was also presented to me as a piece of dystopian fiction and used to help me define my first understanding of the term as a high school sophomore, thank you Mr. Mitchell. I think it may always be the example I always hold other books up to. I doubt 1984 is an example of perfect world building but the (possibly  skewed) images I have of it is close.

This probably makes it hard for novels to live up to my standards of world building.  I have also noticed that one person's view of effective world building is laughable to another. But I know I like to see the world percolate through the story rather than have it be front loaded into the story and quickly forgotten. World building is more than just setting, it is an atmosphere that should play a factor throughout the entire book. A good dystopian book is as much about how the world unfolds as it is about the characters and plot. The unfolding, the discovery that happens with dystopia is massively important to the world building process. We need to see the man behind the curtain. We need to know how the world got this way and see transparently into who is controlling and how they are hiding it by the end of the book. Every question doesn't need to be answered but we definitely need to see enough to ask more questions!

Sometimes when a story's world building feels front loaded it is like the story could happen in any genre. It feels like it has just been plopped in the middle of a dystopian world. A book can often starts with a really nice basis for an interesting concept of the future but these elements are abandoned or mentioned in passing once the characters start interacting with each other. Maybe this type of story can be appealing to others because the turn can make it feel refreshing. But it tends not to work for me.

Unfortunately, the more I read the less I find the balance I am looking for. This is a combination of the flaws of a book together with exceedingly high expectations that can't be reached. It is unfair to want the next book I read to be better than the last one while still expecting it to feel unique. Throughout this month I am working on the lowering of expectations and enjoying reading and books more. Yet despite all of this I do hunger for books with great world building.  Do you have any suggestions of books with great world building? I think good world building is impressive because the amount of thought and time the author has to put into it. Every detail that they can give helps us better see each element that makes a society different from our own.

Feb 6, 2012

Dystopian February - Possession by Elana Johnson

It has been over a year since I first met Elana Johnson. It was one of the most exciting author meetings I have ever had! I think because it took me by surprise. When you go to a book event you know the authors who are going to be there. But Elana was attending an event and I had no idea she was going to be there. I remember my hands shaking while holding an ARC of Possession. I loved the cover so much (and still do)! I think this will always be one of my favorite book related memories. The cover was so striking and appeals to my personal aesthetics, on the front of dystopian book, written by a Utah author.

I talked with Elana once about the pressure of reviewing a book by an author you have met and feel friendly with. I know I am not the only blogger who feels an obligation to give a better review because an author is overwhelmingly awesome, but a person are not the words on the page. Though they are intimately entwined they are not synonymous. But this pressure had me concerned about reading Possession even though I knew my gut was telling me I was going to love it.

I remember Elana saying she had been inspired by the Uglies series when she decided to start writing Possession.  I think this sets up an interesting comparison and dynamic when reading the book. I couldn't help but thinking that though I enjoyed the books in the Uglies series, Possession was definitely better.  It may seem odd to say this but I could definitely see the influence of Westerfeld on Elana's writing but definitely not in a bad way.

I think one thing that I liked more about Elana's book was that it was quite a bit more ME. What I mean is that it was much more focused on the things about dystopian books that particularly interest me. The technological aspects of the story were particularly interesting to me.

I also loved the dichotomy of the Goodies and the Baddies. It set up a nice dynamic in the psychology of the main character, Vi. Vi lives in a society that is openly brainwashed and she doesn't exactly love it but she is also semi accepting of her place in it. I liked reading this book from Vi's perspective. Her voice added a unique level to the book that made it different from some of the other dystopian books I had read. Also, the concept of Goodies and Baddies felt very reminiscent of 1984, but not in an overbearing way that hasn't work for me with other books.

When I am reading a dystopia I definitely find that I question the world more than the characters. I want to know why the world is the way it is, but the characters take quite a bit longer to get to the same curiosity level. I think this tension only adds to the effectiveness of a dystopian novel. And it takes a quarter of the book until Vi flat out thinks, "I imagined what life would be like without rules, without a taunting voice inside my head, without scanners and readers in every doorway." When the character gets to this point of voicing their concern I always turn their thoughts onto my own life. What would my life be like the a taunting voice inside my head? How would I feel about a life without rules? I think the voice probably wouldn't taunt me because I like my rules and following them and being a good girl! But I also think that this kind of inner monologue is essential to the influence and effect of a dystopian novel.  Without the questioning about my current place in the world and the possible futures a dystopian work isn't successful for me.

Possession was a very confusing book. This was both an asset and a drawback. I never knew what was coming next, I sometimes didn't even know what was happening now. In the end I think it may have had one or two too many twists for me. As readers we can be very hard on books, we are annoyed when they are too predictable but also similarly annoyed if they take us too much by surprise. Possession definitely left me wanting to read the next book in the series.

The next book Surrender will be out June 5th and I am definitely looking forward to reading it. The cover is also very striking. I really love the white space on both of the covers. Though butterflies are particularly special to me, so this one doesn't have the same DEPTH of adoration as I had with Possession.

Though I just found out that both covers have gotten redesigned and I don't like them anywhere near as much. So in protest I have the OLD cover of Surrender up to the left.

Elana said on her blog that she likes the new typeface of the titles on the book and I will say I agree with her there. But I LOVE the white covers. They totally work for me. I actually specifically said that about the covers to Elana when we first met. But I guess they weren't received as well by others.

I really thought the white covers would stand out in a sea of various colored covers on the shelves at the store.

If you have any thoughts about the covers I would love to hear them. Or the books in general! I have been looking over a few reviews before I finished up this one and I am seeing a lot of mixed responses. This makes me doubly curious for what the reactions to the second book will be.

And last but not least, I love hearing authors talk about their own books. (Part of why I love author events so much!) So I wanted to make sure to include this clip of Elana talking about Possession.

For more dystopian posts, interviews, and giveaways please check out Dystopian February at Presenting Lenore's!

Feb 5, 2012

The Sunday Salon - Impending Reading Slump

The Sunday Salon.comIt has been a busy couple of days for me here. February has definitely not stat out as I had hoped reading wise and the month feels like it is racing by faster than I can catch up. I am worried I have stumbled across another reading slump. I am pushing to get through it but every day I am losing more reading time. Life gets busy and those kind of distractions don't bother me but not FEELING like reading concerns me.

The year has started strong reading wise. I finished 12 books in January, which is just under half of ALL the books I read last year. But my slump started to peek in on me at the end of the month and I have felt it like a presence looming over me ever since. I really hope I can break out of it soon because there are so many great books I want to read.

One of my favorite aspects of February is Presenting Lenore's dystopian themed month filled with reviews, interviews, and giveaways. Please make sure you check it out along with my own reviews of dystopian books all month long.  Lenore has already been super busy posting tons of great stuff on her blog. My posts (as usual) are taking a bit longer than I expected to get up. Dystopia, as most of you know, has long been a passion of mine and it fun to take the time to experience it with other people. I really appreciate Lenore doing this for the past few years.
Right now for dystopian month I am reading Susan Kaye Quinn's Open Minds. I am enjoying it quite a bit though take issue with some of the pacing. Pacing is definitely a personal thing though it can kind of feel like everyone should feel exactly the same when something is rubbing you the wrong way. Overall though it is an impressive books, especially when you think about ti being self published. I try not to give into the negativity towards self published books, but I can't help feeling surprised when I find I great one, so I guess I do give into it.

Next month I am doing a music theme month on the blog. I love music related books and have been gathering a stash of them for a few years now but never actually reading theme. Besides Lenore's Dystopian February I don't usually do theme months or if I have tried I definitely don't do them well. This rigid reading is a new experience for me and really keeping me motivated and helping me fight those slumps. Often when I have a slump I feel overwhelmed by all that I want to read and can't decide where to start. Now I just pick up one of the books on my list and read a few pages. The other night I started Harmonic Feedback and it is pretty fantastic. My only complaint is that something about the main character feels a little disingenuous. I am hoping that will smooth out later in the book.

Do you know of any GREAT music related books? I have a huge list I am working off of but I would hate to feel like I missed a major one. The two books that I recommend for you are Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway and Getting Over Jack Wagner by Elise Juska. These two books are the ones that sent me off to find more music related books.

As far as dystopian books go, I would ALWAYS love to hear what you are reading. I hope you are posting lots of reviews this month and linking up on Lenore's blog because she has an amazing prize pack up for grabs. If you are needing suggestions let me just take a moment to tell you a few of my young adult favorites. The Declaration by Gemma Malley, Bumped by Megan McCafferty, The Diary of Pelly D by L. J. Adlington, and The Pledge by Kimberly Derting.
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