Six Impossible Things

A Blog About Fiction and Reading

The Last Days

DaysThe Last Days by Scott Westerfeld

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I like Westerfeld’s writing style.  Sometimes, it seems like what he’s writing is banal, and even a little too detailed in the minutiae, but it’s always relevant.  There’s something about the pace, I suppose, that throws me off, but there’s never a question in my mind if I’m going to finish reading the book, or that I’m going to enjoy it.

The Last Days is the sequel to Peeps, a novel that I thought stood quite well on its own.  I was hesitant to pick it up, but really, it’s Scott Westerfeld.  I’m going to read it.  It picks up more or less where Peeps left off, though not with the same characters.  This time, the author focuses on an odd commingling of friends, which includes a musical genius, two guitarists who have been friends for ages, an obsessive-compulsive drummer of buckets, and a singer who’s a vampire.  He uses the group to bring focus to the crumbling of society, as the vampire virus spreads through New York.  The downfall is seen through their eyes.

Which brings to the point Westerfeld’s skill at characterization.  The novel is narrated in the first person, but it’s narrated by all five of the members of the band.  I didn’t realize this until the second chapter, but Westerfeld notes each chapter with the person who is speaking, but really, it’s not necessary.  He gives enough clues in his narrative for you to be able to hone in on who’s speaking, but aside from that, each character has his or her own distinctive voice.  The last time I saw a multiple first-person narrative that worked this well was in Sturgeon’s Godbody.  That says a lot for Westerfeld and his talents.

Through the first half of the novel, I wondered why the author chose to make this a sequel, as opposed to a stand-alone novel.  The focus was so much on the band members and their quest to secure a record deal, that I wondered why the author didn’t choose some other method for the decline of society.  It served as a backdrop for the musicians’ desperation, but it also poignantly illustrated how they pursued their dreams, despite the seeming futility of it all.  Once things became clearer, though, it tied in nicely with what was established in Peeps.  Well … almost.

The ending is really hokey.  Sorry, Scott, but it’s true.  I’m not going to spoil it for anyone, because I think the story is well told, and raises some good points, but the way that everything comes together in the end smacked like an odd combination of The Stand and Tremors.  I hesitate to say that it “jumped the shark,” but it at least jumped the minnows.  The ambiguous ending of Peeps was appropriate, and the conclusive ending of The Last Days was, as well, but it just didn’t gel with me.  Maybe it’s more appropriate for a younger crowd, as the book is marketed, but it seemed to fail with me.

In a way, this a pseudo-sequel to Peeps, in much the same way that Small Steps was a pseudo-sequel to Holes.  I think there were more points connecting Peeps to The Last Days, but the overall feel was that it was a different story, attached to the same universe.  This isn’t a bad thing, by any means, but it just makes me wonder what drives authors to connect their works when the stories are disparate.

Regardless, I think this is a book worth reading.  It could stand alone as its own book, but there are some characters that appear in both novels, so it’s probably best to start with Peeps.  I think it’s the superior book of the two, but both books together make a nice overall story.

September 26, 2007 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | Leave a comment

The Crying of Lot 49

Lot 49The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

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I expect that I’m not the only person who decided to read this book after hearing about the decoding of the message at the top of the Adobe corporate tower (look here).  I also expect that I’m not the only one who may have missed the whole message of the book, too….

I mean, I get it.  It’s a novel that’s clearly the product of its time, satirizing the California culture that was prevalent during the era that the novel was written, but if the satire is so dependent on its time, how successful is it, then, as a novel?  I never really enjoyed Animal Farm because I didn’t ever fully understand what represented what in the real world, and I think that same barrier kept me from truly understanding this book, as well.  The only things that kept me reading The Crying of Lot 49 was:

a. it’s short; and

b. the controversy kept me interested.

There was a huge undercurrent to the novel, of a conspiracy that may or may not have been true, but it was more like a historical conspiracy, and less a Dan-Brown-let-loose-in-Europe conspiracy.  That central mystery kept me more or less engaged (I never really found myself thinking, “Ooh, I get to return to The Crying of Lot 49!”; it was more a “Aw, man, I really want to read The Last Days, but I suppose I should finish The Crying of Lot 49 first…”), but the rest of it was just too confusing for me.  I found myself reading a few pages, and realizing that I hadn’t really read any of the last few pages, and dreading having to go back and re-read those pages over again.

So, it comes back to function over form, for me.  I want a story that’s interesting, a premise that’s gripping, and characters that are easy to believe in and root for.  If you want to add some thematic or symbolic imagery, fine, go ahead, but make sure that you give me a darn good reason to want to read into all that before you get all high-falutin’, artsy-fartsy on me.  So, forgive me if I don’t go into tremendous detail over the plot, because, really, it’s not the central core of this novel.  It’s more like that piece of parsley that restaurants stick on the edge of your dinner plate — it’s there, but it’s really not that important.

Am I denying myself good literature by thinking this way?  Perhaps.  But I was a literature major in college, and while I liked some of what I read, most of it went right over my head.  I guess I’m just too simplistic of a reader to appreciate fiction that delivers more style than content.  Oh, and poetry?  I never could figure that stuff out.

I’m comfortable with the fact that I will likely never read Joyce’s Ulysses, but I’m always looking forward to the next Stephen King novel.  I wonder what my English professors would think of that?

September 17, 2007 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

Thirteen

ThirteenThirteen by Richard K. Morgan

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As if Market Forces weren’t dark enough, Richard K. Morgan returns to his nihilistic look at the future, this time through a race of genetically modified “variant” human beings, who have been bred and raised to be more aggressive, more violent, and more deadly than humans have been in a very long time.  The idea is that we, as a culture, have processed out those tendencies as part of being civilized, and we’re no longer very good as soldiers.  Enter the variant “Thirteens,” who are supposed to be the perfect soldiers in the future.

Note “supposed to be”; it wouldn’t be a nihilistic look at the future without a little mucking up of things along those lines.  Shoot, what reader, looking at that theme, wouldn’t start asking questions?  Morgan doesn’t keep it simplified, either.  He addresses cultural and race wars (the Chinese are viewed as the evil race, and there’s an entire criminal subculture on Mars), the growth of religion in politics (the US South is renamed “Jesusland” in this book), and the effects of a long-term memory in a short-term memory society (the main Thirteen in the book is a black man).  It’s amazing, and thoughtful, but probably best for small doses.  Given that this is a 500+-page book, small doses means that the book may take a while.

On its surface, Thirteen is a mystery thriller, with layers upon layers of mystery and deception.  It succeeds admirably at this, and just may sneak under your radar, given the overall theme and atmosphere of the book.  I was surprised, afterward, at how complex the plot was, and how well-constructed it was.  Morgan managed to take a lot of disparate elements of the story, seemingly planted just to set the tone and atmosphere of the novel, and weave them together into a satisfying conclusion.  But sharp readers are going to notice this only after submerging themselves in this future culture that is, collectively, us.

I tend to pick up moods from the books that I read, so I was careful in how much I dove into the book.  I didn’t want to take a marathon approach to reading it, but neither did I want to spend an overly long time in that world, either.  For all the nihilism in Thirteen, Morgan does give the future some redeeming qualities, but these are scattered about, partly to move the plot along, and partly to keep us from leaping off of a tall building midway through the book.  It’s not depressing so much as it is bleak and hopeless, but there are enough hopeful moments to keep us reading and wanting things to get better.

The question we have at the end of the novel is just that: Will things get better?  It’s hard to say.  Morgan doesn’t judge the present through this novel, or offer any solutions.  He just presents a possible future, and shows us where that will take us.  The rest, I suppose, is up to us.

September 10, 2007 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment