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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What I'm Reading: Audiobook Catch-Up Edition Featuring Flashback and The Orphan Master's Son

I am very far behind in reviews, but I will not dwell on that.  Instead, I will play catch up.  Here are 2 reviews on some books I listened to over the spring.

Dan Simmons is one of my favorite authors mostly because he refuses to allow himself to be pigeon holed.  As I wrote about him in my horror book:
"...Dan Simmons is also a genre-blending author, but with Simmons you can get any combination of horror, sceince fiction, suspense, thriller and historical fiction.  These are atmosphere-centered novels, with a deliberate pacing that allows the tension to build so intensely that it makes readers squirm.  Simmons also develops complicated characters that we want to follow, even when we think we should know better.  He includes interesting and thought-provoking details about real science or history in his books and then adds a twist of dark, otherworldly elements." (pgs 39-40)
I wrote these lines way before Flashback came out, but they hold very true to the appeal of this novel, as it also does for his suspense/horror/historical fiction blended Drood (use link for my review).  This statement gets to the heart of why people like Simmons even though each book is very different from the next.

Flashback is set in a near future dystopia blended and is best categorized as psychological suspense with a science fiction frame. The set up is that America as we know it no longer exists.  I will not spend time here with the details because the expertise with which Simmons unveils his imagine setting is part of the fun of reading this book.

The term "Flashback" refers to a drug which most Americans are addicted to.  It allows you to go back and relive the best moments of your life.  Now that America as we know it has collapsed, people are miserable, and under "the flash" is the only time they are happy.  Most of the plot of the novel involves the drug, who discovered it, who made it available to Americans, and who controls it.

The novel has three narrators which worked very well on the audio.  They are Nick Bottom, a Flashback addict who lost his wife under mysterious circumstances a bunch of years ago, his estranged teenaged son, and his father-in-law who has been raising the boy.  The stories bounce around but on the audio, each voice has a different narrator.  The headings for each chapter clearly denote who is talking with a numerical system.  As a listening experience, it worked well.  The shifting narration allowed me to see the same story from different angles.  It added to the suspense and the overriding sense of unease that permeates this novel.  I was always on edge, but at the same time, I constantly wanted to know more.  It was a great feeling!

This is a dark book, both in tone and literally.  There are lots of dark places, shadowy figures, and  basements visited here.  You creep with Bottom through the underbelly of this destroyed and decaying America.  The complicated plot involves the murdered son of a Japanese diplomat and as I mentioned, Flashback.

I also enjoyed the family dynamic part of the story.  It was touching but complicated.  Even in a ruined America, some things never change.

This dystopia is so realistic it was scary.  I have to say outright that Simmons appears to have some personally negative views on Obama, views which I do not share even a little, but you can see how his chain of events makes sense. Even though I disagree with his politics, Simmons had me wrapped up in his created world. It is very detailed and scarily realistic.

The novel is also tightly plotted.  I trusted Simmons to pull it all together and he did. Think of this book as a ride like the one of the cover and you will not be disappointed.  You have to hang on at times and go with him, but in the end it is all worth it.

Which reminds me, I loved the ending of this book (and I am so picky about endings).  It was perfect.  I will not give it away but Simmons managed to tie things up and leave an ending that you can read as good, bad, or ambiguous depending on how you feel.  I personally believe in the extremely dark ending.  But, there is a perfectly happy one if you want to believe.

Three Words That Describe This Book: near-future dystopia, dark, unsettling

Readalikes: Other authors who blend genres, write atmospherics novels with supernatural elements and complicated characters, that are darker than the average story (without being viscerally horrific) are China Mieville, Ray Bradbury, Robert McCammon.

 After Flashback, I dove into something completely different, the North Korean set political thriller/literary fiction The Orphan Master's Son (TOMS) by Adam Johnson.

I chose to listen to TOMS because I was interested in the buzz it was getting this past Spring, but I knew I would have trouble with all of the foreign place words (something I have discussed at length in the past).  Again, I greatly enjoyed this novel.

TOMS is a complex story about a place we know very little about.  It is a character driven story with intrigue, drama, and tragedy, but it is ultimately life affirming.

Our main character is Jun Do, an orphan who is drafted into kidnapping service by the North Korean government.  Yes, you read that right.  He helps the government to kidnap Japanese citizens.  This is a messed up world. As the story goes on, Jun Do moves up the government ladder, ultimately taking the identity of a very high official, and in the end pulls one over on Kim Jung Il.

As Jun Do experiences more of the larger world, he comes to understand how truly horrible life in North Korea is.  He learns to understand the joy of true freedom, and he is willing to pay any price to get freedom for his loved ones.

The plot is confusing at times, but not because of the writing.  Johnson so accurately portrays what it is like to be raised poor and orphaned in North Korea that we are confused by how horrible it truly is. Click here and scroll to read Johnson's essay about how his own research trip to "The Most Glorious Nation on Earth."

This is a book to be experienced.  It is about Jun Do and his slow transformation.  You need to let him go at his own pace.  I loved it in audio because Jun Do was telling me his story and I could let it wash over me.  I experienced it, and was transfixed at times.  Also, government radio in North Korea broadcasts stories of the people of "The Most Glorious Nation on Earth," and as that happens in the novel a different narrator comes on to tell those stories.  These stories become crucial to the plot in the final section of the book, so having the "official" government narrator come on in a different voice increased my enjoyment of the story.

This is a haunting story of true suffering and awful despotism in 21st Century North Korea.  While it is a novel, Johnson did a lot of research and even visited North Korea. The general gist of the story is true. That stays with you long after finishing this well crafted, heart breaking, but compelling novel.

Three Words That Describe This Book: political thriller, introspective, haunting

Readalikes: For being such a closed society, there are a lot of novels and nonfiction books about North Korea.  Click here for suggestions.

A good nonfiction readalike that is not about North Korea is Katherine Boo's acclaimed, Behind the Beautiful Forevers about the slums in 21st Century India.

If you liked the peak behind the closed door of an oppressive world in novel form, I would suggest A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan).

If want more suspense/thriller in foreign a setting try Daniel Silva (Europe and the Middle East), James Church (North Korea), John Burdett (Thailand).  All of these are a little more literary in pacing and writing style, thought provoking, and a bit darker.


Sonia G. said...

"I have to say outright that Simmons appears to have some personally negative views on Obama"

Why introduce your personal political beliefs? And did you ever think that some of your readers (horror of horrors'!) agree with Simmons regarding our president.

I enjoy your posts immensely and am not put off in the least that you have a certain political slant but I guess you are when encountering an opinion not in agreement with yours.

Becky said...

Good point. But I thought it was important to point out since I think it could have really turned someone off.

I often read books with different political views than my own, but this one is pretty blatantly skewed and some readers I know cannot look past that in a story.

I shared that I don't agree to show how I still loved the book. So I shared more for the reason to explain that you can disagree with the politics of this book and still love it, not to share what I think.

But for the record, in Chicago, where I work, where most people are for Obama, it is an issue I would have to broach with patrons.