12. ‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I remember my first experience with a work of dystopian fiction. It actually wasn’t a book but rather Terry Gilliam’s extraordinary film Brazil. If you’ve never experienced this director, I strongly urge you to check out some of his films as visually they’re quite stunning with a style unlike anything else. Brazil left a lasting impression on my young mind that led me to seek out other artists’ visions of the future. From classics such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to more modern works such as The Hunger Games trilogy, it seems as though the world cannot get enough of the dystopian genre which often comes eerily close to our own possible future. Rather than revisit Orwell and the world ruled by Big Brother, I decided to check out an earlier work that had tremendous influence on this particular genre. While I wouldn’t rank We as a favorite, it was a fascinating look into a work that would serve as an inspiration on writers such as Orwell.

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Following a horrific war that lasted two centuries, society has been organized into a massive city known as OneState. Ruled under a leader known as the Benefactor, citizens are given numbers rather than names with daily activities rigidly organized. The secret to happiness has been found in the discipline of mathematics so schedules are made for work, sleep, personal time, and even sex. Citizens live inside glass houses so that everyone can be seen (they can close the blinds during sex hour) while an impenetrable wall has been erected around the city in order to keep everyone safe (wonder who paid for that). Scientists are hard at work on developing a cure for the condition known as “imagination” while those that are unable to achieve happiness are mercifully put to public execution. While there is an annual election to vote for the continual rule of the Benefactor, everyone is expected to vote yes. After all, only someone deranged would vote no to happiness.

The narrator of We is D-503, a mathematician working on a rocket in order to promote the perfection of OneState to other worlds. The story is a collection of D-503’s journal entries, which he has started writing in order to put them on the rocket to share the glorious message of OneState. However, our narrator is about to come up against some quite monumental struggles after meeting a woman unlike any he has ever met. Soon, D-503 begins to question if OneState’s message of happiness is all it’s cracked up to be.

Zamyatin has created a very in-depth world, and the story behind We is almost as fascinating as the novel itself. Written in 1921, it was suppressed by the Soviet Union and had to be smuggled out of the country to be published abroad. It wasn’t until the late 80s that it was finally published in Russia. Considering the author’s views on dictatorship, this comes as no surprise. There are several great ideas in this novel, from the glass city to the ridiculous election process to the “pink tickets” one has to get if they would like to have sex with someone. Although written based on the author’s own experiences with a dictatorship, I think the novel could definitely transcend time as a frightening look at problems we are all too familiar with when it comes to government rule.

The writing style sets this book apart from other dystopian fiction I’ve read. Many passages often feel more like poetry than prose, with several events that are dreamlike to accentuate the internal struggles occurring with its narrator. The author throws you headfirst into the story, and it takes some time to understand the dynamics of this twisted world. Often, it feels more like looking at an abstract painting, a series of images rather than a collective whole. Zamyatin manages to make you feel as though you are going mad as our narrator struggles with whether to be a part of the collective or his own individual person. Mathematics play a huge role in the storytelling, as characters are often perceived by D-503 as a collection of shapes: his friend R-13 is known for his thick, spitting lips; his girlfriend O-90 as a collection of circles; and his love interest, I-330, is all straight lines and sharp edges.

Typically, I avoid spoilers in my reviews at all costs. However, my final comment on the novel does give the ending away. Please stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.

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I find it fascinating how the genre of dystopian fiction has changed over the years. We, much like the later 1984, has a very downbeat ending. Although that spark of hope remains as rebels will continue to fight the system, I felt sad that D had to return as one of the mindless herd. I don’t think you can get away with an ending like that in today’s fiction. Perhaps I’m incorrect in that assessment, so please feel free to correct me in the comments. We is a fascinating read, especially if you like 1984 or Brave New World. It is a great example of how relevant classic science fiction can be to our modern world.

“A man is like a novel: until the very last page you don’t know how it will end. Otherwise it wouldn’t even be worth reading.”

Read as my “classic in translation” for Back to the Classics and as my novel from Russia for the European Reading Challenge.

3. ‘The Vanishing of Katharina Linden’ by Helen Grant

As a child, I was enamored with fairy tales. When something went missing at our house or another strange event happened, my young mind would seek out a magical explanation. There was always a bogeyman around the corner, or some other fiendish creature lurking under the bed or inside the closet. Maybe I still do feel that way to some extent. My favorite tales were the ones by the Brothers Grimm. They were so dark and disturbing, so how could I not love them? Those tales from childhood always seem to linger in the back of your mind, even when you become an adult with “proper” issues. I recently picked up The Vanishing of Katharina Linden because the description felt like a nightmare straight from a Brothers Grimm story. While not what I was expecting at all, I did find this book to be quite a charming one that emphasized how stories are used to make sense of tragedies.

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The Vanishing of Katharina Linden takes place in a small town in Germany named Bad Münstereifel, where everybody knows each other’s business and gossip tends to run rampant. The story opens with one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read:

“My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded.”

From the day her grandmother accidentally set herself on fire, ten-year-old Pia Kolvenbach is shunned and ridiculed by her classmates. Her only friend is another social outcast known as StinkStefan. Pia’s home life isn’t much better, as tensions between her German father and English mother are slowly reaching a breaking point. Her only other friend is the elderly Herr Schiller who loves nothing more than to share the local folk tales, stories of witches who can turn into cats or of the knight whose son is cursed to hunt forever. Pia’s life is forever changed following a horrible tragedy. During a festival, a local girl mysteriously vanishes without a trace. The disappearance of Katharina Linden sends shock waves through the small town as parents are now afraid to let their children roam outside. As one of the last people to see Katharina before she disappears, Pia becomes obsessed with the missing girl and believes that some type of magical cause is responsible. When other children go missing, Pia’s life moves from simple fantasy tales to an adult world of real nightmares.

Helen Grant takes her story beyond the traditional thriller by incorporating fairy tale and horror elements in the tradition of the Grimm Brothers as well as local folklore. In fact, there is a real town in Germany called Bad Münstereifel where Grant and her family lived for some time. While exploring its history and legends, she was inspired to write this novel. The result is a book that works incredibly well on both levels. The atmosphere she invokes is really fantastic. Having the story told from the perspective of a ten-year-old child also works extremely well. Her descriptions of various landmarks, from the creepy mill to the forest all contain a feel of a Grimms Brothers fairy tale. I found it all quite engrossing, from the fantastic tales told to the children to the real horror that lies at the heart of this novel.

Pia is an extremely likable narrator, and it’s easy to feel empathy for her as she is constantly ridiculed by her classmates. Her obsession with learning the truth about the disappearances becomes her only focus as her family slowly begins to unravel. Grant makes it a point to emphasize the role that stories have in our lives. From the folktales retold by Herr Schiller to the town gossip, Grant demonstrates the effects of stories on others, whether it be for good or for evil.

At times, I was confused about the target audience for this book. Although it had a very young adult feel to it, there were definitely moments that seemed written for a more adult audience. There are some moments of real horror in this story, particularly near the end once events reach their climax. I can see how Pia’s unwavering belief in the fantastic helped serve as a barrier to witnessing the true terrors of adult actions.

Another aspect of this novel that was sometimes frustrating was the continued use of actual German vocabulary that appeared throughout the writing. Grant does include a glossary in the back, but I felt like going back to look up a meaning slowed the reading down for me slightly.

For a first novel, the writing was strong. There are moments that are unsettling interspersed with others that are light and humorous. The mystery itself can come across as rather weak, but remember to not read this one for the actual thriller itself. This is a story about a child and how she manages to face the harsh realities of life. We can only hope that some of that childhood innocence remains throughout her life.

“When she vanished, it almost seemed like something from a fairy tale, as though she were one of Grimms’ twelve dancing princesses, who somehow get out of a locked bedroom every night and came home in the morning with their shoes worn to flinders.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

 

2. ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ by Jules Verne

One of my goals for this year is to read more classic science fiction, and I wanted to begin with one of the pioneers of the genre. I debated between H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but unlike the former, I have never had the pleasure of reading a novel from Mr. Verne despite having a number of his works on my shelves. When you think of the term “science fiction” your mind often imagines stories set in the far future travelling into the furthest reaches of space where alien creatures abound. This is not that type of book. While 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a journey tale of exploration, its focus is on the wonders that reach the furthest depths of this planet. During the 1860’s, Jules Verne recognized the possibilities of discovery right here on planet Earth. The result is a book that is pure adventure, while still containing a strong literary and scientific presence.

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During the year 1866, several countries from around the world witness a mysterious entity that appears briefly out of the ocean, sometimes causing destruction in its wake. Believed to be a sea monster, specifically a giant narwhal, the United States government assembles an expedition on the ship the Abraham Lincoln. Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist, receives a last minute invitation to join the hunt for the elusive creature. An adventurer at heart, Aronnax is accompanied on this mission by his faithful servant Conseil along with the master harpooner Ned Land. While the initial chapters echo another famous story about the hunt of a giant cetacean, an encounter with the “creature” results in Aronnax and his companions embarking on a journey they could never imagine. Rather than some type of sea monster, the entity is a submarine unlike no other captained by a man like no other. For the next ten months the Nautilus becomes the professor’s home with the mysterious Captain Nemo as his guide.  Aronnax witnesses marvels from around the world, such as the South Pole and the lost city of Atlantis. However, it is the interesting relationship with his captor Nemo that truly guides this adventure tale.

“This monster, this natural phenomenon that had puzzled the learned world, and overthrown and misled the imagination of both hemispheres, it must be owned was a still more astonishing phenomenon inasmuch as it was simply human construction.”

I cannot even begin to imagine life in the 1870’s. While new empires were growing in both Europe and Asia, the United States was attempting to recover from the bloodiest war of its life. Despite the political instability, it was also a time of spectacular innovation. Inventions such as the telephone, the motion picture, and the windmill came into being as well as Verne’s modern classic. I call 20,000 Leagues a “modern classic” because it truly was a work ahead of its time. When it was first published, submarines were quite small and primitive, prone to sinking to the bottom of the ocean. This book presents a fantastic underwater ship that is truly a world within itself. The capabilities of the Nautilus along with its aesthetic features make this novel a precursor to the world of steampunk.

Although this is a work of thrilling adventure in the spirit of a Robert Louis Stevenson tale, I could not help but note how different the narrative structure of 20,000 Leagues is in regards to modern adventure stories where the tension gradually builds to a climax. Verne maneuvers this story like a series of waves with small adventures that reach a crescendo before starting all over again in a brand new location. Perhaps this was due to how the story was originally published as a serial, but considering this is a tale of the sea, I thought the wave format was interesting. With giant sea creatures, underwater passages, and exotic locations, the action components of this book can often be quite gripping. There is also a poetry embedded here as demonstrated from this passage:

“The light produced a thousand charming varieties, playing in the midst of the branches that were so vividly coloured. I seemed to see the membraneous and cylindrical tubes beneath the undulation of the waters. I was tempted to gather their fresh petals, ornamented with delicate tentacles, some just blown, the others budding, while a small fish, swimming swiftly, touched them slightly like flights of birds.”

Jules Verne was an author whose strength was in his attention to detail; however, I found this scientific accuracy to be a little tedious at times as there are pages comprised of numbers along with scientific names. Reading a laundry list of each species, genus, and family names would often become exhausting. While these facts are relevant to the scientific community, I found myself getting bored at times.

While a lot of attention is placed on the spirit of adventure along with the scientific wonders found in this book, not enough credit goes to the character development. Professor Aronnax is a likable enough narrator as he is torn between his desire to no longer be a captive aboard the Nautilus with his yearning to learn. Captain Nemo serves as the seducer here, as initially Aronnax cannot help but marvel at all of these opportunities that would otherwise not be available to him. I found the friendship between these two men to almost parallel someone in a possessive relationship. Aronnax is technically a prisoner aboard the Nautilus, but often there is this illusion that he is aboard voluntarily.

While Nemo himself appears to be a learned man as evidenced by his extensive knowledge but also his collections of books and art, there is a darkness that slowly penetrates his presence throughout the book. At times, he can appear quite unhinged with his hatred of civilization. His madness grows slowly throughout the story culminating into a final act that transforms the eccentric captain into the stuff of nightmares, reminding me of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. 

“For him, he was a misunderstood genius who, tired of earth’s deceptions, had taken refuge in this inaccessible medium, where he might follow his instincts freely.”

Although the closing chapters bring some light into his life prior to the Nautilus, I like that the motivations and hatred of Captain Nemo remain a mystery. Although I was curious, I think that not knowing everything added an additional layer of uneasiness to the character. It is my understanding that the background of Nemo is revealed in a later work by Verne, The Mysterious Island, so I may have to pick that one up at some point. I am also curious about the Disney film version of this story as I want to see if any of the darker aspects of this story are retained.

Despite my enjoyment of it, I did have some issues with Verne’s masterpiece. Similar to many of the works of Stevenson, there is a strong lack of female characters. Verne’s attempts to be scientifically accurate along with his wordiness can become boring. Although I enjoyed the relationship between Aronnax and Nemo, the other principle characters were forgettable.

Although not always as riveting as more contemporary science fiction works, I think this book will always be considered a classic as it reminds us that there are still plenty of amazing wonders on Earth. Reading this novel filled me with that Victorian sense of curiosity for discovering the unknown. Perhaps 20,000 Leagues will no longer be important once the seas have nothing left to teach us, but I believe that will not happen for quite some time.

“The sea is everything, It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man in never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence.”

This book counts towards three of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

1. ‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell

Time for my first review of 2019! Not only did I choose a fast read, but it is also a reread of a book I really loved. I debated on whether or not I should write a whole new review of David Mitchell’s horror novel Slade House. However, reading its predecessor The Bone Clocks altered my experience of this one in such a way that I deemed it worthy of its own post. For the curious, feel free to check out my original review from 2017.

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The story begins in 1979 when a young boy named Nathan and his mother are invited to the home of Lady Norah Grayer. Something feels off from the beginning, as Slade House can only be entered through a mysterious door along an alleyway. Nathan and his mother meet Lady Grayer and her mysterious son Jonah, and the two boys spend the afternoon playing in the garden. The ideal day suddenly turns bizarre as Nathan begins having visions of strange people and other occurrences such as a painting of himself at the top of a grand staircase. The events that occur following this revelation are truly nightmarish.

Slade House is written in five chapters, each set 9 years after the previous one. We soon learn that the Grayers are not what they appear to be and harbor some rather terrifying secrets. Each person who enters the house experiences a completely different scenario with one commonality: never coming out again. I have to give a lot of praise for David Mitchell as a virtuoso when it comes to writing different styles of fiction. From his success at penning family drama to science fiction, I truly believe he can write anything. For this novel, Mitchell has provided us with a work of pure horror as I was literally scared during some of the scenes in this book. With each character, I felt the helplessness of that particular situation. Mitchell manages to give this book an off-kilter feeling as you keep second-guessing on whether the events happening are truly happening. I love fiction that plays with your mind the way this one does.

This novel isn’t so much a sequel to The Bone Clocks but more an extension of that universe. For those that were underwhelmed by that effort, this one is much better as it manages to tell a concise yet frightening story. While I enjoyed this one two years ago on the first read, I loved it even more with the knowledge I have from The Bone Clocks. The reality is that all of Mitchell’s novels are tied to the same universe, and the fun of reading one of his works is spotting the little references to past books.

Although I loved each section, my favorite was the one following Sally Timms in 1997. I loved how Mitchell portrayed this teenage girl’s insecurities. He really can capture teen angst as well as budding romance. Over the years, Mitchell has written in a variety of characters, and I’m always impressed with how well he makes each sound different from the one before.

Overall this is a great book. While frightening and perplexing, it is also a breeze to get through in no time at all. I am highly motivated to read (as well as reread) all of David Mitchell’s novels as he has risen the ranks to one of the finest modern authors working today.

“People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

46. ‘Let Me In’ by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Halloween is almost here, and I still have two reviews to go for Readers Imbibing Peril. You may know today’s review by its original title Let the Right One In, the breakthrough horror classic from Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist. The book was such a hit that it spawned two film versions, one being the American adaptation called Let Me In. I used to read a lot of vampire fiction in my younger days, but lost interest probably due to the ridiculously dreadful Twilight series. Fortunately, Lindqvist has restored my love of vampires by taking the classic myth into new territory. Let me tell you that this book is so incredibly good that it is hands down the best vampire story I’ve read since Salem’s Lot a few years back. This is horror that is gruesome and twisted in places, but warm and emotionally rewarding in others. Lindqvist is Sweden’s answer to Stephen King.

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Oskar is a lonely twelve-year old boy who is constantly bullied at school and has an overprotective mother as well as an absentee father. In order to cope with his loneliness, Oskar has an unhealthy obsession with murder by keeping a collection of newspaper articles as well as acting out his own impulses on a tree with a knife. His life changes one night when he meets Eli, a strange girl who moves into the apartment next door with her father. The pair soon form an attachment despite Oskar’s suspicions that something is not quite right about his new friend. Their relationship develops into one of understanding and loyalty. In fact, it isn’t until more than halfway through the book that Oskar learns the truth that Eli is in fact a 200-year-old vampire. Oskar finds himself conflicted as his best friend is someone who murders others for survival but at the same time has helped him to feel good about himself.

“For a few seconds Oskar saw through Eli’s eyes. And what he saw was… himself. Only much better, more handsome, stronger than what he thought of himself. Seen with love.”

The heart of Let Me In is this unconventional relationship between two souls whose connection benefits each one. Eli is forever trapped in the body of a child and now has  an opportunity to feel young at heart again. For Oskar, this relationship gives him the chance to feel better about himself and to not just be the fat kid who gets beat up all the time. Eli gives Oskar the courage to stand up and conquer his demons.

I love the fact that the vampire is a child. Despite the fact that vampires are supposed to be these dark and grotesque creatures who only care about blood, Eli still presents as an innocent child. It isn’t an act that is pleasurable or sexual but as a means for survival. This is where Eli’s pretend father Hakan comes in. A pedophile who is in love with Eli, Hakan is a willing servant to go and kill for his master in order to bring fresh blood. Without a doubt, Hakan is one of the most disgusting creations ever put to paper.

What I love about this novel is the balance between classic horror elements along with the truly horrific events that occur in our world on a regular basis. The scenes where Oskar is being bullied nearly made me cry. Over the course of the book, we learn about the dysfunctional relationships Oskar has with each of his parents. The scenes featuring Hakan and his pedophilia nature were often difficult to read. Make no mistake that this story is dark and disturbing on several different levels. This darkness helps elevate the relationship between the two leads to a more beautiful level. Less romantic in nature and more a deep friendship, the bond is what helps these two characters to survive their harsh world.

The novel doesn’t just focus on Eli and Oskar. Eli’s presence in the neighborhood sets off a series of events that affects multiple lives. There is a small group of adults whose lives are changed when one of their own is a victim. We learn a lot about the nature of the infection and just how miserable it truly is being a vampire. This book is also very violent. There are some scenes that will make you cringe and could possibly give you nightmares.

I have to praise Lindqvist on his ability to manipulate all the vampire myths that are over-used throughout the fiction we read today, and the way he has managed to create something truly unique. Let Me In is so much more than a vampire story. It is about an unconventional relationship between two outsiders who are trying to survive in the darkest of worlds.

“What he was scared of was not that maybe she was a creature who survived by drinking other people’s blood. No, it was that she might push him away.”

This book counts towards three of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.