Wool, by Hugh Howey

Wool Book Cover Wool
Hugh Howey
Science Fiction
Simon & Schuster
March 12, 2013
Hardcover
528

In his debut novel (originally self-published in individual novellas on Amazon.com), Hugh Howey’s dystopian science fiction novel Wool is a wonderful idea that unfortunately is never fully utilized. In Wool, an underground silo is home to a large number of people hundreds of years following a mysterious end to civilization as we know it today. The ultimate punishment is referred to by the residents as a “cleaning,” in which the criminal is forced into the outside world where they furiously scramble to clean the tower sensors before the contaminated air eats through their bio-suits and flesh. It is a simple and straightforward process, but Holston and Juliette—sheriff of the upper level and worker at Mechanical Level respectively—both stumble upon secrets that force them to reconsider everything they’ve been raised to believe, including the origin of the silo itself and how underground life began; or perhaps most importantly, why.

The writing is mostly average, the plot painfully predictable, and the scenes that are supposed to cause sorrow and sympathy are played out in a way that is too hackneyed for the reader to truly care. There are flashes of briliance with the prose and plot development, but it is nearly ruined by how predictable it is, not to mention that Howey rarely seems to want to let his readers think for themselves. Another problem with the story is how unbelievable some of the events that take place are. For example [minor spoiler]: a character breaks his arm but is still somehow able to aim a rifle at an upward angle on a staircase, shooting two people without missing once despite those people being on higher levels than him. The obvious pain in his arm—where shrapnel from a bomb is also embedded within his flesh and bone—doesn’t affect his ability whatsoever. Add this to the fact that this person had maybe five, ten minutes of training with a firearm beforehand, otherwise having never even seen a firearm. Unrealistic happenings like this are the biggest eyesore of the novel’s readability.

However, what saves Howey is the characterization and dialogue, for those two areas are clearly his greatest strengths, even if a handful of the minor characters often come off as recycled versions of more important characters. Despite this strength in characterization and dialogue I still didn’t care enough about the story to read the sequel. An idea that could have been great, an instant classic even, stalled because the writing left too much on the table.

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No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn GreenwaldI admit that when the news broke about the NSA’s surveillance scandal, I didn’t feel terribly alarmed about it. Of course I value my own privacy, but the NSA wasn’t really going to spy on me, right? What’s the big deal? In his book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, Glenn Greenwald aptly explains what exactly the big deal is. Greenwald is an acclaimed journalist and after reading this, I understood why he’s won so many awards. He’s great at turning something complicated and maybe a little bit boring into a compelling narrative. It doesn’t hurt that in researching this story, his own life turned into a bit of a real life spy novel. Greenwald was the journalist to whom Edward Snowden decided to entrust his leaked documents, but in order to meet with him, Greenwald and his colleague had to travel to Hong Kong and follow Snowden’s requests, like meeting in unoccupied hotel conference rooms and greeting each other with code phrases, or covering his head with a towel when he types in his computer password to prevent any hidden cameras from being able to observe. At first, Greenwald (and I) thought Snowden’s measures seem extreme, but as Greenwald gets in deeper, Snowden begins to seem more and more reasonable.

I recommend No Place to Hide to any reader looking to understand the NSA surveillance scandal and what the right to privacy should mean in the USA. It also doubles as a pretty good true crime thriller.

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The Razor’s Edge by M. Somerset Maugham

This book is a character study of how people deal with life’s trials, and how they live their lives. Larry was a fighter pilot in World War I. When he comes back from the war, he gets back with his girlfriend Isabel. Isabel comes from money. Her father was an ambassador, so the family had been used to being in the social scene with powerful and rich people. Isabel lives with her mother, Louisa Bradley, and the father has passed away. Then there is Elliot Templeton who is Louisa’s brother, and he is very rich and is very social conscious. He looks after Isabel and wants her to have the best and marry well so that she will be able to continue her lifestyle.
Larry and Isabel become engaged, but Larry doesn’t want to just get a job and make money. He was almost killed in the war. Larry’s friend saved his life, so he was traumatized by the event. He wants to search for the meaning of life. He wants to marry Isabel, but he tells her that he wants to go to France for a couple of years. After two years Isabel has to decide if she wants to marry Larry, join him on his quest for meaning and live off a meager inheritance of Larry’s, or let him go and find somebody else. At first I didn’t like the book, but as I read it I thought that it gave the reader important things to think about.

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The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fanny Flagg

Fanny Flag, best known for her book “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café”, is always funny and touching at the same time. I’ve never been disappointed in one of her books.

Sookie Poole of Alabama lives in the shadow of her mother, Lenore. She has never seemed to be able to live up to Lenore’s expectations. Lenore is a fun but formidable woman, outgoing, talented, and a bit overbearing to Sookie. Yet, Sookie has had a good life, a wonderful husband, and now all her children are married and out of the house. It’s time to relax. That is, until she discovers a long-kept secret about her mother’s past. As Sookie learns to deal with this new revelation, she discovers more about herself and how to live as Lenore’s daughter. Her research into the past reveals things she never knew about herself or her mother.

Without giving away too many secrets, the book goes back and forth in time, presenting the details of the life of women serving in the United States Air Force as WAVES during WWII. We focus on Fritzi, an ambitious women as the 1940’s and her family who run a gas station in the Midwest. Fritzi joins the WAVES, and her story tells of the hardships and prejudice these brave women endured. The reader learns a lot about this real group of brave women who have only recently gained the recognition they deserve.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes a strong female-led story, or stories based in the South. The combination of humor, history, and mystery is something I personally can’t pass up.

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Mrs. Queen Takes the Train – William Kuhn

Book cover - Mrs. Queen takes the train - William KuhnThis was a thoroughly enjoyable book.

The Queen, now in her mid-80’s, is feeling a little down in the years since 1995. Feeling the need for a little cheering up, she slips out of Buckingham Palace and goes on an incognito trip to Scotland. Her happiest moments that she recalls were on the royal yacht Britannia, which is now a tourist attraction. Once she’s discovered missing, various people start looking for her, palace staff, a young Englishman of Indian descent. Overall, an excellent book, and one I will enjoy reading again. If you have any interest in the House of Windsor, or even how people who have spent their entire lives in the public eye cope with the attention and stress, you’ll love this book.

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Actors Anonymous by James Franco

Actors Anonymous by James FrancoI suppose I was interested to read Actors Anonymous by James Franco for the same reason I’m interested in any kind of celebrity memoir or novel: a sense of morbid curiosity. Our culture is obsessed with celebrity, and so am I. And so is James Franco.

Although Actors Anonymous is a novel, parts of it are very clearly autobiographical. The character known as “The Actor” apparently has a career identical to Franco’s, and part of the fun for me of this book was wondering how much else was based on truth.

The book’s style is experimental. It’s loosely based on the 12 steps of the AA-like Actors Anonymous, and is told through vignettes of the lives of various actors. Some characters’ stories are presented in verse or letters. We see different perspectives on the craft of acting, as well as fame and success.

I think how much a reader enjoys Actors Anonymous will depend upon how much goodwill the reader is willing to extend to James Franco. I’ll give him a lot, honestly–I can acknowledge that he’s a pretentious art school weirdo, but I admire his honesty. Here is a lithmus test for if you will enjoy this book:

F*** business. F*** money. F*** fame. F*** coolness.

 

I am in a great position. I can say f*** all of those things because I am a famous actor and because I have money and I can do whatever I want (within a range) and I will look cool.

Did you hate that? Fair enough. Don’t read this.

If you were intrigued or entertained by it, check out Actors Anonymous by James Franco.

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied LifeI was completely pulled in by this story, which is about a cranky bookseller who is not really living- as a result of his young wife dying in a car accident.  Through a series of events carefully knitted together by the author, A. J. (book store owner) comes to take care of an orphaned? toddler.  His life is never the same.  The child opens life up to A.J. in ways he could not have imagined, and soon a book saleswoman arrives on the scene to shake everything up again.

I’m sure we all gravitate to stories that resonate familiarity…but there was something so compelling about the way the story was told that made me want to just live inside the pages.  I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.

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The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp

This is the true story that the musical “The Sound of Music” was based on. The true story was not quite as dramatic as the movie. The oldest child did not have a romantic interest in young man who had joined the Hitler Youth. The Nazis were not hot on their trail, but the captain did get a commission to be in charge of a ship, and he was tempted by the prestige but did not want to join the Nazis. They decided to come to America by this time. It’s an inspiring story that they came here with nothing, and they were able to

be successful. I highly recommend it.Trapp Family

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Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen has always been one of my favorite fiction writers and here’s why,Still Life with Bread Crumbs her books all have a real life ring to them that you don’t often find without having the story go sappy and melodramatic or (as lately) dark to the point of tortuous. The story follows a period in a 60 year old woman’s life. She finds her finances to be so precarious that she sublets her Manhattan apartment and moves to a furnished mountain cabin about 2 hours away. She thinks that she may be able to save some money and reevaluate her situation at the same time. Anna Quindlen weaves the story to include a host of supporting characters that impact the story’s trajectory. We care what happens to ALL of them and as the story ends, you (the reader) are actually uplifted. This is not one of those “At Home in the Mountains” kind of book, but a slice of life that will leave you satisfied… that you took the time to read Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

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The Reason I Jump

This is a book written by an autistic Japanese child, Naoki Higashida, who used an alphabet grid to construct words and sentences. The book was translated into English by David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida. David Mitchell and his wife are the parents of an autistic child themselves. In their search for finding books to help them understand their son’s behavior they came upon “Reason I Jump” which KA Yoshida ordered from Japan. Noaki answers questions people ask about his behavior and that of other autistic children. His answer for why he jumps is: “When I jump it’s as if my feelings go upward to the sky.” In the introduction Mr. Mitchell helps the reader to understand how an autistic person views the world around him. It can be hard for an autistic person to know what to concentrate on because, “Your mind is a room where twenty radios all tuned to different stations are blaring music and voices.” You can imagine how hard it would be to navigate in a world like that. Some on the questions that Naoki answers are “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?.” “Why do you ignore us when we’re talking to you?,” and “Why do you answer the same questions over and over?” It’s a fascinating look at how people with autism see the world around them and why they tend to enjoy certain behaviors such as jumping or shaking their hands. There are a couple of families at my church who have children with autism, and I have wanted to ask some of those question myself.  It’s an enlightening look at how autism effects people’s lives and they behave as they do. I highly recommend it.

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