Book #136: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)

author: Stephen Chbosky
language: English
length: 213 pages
finished reading on: 12 May 2017

I like it when I find a book that’s just nicely-presented, which is the main reason I bought this novel, if I’m honest. Usually I avoid the ones with movie tie-in covers, but the paper and layout of this novel is very good quality. So I actually feel like I’m getting better quality than I would if I bought the Kindle version.

I watched the movie version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower a few years ago – there are a lot of things I’d forgotten about the movie, but I kept remembering moments as I read through this. The movie is pretty faithful to the book, and it’s directed by the book’s author, which is pretty rare. One thing I’d forgotten is that the movie awkwardly tries to keep the conceit that the main character is writing letters to an unnamed stranger – the so-called epistolary style – by having him type the letters out on screen. It doesn’t work on screen, and I was a bit skeptical about the book when I first picked it up, but I found it works quite well.

It’s very easy to read, especially after the last book I read, which had quite thick and heavy prose. This is written in a more colloquial style and is often speaking directly at the reader. That and the shorter length of the book meant that I finished it much quicker.

I think it’s refreshing to have a young male character who’s unashamed of being emotional and upset – so much media, even modern media, still stereotypes men as being unable to express their emotions. And this tackles quite a lot of mental health issues directly, which is also good. I don’t have a lot to criticize about the book – perhaps that the main character is self-centred despite trying hard to be a “wallflower”, and annoyingly clueless at times. But I also recognized that awkwardness I and a lot of others I know have experienced in our high school days.

And there’s the ending twist, too, which I’d completely forgotten – it comes on the second-to-last page in the book. I don’t want to reveal it – I think the book is easy enough for people to read and I really liked it, so I think people should seek this book out. Perhaps it’s a bit young for me, really – the issues are distinctly teenage, after all, and I’m well past that stage of my life – but I still enjoyed reading it a lot. (And one of the side characters is gay. Also good.)

Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

Book #115: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

1984author: George Orwell
language: English
length: 742 minutes (12 hours 22 minutes)
finished listening on: 12 October 2016

Cynics will say this book is ever more relevant today than ever. I’m not so sure, but it’s certainly a warning worth heeding. I’ve never actually read the book before now, but by that weird kind of cultural osmosis, I’m well aware of most of the aspects of the book – Big Brother, Room 101, and so on. As with the last review I wrote today, I’m going to assume that you are also aware of what happens in this book.

But it might be worrying that those concepts are known to me through early-2000s reality TV shows. Like our culture was trying to package up those concepts to be less scary or induce a different reaction. Like the whole concept of Newspeak. No, I don’t think our vapid culture is the same as the one depicted in this book – I think that’s exaggerating, but it’s useful to point out aspects that are similar, and conclude that we should work to change those aspects.

I’m not quite convinced by some parts of the book. I think it gets over-the-top at points. I don’t believe in the division of the world into three big empires, when I perceive the nationalism and the wave of independence of former colonies that happened after Orwell wrote his book. But those empires correspond to America, Russia and China, so perhaps it is accurate after all. It’s obvious that Orwell was warning about the rise of fascism and/or communism post-war (and that is indeed something we should be very worried about in today’s world), but it’s unclear what he would proffer as a decent replacement to those systems.

The book is well-written and doesn’t mess around in making its point, but at the same time, it’s repetitive, a habit that Orwell seems to have to try to get his point across by making it constantly. I found the interrogation scenes genuinely scary, though. At this point, hearing the characters explaining Ingsoc and why it’s a positive force for mankind made me feel a bit ill. The whole idea of making people genuinely believe what you want them to believe, through torture, is reminiscent of the “debate” around conversion therapy, and I’m quite glad that, while fascism is on the rise, and the new American administration is threatening their citizens with such treatment, I don’t see this having happened yet in my experience and my country, if it will at all. If it can at all.

That said, forced confessions are a big thing here in Japan. Just thought I’d throw that one out there. None of us are free from sin.

But exactly that – I’m not sure these things are realistic, to the level that Orwell writes about it. Newspeak as a concept is scientifically on very shaky ground – I firmly believe language-as-mind-control could not happen as described in this book, and most linguists would agree. Linguistic determinism was still having its heyday in 1949, I’m guessing, and I can excuse Orwell this infraction. The Newspeak words have to an extent entered the popular vocabulary, and I still see people talking about doublethink and double-plus-ungood things. It’s like child vocabulary.

Anyway, the audiobook presentation was a bit unemotional, but perfunctory. I enjoyed it overall, but mainly for the writing, not the performance. I think if you haven’t read this yet, you should. It’s unfortunately relevant to the modern day. Leave a comment if you agree or disagree!