Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Posted by Simcha 4:11 PM, under | 6 comments

I had heard about The Unit a couple of months ago on a Books on the Nightstand podcast and I was immediately intrigued. I had recently developed a new interest in dystopic literature and the different perspectives and ideas that authors have about what the future may hold. Ninni Holmqvist’s book sounded interesting and unique and I was curious how the story would unfold.

Dorrit Weger, is 50 years old, unmarried, has no children or dependents, aside from her dog Nils. Dorris is therefore considered “disposable” and is required by law, in this futuristic society, to relocate to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material. There she will receive a furnished apartment, free food and clothing and unlimited use of the state of the art recreation facilities. In exchange, Dorrit, and all of the other disposable men and women living in the compound, are expected to participate in medical and psychological testing and to donate their organs to those in the “outside world” who many need them.

Despite her initial anxiety about moving to the Unit, Dorrit is surprised to find herself enjoying life in the compound. For the first time in her adult life she has an active social life, a growing circle of friends, and wide variety of free activities that she may participate in at any time. She can go out for lunch with friends each day, enjoy the local theater, get her hair styled at the salon go swimming every morning; all activities that Dorrit could never before afford and which are available now for free. Dorrit even finds herself developing a relationship with an attractive older man to whose flirtatious advances she eagerly responds.

But slowly Dorrit becomes aware of the darker side of life in the Unit. Little by little her friends’ bodies start breaking down as bits and pieces are given away for medical purposes and some of the older residents disappear completely after making their Final Donation. Hormone injections are causing one friend’s voice to deepen and hair to grow on her face and another friend develops cancer due to ongoing radiation. A failed anti-depressant experiment causes the participants brains to shrink. The longer a person lives at the Unit the more testing they are subjected to and the more serious the donation required.

While Dorrit was aware from the start of what was expected from residents living at the compound she had not been expecting to fall in love. But now that Dorrit finally has the life that she always wanted to live and the man she wants to live it with, she has to face the facts that her new-found happiness will soon be coming to an end, unless she is willing to do something about it.

On the whole, I found The Unit to be an interesting and compelling book that had me thinking back to the story days after I finished it. The book is very well written, even though it’s actually translated from Swedish; you would never guess it was not originally written in English. The characters were all well developed and realistic and you really come to care for Dorrit and each of her friends

With that said, there seemed to be a number of plot holes in the story line and missing information that bothered me. (If you have not read the book, you might want to skip this part of the review). First of all, I thought there was a disappointing lack of background information explaining how this new system came to be, if there was a particular event that triggered it and if it was limited to Sweden or extended to the world at large. None of these issues were addressed at all. There was also very little information about the outside world and people’s reaction to the fact that a large part of intellectual society was being killed off. While a couple of staff members at the Reserve Bank did express their disapproval for the system, these incidents seemed out-of place and unnatural, as if, as an afterthought, the author felt she should throw them in to balance the story out.

I also had a hard time believing that Dorrit, and the other people at the Unit, had not made more of an effort to prevent ending up there, even if it meant they had to grab a stranger off the street to marry them so that they would have a dependent. Considering that the stranger, if edging towards the age limit, would also be ending up at the unit, he or she should be more then willing. The book does touch upon this issue a little, towards the end, but I thought this issue should have been addressed more thoroughly to give the story more credence.

And finally, towards the end of the book, Dorrit and her boyfriend each make a difficult choice,
which to me made no sense on either count. I really can't expand on this without giving away too much information but I just feel that I have to express my opinion on the matter.

So while
The Unit does tend to ignore the sociological implications of the system that it introduces, the individual story that it does tell, is told very well. The author provides you with some new ideas to think about and with characters that will stay with you even after you finish the last page.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Posted by Simcha 5:49 PM, under | 2 comments

I had received Lost in A Good Book, the sequel to The Eyre Affair (reviewed here) by Jasper Fforde, a few weeks ago and it took me a while to find the time to read it. I guess I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed The Eyre Affair, otherwise I would have made reading this book a priority. It was just such a fun and pleasurable read that if I had the third book on hand, I would have just kept on reading through the night.

At the end of The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next finally married Landen and defeated the evil Achron Hades. Now happily married and a reluctant celebrity, Thursday is back at work as a Spec-Op 27 literary detective. But the Goliath Corporation wants Hades back and they are willing to take some very harsh measures to force Thursday's compliance. Thursday's newlywed bliss is short lived when she returns home one day to discover that her husband has been eradicated and no one but her remembers that he ever existed. Those behind the eradication assure Thursday that the only way she will get her husband back is by retrieving Achron Hades from Poe's The Raven, where she had trapped him.

With no other options available, Thursday begins to investigate her own powers of book jumping. Along the way she becomes apprenticed to the wily, action loving Ms. Havisham, gets prosecuted in Kafka's The Trial and attempts to save the world from being turned into a mysterious pink, sticky confection.

In Lost in A Good Book, Fforde once again brings to life some of literature's favorite characters, giving them interesting personality quirks that I'm certain the original authors had never intended for them. But as Thursday runs from one crazy adventure to another, there remains a serious undertone to the story as she struggles to bring back her eradicated husband with whom she had just begun to discover the joys of love and marriage. Fforde skilfully manages to balance the humor of the story with the underlying poignancy of Thursday's loss, providing the book and its characters with an unexpected depth.

If you enjoyed The Eyre Affair, then I highly recommend that you follow Thursday Next to her continuing adventures in Lost in a Good Book. And if you have not yet tried a Jasper Fforde book, I suggest that you do so quickly as you are certainly missing out on some great reading fun.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Win Free Books at these Book Blog Giveaways

Posted by Simcha 4:01 PM, under | 4 comments

I had a bit of free time this morning so I spent it browsing through the various blogs I have recently begun following and I discovered that there are tons of great contests and books giveaways currently going on. Since I'm pretty new to the blogging world I don't know if there are always this many contests or if its just in honor of Halloween, but here are a few of my favorites:

The Book Rat
is giving away one book, from her collection of books reviewed, which can be chosen by the winner. There are a number of ways to enter, including becoming a follower, commenting on the blog and helping promote the contest through Twitter.
The contest runs until Nov. 30th and is open internationally.

Blood Bookaholic is giving away two books, Rowan of the Woods and Witch in the Water, by Christine Rose and Ethan Rose. The winner also receives a stake (Yup, you read right. The pointy kind, meant to be thrust into the chest of the undead, not the kind you throw on the grill). The contest is open worldwide and ends October 31st.

The Lateiner Gang is giving away a whole bunch of great books including The Maze Runner, which is a book I personally really want to read. They are also giving away a $200 gift card to tht Apple Store (now THAT is a cool prize!). This contest is only open to those with a US address and it runs until Nov. 28th.

Fresh Fiction has a whole lot of really great book giveaways going on, offered directly by the authors, and it looks like they are all open to international residents. To enter, all you have to do if fill out your name, email and zipcode.

There are plenty more contests going on, many of which you can find listed at

Good Luck!

Warbreaker: My Favorite Fantasy of the Year

Posted by Simcha 8:12 AM, under | 3 comments

Brandon Sanderson is gaining recognition for masterfully creating imaginative worlds of fantasy populated by vibrant characters and unique systems of magic. And while I have enjoyed his previous books, including Elantis and the Mistborn series, it is in Warbreaker that Sanderson truly excels.

Warbreaker introduces a world in which there is magic in color and people with enough Breath can access this magic to animate objects or even bring the dead to life. In the city of Hallandren Breath is bartered and sold and those who accumulate it gain power. It is also a place where color is openly flaunted and where the Returned are worshiped as gods.

The Returned are humans who died in an act of heroism and who come back to life immediately afterwards, to be pampered and revered by the Hallendre people. It is believed that the Returned were brought back to life for a purpose, which they had glimpsed on the Other Side, and now that they are alive again they await for the opportunity to carry this purpose out. Unfortunately, the Returned are unable to remember anything about their previous lives or what they experienced while dead, and so they live in decadent splendor as they await for their purpose to be revealed.

But the Idrians, considered rebels by the Halladrens, believe in their own god and their own religion which states that giving away Breath, which is part of one’s soul, or using it to animate is a sacrilege. In Idris color is rare and the people dress in humble grays which can not be used in the evil act of animation.

From an early age, Vivenna, princess of Idris, was trained for her role as the future bride of the God King, the most feared and powerful of the Returned. She was to serve as a sacrifice for her people in order to create an alliance between the two nations. But when the dreaded moment comes, for some indiscernible reason, the kings send his youngest daughter, Siri, instead.

Headstrong and willful Siri is bewildered by the sudden turn of events that has her traveling to the hated country of Hallandren to marry their god. Rarely having paid attention to her tutor’s lessons, Siri barely knows the first thing about politics or this new situation into which she is stepping into. But she will have to learn quickly as tensions are high, enemies are everywhere and war is beginning to seem like an imminent occurrence.

Meanwhile, the obedient and pious Vivenna, who has spent her whole life preparing to serve as queen of Halladren, suddenly finds herself with no purpose to her life. Unable to sit around insignificantly, Vivenna sets out to Idris in order to rescue her sister. But even Vivenna’s lifelong studies of politics and Halledra culture have not prepared her for the challenges she will face and the sacrifices she will find herself making in order to survive.

While Siri and Vivenna are the central character in Warbreaker, the book is also full of a wonderful assortment of secondary characters who help bring the story to life. There is Lightsong the Bold, the sardonic and irreverent Returned who does not believe in his own divinity; Llarimar, Lightsongs high priest of infinite patience; the mercenary Denith and his menacing crew, the mysterious Vasher and his sword of death, and the all-powerful God King himself. Each of these characters are so skillfully crafted and developed, that it is difficult to believe that they are merely figments of Sanderson’s imagination and not real people living among us.

The story itself is so wonderfully told, it grabs you in the beginning and doesn’t let you go until the very end, while frequently surprising you along the way. Whenever I thought I had the story and its characters figured out, I was proven wrong. Right until the very end, Sanderson keeps you guessing, not knowing who the real enemies are and who might prove to be the heroes.

There is also a nice element of humor throughout the book, balancing out the building tension. Much of the humor crops up in Lightsong’s dialogue with his high priest, who he nicknamed Scoot, and with his interaction with the other Returned.

    “Ah, very good,” Lightsong said. “I do believe that we’ve accomplished something today. I’ve fled from my responsibilities, screamed at my servants and sat about pouting. Undoubtedly, this will convince everyone that I’m even more noble and honorable then they previously assumed. Tomorrow, there will be twice as many petitions, and I shall continue my inexorable march toward utter madness.”

    “You can’t go mad,” Llarimar said softly. “It’s impossible.”

    “Sure I can,” Lightening said. “I just have to concentrate long enough. You see, the great thing about madness is that it’s all in you’re head”

While it should be quite obvious from this review that I enjoyed Warbreaker immensely, I can’t ignore the fact that there were a few things in the book that did bother me. I was surprised that the king of Idris was completely left out of the book, after his initial decision to replace Vivenna with Siri. I would have expected him to take aggressive action in order to retrieve his daughter from enemy territory, but we really don’t hear from him again. I was also surprised at how na├»ve and ineffectual Vivenna was despite her years of political training. I would have expected a bit more from her. And finally, while the ending was certainly exciting and climatic, at the same time it was a little bit weak with some of the characters making choices that were not very believable. But these were all small flaws that in no way impeded my enjoyment of the book.

I would definitely say that Brandon Sanderson has done an incredible job with Warbreaker and this book is a must-read for any fan of fantasy.

Warbreaker can be read for free on Brandon Sanderson's website.


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