Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5) (Silo series) by Hugh Howey

Wool by Hugh Howey
Wool by Hugh Howey

We all want to be Hugh Howey when we grow up. Howey is a folk hero to those of us who dip our toes in the waters of self-publishing.

After publishing Wool with a small press, Howey self-published his post-apocalyptic sci-fi series on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, where it found a huge audience. The following year, Howey sold the film rights for Wool to 20th Century Fox, and inked a print distribution deal with Simon and Schuster. Howey reportedly turned down a seven-figure offer in favor of a mid-six figure sum in return for maintaining e-book rights.

Howey is one of the most successful self-published authors of all time, along with Amanda Hocking and mother/daughter Elf On The Shelf authors Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell. How did Howey do it? What’s the secret to his success?

His first step was writing a damn good story. Howey’s got storytelling chops, with cool characters to root for, evil villains to boo, and enough intellectual meat and moral fiber to leave readers feeling full.

Wool’s characters are likeable, believable, and keep the story moving. They walk the classic tightrope of all action heroes, from the stars of swashbuckling radio serials to the survivors of The Walking Dead. They fight on, even when hope no longer makes sense.

Despite its warm and fuzzy title, Wool ventures into some dark and dangerous territory. There are all kinds of political overtones, undertones, and sub-tones at work in Wool. It’s a classic class battle of the haves and have-nots, but here the currency is knowledge. The haves are in on the big secret of the silo(s) and the have-nots are kept in the dark about their own existence.

Spoiler alert! One of Howey’s well-drawn secondary characters spills the beans about halfway through.

“We are the seeds,” he said. “This is a silo. They put us here for the bad times.”

He also points out that seeds left alone for too long tend to rot, and Lord of the Flies-type hijinks inevitably ensues. Mankind’s war-like nature is on full display in Wool.

They all knew, instinctively, how to build implements of pain. It was something even shadows knew how to do at a young age, knowledge somehow dredged up from the brutal depths of their imagination, this ability to deal harm to one another.

This is a story about political power, intrigue, and grassroots revolts. Within Wool’s compelling story structure there are meditations on:

Revolution

Metal would snap if you could wiggle it even a little bit, if you did it long enough. She had felt the heat of weakened steel countless times while bending it over and over until it broke

Genocide

There’s fear that small pockets of survivors might be holed up elsewhere around the globe. Operation Fifty is completely pointless if anyone else survives. The population has to be homogenous…

Life under totalitarian rule

They put us in this game, a game where breaking the rules means we all die, every single one of us. But living by those rules, obeying them, means we all suffer.

Wool reminds me of E.M. Forster’s classic The Machine Stops, but then a lot of good dystopian science fiction does. We are all becoming more and more like Forster’s underground society of hive-dwelling, WiFi-sucking hermits every day.

At least I am.

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The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron

Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron
Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron

Laird Barron writes weird.

Barron is a good writer, but the stories contained in his collection, The Imago Sequence  and Other Stories, are sometimes hard to figure. You’ll need a dictionary, good map skills, and a working knowledge of mythology, world religions, philosophy, horror fiction, and crime pulps to make heads or tails of these tales.

Don’t get me wrong; just because Barron’s style is strange doesn’t mean his fiction isn’t enjoyable. The stories in The Imago Sequence are rich with interesting characters and concepts, and practically drip with atmosphere.

Barron is a skilled writer and you can see his toil on every page. He blends Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft, in ways both good and bad. Tough guys stumble through the underworld of crime and the Old West against a backdrop of ancient horrors, cosmic interference, and unreliable narrators. At its best, Barron’s gritty prose conjures Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, gut-punching like a trench-coated henchman in an old black-and-white film. Check out these savory one-liners:

“Somebody slapped a bottle of whiskey in my hand and lost the cork…I tumbled off the wagon and got crushed under its wheels.”

“If the best revenge is living well, second best has to be watching your enemy shrivel like a worm on the end of a hook.”

“Underdog and Popeye couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag until they’d had their fix.”

“Karma, brothers and sisters, has a mouth as big as the world.”

Occasionally Barron’s work is undone by his word choice. Just because you’ve got a big vocabulary is no reason to use phrases like, “great chthonian depths,” “uxoricidal brute,” or “compensation for your temerity.”

The title story is the best in the collection. “The Imago Sequence” follows the pursuit of an ultra-rare trio of photographs that drive viewers insane and/or reveal the secrets of existence, perhaps even the very face of God Hisownself. The crime noir vibe builds to a climax that’s equal parts Thomas Harris’s Hannibal and John Carpenter’s The Thing, imbued with meaty philosophical musings:

“Enlightenment isn’t necessarily a clean process. Enlightenment can be filthy, degenerate, dangerous. Enlightenment is its own reward, its own punishment. You begin to see so much more. And so much more sees you.”

Barron’s reoccurring themes include religion, philosophy, and the meaning of existence, all of which are rendered masterfully in “Shiva, Open Your Eye.”

“Men are afraid of the devil, but there is no devil , just me and I do as I am bid. It is God that should turn their bowels to soup. Whatever God is, He, or It, created us for amusement. It’s too obvious. Just as He created the prehistoric sharks, the dinosaurs , and the humble mechanism that is a crocodile. And Venus fly traps, and black widow spiders, and human beings. Just as He created a world where every organism survives by rending a weaker organism. Where procreation is an imperative, a leech’s anesthetic against agony and death and disease that accompany the sticky congress of mating. A sticky world, because God dwells in a dark and humid place. A world of appetite, for God is ever hungry.”

Damn, Laird! That’s the kind of writing that can “turn your bowels to soup!”

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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

War is hell, and perhaps there is no more fiendish quality to armed conflict than the loss of humanity that comes with being a wartime soldier.

Life is simultaneously priceless and cheap. There are a million ways to die during a war and Louis Zamparini manages to avoid all of them in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.

Hillenbrand is a long way from the bucolic meadows and stinky stables she brought to life in her bestselling book, Seabiscuit. Here the backdrop is World War II, and her impeccably researched book spans the world from the California homefront, to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, to the POW camps of Japan.

Hillenbrand’s deepest travels are into the mind and spirit of Louis Zamparini, a California bad-boy-turned-track-star who went from shaking Hitler’s hand at the 1936 Olympics to seeing some of WWII’s harshest fighting.

Zamparini’s plane crashed while searching for another downed crew, and he survived in a raft for 47 days, and then endured another two years in a Japanese POW camp under the harshest conditions imaginable. Unbroken is a tale of the resilience of the human spirit, and the ability to maintain hope in the face of hopelessness.

Hillenbrand’s prose is lean and clean, and she paints word pictures with a reporter’s eye and a poet’s tongue. She writes about Zamparini’s time lost at sea:

   “It was not a great presence but a great absence, a geometric ocean of darkness that seemed to swallow heaven itself.”

Perhaps Zamparini’s biggest obstacle is overcoming the posttraumatic stress of his POW camp ordeal, and learning the healing power of forgiveness.

   “This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind.”

Zamparini’s example is inspiring and nearly superhuman.

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