Review: Wool

Hugh Howey - Wool

Title: Wool
Author: Hugh Howey
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year originally published: 2013

Wool was my prize from a treasure hunt around London, the result of piecing together and deciphering clues hidden in galleries, churches and museums, all set up by my decidedly superior bibliophile friend Emily. After hours of roving around the city, I found Emily in the café in Foyles, and was presented with a £10 book token. Of course, I had to spend it right there and then. I raced through the bookshop and immediately racked up a giant pile of new discoveries as well as items from my TBR list. Studying blurbs wildly, I picked up Wool. Did it measure up to the dystopian list I had in my head? A ruined and hostile landscape. Check. A future few have been unlucky to survive. Check. A community in a giant underground silo. Oooh, check. The next Hunger Games. Right, where’s the checkout?

The unlucky few are the people we’re locked up in the silo with, and on the whole they’re a likeable bunch. That is, until the dire truth about their living situation begins to emerge. Yet in the face of this gut-wrenchingly awful news, some remain admirably steadfast. I was impressed with Howey’s choice of protagonist, Jules. Yes, she fits into the YA/dystopian romance paradigm of gutsy-yet-beautiful heroine dominant in trilogies like The Hunger GamesDivergent, Matched and Delirium, but Jules stands out from that pack for one reason: She’s not an adolescent. It’s hugely refreshing to see Howey subverting the cult of youth to pick a 34-year old heroine who happens to have a bit of a crush on a 25-year old. And what? Age does not matter in the silo, and neither should it matter in our world. Which leads me to a little bugbear I have against most dystopian YA: Reading about seventeen-year old girls saving the world can only inspire me to a certain point. As a twenty-something female about to enter the non-academic world of work, I want to read about real women with years of experience, heartbreak and loss under their belts, taking on positions of leadership and doing a damn good job of it.

Naturally, I must now get my hands on Shift and Dust, having enjoyed Wool so much. Joyously, Howey decided to release the trilogy over the course of 2013, instead of tortuously drawing out the process of waiting for each installment, A Song of Ice and Fire style (c’mon, George R.R. Martin, where’s The Winds of Winter?) I can only hope they don’t suffer from what I like to call ‘trilogy syndrome’: the second book, the ‘filler’, provides background information to the events of the first book and essentially provides a fictional bridge between the action of the first and third installments’; the third book supplies us with a narrative dénouement, while resolving a love triangle of which we’d already guessed the outcome, way back in book one. In my experience, the second and third books are inevitably doomed to be weaker in terms of both plot and writing, which is saddening. But trilogy syndrome be damned. Wool was so engaging that my real problem at the moment is whether to do some work on my dissertation or read the next two books over the weekend…

My verdict: 5/5
I devoured Wool in a single day. It’s one of those books that’ll make you almost miss your train stop, that’ll be sitting open on your knees as you shovel your lunch into your mouth, that you’ll burn the midnight oil with, disregarding all sense of a proper bedtime. I wasn’t a social or functional human being in the one day that I sacrificed for Wool, and I don’t mind one bit. Yet losing myself in a book so completely did have slightly tunnel-vision repercussions – it wasn’t until my boyfriend was asking about the significance of the title that I finally got it. Wool refers to the wool of the cleaners, but also the wool that’s been pulled over the silo inhabitants’ eyes. Genius.

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Review: The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

Title: The Name of the Rose (originally Il nome della rosa)
Author: Umberto Eco
Publisher: Vintage Books
Year originally published: 1980

The Name of the Rose has been a bit of a slow burner. I read roughly four to six academic books a week during term time, but when I read non-Tripos books it’ll usually take me about a week. The Name of the Rose has taken me exactly one month to read. I spent the second half of term reading a few pages a night, then term ended and Eco’s book sucked me into its medieval world of heresy and immolations.

The story is told from the perspective of an ageing German monk, Adso, reflecting on his days as a novice, travelling around Europe with an older monk, William of Baskerville, in the first half of the 14th century. They stop off for a week in a magnificent abbey in northern Italy; yet over the course of these seven days, the two monks are embroiled in a puzzling tangle of murders, code, and a mysteriously labyrinthine library.

Once I’d properly started to engage with the story, I loved it. William of Baskerville, hailing from England, seems to have been written in the great tradition of dryly observant English detectives, cut from an incredibly similar cloth to Sherlock Holmes. The 1300s are also a compelling century to read about – with the learned on the cusp of grasping the technologies that have shaped our world today; William introduces Adso to the wonder of reading lenses and proto-compass magnets for divining one’s direction. Confession: I’m slightly biased towards this kind of setting. I studied medieval French literature in 2012 and medieval Italian art in 2013, so I’m bit in love with the Middle Ages, era of morbidly fascinating reliquaries and horrifying accounts of the Black Death. But I really don’t think you have to be a medieval scholar to enjoy this book. A little prior knowledge of ecclesiastical Latin or Romance languages would be useful, but is by no means necessary.

Something I also really appreciated in The Name of the Rose was just how hilarious it was in parts. Adso’s oneiric sequence had me crying with laughter in parts. Meanwhile, the short synopses which opened each chapter were mostly fairly banal, so unexpected injections of humour did not go unappreciated. For example:

‘In which the abbot speaks again with the visitors, and William has some astounding ideas for deciphering the riddle of the labyrinth and succeeds in the most rational way. Then William and Adso eat cheese in batter.’

I’d like some cheese in batter now please.

If you have difficulty connecting with the period, something that really helped me was to ensconce myself in my room, light a candle and create a Spotify playlist  full of church music (I especially favoured Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor). From that point I had no difficulty summoning images of cowled monks strolling piously around the cloisters! The Name of the Rose is definitely a book everyone should read at some point in their lives – it’s a great one for reflecting on the vicissitudes of age as well as the extent of our development in terms of technology and civil rights in the seven centuries that have passed.

My verdict: 4/5
Slow to get going, with some relatively heavy passages, but the doses of humour and whodunnit-style murders lent this book some much-needed lightness and made it a compelling read!