Monday, September 12, 2011

Fourth Degree Freedom and other stories by Libby Heily

  Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):   Fourth Degree Freedom explores the best of humanity and the worst. The stories range from hopeful realism to the dystopian side of speculative fiction. Each story twists and turns through darkness and light, settling somewhere in the shadowy area of day to day life.

Thank You For Calling - A young woman fights to keep her sanity, her marriage and her hope while working in a call center.
The Event - Do the youth decide to go along with the government's plan to rid the population of the elderly, or will they fight back?
Fourth Degree Freedom - A family, shunned by neighbors and friends, struggles with their youngest son, a boy that was literally born a monster.
The Last Six Miles - Samantha has hit rock bottom. Her husband has left her and her only source of comfort is junk food. Her slip into depression seems inevitable until she discovers running. Samantha begins the long journey from barely being able to jog a minute to completing her first marathon.
She Floats - If you woke up and didn't know where you were, would you panic? What if you were trapped in a giant aquarium

And here's what I thought:
   As you can see from the above summary, the stories contained in this book are pretty widely varied.   While I don't know if I loved every story, I found all of them interesting.  The first one, where the main character is working in a call center aimed at lonely callers, seems pretty straightforward.   You get a clear mental picture of the main character, Penelope, not only through her verbal interactions with callers, but through the blog entries she writes.  

Then, things shift abruptly into the second story, The Event.   Here, once a year, the elderly are culled from the population.  And if you don't know what I mean by culled, try this: once a year, younger people hunt down the elderly and shoot them.  Of course, the elderly people do have the option of taking the cyanide pill they've been issued, instead of writing to be found and shot.  Disturbing, eh?   And the main character here states things pretty plainly, saying "We eliminate a large portion of the elderly population every year.  Another big chunk of old people kill themselves.  More leave the country, illegally.  They can't work, can't provide.  Who needs the hassle?" (p. 7).  Definitely chilling, and thought-provoking.
Moving into the next story, we read about David, who was born a monster.  Yes, a monster.  In this story, it is explained that "Ever since the last war, and the radiation it produced, thirty percent or so of all children had been born with some degree of monster-like qualities." (p. 11)  What I thought was really interesting was that what I found disturbing wasn't David, even though he was obviously not very human.  Instead, it was the behavior of his parents that was the distressing part -- they just toss food down to him (in the basement) every day, and have disconnected completely from him, and from each other.  The only sympathetic character other than David is his sister, who is a friend to her monstrous brother.
Then, things take a turn back towards the normal, as The Last Six Miles takes us through Samantha's transformation from an overweight, unhappy woman, to a slimmer, marathon-runner.  Admittedly, I didn't find much disturbing in this story, and found it less thought-provoking than the previous two stories.
Finally, we reach She Floats, and are back into the odd and disturbing arena.  This is very short story, and is told in the first person.  We don't know anything about the main character, where she is, or what is really happening, and we experience everything as she does -- so there is a really uncomfortable feeling as the story continues and she has to figure out how to avoid running out of oxygen.
It's an interesting collection of stories.  I found that three of them resonated with me a bit more than the others, and these were the three that were more disturbing.  I probably liked them a bit more just because I found them to be thought-provoking; in other words, they really made me think.  I found myself turning them around in my mind after I had finished the book.  The stories certainly seem disparate --- I could take the three I liked (#2, #3 and #5) and put them into their own volume, and take the other two and put those in a separate book.  I would have also preferred those stories to be a bit longer, just because I was enjoying the story and wanted to know more.   I was reminded of one of my favorite collections of short stories, Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand (and I don't love every story in that book, either - but really do like a few of them).

Overall, I found the stories to be well written, evenly paced, and appealing.  If you're looking for something short, and (probably) completely different than what you're reading now, I'd encourage you to check out these stories.   And if you're like to know more about the author, please visit her blog -- and here's the link to the book on Amazon.

Thoughts on the cover:  Actually, I wish the cover art were more complex.   This cover is bright, and almost a bit aggressive (I think it's the orange) -- and based on the three stories that I enjoyed, I would have gone with some kind of darker image, maybe even a black and white photo, and with a different font.  


Carol @ There's Always Thyme to Cook said...

Sounds like a great book, but I agree with you on the cover, I might not be inclined to look past, but your review makes me interested to check it out.

Jen said...

You know, I'm thinking of doing up an alternate cover in Picnik and putting it up ......

Melissa (i swim for oceans) said...

The cover is for sure not too much about captivating us, eh? That said, the writing and stories are intriguing! Great honest and thoughtful review :)

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