Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

Published: May 25, 2010
Publisher: Random House
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Humor
Format: Hardcover
Length: 240 pages

I read Elliot Allagash in one three-hour sitting. It was mildly entertaining, and I remember laughing once or twice, but ultimately it’s a remarkably slight novel that felt like a padded novella with pretensions of bigger things. On the other hand, its slightness does work in its favor, making it a quick, easy read, and I finished it before it could lose my interest or outstay its welcome.

The book charts the transformation of one Seymour Herson from chubby high school outcast to aloof popular kid cheating his way through life. His ascendancy comes thanks to a sociopathic billionaire teenager named Elliot Allagash, who appoints himself Seymour’s personal svengali and immediately begins stage-managing his life down to the finest detail.

The characters are fairly one-dimensional. Elliot is always scheming, Seymour is always nervous, and they’re surrounded by cardboard cut-out archetypes. The overall trajectory of their story isn’t particularly surprising, but the author does get a few points for absurd details thrown in along the way. Elliot’s convoluted revenges against his “enemies” do help keep things interesting now and then.

To be honest, I really only started reading it because it was due back to the library in a few days, and I finished it because it didn’t take that much effort once I started. Overall, it was an inoffensive way to spend a few hours, but nothing I’d go out of my way to recommend.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God EnginesPublished: December 31, 2009
Publisher: Subterranean
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 136 pages

John Scalzi is commonly known as an author, a prolific and long-established blogger, a man with a mischievous sense of humor, and a connoisseur of all things bacon-related. I’m not entirely sure where I first came across his work, but as soon as I finished reading Old Man’s War, he instantly became one of my new favorite authors. I worked my way through the rest of his books and so thoroughly enjoyed them that I was inspired to check out the work of one of his clear inspirations, Robert A. Heinlein.

Up until just recently, all of Scalzi’s fiction output was fairly easily categorized as science fiction. Sometimes it was militaristic, sometimes funny, but all of it generally involved space travel, future societies, aliens, and other common sci-fi tropes. Accordingly, when he announced that he would be publishing his first fantasy work, The God Engines, I was intrigued. It’s always fascinating when an author you love decides to branch out into new territories. However, I do remember him cautioning his fans that it was particularly dark fantasy, and would probably surprise anyone used to his existing work.

After finishing the book, I can see why he felt the need to warn his readers about a possible bumpy ride. It’s a short, sharp, brutal window into a particularly cruel and twisted society. None of Scalzi’s trademark humor is present, the characters are all deeply flawed individuals, and the climactic events are so gruesome that I would not be surprised to find the book filed under “horror”.

The God Engines tells the story of a society that uses captured gods to power its starships. In this world, gods are very real creatures, sustained by the faith and prayer of their followers, but subject to the machinations of more powerful deities. When a society is conquered, the citizens aren’t simply converted to a new religion; as a further indignity, their former god is enslaved and bent to the task of providing interstellar travel to the conquering faction.

The main character, Ean Tephe, is the captain of a ship powered by a particularly nasty and recalcitrant god. The very first thing Ean does in the book is whip his starship’s captive god for disobedience. Ean is a true believer in his society’s way of life and in his god’s grace above all others and generally comes off as a stiff-necked, unsympathetic hard-liner. The only real glimpse we get into Ean’s softer side is the time he spends with Shalle, one of the ship’s rooks, who are essentially nuns, therapists or prostitutes depending on the situation.

The most noteworthy thing about Shalle is that the character is never described with gendered pronouns. It’s never quite clear if Shalle is a woman, man, or something else entirely. Ultimately, however, this is a bit distracting, and I was never quite sure how Shalle’s lack of apparent gender played into the story other than as a method of subverting our expectations. The end result is something that read more like a formal exercise in gender-neutral storytelling instead of genuine world-building.

The main plot of the book is set in motion when Ean is sent on a secret mission to an unconverted world that his god has secreted away from its enemies. Ean’s ship is tasked to travel to the distant world and open up a portal for his god so that it can convert the citizens to believers and become more powerful from their new faith. However, Ean’s experiences on the unconverted world shake his personal faith to its core, and events only snowball from there.

To be honest, The God Engines is a hard book to enjoy. The main character isn’t particularly likable, his actions are in service to a clearly corrupt society, and the end results are particularly horrifying. Scalzi doesn’t pull any punches here, but as far as I can tell, that’s the main point.

In a way, it makes sense to think of The God Engines as a writing exercise in novella form; that isn’t to say it’s an unpolished or unfinished book, however. Rather, it seems perfectly designed to let Scalzi step outside of his comfort zone and play with a new storytelling palette.

Unfortunately, although it may have been a useful experience for him as a writer, it didn’t really work for me as a form of entertainment. Although I do enjoy stories that go to dark places, I usually need someone or something to root for, and Captain Ean Teshe is not that man. The book might still be an interesting read for the Scalzi completist, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fan.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

Published: March 8, 2011
Publisher: Viking Adult
Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery, Satire
Format: Hardcover
Length: 384 pages

If you happen to be a book nerd who likes fantasy, mystery, satire and a healthy dose of metafiction, the Thursday Next series will be right up your alley. It quickly became one of my favorite series after I read the first five books in a mad rush over the last year. However, after finishing the sixth installment, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, I’m unsure how I feel about the future of the Thursday Next books.

On one hand, One of Our Thursdays is Missing is a reboot with a different viewpoint character, but on the other hand it’s also the most self-referential of the entire series so far, and probably the worst possible place to jump into the series as a whole. Also, because it’s a Jasper Fforde book, telling you that there is a new viewpoint character is a huge oversimplification.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s about Thursday Next, a police detective in an alternate universe who is able to leap into fiction and uses her powers to solve mysteries both in the “RealWorld” and the “BookWorld”. That’s only scratching the surface, however; Fforde overstuffs the books with an insane number of alternate-world details and odd little touches. It makes the books almost impossible to accurately summarize.

The short version is that Thursday’s adventures were novelized by ghost writers in her world. What this means is that there is a “real” Thursday and a “fictional” Thursday. The fictional Thursday is sort of a cross between an actor and a clone of the real Thursday. Fictional Thursday only has to perform when someone in the RealWorld is reading one of her books. However, readership numbers are dropping and she finds herself with too much free time on her hands. When she hears rumors that the real Thursday may have disappeared, fictional Thursday begins a surreptitious investigation, and almost immediately finds herself in over her head.

Much like her RealWorld counterpart, fictional Thursday is driven to solve this mystery at all costs. However, she isn’t exactly like the real version; in the book series, her husband, Landen, was killed off in the first book to “raise the stakes”, and she finds herself envious of the real Thursday’s family. She also doesn’t consider herself quite as talented a detective, especially since she flunked her entrance exam for the BookWorld police force.

The overall portrayal of fictional Thursday is my main problem with this book. When we were initially introduced to this fictional version of Thursday in the fifth book, she was portrayed as a hippie do-gooder who is too much of a pacifist for proper police work. However, in this book she mostly just behaves like a less confident version of the real Thursday. She tells us that she would probably solve problems by hugging everyone, but it felt like I never really saw the differences in her personality in action. Mostly she just seemed like a diminished version of the real thing. Fforde takes away a lot of the real Thursday’s defining characteristics and doesn’t give us anything truly compelling in their stead.

Also, a word of warning: Fforde really likes to throw in little metafictional jokes. Some of the stuff in this book relies on a fairly thorough knowledge of previous events in the series. It was definitely a huge help that I’d read all of the books in short succession. I’m not sure I would have caught all of the little details that Fforde throws in otherwise. However, even with all of that knowledge, I was occasionally a bit confused by events, and wondered if Fforde knew what he was doing. My best advice is just to try to relax and enjoy the ride.

Ultimately, I have to say that this is my least favorite of the Thursday Next books. A lot of what I love about Fforde’s books is present – his incisive touch for satire, madcap plotting, and crackpot world-building – but it just didn’t have the same heart as the previous installments. I never really warmed up to the fictional Thursday Next as a protagonist. In my opinion, she doesn’t rise above her status as a stand-in for the real deal.

As for the future of the series, I’m not quite sure where it will go from here. The first four books are a sort of loose quartet, and when I finished the fifth it seemed likely that he was setting up another trilogy or quartet. Instead, Fforde made a complete left turn and gave us this book, which doesn’t really follow up on the fifth book and mostly ends up being a bit of a standalone story and/or narrative cul-de-sac. My hope is that Fforde has further adventures planned for the real Thursday Next, or that he at least does more to make the fictional Thursday’s perspective distinct if she returns in future volumes.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Published: October 28, 2010
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Audiobook
Length: 20:28

Surface Detail is the ninth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, and the third I’ve read. As soon as I read the summary, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Fortunately, the Culture books are generally standalone stories, so it was easy to skip ahead.

The book has a good half-dozen plot threads that run concurrently, all somehow touching on the effects of technologies that have made it possible to back up a person’s “mind-state”, essentially a digital recording of their soul. Once a mind-state is backed up, it can be “re-vented” into a new body, or consigned to a virtual afterlife, some of which are decidedly unpleasany. Naturally the disposition of digital souls has huge social, political, and religious implications. The issue of virtual hells is a controversial one, and a war has broken out in the galaxy between The Culture (among others) and societies who believe it is their right to send the digital dead to eternal damnation.

The main thread of the book focuses on Lededje Y’breq, a young woman who is an indentured servant of the most powerful man in her society, Joiler Veppers. She is more than just a slave, however; her society has a form of indenture that involves a full-body tattoo genetically etched onto every cell in her body. She is an “intagliate”, and is marked with both an exotic beauty and an ever-present reminder of her status as chattel.

When Lededje tries to run away from Veppers, he hunts her down and stabs her to death in a sudden rage. However, what neither Lededje or Veppers realize is that The Culture has taken an interest in her plight. After she is murdered, she awakens on a Culture ship light-years away and discovers that all of her memories are intact, along with a pressing need for revenge. Events in the book are set into motion when she begins the journey back to her home world to exact that revenge.

Some of the story takes place in the real world, some in virtual worlds simulating an endless war, and some in the virtual hell run by an alien society. The story jumps wildly from place to place and character to character. We are introduced to so many fascinating people and exotic places over the course of the book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of everything as it flies by. The book is basically impossible to summarize succinctly, and must be read to truly be experienced. The plot is twisty and full of misdirection, but rewards a patient and attentive reader.

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of Surface Detail, which is narrated by Peter Kenny, and I would highly recommend experiencing the book that way. Kenny does a fantastic job of giving each character a unique voice and temperament, and that made it a lot easier to keep the huge cast straight in my mind. Also, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book was only made possible by his narration. Near the end of the book, a normally sedate alien – who Kenny gives a cutesy high-pitched voice – starts becoming seriously pissed off when his plans start falling apart. The alien becomes so foul-mouthed and sarcastic that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I was pleased to find out that Kenny does the narration for all of Banks’ novels on Audible, so I’ll definitely be picking up another one sometime soon.

I think my only criticism of the book is that the ending falls a little flat. Although all of the disparate threads do end up connecting in some fashion, it still seems like an awful lot of fuss for something that feels a bit anticlimactic. However, I enjoyed the ride up until that point so very much that I wouldn’t necessarily discount the resolution for not quite adding up.

Surface Detail is a hell of a book. It manages to discuss incredibly complex moral and philosophical issues in an engaging and entertaining way, all while throwing in a bit of action, terror, and humor for seasoning. It’s another fine slice of Banks’ particular brand of space opera, and if you’ve enjoyed previous Culture books, I think you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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P.S. If you’ve never read a Culture book, the Kindle version of the first book in the series, Consider Phlebas, is 99 cents for the month of April!

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski

Published: June 20, 2011
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Paperback
Pages: 283

Duane Swierczynski is a name I’ve come across several times before. It’s a hard one to forget, even though I probably couldn’t spell it if my life depended on it. Amazon has been quite sure that I would enjoy his work, and has recommended him many times over. Swierczynski seems to write the kind of genre fiction I find myself enjoying lately, intense crime thrillers that occasionally edge into more speculative territories.

The first book I picked up by Swierczynski was his fourth, Severance Package… and I couldn’t get into it. Not sure why, it just didn’t click. I made it a few chapters in and took it back to the library. I wasn’t so sure that Amazon knew what it was talking about. Even still, every new book of his that I came across had an intriguing description. Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood to read a particular book, and I figured I might just need to give Swierczynski another shot.

And what a shot it was. The kind that picks you up off your feet and tosses you across the room. Little blue birdies dancing in your vision the whole way down. I don’t know what kept me from getting into Severance Package, but there was no such hesitation when I started reading Fun and Games today over my lunch break. Within 20 pages I knew I was going to finish it this evening, and within a few short hours I’d torn through the rest in a mad rush. In my considered opinion, Duane Swierczynski has arrived, and just careened right up my list of Must Read Authors.

Fun and Games is the first in a trilogy, which, thankfully, will be completed promptly over the next two years (book two this winter, book three in 2012). The main character, Charlie Hardie, is a former police consultant whose life was ruined in a tragedy three years earlier. Ever since then, he’s drifted through life in an alcoholic haze, making ends meet by house-sitting for the rich and absent. He wants nothing more than to drink himself into a stupor while watching old movies and forgetting that his life ever happened.

However, he gets more than he bargained for when he starts a job housesitting for a movie composer who lives in the Hollywood Hills. On his first day, Charlie is assaulted by a crazed woman who is squatting in the composer’s bathroom. The woman, Lane Madden, wallops him with a microphone stand and then starts babbling about a mysterious “them” who are trying to kill her and make it look like an accident. At first Charlie thinks she’s just a washed-up drug addict, but then he realizes that Lane is Somebody Famous, and that she may actually be telling the truth.

Charlie gets all the proof he needs when “they” – sometimes referred to as “The Guild” or “The Accident People” – try to kill him. Once The Accident People make their move, Fun and Games sets off at breakneck speed and only slows down long enough to let you catch your breath before the next white-knuckle action scene. Most of the action takes place in a very short amount of time, maybe 24 or 48 hours, as the protagonists are cornered, escape, and then get cornered again. The story is full of twists and turns, misdirections and reveals, all neatly doled out with masterful pacing that kept me glued to the page.

One of the great things about Fun and Games is that it’s very much a Hollywood thriller that could only be set in Hollywood. There’s a generous dose of satire layered over the proceedings; The Accident People are exactly the sort of assassins that someone would dream up for a movie, but they’re also the sort of the assassins that people who make movies might use to knock each other off. They are always concerned with the “narrative” of their kills, wanting to ensure that no hint of the true story peeks through. That Charlie Hardie will not die does not fit into their neat little storyline.

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book this much, and it’s certainly been a few months since I’ve read something in one sitting. I’m definitely sold on Swierczynski now, and can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of this trilogy, not to mention his earlier books. Mulholland Books just added another one of my favorite authors to their roster.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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Across The Universe by Beth Revis

Published: January 11, 2011
Publisher: Razorbill
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction, Romance
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 416

Across the Universe is a mash-up of scifi, mystery, and young-adult fiction, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. In a nutshell, it tells the story of a colony seed-ship on a journey towards a distant planet and the teenage girl who wakes up early – 50 years before the trip is over – only to find herself stuck in a strange, dystopian society where someone may be trying to kill her. All of this sounds fascinating, but the end result is a mystery that is telegraphed far too early and scifi that doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.

When the main character, Amy, wakes up from cryogenic sleep – nearly dying in the process – she quickly meets the leader of the society, Eldest, and his protege, Elder, who will assume the reigns of leadership when Eldest retires. The book alternates viewpoints between Amy and Elder, which is a nice way of giving us both the insider and the outsider perspectives.

The more Amy finds out about the ship society, the stranger it seems. Racial and class distinctions are gone because all of the people are genetically uniform. Rather than reproducing normally, the people on the ship go into heat during “the time”, which Amy is told is coming soon. Everyone in the working class is strangely emotionless and distant, as though they are running purely on autopilot. The only people who seem to show any spark of intelligence or normality are all considered “crazy” and given a regimen of pills to keep them under control.

The mystery revolves around discovering who is unfreezing and (sometimes) killing the colonists. The author spends a lot of time early on talking about how nobody locks doors on the ship because privacy is so respected, but too much of the mystery relies on important doors remaining unlocked. This is a bit hard to swallow when Eldest spends most of the book jealously guarding his secrets, even from Elder. I didn’t have much trouble figuring out the culprit fairly early on. This is only disappointing because the book spends so much time focused on the murder mystery when it seems like the true mystery should be the nature of the ship itself. However, I will give the author credit for throwing in a few good surprises near the end of the book.

One other thing that didn’t seem entirely credible was the initial configuration of the ship, with frozen Earth colonists below and living lower-class workers doing the menial upkeep of the ship for centuries while the colonists sleep. It just seemed like a recipe for class warfare, as if the ship’s initial designers set out to cause as much social friction as possible. How do you reintegrate those two groups into a working colony, with one sleeping while the other toils away? I also questioned how sustainable the ship could be with the bulk of its passengers living and reproducing and using up resources. It seems like it would be far more practical to keep everyone frozen.

Although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this book, I did check the author’s website to see if it was planned as the first in a series, and it is. The ending doesn’t exactly scream for a sequel, but it doesn’t necessarily tie everything up in a neat little bow, either. Amy finds out some hard truths after she wakes up on the ship, and those hard truths don’t just go away at the end of the book. I’d definitely be interested in reading future books set in this world, although I do hope that the author shifts her focus towards exploring some of the intricacies of the society she’s established, rather than spending so much time on a so-so murder mystery.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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You Were Wrong by Matthew Sharpe

Published: August 31, 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Genre: Literary Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 192

You Were Wrong is a short book, but manages to wear out its welcome in no time at all. I was ready to throw it against the wall after two chapters, but forced myself to continue reading so that I could finish and give it a fair review. The good news is that I got used to the writing style after a few more chapters, but the bad news is that I think that may have just been Stockholm Syndrome in action.

The main character, Karl Floor, is a sad-sack twenty-something math teacher who shares his dead mother’s house with his hateful stepfather. When the book opens, Karl is beaten up by two of his students, only to stumble home and discover that his house is apparently being robbed by the beautiful and mysterious Sylvia Vetch. Sylvia doesn’t act like a normal robber, however, and tends to Karl’s wounds before taking him on a journey across town to the house where she lives. As Karl’s life becomes intertwined with Sylvia and her circle, he wanders aimlessly through a series of mysterious encounters with people who abuse and confuse him. Karl is entirely passive by nature, and spends most of the book whining, getting dragged along against his will, or just plain lying down and passing out.

The book feels a bit more like a series of rambling vignettes than a novel. There is the slightest hint of a mystery concerning Sylvia’s real motivations, and the story almost swerves into crime fiction at one point before course-correcting, but mostly it’s a shambling collection of long-winded character studies. Sharpe describes the most mundane of things in excruciating detail, often employing digressions within digressions that bloat single sentences into page-long tangents. Characters don’t speak like actual human beings; either they monologue for pages about vaguely related matters, or they utter terse exchanges full of thudding importance and implied mystery.

The best I can say about the book is that Sharpe occasionally pulls off a fine turn of phrase or throws in a decent joke. For the most part, however, I found it both overwritten and crashingly dull, and was glad to see the back of it.

HATED IT
HATED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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