My Most Anticipated Books of 2013

The Human DivisionThe Human Division by John Scalzi, January 15th to April 9th, 2013 – The first two installments of John Scalzi’s episodic novel set in the Old Man’s War universe have already been released, but there are eleven more episodes to look forward to over the next few months. The first episode, The B Team, felt like the opening of a novel, but the second episode, Walk The Plank, was very different stylistically and focused on entirely different characters. I have a feeling that Scalzi plans on playing with our expectations over the course of the series, and I’m very curious to see what he does next.

HomelandHomeland by Cory Doctorow, February 5, 2013 – I have mixed feelings about Cory Doctorow. On one hand, I don’t always agree with his politics – or at least the extremity of his views – but I thoroughly enjoyed Little Brother when I read it a few years ago and I am definitely looking forward to this sequel. Much of Doctorow’s work seems closely tied to his personal politics, and Homeland is no different. Here he tackles a Wikileaks-style information dump that young hacker/activist Marcus has to decide how to disseminate, all while he is being chased by mysterious agents and trying to rescue a kidnapped friend.

The Teleportation AccidentThe Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman, Feb 26, 2013 – Whoever wrote the blurb for this book is an absolute genius. The book is described alternately as “a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner” and “a science fiction novel that can’t remember what ‘isotope’ means” among other things. The book sounds hilarious, weird, obsessed with sex and exactly the sort of thing I’d like to read despite the fact that I’m not entirely sure what it’s actually about. Those kinds of books either turn out to be my all-time favorites or complete wrecks that I abandon within fifty pages, but they’re always worth giving a shot.

YouYou by Austin Grossman, March 26, 2013 – Austin Grossman – twin brother of Lev Grossman and author of Soon I Will Be Invincible – draws on his experiences working in the game industry to tell the story of a game designer who joins a legendary developer in an attempt to solve the mystery of his friend’s death. However, once he starts working on their upcoming game, he discovers a “mysterious software glitch” that leads him on a path towards discovering something bigger and far more dangerous. I haven’t read Grossman’s first book, but this one sounds like it’ll scratch the same itch as Ready Player One and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson, April 2, 2013 – Kate Atkinson’s first novel in several years that doesn’t focus on detective Jackson Brodie also has an intriguing time-bending premise. Ursula Todd is first born in in 1910 only to die that same night. Except she also lives, only to die again and again throughout the course of her odd life. This one completely snuck up on me; I haven’t read all of her Jackson Brodie books, but I was starting to get the impression that she was planning on sticking with that series for the foreseeable future.

NOS4A2NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, April 30, 2013 – I still need to read Horns, but Heart-Shaped Box and Locke & Key were more than enough to convince me that Hill is a talent to watch. Here he tells the story of Victoria McQueen, the girl with “a secret gift for finding things”, and Charlie Manx, a very dangerous man in a Rolls-Royce that can travel between worlds. They cross paths one day and Victoria barely escapes with her life. The story picks up again years later when Charlie comes after Victoria’s son. The book sounds intense and ambitious, and I’m definitely looking forward to checking it out.

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, June 4th 2013 – First off, this book gets absolutely ecstatic reviews from everyone that reads it, so that’s definitely a vote in its favor. I read Beukes’ Moxyland a few years ago, and although I did enjoy it, it felt a bit like William Gibson-lite. Here it seems like she might have truly come into her own with a story about a time-travelling serial killer and the girl who survives to hunt him down. Also, it’s being published by Mulholland Books, who seem to have a lot of fascinating crime/sci-fi crossovers on their schedule this year.

JoylandJoyland by Stephen King, June 4th 2013 – Joyland is the first of two King books coming out in 2013. What makes this one interesting is that it’s the second book he’s published through Hard Case Crime (the first was The Colorado Kid), which implies that even if there are supernatural elements, the book will fall more on the pulp/thriller side of things. As you might guess from the title, the book focuses on a young man who works at an amusement park and discovers something sinister. King’s last few books have been epics, so it’s nice to see him stepping back and telling a story that isn’t quite so wide in scope.

Bohemian HighwayClaire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran, June 18th 2013 – I read the first Claire DeWitt book with my book club, and Gran immediately joined the short list of authors whose every work I want to read. City of the Dead focused on the detective’s return to post-Katrina New Orleans, and the mix of mysticism, surrealist detective manuals and local New Orleans flavor combined to make an incredibly compelling read. Here DeWitt travels to San Francisco to solve the murder of her musician ex-boyfriend. One of the things I loved most about City of the Dead was that New Orleans felt like a character, so the choice of San Francisco as a setting seems like a natural progression.

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, June 18th 2013 – I don’t know what Gaiman’s next novel for adults is about, but I know I’ll be picking it up and reading it as soon as it comes out. It’s actually kind of pleasant not knowing the synopsis of such a big release, so I think I might do what I can to stay relatively unspoiled until June (if at all possible). I will admit that the last few things I’ve read by Gaiman haven’t grabbed me as much as Neverwhere or American Gods, but Coraline is one of the few books I’ve read that actually freaked me out, so I’ll forgive the occasional bit of uneven writing after that terrifying little book.

Naptune's BroodNeptune’s Brood by Charles Stross, July 2, 2013 – Far-future “mundane” space opera set in the same world as Saturn’s Children with a storyline that apparently involves interstellar finance. Stross is one of few authors I’ve read who manages to make wonky discussions of economics, technology and politics both exciting and palatable. I finished reading his Merchant Princes books last year, and although it was occasionally a bit of a bumpy ride, I was fascinated by all of the economical maneuvering Stross wove into the story.

SkinnerSkinner by Charlie Huston, July 9th 2013 – Huston is another one of those authors whose books I will buy and read immediately upon release. I absolutely loved Caught Stealing, Sleepless and The Mysterious Art of Erasing All Signs of Death, so it’s hard to contain my excitement for Huston’s debut with Mulholland Books. The blurb describes it as “a combination of Le Carre spycraft with Stephenson techno-philosophy” and that just sounds like it’ll hit all the right buttons for me. Huston is a master of spare, intense crime thrillers that are alternately grim, gruesome and hilarious. Can not wait.

Doctor SleepDoctor Sleep by Stephen King, September 24th 2013 – A sequel to The Shining that catches up with Danny Torrance as an adult working in a nursing home. One day he meets a young girl who has “the brightest shining ever seen” and she draws him into a battle both against his personal demons, including the legacy of his father’s alcoholism, and against a murderous tribe of paranormals called The True Knot. I never actually finished The Shining, but I’m still looking forward to this sequel. I plan on reading a lot of Stephen King this year, and have made a pile of King books next to my bed in preparation.

SteelheartSteelheart by Brandon Sanderson, September 24th 2013 – The synopses for Sanderson’s books don’t generally grab me, but that’s probably because I’m really not much of an epic fantasy reader. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the description of Steelheart, which tells the story of a world where people called “epics” were granted superpowers by a burst in the sky. Instead of being a force for good, epics used their powers to become despotic tyrants. The only people willing to fight against the epics are a group of normal humans called “reckoners”, who spend their time working on finding ways to assassinate the epics. I love the idea of normal human beings fighting against super-powered tyrants, so I’ll definitely be giving this one a chance.

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

Discount ArmageddonPublished: March 6, 2012
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 368 pages

Discount Armageddon is the story of Verity Price, a blonde twenty-something cryptozoologist and recent transplant to New York City. She pays the bills by working as a waitress in a strip club, supports the family business by working to help the local populations of cryptids – monsters to the unenlightened – and secretly dreams of making it big on the ballroom dancing competition circuit. She hates public transportation, instead getting around by running parkour-style across the city rooftops, all while armed to the teeth with every kind of weapon she can hide under her skimpy waitress uniform. Oh, and her roommates are a colony of talking mice that venerate her every act with religious celebrations and feasts.

Things in the city are going swimmingly for Verity until the day she finds herself accidentally hanging from a snare set by a member of a monster-hunting sect called the Covenant. The Price family’s ancestors were part of the Covenant, but broke with the party line and decided to start helping cryptids instead of hunting them into extinction. Naturally, this didn’t endear them to the Covenant, and the Prices have been in hiding ever since. Complicating the situation is the fact that this Covenant member, Dominic, is strikingly handsome when he isn’t indiscriminately hunting and killing cryptids. Verity isn’t too happy about Dominic’s presence in the city, but when cryptid girls start disappearing and she hears credible rumors of a dragon – long though to be extinct – living under the city, they form an uneasy truce to stop the beast and sparks start flying.

In broad outlines Verity’s story feels familiar. It has the standard trappings of the urban fantasy genre: a secret world, hidden in plain sight, a main character with a special connection to that world, and a romance storyline involving a bad boy love interest who just needs a little redemption to make him boyfriend material. What makes it stand out are the unique details that McGuire works into the mix.

The mice in particular add a good bit of humor to the proceedings. They have dozens (if not hundreds) of religious ceremonies, all named for mundane events in Verity’s life, and all celebrated with a fervor that makes it difficult for Verity to have visitors. I also liked that there isn’t a single vampire or werewolf in the book. There are creatures who can switch between human and animal forms, but they all feel like off-the-beaten path choices, like the Japanese tanuki and an Indian creature called a madhura. Additionally, Verity’s background as a cryptozoologist isn’t just window-dressing; an important plot point revolves around actual biological processes becoming evident in one of the creatures she runs across.

The only real criticism I can come up with is that although title is catchy, I’m not really sure what it has to do with the actual story. In any case, Discount Armageddon is the first book in a new ongoing series for McGuire, and I look forward to picking up the future volumes. I’m also excited about reading her other books. She’s Hugo-nominated for her work as Mira Grant, and I’ve heard great things about her other urban fantasy series, the October Daye books. I get the impression that McGuire likes working with familiar tropes and genres while subverting them just enough to make them feel fresh and entertaining.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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Every Day by David Levithan

Published: August 28th, 2012
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 336 pages

Note: The narrator of Every Day is essentially genderless, but for simplicity’s sake I use male pronouns throughout this review.

David Levithan is an interesting standout in the young adult / fiction world. He seems more than willing to experiment with storytelling forms; his previous book, The Lover’s Dictionary, chronicled the ups and downs of a relationship through alternately hilarious and painful entries in a dictionary. His new book, Every Day, is more traditional in form, but still full of the same thrillingly out-there ideas that I loved about his previous work.

Every Day’s premise is simple but striking; what if you woke up every day in a new body and a new place? Some essence of your self – your soul, some ineffable store of memory – survives the jump from body to body, which gives you continuity of identity, but you also have access to the memories of your “host” so that you can pass unnoticed in their life. How would it feel to look out from different eyes every day, experiencing the world from an infinite number of perspectives? More importantly, what would happen if, one day, you fell in love… and couldn’t let go?

A, the narrator of Levithan’s story, wakes up one morning in the body of Justin, a sullen teenage boy who doesn’t take care of himself, doesn’t get along well with his parents and mistreats his girlfriend. A usually tries not to interfere with the lives of his hosts – who seem to match the age he would be if he lived normally – but something about Justin’s relationship with his girlfriend, Rhiannon, makes him decide to try and improve her day. They skip school and go to the beach… and A falls in love. After that, A spends each successive day trying to find Rhiannon, working to get to know her and eventually revealing his body-jumping secret.

Levithan plays with some fascinating philosophical concepts throughout. Once A reveals his identity to Rhiannon, the major question becomes: how exactly do you have a relationship with someone who isn’t in the same body twice? A, who grew up unsurprisingly open-minded after experiencing life through the eyes of every possible type of person, feels like there shouldn’t be anything keeping them apart, but Rhiannon isn’t quite so ready to live outside the norms. For example, A notices that she isn’t quite as receptive when he is in the body of a girl or someone who isn’t traditionally attractive. Late in the book, the question arises of what it would mean if A and Rhiannon had sex in one of his host bodies, since it has been made clear that the hosts do remember vague details of their lives the next day. All of these complications make A’s story poignantly tragic, and the romance compellingly star-crossed.

A’s experiences vary wildly from day to day. One particularly harrowing experience involves a day spent in the body of a habitual drug user going through withdrawal; another centers on a girl who is planning to commit suicide. A is almost always understanding and open-minded about the lives of the people he inhabits, although he does admit early on that he doesn’t necessarily like everyone whose life he takes over. The only real false note in the book comes on a day when A inhabits the body of an extremely overweight boy. A refers to him as “the emotional equivalent of a burp” and it seems strangely judgmental by comparison.

The author also introduces a subplot about a boy named Nathan who gets in trouble with his parents after A controls his life one night. When Nathan comes home after curfew, he blames his behavior on demonic possession. Eventually the story gets picked up by the national news and a shady evangelical preacher starts asking more of the “possessed” to come forward. Nathan remembers enough about his experience to get in touch with A through his secret email account, and tries to convince A to reveal his true nature. Although this storyline does add some tension to the mix, I felt like the book didn’t necessarily need it. Every Day largely focuses on the romance between A and Rhiannon, so when a late reveal implies that the story might slip into thriller territory or start exploring explanations for the body-jumping mythology, it doesn’t quite fit. Luckily Levithan avoids straying too far down that path.

That isn’t to say I wouldn’t be curious to know more about the cause of A’s body-jumping experiences, and the book definitely ends on a note that would leave Levithan wide open to write a sequel if he chose to. I’d definitely read it, but I imagine it would need to be a very different book, simply because it would only diminish this book to try and repeat the romantic storyline.

All in all, I highly recommend Every Day. It’s a quick read full of powerful emotional moments and thought-provoking ideas, and I definitely look forward to seeing what Levithan comes up with next.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Published: April 26, 2011
Publisher: Spectra
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Steampunk
Format: Paperback
Length: 480 pages

At first glance, Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding sounded like a sure bet. Sky pirates? I’m there. Steampunk setting? Count me in. Endless rave reviews from a dozen fantastic authors (Joe Abercrombie in particular) sealed the deal. Unfortunately, the resulting book doesn’t quite live up to those high expectations.

Retribution Falls tells the story of a ship called the Ketty Jay, captained by one Darian Frey and crewed by a collection of misfits and rejects, all of whom are hiding secrets and running from something in their past. Frey is a paranoid, selfish drunk, who seems only to keep a crew so that he can run the jobs that pay for his drink, drugs and card games. Frey only really cares about his ship, and jealously guards the ignition codes from anyone and everyone, even when the life of one of his crew members is at stake in an early scene.

After escaping a close scrape at the start of the book, Frey’s luck seems to be looking up when he’s given a plum job with an assured payout of fifty thousand ducats. He eagerly accepts, and only when the job goes horribly wrong does it become clear that he’s been set up. The rest of the book is spent with Frey and his crew alternately running from the law and trying to unravel the mysterious conspiracy that chose Frey and his crew as its scapegoats. Along the way, Frey slowly learns to trust his crew members, and we begin to uncover some of the events that drove each of them into the outlaw life.

As I read, the book slowly grew on me, but it took a really long time getting there. I read the first one-hundred pages in fits and starts over a month, and only really started to feel invested around the two-hundred page point of the book, when we finally start getting a glimpse into the mysterious backstories of Crake, the ship’s daemonist, and Jez, the apparently immortal navigator.

However, it wasn’t so much that I was starting to like the characters; it was simply that I was curious enough about their backstories to keep reading. As a rule, the characters in Retribution Falls are archetypes that never quite rise above their origins. If you stick around long enough to make it to the end, they do become slightly more interesting and/or sympathetic. Unfortunately, far too much of the book is spent with unlikeable characters who only reveal questionable past actions, or ciphers who hold their mysteries (and personalities) too close to their chests.

One of the most glaring problems this book faces is its striking similarity to a certain late, lamented scifi/western TV series about a band of misfits running from the law in their ramshackle spaceship. You know how Amazon recommends similar products on their pages? Here it doesn’t quite apply. If you liked Firefly, you’ll probably have a hard time escaping unfavorable comparisons when reading this book. With better character development and more detailed world-building, Retribution Falls might have risen above such easy accusations of similarity, but as it is it reads more like a pale imitation of better things.

Strangely enough, despite the tone of this review, when I was done with the book I felt like I might be interested in reading another installment in this series, in the hopes that later volumes would tighten up the storytelling and better develop returning characters. Ultimately, the honest truth is that if this was a library book I probably would have returned it unfinished after reading fifty pages. I really only gave it a chance to redeem itself because it was a review copy.

For the first half of the book:

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

For the last half:

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

That averages out to a rousing 2.5 stars, folks!

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

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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.

Amazon | IndieBound

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.

Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound