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!

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

Published: February 12, 2008
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Genre(s): Fiction, Slipstream
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 244

I was drawn to this collection of short stories by two things; first off, the cover is gorgeously designed, evoking both the period setting of many of the stories – the 1950s and 1960s – and the unsettling, off-kilter themes that resonate throughout the collection. Secondly, I’d heard of Millhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist“, which was adapted into a film that was unfairly compared to The Prestige because they were both period stories about magicians. I liked the movie enough that I wanted to know more about the author, although I’ve read that the story is very different from the movie.

It’s rare to find a truly consistent short story collection; in my experience, even the best authors swings and misses in this kind of collection. I read Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things earlier this year, and those stories alternated between gorgeous, disturbing, and incredibly slight. Dangerous Laughter has a few stories that I felt miss the mark, but by and large Millhauser’s collection is one of the strongest I’ve read in a long time. The stories alternate between macro-level narratives that read more like entries in a history book, and more personal stories that focus on specific characters. In general, my favorite stories fell in the latter category, but all of the stories in this volume have something to recommend them.

The first truly stunning one is “The Room in the Attic”, which tells the story of a young man who befriends a girl that lives in darkness. During his junior year at school, the narrator, David, befriends an odd, bookish new kid named Wolf. One day Wolf invites David over to his house and introduces him to his sister, Isabel, who lives in the attic room and keeps her lights turned off at all times. Wolf tells David that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown, but that she seems to like him, and David begins regularly visiting Isabel in her attic room.

They dance together in the dark, play games, and talk about anything and everything. Soon enough David is spending more and more time with Isabel, and can think of nothing else but his daily visit. Eventually the idea of Isabel looms in David’s mind, and her invisibility becomes an indelible part of her personality for him, until he is no longer sure he wants to see her face. I loved the way this story every-so-gently tweaked reality and played with symbolism; it manages to fill something seemingly mundane with incredible power.

The title story, “Dangerous Laughter”, also plays with something apparently normal that becomes twisted and strange. It focuses on one summer when a group of students start playing a game where they gather in secret and laugh as loud and long as they possibly can, until they are exhausted, spent. Eventually they form laughter salons, each with its own specialty, and the games start turning into a ritual.

The laughter salons seem both innocent and deeply, darkly personal; where other games like spin-the-bottle or seven minutes in heaven are naive or childish approaches to sexuality, the laughter games seem to tap into something more primal but similarly illicit. Things start getting even more intense when a formerly anti-social girl joins the laughter salons and starts laughing harder and longer than everyone else. This story perfectly captures the lyrical mysticism and strangeness inherent in those bygone teenage summers, and quickly became one of my most favorite in this collection.

Other stories in the collection deal with creativity (“In The Reign of Harad IV“), spirituality and belief (“The Tower”), identity (“The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman”), and more. Although at first they may seem gentle and understated, many of them are filled with a creeping tension or an impending sense of tragedy. Few of the stories wear their fantastic nature on their sleeves, but all of them are just a few steps to the left of reality, edging into more unsettling territory. More often than not, it was just enough to get me thoroughly hooked and keep me reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more by Millhauser very soon.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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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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Goo Book by Keith Ridgway

From the April 11, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Goo Book tells the story of a pickpocket and occasional driver for a mysterious man named Mishazzo. Mishazzo is a businessman of sorts, terse and intense. He has his driver take him all around London, sometimes for business deals, and sometimes for what seem to be intimidations or even assaults. The driver does not quite know what it is that Mishazzo does, he only knows that he may be dangerous.

When the story opens, the main character spends most of his time smoking pot with his girlfriend while sitting on the banks of a canal or stealing wallets from tourists. They have a strange, complex relationship; instead of talking about their feelings, they leave notes in a notebook back and forth. It lets them say the words they could never say aloud, and communicate the thoughts they might otherwise keep secret.

When he gets the chance to do more driving for Mishazzo, things seem to be going well until he is picked up by the police one day. The police tell the main character that they want information on Mishazzo – where he goes, who he talks to, dates, times, everything – and in return they won’t send him to prison for theft. He acquiesces because he has no other choice, and things slowly but surely start going bad.

Goo Book is told in spare, measured prose, almost entirely free of description. It is filled with a slow-burning intensity that builds as the main character’s situation becomes more dangerous. In a way it felt like a reversal of most crime stories I’ve read, which tend to have forceful main characters that fill every page with their personalities; here the main character and his girlfriend are practically ciphers, carefully hidden from view for most of the story. We only really get a peek into the main character’s feelings at the very end, when his paranoia reaches a fever-pitch and he makes a split-second decision whose repercussions hit him like a sledgehammer.

Overall I liked this story; it has a fairly simple plot, but the style drew me in, and the heart of the story is the character’s odd relationship with his girlfriend. It seems held together by the notebook where they write notes back and forth. It’s almost as though their feelings don’t truly exist if they aren’t written down in the book, and that writing them down is the only way that a man so compartmentalized could truly communicate.

iZombie Vol. 1: Dead to the World

Published: March 22, 2011
Publisher: Vertigo
Genre(s): Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 144

Pop culture has been in zombie/vampire/werewolf overdrive the past few years, and it’s pretty rare to find a story that has a unique twist on the mythos. iZombie, an ongoing series from Vertigo by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred, isn’t the savior of the genre, but it does at least have a few original twists on some tired old archetypes.

iZombie tells the story of Gwen Dylan, an undead gravedigger who has to eat brains once a month to keep from becoming a full-on shambling zombie horror. She doesn’t enjoy the taste at all, describing them as worse than “a cross between motor oil and someone else’s vomit”, but eating them keeps her sane and relatively normal, so she digs up the freshest grave once a month and does what she feels is necessary. One unfortunate side effect of brain-eating is that the memories of the deceased come along for the ride, and she finds herself compelled to finish their unfinished business. When the story opens, she eats the brains of a man who may have been murdered, and sets out to solve the mystery.

Gwen’s only friends are Ellie, a ghost-girl who died forty years ago and dresses like one of Austin Powers’ backup dancers, and Scott (aka ‘Spot’), who turns into a “were-terrier” during the full moon, which mostly just means he becomes embarrassingly hirsute. They live in a version of Eugene, Oregon overflowing with supernatural beings; the paintball place down the road is run by a coven of vampires that look like former sorority girls, and a mysteriously menacing man wrapped in bandages may be an ancient Egyptian mummy. Naturally, there are also monster hunters thrown into the mix, one of whom becomes a possible love interest for Gwen, which will surely lead to further complications down the line.

The art, done by the inimitable Michael Allred, is gorgeous, full of thick black lines and his signature Madman style. One particularly impressive spread in the middle of the book shows Gwen walking through the memories of another character. The memories are shown as individual panels in the comic, but are printed in an exaggerated halftone. Gwen seems to exist above the panels, standing between or on top of each individual memory. Allred’s art is easily my favorite part of this book.

The story is good, but mostly setup. The mystery established at the start doesn’t amount to very much, and many of the plot threads in this initial volume are not resolved. However, the explanation of the overal supernatural mythos is thoughtful, and most of the creatures are given an interesting twist. Only the vampires seem particularly cliche – too-beautiful women preying on lonely men. I think there’s potential here, however; Roberson establishes enough interesting threads that I look forward to reading future volumes.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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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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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Title story from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, published 2007.

I’ve recently been making a point of reading more short stories because I’m interested in trying my hand at writing some. As I’ve read more, I’ve discovered that there are certain genres that seem to excel in a shorter form. There’s a vaguely defined genre known as “slipstream” – sort of an odder cousin to magical realism, perhaps – that seems perfectly suited to short stories. To me, slipstream refers to stories that are just to the left of realism, ones with a slight surrealistic tilt, usually just enough to make you feel slightly uncomfortable.

Karen Russell seems to fit nicely into that category. I’d heard of her previously after reading some interesting blurbs about her first novel, Swamplandia! (exclamation point included), and both of her books have particularly eye-catching cover designs. I stopped at the library on my way home today to see if they had anything of hers on hand. They didn’t have the full collection, but I was able to find this story in a Best of 2007 collection edited by Stephen King.

At the start of the story, we discover that there are special schools for children born of werewolves. The condition skips a generation – alternating between wolfishness and humanity – and most werewolf parents feel it best that their more human children be taught the ways of humanity so that they can exist properly in both worlds. The story is narrated by a girl named Claudette as she experiences the different stages of becoming acclimated to human society.

The story works on several levels; when the girls are first brought to the school, they are given human names, much like missionaries gave “Christian” names to natives in Africa. A theme running throughout is what it really means to be “civilized” and how losing touch with nature changes someone. The youngest sister of the bunch never lets go of her animal nature, and she is shunned by the others for not conforming. The question of how to handle this ever-present reminder of their former wild nature is always at the front of the narrator’s mind.

On another level, the story works as a commentary on gender roles; there is a separate school for boys, and when the two groups are reintroduced to each other, they are told to speak in carefully prepared human dialogues. When one of the boys goes off script, Claudette snaps and lets her wolfish nature come through, and the boy is shocked and unable to respond. The girls are taught to control their emotions and behaviors very carefully, and the stress of that repression clearly wears thin.

Ultimately the story is a fascinating dissection of civilized society and the roles that are imposed on us as we grow up. The setting is evocative, the characters are nicely drawn, and it’s a brisk, easy read. I look forward to reading more stories by this author. Definitely recommended.

Reheated Cabbage by Irvine Welsh

Published: September 14, 2009
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Short Stories
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288

This is the second book I’ve read by Irvine Welsh. The first, Ecstasy, disturbed me to no end back in the day even though I’ve always been a huge fan of the movie version of Trainspotting. Even still, I was willing to give his fiction another chance.

None of the stories in this collection are nearly as disturbing, but as with any collection of disparate works, some were better than others. Several of them were fairly modern (read: elliptical) which I don’t always like, but I did like the book enough to keep reading them.

I think my favorite of the stories is the last one, “I Am Miami”, which does a good job of sharply drawing a flawed but sympathetic character, and is also the rare example of redemptive themes in the collection. I actually grew to care about the bitter old school teacher at the heart of that story, and worried for his future. My second most favorite was “The State of the Party”, which had several classic moments that juxtaposed Scottish vernacular with crisp, proper narration in a way that made me laugh out loud.

I do think that this book is best if you are at least familiar with the world of Trainspotting, simply because two of the stories are directly related to that book in some fashion. It also helps to be able to decipher the written form of Scottish dialect or you will be thoroughly lost through much of the collection.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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

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