Shift by Kim Curran

Published: September 4, 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Young Adult, Horror
Format: eBook
Length: 320 pages

Shift is the story of Scott Tyler, a British teenager who accidentally discovers that he has the power to “shift” between possible realities by changing his past decisions. Along with this discovery comes his entry into a secret world of shifters and a dawning understanding of the terrible powers at play in a world where reality can be changed at will.

One on side there is a clandestine government organization called ARES that focuses on training young shifters to use their powers for good, and on the other there is a rebel faction of shifters called the SLF, who believe that shifters should be allowed to use their powers without regulation. Scott’s first contact with the world of shifters, Aubrey Jones, is also, conveniently enough, the girl of his dreams. Aubrey is a pixieish blonde with a chip on her shoulder and conflicted loyalties between ARES, who took her away from her family, and SLF, who seem bent on anarchy and destruction for the sake of it. At first it seems like the book might be about a clash between ARES and SLF, but then we meet the true villain, a morbidly fat man wants to eat Scott’s brains.

The villain, Benjo, is easily most original thing Shift has going for it. However, he is so vile and over-the-top that he seems slightly out of place in the story. I actually would have liked the author to delve more deeply into the darkness that might result from people with the power to reset their decisions controlling the world. As it was, the book felt like it flipped back and forth between a fairly by-the-numbers secret world adventure and a squick-inducing serial killer tale.

I did also appreciate that the book retained its inherent Britishness, using uniquely British phrasings and colloquialisms that seemed slightly exotic to this American reader. I suppose it’s possible that when the book is eventually published in America, that regional flavor will be stripped out, but I certainly hope not.

However, my main problem with Shift is that the underground world of the shifters never seems particularly exciting. The scenes in the school for shifters feel fairly dull and a bit cliché when compared to other similar entries in the genre. In fact, the author ends up quickly summarizing Scott’s time at school after a few scenes, and promotes him to junior agent status as if impatient to get past all that training. The end results is that we never really understand why Scott feels an allegiance to ARES, and it seems like he only really dislikes SLF because they’re the snotty popular rebels.

Also, after one of Scott’s early shifts goes terribly wrong, he never really experiences any further consequences from his new-found shifting ability. Although he uses his ability to save himself from death at one point, it never feels like we get to see him exploring his shifting powers. Additionally, the author establishes early on that shifters can only control conscious decisions, so whenever there is a passage where Scott agonizes over a decision, it openly telegraphs that he will need to shift a few pages later, which immediately lowers the stakes. The only real stakes that come into play are when the villain, Benjo, lumbers onto the scene, simply because he is so outrageous that it feels like anything could happen when he is around.

Overall, Shift is a bit of mixed bag. The storyline follows familiar contours, as a “normal” kid discovers that he is actually very special and then proceeds to save the day. The cast of supporting characters are all fairly two-dimensional, and several characters established early on barely get more than a few lines before being shuffled off-stage for the rest of the book.

Although the villain is a uniquely twisted touch in an otherwise familiar-feeling story, he never completely meshes with the rest of book around him, and the end result is a story that only hints at something darker and more compelling.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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

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Wild Thing by Josh Bazell

Published: February 8, 2012
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Comedy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 46 minutes

Wild Thing, by author and physician Josh Bazell, is a sequel to his thrilling debut Beat The Reaper, which introduced former mob hitman Pietro Brwna as he tried to make up for his crimes by working as a doctor. Beat The Reaper was essentially Brwna’s origin story, and spent much of its time flashing back over his life up to that point. It was simultaneously an intensely personal story and a breakneck thriller full of black-as-night gallows humor. For example, in one particularly nerve-wracking scene, Brwna uses one of his own bones as a weapon. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted more, but I also couldn’t quite picture where the story might go next. Beat The Reaper would be a hard act to follow for any author, and I’m glad that Bazell took up the challenge even if I don’t think the results quite hit the mark.

We catch up with Brwna on a cruise ship three years after the events of the first book. Now he is going by the name Lionel Azimuth and pulling rotting teeth for crew members as part of his catchall position as ship’s doctor. Brwna hates life on the boat, so when his old mentor hooks him up with a job working for a reclusive billionaire (referred to only as Rec Bill), he jumps at the chance. At least, he does until he finds out that the job involves going to Minnesota and hunting for a mythological lake monster as part of what may or may not be a scam or criminal operation. Softening the blow is the fact that his companion for the trip will be Violet Hearst, a paleontologist who is both a knockout beauty and a firm believer in the inevitable apocalypse due to ecological catastrophes. Much to Brwna’s surprise, Rec Bill is willing to pony up a steep payment for his cooperation in the trip, and soon enough he gives in despite his misgivings and Violet are on their way.

A lot of Wild Thing’s reviews focus on the fact that the subject matter is so different from the first book that it feels strange that it has the same main character. However, I don’t agree with the argument that this doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book; I think Bazell just does as good a job with Brwna’s voice and sense of humor in Wild Thing, and I couldn’t picture any other character taking the lead. I love the character, and definitely laughed out loud more than once. I also don’t necessarily think that the cryptozoological angle doesn’t fit with a story about Brwna, although I could see how hints of possible fantastic elements might raise the hackles of people who like things to stay “realistic”.

What I do think is that Bazell actually wrote himself into a corner with Beat The Reaper. How do you write another book about the same character when you’ve a) revealed his entire backstory and b) established that he can’t keep working in a big public hospital? Any kind of follow-up would have to shake things up. I think the real reason people say that Wild Thing doesn’t feel like a Pietro Brwna book is that it isn’t actually about him as a person. Beat The Reaper was entirely focused on Brwna’s fall and redemption. All of the action and tension in the first book originated from events in his life both past and present, which meant that the stakes were exceedingly high and very personal.

In Wild Thing, the personal connections are more tenuous, although they are still present to some degree. Brwna has a fear of open water and sharks because the only woman he ever loved was killed in a shark tank, and he also has a fear of intimacy for much the same reason. Naturally, being in close quarters with a beautiful woman as they search for a lake monster means that some of his issues are going to come to the forefront. However, the stakes never feel very high in Wild Thing – either they find the lake monster or they don’t, and Brwna can probably get on with his life either way. Maybe he goes back to the cruise ship, maybe he makes enough money to take care of his problem with mobsters trying to kill him. Compare that to Beat The Reaper, where Brwna is fighting for his life and for personal redemption all while trying to save patient’s lives and barely sleeping, and it just doesn’t sound quite as compelling.

However, my biggest problem with Wild Thing is that the plot basically unravels near the end of the book. A lot of time is spent building up to the camping trip and search for the monster, but when it finally gets to that point, everything is over and done with in no time flat, and it feels very anticlimactic. It doesn’t help that the camping trip feels vague and unmotivated once the characters are actually in the middle of the wilderness; after so much time spent discussing the length and dangers of the trip, very little time is spent on the actual trip itself.

There are also several characters introduced early on that never end up amounting to anything. A fundamentalist couple arrives at the camping lodge for the trip only to have a one-sided argument about religion with Violet Hearst and storm off-stage, never to return in any meaningful fashion. A Las Vegas magician is mentioned and then subsequently forgotten about until the end of the book, when he is used as an offhand explanation for a plot point. Bazell misses a great opportunity to have these characters interact with each other and Brwna on the trip, and it’s a damn shame.

It’s frustrating that the book ends up basically trailing off at the end, because until that point I was definitely enjoying it. I actually liked it more when I first finished it than I did after thinking about it for a few minutes, which is always particularly disappointing. To me it’s a sign of a great writer who perhaps bit off more than he could chew; once I was no longer distracted by his fantastic main character, the holes in the plot were far too easy to see.

However, the end of the book very clearly sets up a sequel that could end up bringing the focus back to Brwna’s life; rather than continuing to live in hiding, Brwna decides to go on the offensive and strike back against the mob and his former employer. I’m definitely looking forward to it despite my misgivings about this book. Everything I liked about Wild Thing tells me that Bazell is a great author to watch. The problems I had may just be the symptoms of the dreaded sophomore slump that seems to affect so many great artists.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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The Postmortal by Drew Magary

Published: August 30, 2011
Publisher: Penguin
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Dystopian
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

The Postmortal is pitched as a darkly comic satire about a world where a cure for aging is invented and becomes widely available. However, if it is a satire, it is of a character most similar to Jonathan Swift’s infamous essay advocating the cannibalization of Irish babies as a solution to poverty. If you happen to smile while reading The Postmortal, I imagine it will be a mirthless rictus intermingled with horror rather than anything signifying amusement. For my part, I don’t think I laughed a single time reading the book in a mad rush over the past two days, but I don’t count that as a mark against it. In fact, I found it both gripping and chilling in equal parts.

When the cure for aging, commonly known as “The Cure”, is first invented, doctors are quick to point out that it isn’t actually a cure for death, either by cancer or a more violent end, but that and the fact that it is initially banned by the government don’t stop the main character, John Farrell, from spending seven thousand dollars at a black market clinic to get cured at the age of twenty nine. The narrative follows John over the next 60+ years of his life, as he learns what it truly means to have eternal youth from both a personal and a global perspective.

An early scene where John takes his roommate back to the same clinic to get the cure sets the tone for the rest of the story, as unexpected tragedy decisively intrudes. John’s life is forever changed in an instant, both by the looming spectres of death and destruction that seem to lurk just around the next corner for the rest of his life, and by the fleeting glimpse outside the clinic of a beautiful blonde woman he feels certain he will meet again some day. Magary does an excellent job of setting up a palpable sense of dread very early on in the book; we quickly learn to expect that nothing good will ever come to John without some greater evil following quickly behind.

The book alternates between John’s journals/life recordings and excerpts of articles, interviews, and news headlines. We soon get a fuller picture of the way that the cure for aging affects the world around John in new and terrifying ways. One particularly chilling article recounts the story of a woman who gives the cure to her child so that the girl will stay a lovable, innocent baby forever. Magary also spends a good amount of time establishing the particularly catastrophic results of the cure in already over-populated China, and you get the sense that an entire novel could be set in that particular corner of the apocalypse.

The book jumps forward in time over the decades of John’s artificially extended life, and we watch as his personal tragedies and disappointments all add together to transform him from a hopeful young lawyer to a cynical, hardened “End Specialist”, a sort of bounty hunter who ekes out both euthanasia and questionable justice as forms of legalized population control. My only real criticism of the book is that John still felt like a bit of a cypher by the end of the story; Magary does a great job of portraying the personal hardships that he experiences over his long life, and we get little snapshots of emotion and grief, but John feels more like a window into the world rather than a fully lived-in protagonist.

The Postmortal is a brisk read even at just under 400 pages in print, and if I hadn’t started reading it so late at night, I might have finished the entire thing in one sitting. The scenes of action peppered throughout the book are written in a clear, compelling style, and Magary has a knack for grabbing the reader just in time to show them how bad things can get. The brightly-colored cover and the author’s history as a comedy writer are a bit misleading considering the searing bleakness of his debut, but if you can stomach it, The Postmortal is a incredibly thrilling piece of dystopian gallows humor, and I highly recommend it.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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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 hrs and 23 mins

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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