That Which Unravels: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief by Augustus RoseThe Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose

Published: August 1st, 2017
Publisher: Viking
Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Hardcover
Length: 384 pages

I originally picked up The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose because the cover caught my eye, but the summary and a few blurbs from some of my favorite authors finished the sale. I started reading it soon after I bought it, and loved the first half so much that I enthusiastically recommended it to several people. Unfortunately, the latter half of the book feels messy, and the ending is a bit unsatisfying. I would still recommend it, but not without a few caveats.

The main character, Lee, is an intelligent and resourceful girl who finds herself backed into a life on the run after a series of mistakes and personal betrayals. Lee is the main reason the book works as well as it does for as long as it does; she’s a sympathetic and compelling character trying to find her way in the world under impossible circumstances. It also helps that I love stories about secret societies and histories that exist just out of view, and a character forced into the margins of society is the perfect person to explore that kind of world.

Like most high schoolers, Lee dreams of going to college, but she builds her funds by shoplifting and selling her classmates the goods. When the school finds her best friend’s drugs in Lee’s locker, she takes the fall and ends up in juvie. After a few excruciating months of bullying and stress, Lee escapes, and that’s when things get interesting.

Now homeless and friendless, Lee falls on the mercy of a strange organization called the Société Anonomie. They’re mostly known for throwing wild parties and dressing up in antiquated clothing, but they also run a house for homeless runaways where Lee winds up when she needs somewhere to sleep. It isn’t long before she discovers something more sinister going on at the SA house. In her haste to escape, she steals an object precious to the SA, and spends the rest of the book trying to decide what to do next. Should she run, fight, or give back what she stole in the hope that they’ll leave her alone?

There are a lot of things I loved about The Readymade Thief, which is why I’m sad that it doesn’t stick the landing. My favorite parts are when Lee is living in the houses of people on vacation, going on night-time excursions to abandoned places with her new friend Tomi and trying to figure out why the SA wants a stolen Duchamp readymade. Trying to solve a mystery is almost always the most engaging part.

I started having problems with the book when it became obvious that Lee could probably give back the Duchamp and the SA would leave her alone, but the story kept manufacturing reasons for her to stay invested. The real problem is that Lee doesn’t have a driving, personal reason to stop the SA. All she wants is for everyone to leave her alone so that she can live her life. She’s an interesting character, but she isn’t a crusading hero-type. The best she can manage is a quest for vengeance, but her plans all fall apart because she keeps doing stupid things without thinking.

The hoariest cliché arrives during the climax, when Lee finally confronts the villain. He monologues for pages, helpfully connecting the dots and explaining his organization’s true motivations. That device rarely works without feeling heavy-handed, and here it just misses the mark.

The best parts of The Readymade Thief help make up for its flaws, but the one downside of a shaky ending is that it’s the last thing you remember about a book. That’s probably why my criticisms are still so fresh in my mind. Even so, The Readymade Thief is worth a read, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for future books by Augustus Rose.


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The Incrementalists: Plight of the Immortal Micro-Managers

The IncrementalistsPublished: September 24th, 2013
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hrs and 52 mins

The Incrementalists has a killer premise and a rave from John Scalzi on the cover, so I was understandably impatient to read it as soon as it came out. The book focuses on the members of a secret society that uses psychological manipulation to make small changes that hopefully have larger effects on the course of human history. This “meddling” is all in the name of making the world a “better than good” place. These Incrementalists, as they call themselves, have the benefit of several millennia of stored memories and history guiding them in their work. In fact, a large part of what makes their group work so well are the methods they use to pass down memories and maintain continuity over time.

All Incrementalists have a shared mental space they refer to as “The Garden”, where every member has an imaginary home of their own, used to store or “seed” memories, data and the psychological triggers required for mental manipulations. This combined with their ability to pass on memories and personalities from dead to new members makes them a formidable force when necessary. However, subtlety is the watchword for Incrementalists, and ethical considerations are always an important driver for every choice they make. Brust and White pepper in this world-building throughout, and although it does occasionally get a bit metaphysical, it’s easily the most interesting part of the book.

However, the meat of the story focuses on two Incrementalists in particular, Phil and Ren. Phil is the oldest continuous Incrementalist. Becoming an Incrementalist means being implanted with the memories and personality or “stub” of a deceased former member. When this happens, the two personalities vie for dominance. In Phil’s case, his personality has come out on top for longer than any other member of the group, which gives him seniority without necessarily making him infallible. Ren is a new recruit that Phil brings into the fold to replace the late Celeste, Phil’s tempestuous sometimes partner and former lover.

Ren is wide-eyed and ambitious, and surprisingly eager to join a strange cabal of semi-immortal meddlers, so it isn’t long before the recruitment process finishes and Ren finds herself implanted with Celeste’s stub. Naturally, that is when the shit hits the fan. Somehow the process doesn’t go through correctly, and instead of coming out the other end with all of Celeste’s history at her command, Ren has a hard time remembering who the hell this Celeste is everyone keeps ranting about. When the other Incrementalists start looking into the problem, they discover hidden sabotage and go into full-on panic mode. Accusations, manipulation, and attempted murder all come into play, and the group finds itself at a loss for the solution.

However, this is where the premise began unraveling for me. When I picked up the book, I had certain expectations that I’d be reading about a society of people spending their time manipulating the world around them. In practice, however, it turns out that most of the meddling involves nothing more than convincing Ren’s boss to put off a conference call so that she can stay focused on Incrementalist matters. Ren does meddle with a cocktail waitress at one point, but it doesn’t amount to anything of note. Other than that, the Incrementalists spend most of  their time dealing with a storyline that feels like nothing so much as metaphysical office politics. It’s a bit hard to care about a possibly corrupt secret society that does little more than manipulate its own members.

Then, of course, there’s the romance storyline. Shortly after Phil and Ren meet, they are in love. Part of it is the latent memory of Celeste influencing them both, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it feels like the characters go from strangers to passionate lovers in no time flat. It doesn’t help that I never really got much of a sense of either character as a person; they both felt a bit underdeveloped. Instead of feeling like a release or a rush of emotion, the romance scenes played more like passion by default.

Ultimately, although I found the premise intriguing, the plot wasn’t all that compelling. It is possible that my audiobook listening habits were part of the problem, however. I just haven’t been making time for audiobooks recently, so I listened in fits and starts over the course of a month. On the other hand, if the book had grabbed me, I’m sure I would have made more time to listen.

One more note for audiobook listeners: Ray Porter and Mary Robinette Kowal are both wonderful, talented narrators, but for some reason they use different accents for the same characters. A head-scratching choice and particularly confusing when the narrators switch in the middle of a scene.


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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstorePublished: October 2nd, 2012
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Technology
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 41 mins

Clay Jannon is young, techno-savvy and unemployed after being laid off by an ill-fated startup called NewBagel. As his desperation for a new job grows, he starts looking for opportunities everywhere under the sun, which is why the “Help Wanted” sign in the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore catches his attention. Mr. Penumbra, the store’s owner and namesake, hires Clay largely based on his love of books and his willingness to climb the steep ladders necessary to reach the store’s towering upper shelves.

After Clay is hired, he is told that the bookstore has a few rules, and one of them is that he isn’t allowed to read any of the books kept on the back shelves. These books are loaned out to a small club of customers who seem to be performing some kind of research. Clay only lasts so long before he gives in to temptation and tries to read one of the books – only to find out it’s written entirely in code. Things only get stranger from there.

The most fortuitous event in his clerkship, however, is the night when a young woman named Kat Potente walks into the store while he is working on a data visualization he hopes will help unravel the mysteries of the bookstore. Kat, it turns out, works for Google, and has access to huge amounts of computing power that they can bend to the task of uncovering the truth behind the store. With help from Kat – and Google’s servers – Clay begins unraveling the secrets of Penumbra’s store and the true adventure begins.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fascinating hybrid of genres. It feels like a fantasy adventure, but focuses entirely on technologies that exist in the real world today. Clay and Kat both speak breathlessly of the wonders possible thanks to Google, and even though they occasionally sound like an ad for the company, it’s hard not to get caught up in their excitement. This book has adventure, romance, an epic quest, tiny cities built to scale inside a living room, a mysterious secret society, mind-boggling technology and a leavening of actual history. It’s a brisk, entertaining read, and very funny to boot.

Although I do highly recommend this book, the only caveat I would make is that Google is such a big part of the story that the company almost feels like a major character. I could definitely see that being off-putting for some readers. In theory Sloan could have told a similar story without actually explicitly naming Google, but I think part of the idea behind this book is to tell a story that seems fantastical but is actually grounded in present-day reality. From that perspective, the intense focus on Google’s achievements is a big part of what makes this book work so well.

One of my most favorite moments in the book comes near the end when Clay visits a massive storage facility while on a quest to find a missing artifact. The facility is full of constantly moving shelves that seem to have minds of their own as they shift artifacts from place to place. The scene is full of magic and strangeness, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that just such a facility actually exists in the real world. That, ultimately, is the book’s greatest achievement – finding the wonder in modern technologies that we might otherwise take for granted.


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