Category Archives: book reviews

Book review – The Postmortal

[Ahem. Yep. Once a week and all.]

So, to bring back a feature of the blog long since vanished, I’d like to talk briefly today about a book that I recently finished for the second time – The Postmortal by Drew Magary.

Lots of books contemplate a society where there’s a formula or some description of the potential for human immortality. As best as I can recall, these books are usually set in the far-future, where humanity is spread across dozens of worlds and galaxies and there’s plenty of room for all to live and let live.

But what if the formula for immortality came when we were all still Earthbound?

This book (pub’ed in 2011), contemplates (in black hilarity) such a cure being found in 2019. The story follows main character John Farrell, who starts off the story illegally getting the cure from a black market doctor. After considerable bloodshed, the cure is finally legalized.

Over the next sixty years, society slowly stagnates and decays, and Farrell makes the transformation from a lawyer who specializes in “cycle marriages” to a nomad to an “end specialist”, all the while haunted by the memories of the two women that the Cure has taken away from him and searching for a meaning in a world that has absolved itself of it.

Not only is the main narrative exceedingly darkly funny and well-written, but it has something I really enjoy in novels if pulled-off well (and it is here). The main narrative is written in close first person, but it is interspersed with vignettes from newspapers, tv shows, interviews, and the like, that turn what would otherwise be a narrative of one man’s journey into a global tale of caution.

[Going on vacation this coming week, so if you don’t see another post, that’s totally why.]

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Book Review: American Wife

[Sorry about the lack of blogging over the past bit. I don’t even have a good excuse for it, except that I didn’t do it. If it’s any consolation, up until today, I’d only written 3k words the entire month (I’m currently going on a hardcore writing binge – 10k days for as long as I can sustain it)]

Today’s offering: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.

This is a novel based loosely on the life of Laura Bush. I don’t know a great deal about the former First Lady, so I can’t comment to the accuracy of the fictional portrayal. The most blatant difference, of course, is that the couple have been moved from Texas to Michigan.

The story opens well before Alice Lindgren/Laura Bush meets Charlie Blackwell/George Bush. Essentially, it’s a biography from Alice’s early childhood through to being the wife of the president in the middle of his second term, well after his approval ratings plummeted. Alice is a democrat, though that’s more because those are the philosophies she’s always been imbued with rather than any real political leanings (if anything, she holds few positions, later in life, on many important issues simply because she can see good arguments on either side of the issue).

The book is broken into four parts. The first is Alice’s childhood, up until a tragic accident for which she can never quite forgive herself, and which sets her onto her ultimate path. The second is after she has left her small hometown and has taken up a job as a schoolteacher, when she meets the ne’er-do-well Charlie, already an inveterate drunk. The whirlwind romance is like nothing she could ever have imagined, and they marry within a few months. The third part details their married life, and Charlie’s increasing alcoholism and drug use as their marriage wears on, until she leaves him to make him shape up. It works; they get back together. Abruptly, the fourth part skips many years to the time when they’re in the White House.

I appreciate the skipping over Charlie Blackwell’s campaign for governor, and then his campaign for president (though both are alluded to in the final section) – those sorts of political machinations really aren’t the focus of the novel. The focus is on Alice. The focus is always on Alice and her internal struggles to live with killing a classmate as a teenager, the abortion she had to keep secret (before Roe v. Wade), the contradiction of marrying into a hardcore Republican family, and the personal sacrifices which she has to make because, above all else, she loves the man that she has married. For all his flaws, she loves him. If I had to boil this book down to a single idea, it would be that: the internal struggle of Alice Lindgrem to come to terms as who she is as a person, and the sacrifices she must make in the name of those convictions.

The ending fizzles a bit to me, though it connects well to the prologue. (Look for a blog in the coming days/weeks about the importance of beginnings/endings).

But the writing style captivated me. First person writing can occasionally be annoyingly tedious.  In this case, it wasn’t; it was somewhere in the pleasant divide between good writing and good conversation. There aren’t a great many books that I pick up and spend hours at a stretch reading, and neglect other things (my own writing, for example), in order to finish the book.

A word of caution – there are some fairly graphic sexual scenes scattered throughout the book. I’m not quite sure how much they add to the narrative, but they are there.

Rating: 4/5

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Book Review: Love and Other Near-Death Experiences

Love and Other Near-Death Experiences by Mil Millington

I rather like the premise of this book. It’s not the big things in life that you should worry the most about. The big things, you can generally see those coming and can make a rational decision about them. No, it’s the little ones. The little ones matter the most, because you never know which of them is actually going to work out to change your life.

Rob bought some towels. They were cheap, bad towels. And he only bought them because a bunch of guys got in line at the hotdog stand just moments before he got there. If he hadn’t bought the towels, his girlfriend wouldn’t have made him return them, and if he hadn’t had to return them, then he’d have died in a horrible accident.  It was this one incident which sent Rob slightly off the edge; he’s about to get married but can no longer make simple decisions.

Chapter six, in its entirety:

The next day Jo [his girlfriend] came into the bathroom while I was standing there about to have a shower. Or about to have a bath. I’d been standing there for a little over an hour and a quarter.

Rob is a late-night jazz radio host, until one day he just loses it; he starts talking about the accident that nearly was, and all the emotions that are locked up with that. After nearly firing him, his producer decides to let him do a call-in show, rather than jazz. It leads to him meeting a bunch of other people who only escaped death through some inconsequential action, and the reveal of a grand conspiracy to kill off those who do survive. Rob goes on the run to figure out who’s behind it, along with a suicidal English teacher and a gung-ho American soldier.

The plot works, but it’s the style that I like the most about this book. It’s written almost conversationally; not every book that I’ve read has been able to pull that off very well, but this is one of them. At times, it feels like Rob and I are sitting in a bar and he’s telling me about the weirdest thing that ever happened to him.

It’s also peppered with great lines. Some examples.

“Please don’t bugger me,” I said…We were both a little stymied. I’d asked not to be sodomized, and he’d agreed to that request…it was no longer clear whether it was the done thing to move right on to his savagely murdering me, or whether we ought to have a chat about what we’d each last seen at the cinema first.

I wasn’t so hot for the ending. It came as somewhat of a disappointment to me, given the set-up. It felt almost like the author reached the 2/3 mark and suddenly wasn’t sure quite how to wrap things up. The ending felt slapped on and contrived. The very end was good (the last five pages), but the resolution to the conflict wasn’t.

Nonetheless, if only for the humor in it and the fact that if you start reading it in the evening, you’ll not get to bed until three in the morning because you want to read just one more chapter, I recommend it.

Rating: 4/5

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Book Review: Frindle

The book on offer today isn’t SFF. It’s not even adult literature. It’s Frindle, by Andrew Clements.

I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid, but beyond that, I always loved books. They’ve been passed down in my family. My little brother (now nearly 15) has a bookcase in his room that is populated almost entirely by mine and my sister’s childhood books. In the basement, there are at least three boxes I know of with children’s books, up through YA. I have some of them still on my bookcases in my room (of which there are three). Most prominently are the children’s classics book series I got (about a dozen books) when I was real, real young. Things like The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland and Tom Sawyer. Anyway, my point is that my interest in books came when I was very young, and fairly recently, I’ve gone back through some of those books. Just for fun, to spark old memories, that sort of thing.

I came across Frindle. I’m not sure whether it was my sister’s book or mine (we’re only 2 years apart, so it’s possible either way).

This is the sort of book that I would recommend to every child. To every young adult. And to every adult who wanted to remember what it’s like to be a kid again.

The premise is pretty basic. Nick Allen enters the fifth grade, where he meets a seemingly dictatorial teacher who has a love for the dictionary and the written word. One day, he asks why a word becomes a word, and Mrs. Granger tells him that words are what they are because people decide that’s what they mean, he takes the idea and runs with it. With a small group of friends, he decides to rename the word ‘pen’ as ‘frindle’. Why? Because if that’s what they choose to call it, then why isn’t it a word?

The one thing that struck me about this book is the love of words in it. Mrs. Granger makes a worthy adversary in her defense of pen and it’s noble Latin heritage; Nick makes an equally passionate case for “well, someone had to make up the Latin word, once upon a time, didn’t they?”.

This is a book about one boy, with a mind of his own and a desire to test the boundaries of his world. It’s simple enough for a child to understand (it was published in 1996, when I was 7/8); it’s moving enough for a young adult of 22 to still get tears in her eyes when she gets to the end. If any writer, any reader, ever has the feeling that they’re falling out of love with the written word – this is the book to read. The book that will reanimate your passion for writing and reading and maybe even make you remember what it was like to be a kid again, when the whole world was open and nothing was impossible.

I will be keeping this book. Should I ever have children, they will read this book. Failing that, I’ll make sure my nieces/nephews get a copy. I don’t care that it’s nearly 15 years old; there is a timeless quality to this book that will make it just as valuable a read in 1996 as in 2026.

Even if you don’t have kids, or don’t read kid lit, this one’s worth the trouble.

Rating: 5/5

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Book Review: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

Finally, back to the SFF!

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse; edited by John Joseph Adams

I don’t usually buy short story collections, I’m not sure why.  Maybe I’m just the kind of person who feels more comfortable with having an entire novel to flesh out characters and plot, and I’ve always had the impression that short stories to some extent, don’t do that as well (that’s not to say that there isn’t characterization or plot, but I want to follow characters through an extended journey with them).

This book doesn’t contain stories about how the apocalypse happened; there are hundreds of books out there that do it. This focuses on the what-happens-next; the remnants of mankind trying to survive in 22 different versions of the end of the world; most of them do it spectacularly, though some didn’t carry my attention as well as others (but that’s just probably personal preference, not because they’re not good.) A lot of big names contributed stories: George R R Martin, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, among many others.

The book opens with a Stephen King story which seems to set the mood for the rest of the book, featuring the cure for all the violence in the world, the anger that man is capable of showing each other, with disastrous results that no one could foresee until it’s too late. It’s poignant, and I was maybe a little teary-eyed at the conclusion of it.

Other favorites:

Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels, by George R R Martin. I think I’ve read a story about this before, though perhaps it was this same one (given that it was first published in 1973, it’s highly possible). What if mankind were forced underground after some apocalypse, and what if one day men who had escaped came back to find out what was left of them, or what was left of the world.

When Sysadmins Ruled the World, by Cory Doctorow. This one focuses a little more on the apocalypse than the others, but it looks at the question of what would happen if the internet was all that was left after the end of the world, and whether or not man could use it to unite after a global catastrophe. Some of it was a little too computer-tech-y for me, but I think it presents an interesting perspective on the state of technology today.

Artie’s Angels, by Catherine Wells. This one doesn’t focus on rebuilding the world, on saving mankind, or any such grand, world-sweeping goals. No, this is the story of a bunch of kids in the worst of the domes which are the only places to escape the radiation outside. They’re led by one smart kid, who helps to give them a legend to live around – the legend of King Arthur, and gives those kids something to be proud of, to live with. I can’t imagine many people who would still be dry-eyed by the end of it.

Speech Sounds, by Octavia E Butler. What if the world lost the power of speech, almost universally? How would society not descend into anarchy? Grunting vocalizations and an ever-expanding, mostly obscene sets of hand gestures. It follows the journey of one woman as she meets a stranger who she thinks maybe she can settle down with while harboring her deadly secret.

But I think my absolute favorite was The End of the World, by Dale Bailey. This one outright mocks the proliferation of end of the world scenarios with lines like, “Here’s one of my favorite end of the world scenarios, by the way: Carnivorous plants” (p. 289) or “You, like Wyndham, may be curious about the catastrophe…[E]nd of the word tales typically make a big deal about such things…[S]hit happens. It’s the end of the world, after all” (p. 290). The sly insertions of breaking the fourth wall mixed in with the story of a man who just has no idea what’s happened or what the hell to do with himself makes me smile every time I read it.

If you’re a fan of the post-apocalyptic, and haven’t read this book yet, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy. They’ll make you smile, they’ll make you cry…they’ll make you think.

Rating: 5/5

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Book Review: Girls of Riyadh

Again, hardly fantasy/sci-fi.

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea.

There’s something to be said for an interesting cover: one of the biggest reasons that I initially bought this book was the fact that it’s cover is so interesting. I’m mildly interested in Middle-Eastern stuff, but not incredibly. I liked the idea of a glimpse into Saudi Arabian women, so that was a second tick. But the cover was what probably sealed the deal for me.

Anyway, the story is framed through the narrative of a Saudi woman posting messages on a YahooGroup; each Friday, she posts another excerpt of the lives of four friends: Gamrah, Sadeem, Michelle, and Lamees, all of whom are coming into their late teens and beginning their adult lives. All four are slightly different; Gamrah is the shy, slightly plain one, Sadeem is Gamrah’s closest friend and the much prettier one, Michelle is the slightly savvier one whose family moved back from America, Lamees is studious and wants to be a doctor. The characters themselves are distinct enough to be told apart, even if you start to feel by the end that Gamrah is a bit snivelly and Lamees is a bit too distant. That doesn’t matter that much, because at least I was feeling something for the characters.

The story mostly focuses on their love lives over a period of several years and in fact opens with Gamrah’s wedding. Where they have been close for years, through secondary school, their lives begin to diverge at the beginning of the book, and there is the feeling of regret as they regroup and realize they are all going down different paths in life, no matter how close they started at the beginning. That, too, rings true to me because it’s how I feel about a great number of people I went to high school with. Who you are at 16 or 17 or 18 is so different from who you are at 20 or 21, especially after you’ve been thrown into a new environment (college, marriage, work) for a couple of years.

Where the book falls short for me is the men.  Time and time again, across characters, the men are first charming in some manner or another – exactly the charming way that the girl in question wants them to be – and then they’re revealed to be a liar or disinterested and the relationship ends. It was hard for me to tell one man apart from the other and by the time I was halfway through the book, I could already predict that the next relationship was going to end badly. It seemed to have little good to say about modern young Saudi men, except for the select few who the girls ended up with at the close of the story.

This book stirred up the Islamic world when it was published and even for someone with as little religious conviction as me, I can see why. It depicts women in a completely different light than the supposedly traditional Islamic woman. For that, it’s worth applause. But because I cannot make myself care about any of the men in the story, I cannot care as deeply about the women. On the other hand, the story is a light, easy, fun read that opened my eyes to another facet of Muslim life.

Rating: 3/5

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Book Review: The Scandal Plan by Bill Folman

I don’t restrict my reading list to SFF, though a casual glance at my bookcase(s), of which there are three in my bedroom and one downstairs that used to live in my apartment (plus the boxes of books in the basement), shows that it’s pretty predominantly that sort of thing. Naturally, when one pursues a degree in political science, it’s a useful thing to actually have some interest, and so I always enjoy a well-crafted politically-based novel, whether it’s satire or serious. The one in question today is The Scandal Plan.

What do you do when you’re a likeable, accomplished, skilled politician who is failing miserably in the polls against an incumbent who’s an idiot, but the kind of guy that guys want to sit down and have a beer with? Well, you come up with some way to make the politician in question more human. Ben Phillips’s chief adviser decides that the best way to do that is to give him flaws; to give him a scandal. A scandal created is a scandal they can control and use to their advantage. After considering various options such as substance abuse (no good, as the incumbent’s a recovered addict) and  no rape and murder (too cliche), they decide the only thing to be done is to have a long-ago sex scandal. With reluctance from Ben Phillips – and his wife – the plan is put into motion and for a while, things proceed as planned. But things like this can take on a life of their own, and when the scandal escalates out of control, it’s not only the presidential bid that’s threatened, but Ben Phillips’s happy marriage.

With a colorful cast of characters including a Mexican-American spy/chauffeur, a high school teen magazine reporter who stumbles onto the biggest story of his life, and a Republican-turned-Democrat chief adviser, The Scandal Plan is a skillful satire of the pre-Obama political scene (which, given it was released in mid-2008, makes sense). While some of the allusions are a bit obvious (who can miss who the former alcoholic and incompetent public speaker is supposed to represent?), and the books is left-leaning, there’s enough here that even those on the other side of the spectrum could find something to laugh at.  The various POVs from which it is told are intertwined in an interesting and unpredictable manner. I’ve always been fond of ending a chapter and not knowing which part of the story I’m going to jump to next. More, all of the storylines held equal interest – I’ve read books with multiple POVs where I’ve been tempted to skip a chapter so I can get to the storyline I really like.

I’ve talked about that critical part of my mind that’s appeared lately, and even though I’m trying to learn how to subdue that part of me, it was still well and active as I was reading this. But just as I enjoyed the plot and structure of the book, the book was also well-written by the standards that my mind has created (though I’m still fuzzy as to what they are, to be perfectly honest).

But you know what my favorite part of this book is?

The ending. Never saw it coming.

This one is a must-read for any fans of political satire.

Rating: 5/5

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