Book of the Month: Dark Matter

My September Book of the Month selection was enjoyable enough to read, but ultimately a disappointment.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch57b3642421eed-image

Jason Dessen is a family man, a brilliant physicist who chose domestic bliss over career success a decade and a half before we meet him. One night, after going out for a quick drink to celebrate a colleague’s achievement, Dessen is abducted by an unseen man asking “Are you happy with your life?”

Dessen is knocked unconscious, awakening to find himself in a world where he is at the cutting edge of theoretical physics…but his wife is a stranger and his son doesn’t exist.

Now, it may just be that I usually love this sort of story and have watched/read this kind of thing too much, but I immediately knew who had kidnapped Dessen and why. This story held zero surprises, but that actually wouldn’t have bothered me if it were better written. The plot felt rushed, giving us little time to connect to the gravity of Dessen’s situation or his feelings about it. His feelings are often stated directly in a single sentence that doesn’t evoke much. He is desperately in love with his wife because she has “Spanish eyes” and an “architecturally impossible” smile. We see several different iterations of this woman and none of them has much personality.

The whole story hinges on Dessen himself, he is our only true through-line, and he is just not particularly interesting. The most interesting side character doesn’t last long at all, and departs in a manner that makes it feel as though a critical scene was cut from the novel. The opening and the climax are the book’s strongest points, but the end fell short for me.

Overall, Dark Matter wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t a great one. The idea was stretched thin without the richness of engaging characters to sustain it. There was enough plot for a TV episode, but not a novel spanning hundreds of pages. Then again, I passed it off to a chemist friend who hasn’t been able to put it down. Make of that what you will.

If you like this type of story, I would recommend: Quantum Leap, the first two Terminator movies, the Back to the Future trilogy, Primer, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The One I Love, William Sleator’s Strange Attractors or Singularity, or The Twilight Zone series.

Book of the Month: The Girls

My third Book of the Month selection, for July, is my second favorite of all those I have received so far and the one that made me decide to renew my subscription when the promotion period ended.

The Girls by Emma ClineTHE GIRLS_final jacket (1).jpg

The story of Evie Boyd’s summer with a Manson-Family-style cult, told in retrospect by a middle-aged Evie nigh on invisible, is anything but what you’d expect. Rather than a sordid tale of blood and guts, “gore porn” finding titillation in the macabre, it provides an immediate look at what it means to be female in America. Through the eyes of Evie at two points in her life, the reader experiences the draw of charisma and the weight of expectation on women finding their way in the world.  Evie’s journey is anything but linear, ranging from teenage suburban bedrooms littered with mascara and magazines to remote sheds full of mouse shit and moldy clothes. A folk singer’s palace to the shadows of a beach house borrowed in the off-season. The men are tertiary. This story is, as promised, about the girls.

The Girls is not a morality tale, more of a beautifully rendered impressionist painting posing dozens of unanswered questions. The prose and themes reminded me of one of my favorite novels: White Oleander by Janet Fitch. I passed it on to a female friend as soon as I finished reading.

The Girls is a worthy read for anyone who has ever been mystified by womanhood. Which is to say, everyone.

 

Book of the Month: The Veins of the Ocean

With my second Book of the Month pick (along with Heat and Light, which I have yet to finish) I decided to try something I probably wouldn’t pick up on my own.

The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engeldownload-1

Reina Castillo’s brother is serving a life sentence in prison for a terrible crime: the murder of a child. She visits him with unwavering devotion, blaming herself, until the day he ends his life. Set adrift, she moves down to the Florida Keys to start a new life where no one knows who she is and where she came from. Working in the Keys she meets Nesto Cadena, an immigrant from Cuba determined to bring his children to America. As a deep friendship grows between them Reina is called to discover what lies beneath the waves around her home and the guilt eating at her heart.

It took me a while to get into this novel, but I am glad I took the time. It seems superficial to start: the sordid story of a family with a seedy background, but the narrative quickly dives deep. The language is beautiful, the plot steeped in the rich cultures of Cuba and Colombia. The pace is meditative, as Reina confronts the factors that led her to the place and woman she finds herself. Opportunities for self-reflection arise as organically as waves bubbling over the shore: encounters with people from her past, both chance and deliberate, recurring questions about whether it is better to save your own hide or reach out to a suffering creature. Questions of family and faith. The resolution of Reina’s story is both complete and satisfying to the soul.

In the end, I was glad I took a chance on this beautifully written novel. It left me looking forward to the next month’s BOTM selections!

Book of the Month: The Nest

Well, I’m starting to get the hang of this teaching and still having time to do other stuff that makes me feel like a human (not a money-seeking-robot) thing. Earlier this year I was offered a deal on three months of Book of the Month at half price and jumped at it, since it was right before summer vacation and I thought I might finally have time to read again.

Each month on the first, five book selections are revealed and members have five days to choose one for the month. The selections range across genres including thrillers, historical fiction, contemporary literature, science fiction and more. Each month there is a celebrity judge who endorses a selection, and other judges each put forth an argument for their pick.

The books are up-to-the-minute new releases in hardback, and a total steal at $9.99 apiece. Up to two extra novels can be added to your box for that low, low price each month. They are usually around the 300-400 page mark, meaty but finishable. The box always contains a note from the judge who endorsed your selection, a branded treat like a crazy straw or “after book mints,” and a bookmark with a literary quote in addition to your selections. If you can’t decide, the site will pick a novel for you based on a brief preferences quiz completed at sign-up.

On to a review of my first selection: The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, selected by thenest-bookcoverguest judge and actress Ellie Kemper of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

The Nest is the story of the Plumb family, a collection of middle-class siblings on the cusp of receiving an unexpectedly sizable inheritance. After decades of counting on those chickens that are about to hatch, the eldest brother Leo becomes involved in a scandal that might just ruin everything.

The Plumbs include:

  • eldest brother Leo, a rake and sometime entrepreneur who is rapidly coasting toward the end of his good fortune and goodwill;
  • elder sister Beatrice, a writer in a long dry-spell following early success;
  • younger brother Jack, an acerbic antiques dealer seldom troubled by ethics, whose taste outpaces his income;
  • youngest sister Melody, a supermom with a perfect house she can’t afford and two perfect twins she hopes to send off to perfect Ivy League schools on the strength of perfect SAT scores;
  • and mother Francine, former half-hearted trophy wife to the deceased Plumb patriarch and half-hearted mother of four.

This book was a quick, moderately interesting read. It’s very gossipy, so if you love a fresh issue of People magazine (or Page Six column), this might be one for you. The characters are well-drawn, but it was actually side characters like a retired fireman, Jack’s husband, and Beatrice’s agent/Leo’s ex Stephanie who I found most engaging. The plot has some complexity, with each Plumb scheming and maneuvering to achieve their ends, but I admit I didn’t like any of the Plumbs enough to be invested in how their story resolved.

The Nest was more than worth the five bucks I wound up paying for it, but left me ambivalent about whether I would continue my BOTM subscription when my promotion ran out. Stay tuned, I will be posting reviews of more BOTM selections all week!

Random Review: Every Day

I am surprised I did not like this book more.

Every Day by David Levithan3207401

A is a person without a body, awaking each day as someone new and supplanting that individual’s consciousness. It has been that way as long as A can remember, and A expects it to continue that way forever. A just tries to make as little impact as possible, until the day the mistreated girlfriend of the body A’s inhabiting piques interest. Suddenly A is desperate to hold on, after a lifetime of letting go.

On the surface, this seemed like a book I would love. I’ve really enjoyed the other Levithan projects I’ve read (Every You, Every Me and will grayson, will grayson.) I am the type of person who watched every episode of Quantum Leap, binge-watched Sense8 (twice), and tries to imagine the lives of other people driving down the highway with me. Where they are going, what they worry about, who they love and who loves them.

Every Day is well-written. It is an interesting story that has emotional resonance and high stakes, and yet it was just a three-star read for me. I am not sure why. Maybe because the idea that everyone has problems and worries and great loves is not an earth-shaker for me. Maybe because A falls in love with a thin, blue-eyed, blonde doormat and that is just painfully typical.

I think that’s it. The whole story centers around the growing connection between A and Rhiannon, and the impossibility of making it work, and I just didn’t like Rhiannon much. It was clear why she appealed to A: they are both intuitive, compassionate dreamers yearning for deep connection. The narrative explored just about every type of relationship and attraction through A’s body-hopping, which was a lot more gripping than the relationship on which A focused. I just felt like rolling my eyes at the desperation to get back to this blah girl who lets her boyfriend treat her like crap because he’s cute and has a sob story.

I wanted to like this so much more than I did, but I think a teenager who hasn’t read or seen much along these lines might be blown away by it. I suppose I will pass it on to my students and find out!

Chair Rating:

Looked more special than it felt.

Looked more special than it felt.

Random Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

All the charm of a guy standing, arms folded, at a magic show and loudly explaining how he figured out all the tricks.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory DoctorowDownandout

In a future, deathless, society people with computers in their brains try to run Disney World.

That’s really all I can muster as far as a synopsis. I really did not like this book. I didn’t dislike it as much as Ready Player One, but it was close.

This book was so narratively uneven, I’m just going to analyze it using a list:

The Major:

  • The main character is horrible. Pompous, condescending, narrow-minded, and limited in both emotional range and depth of feeling. He verges on sociopathic, valuing people primarily for the benefits the offer in his life. The character acknowledges some of these flaws from time to time, but makes no effort to change or compensate for them. He just expects everyone to recognize his inherent rightness and fall in line.
  • I love Disneyland and Disney World, even hearing about the technical development and detailed work so many brilliant creative minds put into it. Somehow Doctorow makes the behind-the-scenes stuff dry as an overcooked pork-chop. He often comes off as smug, describing the nuts and bolts of the attractions, even as his author-insertion main character berates other characters for the same.
  • The resolution feels somehow both too obvious and a like bit of a cheat in the narrative.
  • There are frequent contradictions in the world-building. There is a currency of inter-personal esteem, and somehow a person with none at all can’t get an elevator door to open for him but can get into Disney World. The story loops back on itself several times in whiplash fashion, undoing what has just seemed accomplished in the previous chapter.

The Minor: 

  • The main character has a girlfriend with a Bella Swan/Edward Cullen-level age disparity. This could be an interesting comment on connection in a society where apparent age has become irrelevant, even deceiving. Instead, it is depicted in a way that makes the main character appear immature at best, creepily perverted at worst. Like when, upon meeting, his teenage girlfriend’s youthful innocence and hygiene makes him want to pinch “either set” of her cheeks.

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  • There is limited invented slang in the novel, but “Whuffie” and “Bitchun Society” seemed like juvenile place-holders that should have been replaced in editing.
  • All of the relationships are paper-thin.
  • It is awfully hard to get invested in a murder-mystery when the person is replaced with a clone with a near-identical memory mere days after it happens. Particularly when the character just spent some time talking about how death is merely an inconvenience. His sudden outrage became comical, “it’s okay when other people die, NOT ME!” The entire story hinges on this self-important jerk imagining that nothing can possibly go right unless he is there to manage it personally. A more skilled writer probably could have gotten me to buy-in, but that was not the case.
  • All of the relationships were paper-thin. Familial, “best” friendships, collegial, adversarial. All the characters were paper-thin. Placeholders for the interesting people who might have been. “Love” was meaningless, people who had wronged one-another basically made a sad face and kept right on doing wrong. That might have been intentional, again to show the superficiality of what a world without scarcity had become, but you still need a skilled writer to find a way for the reader to invest and engage.

This novel brought out all my worst anxieties as a person who sometimes writes things: that I might assemble a novel that is a string of interesting ideas poorly joined, that I might write unrelatable characters, that I might frequently contradict myself within the lines of my own world and premise.

Overall, this was a really frustrating read. Not good or bad enough to enjoy. I would say it was a waste of interesting ideas, if M.T. Anderson hadn’t written a book with essentially all the same ideas which I love: Feed.

Seriously, read Feed. Take the time to get acclimated to the slang, and read it.

Chair Rating:

Flat, uncomfortable, and essentially broken.

Flat, uncomfortable, and essentially broken.

Random Review: Joyland

Formulaic, in the best possible sense.

Joyland, by Stephen KingJoyland-Cover

Devin Jones is a heartbroken college student working at a South Carolina amusement park over the summer between his junior and senior years. He makes some friends, pines, works his tail off, and stumbles across a murder mystery in the process.

If you have read a pulp novel, you have read this story.

If you have read a handful of Stephen King novels, you have read this story.

And that is what’s great about it. Every year, I go to the State Fair and get a corn dog and a big fresh-squeezed lemonade. I know just how they will taste, and I love them just as much every time.

Joyland deftly combines some of King’s most familiar themes and quirks (coming-of-age, the power of childhood friendships, everyday evil, leaving no breast un-described) with the formula of cheapie paperback mysteries from the 70s. Two great tastes that taste great together. There is even a cheeky wink at the format, in the form of tossed-off comment about Joyland’s mascot resembling Scooby-Doo.

I can’t recommend Joyland enough if you enjoy stories with a little horror, a lot of humanity, and a little magic. Short enough to be fun and long enough to be satisfying. It had me nostalgic for a rather terrible job at a summer camp I had around the time I was the main character’s age.

Random thoughts:

  • I love carnivals and amusement parks in real life and as a novel setting. I think I may explore that in a future Character Study.
  • “When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”
  • Very little gross-out gore in this, especially for a King novel.
  • I bought this in pocket-size paperback, as King hoped it would be read. I miss those novels, easily stashed in a purse or glove-box for unexpected downtime.
  • Going with a painted illustration over a photograph or a hyper-modern graphic for the cover was a great choice, as an object this book is the total package. A piece of nostalgia through-and-through.

Chair Rating: 

bumper car

A guaranteed good time!