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.

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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: The Stand

Not his best work (but not his worst.)

The Stand by Stephen KingThe-Stand-Book-Cover

After the outbreak of a deadly virus across the United States, what remains of humanity lives among what remains of society. As they band together guided by portentous dreams and intuition, they find themselves locked in a battle for the soul of humankind and each must make a choice. A choice backed by action, what one might call…a stand.

Early in college I went through a phase where I avoided dealing with all the crap that was piling up on my head by reading Stephen King novels. I read everything in the university library instead of going to class, which took me through Carrie, It, Dolores Claiborne, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, and several more. I had heard a lot about The Stand, and knew people loved it, but I kept thinking it was a John Grisham novel for some reason and I am just not into courtroom dramas (I’m into courtroom comedies like My Cousin Vinnie and Night Court.)

I finally read it in 2012 and, while I see why people go ape over it, I don’t think it’s near the top of the Stephen King stack. It was clear that he was aiming for a Lord of the Rings-scale epic, American-style. Some of it worked like gangbusters: Mother Abigail and Stuart Redman, Larry Underwood’s whole journey, the trashcan man. The tension the author built as the story progressed was almost unbearable by the time Tom Cullen took his solo trip. I think the length of the novel helped with that. There is a good strong vein of story underpinning the whole affair.

However, King loves a sweeping scope and at some point The Stand got out from under him. Randall Flagg came across a bit too campy to be truly frightening, The Kid started as an interesting (and frightening) character but quickly went completely over the top, and Frannie lost all her spark as a personality the minute she teamed up with Harold. Since major plot points hinged on Randall Flagg and Frannie, this hurt the overall quality of the novel considerably.

King has acknowledged that The Stand didn’t turn out quite as he had hoped, but it’s still a solid novel worth reading through despite the high page-count. It just didn’t reach the heights he was aiming for. I’d love to see him try something of this scope again, now that he has more life and many more novels under his belt (no, I don’t consider The Dark Tower an example of a second try.)

Have you read the book or watched the miniseries? What did you think? 

Random Review: Ender’s Game

I loved this book. Full stop. ender

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender Wiggin is the specially-commissioned brilliant third child in a family tracked for its ability to create brilliant children. His older brother was too violent, his older sister too passive, and the hope is that Ender (like that third bowl of porridge) will be just right. With the fate of the Earth resting on his six-year-old shoulders, Ender is shipped off to a boarding school in space where the planet’s brightest children are being trained to win an intergalactic war. Cut off from everything he loves and everyone he knows, the powers that be put him through a gauntlet in hopes of turning him into the greatest general the galaxy’s ever seen. Socially isolated, younger than everyone, and pushed to his limits, can little Ender save the world?

This might be the most perfectly written book I have ever read. Nothing is extraneous. The conversations between Ender’s handlers about the ethical implications of what they’re doing, the political subplot with Ender’s brother and sister back on Earth, each army and leader Wiggin learns from or comes up against; it all feeds into the central story. It is so tightly plotted that at times one feels like Wile E. Coyote: you’ve run right off the cliff and extra ten feet before the full impact of what’s happened hits you. My only regret is that I waited so long to read it. Because it seemed like “a boy book” with its soldiers-in-space cover, I’m not big into war stories. This is not a war story: it’s a story about the making of a hero and what that costs at every level.

What I love most about the book is the social dynamic when Ender reaches his training academy. He has been marked for greatness, and intentionally set apart. There are people who take offense and oppose him simply because of this, others who are indifferent, others who are willing to befriend him and share what they know. Card includes a range of ethnicities, belief systems, and moral codes. This is a school for brilliant children, and Card understands at a fundamental level the social structure that exists among the gifted.  Where they are blessed and where they fall short, and the things they need that are often overlooked. I could easily devote an entire Character Study to breaking down each of the people Ender encounters at the academy and how they contribute to his future.

My only quibble is the treatment of women in the book. There are only three of significance: Ender’s mother, Ender’s sister Valentine, and sharp-shooter classmate Petra. Ender’s mother is little more than a caricature: sad to lose her baby boy, secretly religious, the end. Valentine is basically uninterested in war despite her brilliance, and acts as a human blankie for Ender when needed. While she does have some impressive political accomplishments, they are basically spearheaded and engineered by her brother Peter. Petra is an exceptional shot, unable to rise higher in the ranks because that is the only area in which she shines. She is also used as “weakest link” at one point in the story. Card writes at one point early on that evolution had made girls softer and less-suited to military success. Um. That irked me. Methinks your Mormonism is showing.

Still. The book is an A+, and I’m passing my copy directly on to my brother.

Chair Rating:

Magnificent, beautifully crafted.

Magnificent, beautifully crafted.

Random Review: Life as We Knew It

I won this novel as part of a birth-month contest put on by Tara Anderson of The Librarian That Doesn’t Say Shhh. It’s one of her favorites, so for another take on the novel you can read her review here.

Disappointingly shallow novel suffering from an identity crisis.

Life as We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer

Sixteen-year-old Miranda has bigger things on her mind than the fact that a meteor is about to hit the moon. Like prom, and that cute boy from her swim team. To her it’s not much more than a lame excuse for extra homework assignments. When the meteor knocks the moon out of orbit and closer to Earth, she and the rest of the planet are completely unprepared for the geological events that follow. Tectonic shifts result in earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Ash fills the skies, blocking out the sun and sending temperatures plummeting. Miranda’s family rallies together to survive as every system they have ever known fails around them: the schools, the power grid, the police force…

I’m afraid I’ve made this book sound a lot more exciting than it was. The entire novel is written in diary format and unfortunately the diarist is a bit of a dope. Miranda is nearly sixteen-going-on-seventeen but her thoughts read like those of an especially self-centered twelve-year-old. I suspect this may be because the novel is aimed at upper elementary/middle grades, but in that case it might have made more sense to show the events of the novel from a younger kid’s point of view. The narrator does not come across as particularly smart, capable, or nice. She does as she pleases until her helicopter mom jerks her back into line. The most well-rounded character in the novel is Miranda’s mother, who reads like a rather irritating author insertion.

Which brings me to my main problem with the novel: the characterization is shallow and language is simple, which suggests middle-grade fare (though middle-grade novels can certainly have rich characterization). However, the presentation of the premise suggests YA or plain old fiction for adults. I can imagine the premise being deeply unsettling to younger readers, and there are some fairly dark moments. The core idea could have been the seed for a great YA post-apocalyptic, but instead the reader gets a book that is somehow both disturbing and lame narrated by a boring teenage girl.

Some other random things that bothered me:

  • The science is extremely weak. If you are going to write a novel about a catastrophic event in planetary geology, do some serious research first. The movie-science might not bother readers who are not scientifically inclined.
  • The names are all weirdly generic mid-century standards, except for Miranda. Bob, Dan, Jonny, Carol, Grace…it just seemed odd. Especially since the novel is dated by the mother’s G.W. Bush-bashing.
  • The ending is basically a Deus Ex Machina, which makes for an exasperating finish to a dull read.

All in all, an exciting idea that resulted in a middling-to-bad novel with an identity crisis. A bit too realistically dark for many kids, and way too shallow for most adults.

For a better read in a similar age-range try: The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson.

Chair Rating:

The pieces are there, but they’ve been poorly assembled.

Random Review: The Maze Runner

I hate that the cover is so pretty. I love ivy and an orange-and-green color combo. They made it look SO good!

The book of bad habits.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

When Thomas wakes up in a darkened elevator, he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. The elevator takes him to a high-walled courtyard, The Glade, full of self-governing adolescent boys who have no memories of their prior lives either. He is informed that a new boy arrives every month. Beyond The Glade is a maze: explored by Runners each day, filled with monsters each night. The day after Thomas’ arrival an unconscious hot girl shows up in the elevator clutching a note informing the boys that she will be the last. What follows is a race against time to solve the maze before resources run out or monsters overrun The Glade.

This book was really hard to finish. The ideas were promising, and I had the feeling that things were just about to get exciting in a few pages…unfortunately I had that feeling all the way through with absolutely no payoff.

Let me state, once and for all, that this book has absolutely nothing in common with Lord of the Flies. Nothing. If you love that book (like I do) and were considering this one because you’ve heard it was in a similar vein, you’ve been bamboozled. Lord of the Flies has depth, sociological commentary, and psychological suspense. The Maze Runner doesn’t.

What it does have are many, many poor choices that rob the narrative of any excitement or suspense. I am afraid of writing a book like this, and I often found myself cringing when Dashner’s novel displayed an unchecked bad habit that I am prone to myself. I am going to list the poor choices for convenience:

1. This should have been a short story. If Dashner wasn’t interested in, or up to the task of, developing his characters as more than two-dimensional personalities; he should have told his tale in a short format to keep the focus on the events. Social dynamics between Gladers are superficial, particularly given how long most of them have been living together in stressful circumstances. Particularly irritating is the way The Gladers refuse to explain anything of what they know about their situation to Thomas. It seems like a pointless attempt to create conflict and suspense, and it is one that fails.

2. Dashner gives away all his suspense and conflict early on. Rather than letting Grievers, the deadly monsters that roam the maze, be a mysterious entity that goes bump in the night until Thomas gets to enter the maze himself; Thomas is shown a Griever through a window on the day he arrives. Teresa, who could brew conflict based on her gender alone, is dropped straight into a coma on arrival and kept off-screen unless it is time for Thomas to interact with her. A very poor choice. The fact that she arrives the very day after Thomas is also a poor choice, because he has yet to learn anything about Glader life. What could have been a huge shock to a settled-in Thomas with a month in the Glade was instead a throwaway moment.

3. Pacing. Holy moly. Dashner and I have something in common with our writing. I have a tendency to slip into a moment-by-moment description of events if I am not being careful. This makes for a bone dry read, and is a terrible disservice to story. I only care what a character ate for lunch if it tells me something about the character. Katniss’ focus on food underscored the general scarcity of it in her daily life, Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwiches were a quirk of her generally independent personality. Ditto anything else the character does. It only matters to me if it matters to the story. Dashner drags the reader through many dull hours and frustrating conversations, just to get to “wow” moments that fail to thrill because the reader has become so disinterested.

4. The author shows his ass with the character of Teresa. It tells me an awful lot about how an author sees women when he drops a single female character into a story, makes her beautiful, takes away her ability to speak, and earmarks her for the “hero” (and none of the other characters challenge this assumption). It reminded me of Arya in Eragon: she’s there because the hero needs a hot babe to ride into the sunset with, no matter how little sense it actually makes in the context of the story. That is not authentic, that is an emotionally stunted little boy’s fantasy. The way the story is written Thomas basically has “dibs”.

5. Thomas’ self-reflection read like the author describing the character of Thomas to the reader. That doesn’t work in first-person. Awkward. Whenever Thomas had a good character moment: did something brave, devised a clever solution, or worked tirelessly; it was undercut by his previous musings that despite his lack of memory he felt like he was brave/smart/persistent. I tend to think of writing characters like creating a great drawing: if you do a good job rendering the values, bringing out the darks and lights, you don’t need to draw lines.

6. Spiked slugs aren’t scary.

This book was just so frustrating, particularly since I saw some of my own bad writing habits on every page. I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone, because there are so many good sci-fi/dystopian stories with similar themes that are well-written. I will not be picking up The Scorch Trials.

If you would like to read a book like The Maze Runner, but well-written, check out William Sleator’s House of Stairs. He did it better twenty years ago.

Chair Rating:

Could have been epic, but it’s fundamentally flawed.

Random Review: Gone

My feelings about this book are proving hard to articulate, or even pin down.

Gone by Michael Grant

This is the first in a series of YA sci-fi novels set in the small town of Perdido Beach, where every person aged fifteen or older suddenly disappears one morning. In addition to facing basic questions of survival, the children of the “Fallout Alley Youth Zone” (or FAYZ) find themselves in a power-struggle complicated by some individuals’ development of super-human abilities. My feelings about this book are a bit tangled, so I’m going to try and use a list to make sense of them:

  • These books are described as both a sci-fi Lord of the Flies and  Stephen King for kids. It does not have the believable psychology and slow transformation of a Lord of the Flies, the mounting horror as civilization leaves the boys one by one. The “bad” kids start bad and end that way, pretty much the same with the “good” or “heroic” kids. There is a lot of telling rather than showing with these characters. As to the Stephen King claim…Stephen King is Stephen King for kids. The stories are good no matter your age, and many of his novels and stories have protagonists as young (or younger) than these kids. A parallel might be drawn between some of the themes of good and evil, the premise (similar to Under the Dome in the first novel, blurbs for later novels indicate shades of It and The Stand). Rather weak tea, but I understand that marketing departments have books to sell.
  • I found it hard to relate to main character Sam, the “reluctant hero” of the tale. He felt like a cipher to me throughout the novel. I was told that he had feelings, longings and reservations, but I never felt them as a reader. Secondary characters like the very capable Edilio, cowardly Quinn and Astrid, and pragmatic Albert felt far more vivid to me. The book shone brightest in segments dealing with Lana, the exiled problem-child who finds herself alone and gravely injured in the desert.
  • I liked that some characters were allowed to be cowardly, and the recognition of the damage seemingly “courageous” acts can do when carried out by an emotionally sensitive person.
  • Fifteen is a weird age to disappear at. Perhaps this will be explained later in the series, but it just sort of sat in the back of my mind bugging me while I read. It seems like an age picked for convenience to the writer rather than logic.
  • The beginning progresses rather slowly, but after the arrival of the private-school kids things get crazier and crazier. This is good. When the crazy picked up (and the action with it), it became easier to get caught up in the story and ignore some of the weaker characterization/writing.
  • The people of Perdido Beach were not the only things affected by the event that spirited away the adults and granted others powers. This is another strong point of the novel.

In the end, I liked the story and am interested to know what happens to the denizens of the Fallout Alley Youth Zone, but I am reluctant to actually read more of Michael Grant’s writing. His ideas are aces, his execution is only okay. For others, I imagine it will be a matter of taste. If you are picky about writing, maybe not the story for you. If you can ignore clunky sentences and unearned character moments as long as there’s plenty of wild action, I couldn’t recommend this book more.

Chair Rating:

Complex, interesting in theory, a bit problematic in practice.