Category Archives: Book Reviews

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Brief Review

Cover of 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu
Vintage, 2011

After a couple of people at WorldCon recommended How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe to me, I decided to give it a shot. I’d seen it on the shelves, after all, and the premise looked interesting. I love stories about time travel, paradoxes, that sort of thing (Doctor Who is one of my favorite TV shows — ’nuff said), so a novel that features that sort of thing should be right up my alley.

And, on the whole, it was. I can’t honestly say that this was the best book of the year, as some reviewers have said; but, then, I haven’t read that many new books this year. This novel has its comic moments (though I would probably have listed Vonnegut and Fforde as the antecedents of this novel’s humor, rather than Douglas Adams, as one of the reviewers cited on the cover did), not to mention moments of poignancy and near tragedy. I’m a fan of wordplay, and Yu incorporates a lot of that as well, with techno-babble which is obviously not meant to be taken seriously and a (very) few well-considered puns. There’s a lot here to like.

So the question I have for myself is, why didn’t I enjoy this novel more? Why would I give How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe three stars instead of four or five?

I think it’s partially because it was a chore to get into this book initially. There’s a lot of exposition in the beginning; cleverly written exposition, to be sure, but exposition nonetheless, that tells us about how time travel works in Yu’s universe. He tells us about how the vagaries of human emotions — particularly nostalgia — play into how time travel works, and in why people go to the trouble of traveling through time. These are important ideas for Yu to get across to the reader because they are important to understanding the novel’s underlying theme, but the technobabble — and remember, I love technobabble — got on my nerves. I found myself rolling my eyes and muttering, “Again?” at certain passages. By the time I reached the midpoint of the novel, which is where it really begins and the plot clicks to “activate”, I was more annoyed than amused. Of course, once the plot did click in, then the novel, with the themes and ideas that had been developed in the first half, really shone. In short, I felt the first half of the book could have been cut by, oh, at least half, probably three-quarters, without losing the important ideas that are developed thematically in the rest of the book.

The second half of the book is more enjoyable, with its meta-fictional devices and its evocation of time loops and the Ontological Paradox (which just happens to be my favorite of the time travel paradoxes), but still far too reminiscent of Vonnegut for me to feel like there was a lot of originality here. Don’t get me wrong here: I like Vonnegut, and I grant that it’s very hard to evoke him without sounding like a pastiche, and Yu manages to do that here. Still, I wish there were more Yu and less Vonnegut in this novel. And I wish I could make this paragraph make more sense than that.

In short, then: I did enjoy How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and would recommend it to other people looking for comedic science fiction, though I’d offer some caveats (e.g., “Just stick with it through the first half, I promise it’ll work out”). But would I call it a masterpiece of the genre? I’m not certain. I think it’s flawed, but shows promise. I know that Yu will publish more novels, and I know that I will read them.

Book Review: "The Academy" by Bentley Little

The Academy
by Bentley Little
ISBN: 978-0451224675
Published August 2008 by Signet Books
[rating:2]

I’ve been a fan of Bentley Little’s for years now; whenever I’m in the horror section at Borders, I check to see if there’s a new Little book out that I haven’t read yet. Some writers have compared Little to King, Straub, Barker, and other greats in the horror fiction field. One blurb on one of his books, from Stephen King, describes Little as “A Master of the Macabre”; and on Little’s latest book, The Academy, there’s a blurb from King that describes Little as “Horror’s poet laureate”.

The first book of Bentley Little’s book that I read was The Ignored. That book is, in my opinion, Little’s best; not only is it a fine horror novel, but I think it could stand on its own as a respectable mainstream novel, with the likes of Upton Sinclair or John Updike. It’s the rather hokey supernatural stuff at the end of that novel, in fact, that are its biggest undoing.

Likewise with his 1998 novel, The Store. That novel can be read as a great condemnation of the influence that major “big box” retailers such as WalMart have on small towns in America. It’s great satire, another brilliant novel unfortunately done in by overly dramatic supernatural influences at the end.

Most of Little’s books are like that: unfettered and unbridled condemnations of large institutions and their dehumanizing effects over regular people. I’ve never met the man (I did have the opportunity to chat with him online once), but I have this image of Little as a card-holding NRA member, secluded on his property in Arizona and probably voting Libertarian. The dehumanization in Little’s books are usually shown as an institutional supernatural horror, which often brings people, particularly those in authority, to their absolute worst, in brutal and quite often sexually explicit ways. In The Association, we get a glimpse of how a home-owner’s association can drive a typical homeowner to utter ruin. The Policy shows a family devastated by an evil insurance corporation, sort of Michael Moore meets Freddy Kreuger.

In his more recent books, however, it feels to me that Little is scraping the bottom of the barrel in his search for ways in which he can demonstrate the inhumanizing effects that large institutions can have on people, and his supernatural elements are becoming more and more banal. In Dispatch, which I believe is Little’s strongest novel since The Ignored, the “big bad” at the end turns out to be just another misshapen, evil beast. And to be honest, I’m not even sure I got the point of The Vanishing, his 2006 novel.

In his newest novel, The Academy, Little takes on charter schools, and the result is, unfortunately, disappointing. While he handles the trope of a haunted school much more adeptly than Michael Paine did in The Night School, there’s still quite a bit that’s lacking. The dehumanized victims of the supernatural forces are brutal and vicious in typical Little ways, and in typical Little fashion we witness most of it through the eyes of people who are on the periphery, affected by the forces but not altered by them. But here the causes of the events are given such short shrift that it almost feels like Little uses the novel more as an excuse to showcase brutality and depravity, rather than examine its effects. I went through too many scenes wincing, rather than wondering what was going on. And when the forces behind the events in the novel are finally revealed, I found myself disappointed. It’s an interesting villain behind it all, but given so little face time that it’s barely seen at all. Most of Little’s villains are faceless and operate entirely through intermediaries, but the villain here seems mishandled, even clumsily written.

In general, I enjoy Bentley Little’s novels, and I recommend him. The Academy, however, is not his strongest novel, and I can’t recommend it to anyone.

Book Review: "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon

Cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon
ISBN: 978-1400032716
Published May 2004 by Vintage
[rating:5]

I first saw this book on the shelves when Jennifer and I visited Ireland in May 2006. When we got back I started seeing it on the shelves in America as well. Everybody kept recommending it to me. “Have you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time yet?” they’d ask me, and each time I’d have to hang my head in shame as I answered “No”. Then I’d try to perk up and say, “But I’ve seen it on the shelves, and I fully intend to read it!” to which they’d reply, “Yes, that’s what you said last time, Richard.” So finally I went out and bought this book.

I wasn’t disappointed.

I’d like to call this book whimsical, but that isn’t quite right. It is funny at times, and there were a few times when I laughed out loud as I read it. But it is at its core about an autistic teenager who is desperately trying to make sense of the world around him. When Christopher Boone decides, at the suggestion of one of his teachers, to write a book, he decides to write a mystery novel based on the murder of his neighbor’s dog; but as he investigates the mystery, what seems to be a fairly straightforward mystery gets to the heart of who Chris thinks he is and some of the incidents that have defined his whole life.

Where Haddon really succeeds, though, is in presenting Chris’s thought processes and ideas. We get to see Chris figure out the best way of solving a mystery, try to comprehend human behavior when he doesn’t really have the tools to do so, and get into topics of mathematics and logic. Some of these forays into mathematics — such as his explanation of prime numbers and how to figure out which numbers are prime, or certain logic puzzles — may seem irrelevant to the overall story, but they reveal Chris in a way that simple narrative can’t. In spite of Chris’s unusual ways of being in the world, the reader gets caught up in him, and sympathizes deeply with him.

Haddon has been justly praised for his sympathetic and thoughtful treatment of an autistic main character. He has also been praised for his accuracy in presenting an autistic person’s thoughts. While I agree that his characterization of Chris is sympathetic and thoughtful, I’m not sure I can speak to the second point. I’ve only read one book by an autistic person — Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams — and the way she wrote about her experiences differed greatly than the experiences that Haddon wrote for Chris.

Still, realistic or not, Chris comes across as realistic and sympathetic.

Highly recommended.

Book Review: "Infected" by Scott Sigler

Cover of Infected by Scott Sigler

Infected by Scott Sigler
ISBN: 978-0307406101
Published April 2008 by Crown Books

[rating:4]

I picked up this book with some pretty high expectations. I’d listened to two of Sigler’s podcast novels, Earthcore and Ancestor, and thoroughly enjoyed them both. They made my daily commute not just tolerable, but something I actually looked forward to. I knew that actually reading Infected rather than listening to it in podcast form would be a different experience, and it was. For one thing, I pretty much devoured it, reading it in a few hours, while listening to it in podcast form would have taken several days.

In Infected, a mysterious disease has cropped up in the town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Victims become psychotic and exhibit strange growths on their bodies. As the CIA and the CDC rush to bring the plague under control and keep it from becoming general knowledge, former college football player Perry Dawson becomes its latest victim. We get to go deep into Dawson’s head as he comes to grips with a disease that seems to be trying to control him, and witness his genuinely frightening slide into insanity.

On the whole, I enjoyed Infected. Its fast pace and graphic descriptions are almost cinematic. Sigler has a gift for conveying paranoia in a way that from within the character’s head seems very genuine, but his strength really lies in his effective portrayal of gore. Make no mistake, Sigler is a very gory writer; the other novels of his that I’ve read have been full of violence, graphically described. The level of gore, compared with the high concepts that Sigler employs, have earned him comparisons with Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk.

Nevertheless, there were some weaknesses to this novel. Many characters felt like stock material, almost trite: the coldly efficient CIA operative, the methodical and overworked government scientist, and so on. This contributed to the fast pace of the book, though, which is part of its appeal. These characters have easily understood motives and behavior patterns. On the other hand, they won’t necessarily stand out as identifiable and sympathetic.

In short: if you want a quick, bloody read full of violence and gore, with plenty of science on the side, I would strongly recommend Infected. It’s a fun read, and there are plenty of times when that’s exactly what you need.

The Night School (by Michael Paine)

The Night SchoolThe Night School by Michael Paine
Publication: Berkeley (2006), Paperback, 336 pages
Date: 2006
ISBN:  0425209164 / 9780425209165
Buy it at Amazon.com
[rating:1]

I’m afraid that this is not a positive review.

Continue reading The Night School (by Michael Paine)

Duncan Delaney and the Cadillac of Doom

Duncan Delaney and the Cadillac of DoomDuncan Delaney and the Cadillac of Doom by A. L. Haskett
Publication: Jonlin Books (2000), Paperback, 180 pages
Date: 2000
ISBN: 096788330X
Buy it at Amazon.com

This novel starts when the titular character’s mother encounters her son, her son’s best friend, and her boyfriend involved in what appears to be a bloody, evil murder. After that, things get weird.

Continue reading Duncan Delaney and the Cadillac of Doom

The New Lovecraft Circle (edited by Robert M. Price)

The New Lovecraft CircleThe New Lovecraft Circle
Editor: Robert M. Price
Publication: Del Rey (2004), Edition: Reprint, Paperback
Date: 1996
ISBN: 034544406X
Buy it at Amazon.com

H. P. Lovecraft’s name is virtually synonymous with American style horror fiction; his writing, particularly his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”, has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements can be seen in novels, movies, comic books, even cartoons. Batman’s nemesis “The Joker”, for example, is said to be incarcerated at Arkham Asylum; and Arkham was an invention of Lovecraft’s. Many modern horror writers — such as Stephen King, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, to name just a few — have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.

Continue reading The New Lovecraft Circle (edited by Robert M. Price)

Horrors Beyond (edited by William Jones)

Horrors BeyondHorrors Beyond
Edited by William Jones
Elder Signs Press, Inc. (2005), Paperback
ISBN: 0975922920 / 9780975922927
Buy it at Amazon.com

I picked up this book at Dragon*Con 2006 and read it on the airplane. On the whole, the stories are of decent quality; the first few in particular were engaging and very well-written. I particularly enjoyed “One Way Conversation”; I was forced to stop reading this one halfway through because our plane landed in Denver, and I was rushing to our next gate just so I could pick it up again and finish it.

Continue reading Horrors Beyond (edited by William Jones)

Talk to the Hand

Talk to the Hand

Lynne Truss is famous, of course, for having written Eats, Shoots & Leaves, though I have never read that particular book (though I’ve been told by many people that, as a Writer, I really ought to). This book is subtitled, #?*! The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. And what it really boils down to is a moralistic rant about the utterly appalling state of polite behavior, civility, and manners in society today. Or, rather, the appalling lack thereof.

Continue reading Talk to the Hand

The Matrix and Philosophy

The Matrix and PhilosophyThe Matrix and Philosophy edited by William Irwin

My bachelor’s degree is in Philosophy (UC Davis, 1992), and The Matrix is one of my favorite science fiction films ever; and so this book seems like it would be a perfect match for me, doesn’t it? It’s part of the same Philosophy and Popular Culture series which includes other books such as The Simpsons and Philosophy, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Philosophy (which I have and which is a surprisingly entertaining read, save for the very last essay), and the forthcoming The Undead and Philosophy, which I need to get just because the title sounds so impressive. There’s another book out now called Superheroes and Philosophy which I want to read, even though I have never been much of a fan of the superhero genre.

Continue reading The Matrix and Philosophy