There are six things the LORD hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
This is Not a Game, by Walter Jon Williams.
Synopsis: Set in present-day LA, Dagmar works as a puppetmaster creating immersive alternate reality games as a marketing ploy. The book opens with Dagmar trapped in Jakarta as the Javanese currency plummets into worthlessness. She eventually escapes with the help of the network of contacts formed by the online cohort of people who play her games. These people aren’t convinced her predicament is not a game, but they pull together to help her connect with a group of Muslim martial artists who escort her to a fishing boat chartered by one of the online players. She is relieved to get back to LA and normal life, but her normal life is shattered when one of her close friends is murdered right in front of her. Soon the game she’s running and her attempts to find the murderer — and, eventually, to save the world — all begin to entwine.
My Response: Importantly, the author gets the technical part right. He doesn’t try to pretend to write like people on a forum, but convincingly portrays Internet interactions. The writing quality is on the moderate-high end, so you won’t encounter any new vocabulary words but you don’t stumble over awkward phrasing. The author’s writing style lets you get sucked into the book and forget you’re reading, without having harsh writing-related roadblocks wrenching you back into reality. The author does an excellent job bringing scenes vividly to life with lively imagery and just the right amount of detail. There aren’t many characters, and some of them feel rather weak, but the narrator herself has plenty of interesting quirks that make her seem real. This book is not about their past or feelings, so a certain amount of blurriness in the characters’ histories isn’t a problem. The plot is well thought out and executed, and not completely obvious from page 1. The first part of the story particularly, with Dagmar trying to escape from Jakarta, is very compelling. The rest of the book, although cleverly plotted and containing a number of good twists, ends unexpectedly and on an odd note. Even so, Ian and I both read and enjoyed it.
Rating: We would buy this at a used bookstore to add to our book collection.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon.
Synopsis: The novel follows the lives of two Jewish cousins, Josef Kavalier and Sam Klayman (later Clay), as they create and bring to life a comic book hero called The Escapist, somewhat based on Joe’s experience as a magician and escape artist. Joe Kavalier, the artist, has just escaped (with much travail) from Prague in the 1930s when the Nazis started taking over. Sam Clay, the story man, is working as a clerk at a novelty-selling company, but he dreams of creating comic books. When he sees Joe’s artistic ability, he immediately sells his hard-bitten boss at the novelty company on producing a comic book as a medium for advertising novelties. Eventually they cut out the novelties and only publish comic books, which became incredibly popular during the beginning of World War II. The plot follows Joe’s romance with Rosa Saks, Sam’s relationship with B-movie actor Tracy Bacon, and, most of all, the relationship between Sam and Joe during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Joe is obsessed with bringing the rest of his family safely from Prague to America, and saves all his earnings to try to buy them passage to the US. When America joins the war, Joe enlists in the US Navy, wanting to kill Germans. Sam, handicapped by an early childhood bout of polio, stays and works in various jobs. Joe severs his relationship with Sam, Rosa, and everybody in New York City and vanishes after returning from serving in the Navy. Many plot twists ensue.
My Response: This book is, first and foremost, a relationship book. Not a girly “awwww, sweet” relationship book, but a book about two young men and the bonds they form during a tumultuous time in history. The characters are deep and convincing, with strong histories and convincing motivations. You could imagine meeting either of these guys on the street. The author weaves his characters into real events so skilfully and places them so firmly in their time and culture so that I spent a good portion of the book unsure whether this was really fiction or not. The writing quality is excellent; the author truly crafts his sentences and sends them soaring — but never fails to the detriment of the story. This is high-quality writing and character-crafting at its best. The plot is compelling, which is remarkable, since books that simply follow characters through a portion of their lives can often lag or feel pointless. With Kavalier and Clay, you care about the characters so following them through their lives is interesting. My single complaint with the book is the last quarter or so seems to lose its focus, and it ends with a splutter rather than a bang or even a firm snap. Even so, I found it one of the best-written books I’ve read in quite a while (and that’s saying something, since Ian and I have been practically pillaging the library this summer).
Rating: I would recommend this to friends but probably not choose to own it myself, since although it’s very well done, it’s not the kind of book I would want to read again.
And now, the Bottom Of The Barrel: To contrast with these two excellent books, I have chosen a third book that is the WORST book I’ve attempted to read recently.
Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob, by Kevin Weeks.
Synopsis: An ex-Irish mobster from South Boston tells the story of his time with the mob.
My Response: This is what you get when you randomly pick a library book based on the cover and description on the inside flap. It sounded interesting, but in reality is so badly written — more of a rambling reminiscence than anything resembling a coherent story — that I couldn’t make it past Chapter 1. Ian may have made it into Chapter 2 before prose of the quality demonstrated in the following excerpt killed him off, too:
“One day when I was seven, I talked back to [my father] and then raced into the bedroom. In the room, Johnny and I had bunk beds, with me sleeping on the bottom bunk and Billy on a folding cot. When I dove under the bunk bed, my father went down on his keens and stuck his arm in to grab me. I was always doing things with my tool box, which I kept under my bed. I opened it, grabbed my small claw hammer, and smashed it hard on his hands. I broke two of his fingers and split them open. My father went berserk and threw over the entire bunk bed, both mattresses and box springs and all. He was a brute, with huge shoulders and arms. He dragged me out and beat me.” (pg. 5)
Later he moves on from family life to talking about all the people he beat up, often for no apparent reason. I gave up when he started in on blatantly racist comments about integration of schools in Boston.
Review: Some stories should remain untold. This is one of them. If this was the
last book on earth, I would use it as kindling before I used it as reading material. For reference, however, it wasn’t quite as bad as Burning Pilot, which may well have won the much-coveted Worst Book I Have Ever Read award.