Book #136: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)

author: Stephen Chbosky
language: English
length: 213 pages
finished reading on: 12 May 2017

I like it when I find a book that’s just nicely-presented, which is the main reason I bought this novel, if I’m honest. Usually I avoid the ones with movie tie-in covers, but the paper and layout of this novel is very good quality. So I actually feel like I’m getting better quality than I would if I bought the Kindle version.

I watched the movie version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower a few years ago – there are a lot of things I’d forgotten about the movie, but I kept remembering moments as I read through this. The movie is pretty faithful to the book, and it’s directed by the book’s author, which is pretty rare. One thing I’d forgotten is that the movie awkwardly tries to keep the conceit that the main character is writing letters to an unnamed stranger – the so-called epistolary style – by having him type the letters out on screen. It doesn’t work on screen, and I was a bit skeptical about the book when I first picked it up, but I found it works quite well.

It’s very easy to read, especially after the last book I read, which had quite thick and heavy prose. This is written in a more colloquial style and is often speaking directly at the reader. That and the shorter length of the book meant that I finished it much quicker.

I think it’s refreshing to have a young male character who’s unashamed of being emotional and upset – so much media, even modern media, still stereotypes men as being unable to express their emotions. And this tackles quite a lot of mental health issues directly, which is also good. I don’t have a lot to criticize about the book – perhaps that the main character is self-centred despite trying hard to be a “wallflower”, and annoyingly clueless at times. But I also recognized that awkwardness I and a lot of others I know have experienced in our high school days.

And there’s the ending twist, too, which I’d completely forgotten – it comes on the second-to-last page in the book. I don’t want to reveal it – I think the book is easy enough for people to read and I really liked it, so I think people should seek this book out. Perhaps it’s a bit young for me, really – the issues are distinctly teenage, after all, and I’m well past that stage of my life – but I still enjoyed reading it a lot. (And one of the side characters is gay. Also good.)

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Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

Book #129: Magpie Murders (2016)

author: Anthony Horowitz
language: English
length: 947 minutes
finished listening on: 26 Feb 2017

This is one of the bestsellers on Audible at the moment, which is how I heard about it, and it’s a book with a unique conceit, which is why I chose to listen to it. It’s basically a book within a book – and while that’s not in itself a unique conceit, I don’t know of any other books that reproduce an entire fictional book within its own pages.

It’s nominally a crime thriller / murder mystery in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, but it’s actually the story of an editor, Susan Ryeland, reading a book and finding that it has missing chapters at the end, and then trying to find out how the story ends. Meanwhile, the author of the book, Alan Conway, is murdered, and she ends up in her own murder mystery.

The conceit works well in the audiobook format, as the narrator switches to a male voice for the book-within-the-book, and switches back to the female voice for the parts narrated by the editor of the book. The male narrator does well with the fictional book, which is set in a rural part of England, and has a German main character in Atticus Pund (or Pünd, maybe – I didn’t see the name written down, but there was a reference to an umlaut at one point, although neither narrator pronounced it correctly if there was), who is the book’s detective. He had quite a dynamic voice and range of accents. The female narrator isn’t as good at accents, but that works well for her sections, which are narrated in first person and more conversational in tone – she’s doing things like commenting directly on the style and narration of the book within the book. I actually forgot at one point that she was also, strictly speaking, a character in the novel, which is pretty rare! But basically, when she narrates dialogue, the other characters all sound posh, and the Scottish accent she attempted for one character was laughable.

It’s not my first experience of Horowitz’s writing, but the last time I read him must be more than a decade ago – he wrote the very popular Alex Rider series, and I read the first few books when I was young. They were pretty formulaic young-adult James Bond clones, but exciting for teenage boys. I think one even got made into a movie. My brother was also into them, more than me. I actually think Horowitz is still writing them, and I’m sure they’d be interesting to read now, but I’m well out of the target audience. I also read another “adult” book by him, also a long time ago. I get the feeling he’s been pigeonholed as a children’s writer, leading to frequent comments that books like this are a rare break from form for him.

In the book, this is actually reflected in the author who is murdered, who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a murder mystery writer, and that’s one of the many levels that the book works on. Similarly, aspects of the murder of the author are reflected in aspects of the murder in the story he wrote in the story. It gets confusing if you think about it for too long.

But I liked the book for that. In the first half it’s a straight murder mystery in the style of Poirot or Holmes, but also reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s post-Potter work (the Cormoran Strike series or The Casual Vacancy) – a little old-fashioned with its 50s setting in a village.

It then goes ahead and deconstructs itself, and even the whole murder mystery genre, in the second half. At this point it takes on a fairly accurate description of modern Britain (I always appreciate seeing gay characters, even if one of them is the murder victim, and not everyone is unrealistically white), reminiscent again of J.K. Rowling or the Peter Grant series (although that’s a lot more self-conscious about breaking that mould).

Then in the final act, it dives right back in to the murder mystery schtick for the Reveal, first as Susan solves her side of the mystery, and then as she finally finds the missing chapters and we get to hear the solution to the original mystery. And as it goes, there are further excerpts from Conway’s writing and from other characters and authors in comparison, and Horowitz writes each style distinctively and adeptly.

There are also a number of nice twists in the ending, and I laughed out loud on a train when the secret of the detective character’s name is revealed. It was nice to get closure on the story – at one point I hadn’t expected to get it – but the two endings didn’t tie together quite as nicely as I’d hoped.

So I would recommend it overall. It’s not ground-breaking, exactly, but it accomplishes something unique, and going right out of the story in the way this does lends it a special quality. Anyone else read it?

Book #125: The Hanging Tree (2016)

hangingtreeauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English and a bit of Krio (Sierra Leone creole)
length: 618 minutes (10 hours 18 minutes) including an interview with the author and narrator
finished listening on: 16 Dec 2016
Rivers of London/Peter Grant series 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

I’ve pretty much blazed through this series now, and this book was released only a month ago in late November. Yeah, I’m liking it a lot.

I don’t have much to add to this review that I didn’t already touch on in the last few books. I love the exquisite description that goes into this book, and although this one actually got a bit too fast-paced, I like the storylines. I love the one-liners – I think this time there was a sarcastic quip about the Shard early on that I’d like to have written down, but unfortunately my memory doesn’t last so long.

I like the casual realistic diversity in the cast of characters – in this one, Peter’s sidekick is a Somalian Muslim woman that was introduced in one of the earlier books, and one of the side characters is mentioned to be trans when the police do a background check on her. Or that he always introduces white characters with the adjective white, which a lot of books would unconsciously neglect to do. I don’t want that to be the only redeeming feature, or the only reason that people would read this, but it’s indicative of a book and author that knows where things are at in the world.

I mentioned in the last review that I have a strong suspicion that Aaronovitch writes down the accents of several of the characters just to make the narrator (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) read in that accent, which he’s generally good at, and when I heard the little podcast-style interview at the end of the audiobook with both men (a welcome surprise, I hope more books include stuff like that), I was pleased to hear that that’s exactly what’s happening – and that what’s more, he also gave more specific notes about some of the characters’ exact origins, and gave Holdbrook-Smith a recording of Krio for the short conversation in the middle with the main character’s mother, so that he could get it accurate. I still found this bit difficult to understand – I’m gonna guess that it would be easier to catch if I was reading it in print, like maybe the words would be more recognizable.

Unlike the last story, this one actually advances the plot of the series. But similar to some of the others, it’s not always clear what direction it’s headed in (this can be a good and bad thing). It doesn’t waste time introducing the main police case that the characters are to be interested in, but it switches a couple of times to following another strand. But it gets dramatic later on and there are a few major twists. So it’s a welcome addition to the series.

But now I’m caught up, and it’s like with TV shows when I get into them late: I don’t like the sudden existential dread of knowing I’ll have to wait a year (or probably more) in order to read the next in the series. Perhaps that’s good, though – I can go away from it and come back later. Looking forward to it, whenever it comes!

Book #96: Two Boys Kissing (2013)

Two-Boys-Kissing-David-Levithan1Author: David Levithan
Language: English
Length: 239 pages
Finished reading on: 15 December 2015

There aren’t any gay bookstores in Japan, unless you count the ones that are mainly for porn. You get BL manga, but I’m still too lazy to try to read them properly. It’s a lot of effort. So I kind of jumped at the chance to go to the gay bookstores in London and Amsterdam when I was there last summer. I think this book came from the one in Amsterdam, one of the least sleazy gay spaces I could find there, frankly. Most of it’s offputting. Anyway, I’d been there before a few years ago, but it’s honestly a bit hit-and-miss, in my experience – it was definitely there that I acquired one or two truly terrible gay movies.

So anyway, the book itself is by David Levithan and is aimed at teenagers, so it’s reading below my supposed level, but that makes it easy (and it’s pretty short!). I also picked his book because I’d read one by him before, called ”Boy Meets Boy”, a couple of years ago, and it’d been relaxing and funny to read.

This was more of a slice-of-life story, with the central story being two boys in Small Town America deciding to try and break the record for longest kiss, meaning that they have to stay with lips locked for about thirty hours or so. Apparently their attempt is based on a true story, as are a lot of the other stories in the book. There are a bunch of other characters – couples – with all their own foibles, and the book switches between them like a TV show. The stories only interact minimally – like they see the two boys on the local news or something.

I realized too late that the book has this conceit that it’s being told in the disembodied first person of the ghosts of the AIDS crisis, with phrases such as “We look down at the two boys kissing” punctuating the stories, or the narrators saying they’re jealous of the opportunities afforded to the protagonist kids – and it’s quite explicitly setting out to draw attention to LGBT history. I think this is something important to talk about, and to point out that the people of that period are not different from people of today… but this was a ham-fisted and awkward way to do it, and was the most annoying thing about reading the book, which is a shame. I also think that it tries too hard to be an Issues Book – sometimes I feel that too many “gay” novels and movies feel the need to include at least one of AIDS, suicide, bullying, coming out, parental acceptance, and any other issues that may be hot-button at the time, and this one tries to include them all – and I’m more looking for an outlet away from the doom and gloom with a happy ending (which is provided, by and large).

The other thing is that the stories themselves aren’t well developed. I’d like to see a bit more of each person’s story! But it was an enjoyable and easy read after the last book I read, and I appreciated that a lot. It’s also uplifting, despite the Issues. I’ll probably be reading more of Levithan’s works, but I’d really only recommend this one to actual teenagers. Unlike the other book I read, which is also decidedly YA fiction, I’m really too old to appreciate this one fully. The other one had a lot more that would appeal to any age of reader, in my opinion.

Book #95: Neptune’s Brood (2013)

neptunesbroodAuthor: Charles Stross
Language: English
Length: 338 pages
Finished reading on: 4 December 2015

I’ve seen the name of Charles Stross a few times on sci fi recommendations lists (and apparently he lives in my hometown, so I have a kind of parochial self-interest), so I thought I’d finally try out one of his books sometime last year – I should perhaps be clear that I don’t know when this was, because it took me a long time to read the book. I only finished in in December.

I relish a challenge, so the higher level of vocabulary in this book than I’m used to pleased me at first, but it became clear later on that many of the words are invented for the purpose of explaining some of the weird concepts that the book employs – a lot of which would have simple equivalents that the author could have used instead.

The book is an ideas book first and foremost, and the plot itself takes some time to pick up steam. I found it only managed a sense of tension in the third act or so, but the twists and unreliable narrator aspect made this worth waiting for in the end.

The concept of the book is a humanity that has conquered the stars, but it’s not actually humanity as we know it anymore – the people in the novel’s universe are actually sophisticated androids. The economic system is the cornerstone of their universe and the primary interest of the main character, so the book spends a lot of time discussing that. One key idea is that of fast, medium and slow money – essentially, cash, bonds and investments, and the new concept of a secure crypto-currency used to invest in star colonies, that by its very nature would take a long time to process and see any return. One “slow dollar” seems to be worth millions of “fast dollars”.

This permeates down to the very lowest levels of this hypercapitalistic society – the cells of each android’s body, described with one of Stross’s creative coinages with a “nano” prefix, are described as having to be individually convinced of the economic benefit of forming together into a human body. It doesn’t sound like a very appealing world to me, to be honest – the other thing is that these humans eat some kind of reconstituted protein sludge instead of actual food.

Stross is then very good at exploring the ramifications of such a world – like people becoming bloodthirsty zombies when they go into a kind of starvation mode, and some of the things that these post-humans can do. But this all serves as an alienation device for me, especially when he describes normal processes like eating and excretion with overly pseudo-scientific babble. Similarly, the main character was a little difficult to relate to, because she doesn’t have strong emotions about many things.

I liked this enough to want to try more of Stross’s novels – but I’m not sure I’d recommend it outright. As I said, it’s a bit dry, and the plot’s direction is unclear. I’m a bit of a sucker for half-decent sci fi, though. (And it has female characters, unusually for the genre!)

Book #94: Ready Player One (2011)

Ready-Player-OneAuthor: Ernest Cline
Language: English with bits of Japanese, Latin
Length: 940 minutes (15 hours, 40 minutes)
Finished listening on: 3 December 2015

I originally saw this book set out as the readers’ choice in a bookstore in London before I tracked it down on Audible to listen to. The storyline intrigued me – it’s a sci fi book set largely in a virtual reality world, and the book had received mostly positive press.

It’s very heavy on 1980s references. The plot starts with the death of a famous billionaire responsible for starting the Oasis – a virtual reality world that fills many functions in the future society, including that of Facebook and even the internet itself in today’s society, but stemming from a gaming culture. He pledges the system itself and his vast fortune to someone who can complete an obnoxious series of tasks and find an “Easter egg” – a secret – inside the virtual world. To do that, they have to research him, his interests, and his motivations. That’s where the 80s references come in – it’s video games of that period that interest this character (and presumably the author).

I think it’s attained its popularity directly because of this nostalgia factor. I found that I’m too young to get most of the references that the book makes, which perhaps allowed me to see them for what they were: shallow shout-outs, not really adding much substance to the story. I was quite glad to see that the author’s second novel flopped quite badly, because it didn’t have this element and was a tepid nerd romance – which is also what this book would be without the nostalgic parts.

Basically the romantic subplot of this movie is borderline misogynistic, and heavily focuses on the straight male gaze. I spluttered at the end when it turns out the girl he fancies has, in real life but not in the game, a birthmark on her face, and doesn’t believe she’s pretty until he, the straight male savior, comes along to tell her otherwise.

Not only that, but the whole idea of the knowledge of the 80s ever being useful for something like this is also very much a geek boy’s fantasy, and I loathed that aspect of this book. Perhaps contradicting the 80s side is also the heavy use of early-2000s gaming slang, like “leet” or “haxxor”. I feel defiled, having to hear those words read out loud by Wil Wheaton (who I bet was loving every moment of this book, especially the part where he’s namedropped).

But aside from the problematic stuff, the book is also not well written. A lot of the sentences are awkward, and the story pacing is uneven to say the least. As an example, the first act of the book sees the main character stuck inside the educational side of the Oasis, unable to pay his way to another in-game planet (that doesn’t seem like a nice system or one that would catch on quickly), and without cash in the real world too – somehow able to feed himself despite his aunt (of course he’s an orphan) stealing his food stamps. In the second act, he suddenly comes into money, and he magically knows exactly how to spend it responsibly. A couple of explanatory paragraphs later, and money is never an issue for him. This kind of sudden and sharp change in the situation was par for the course. I’d like to have seen the consequences of the boy’s actions in the real world come back to bite him somehow – he essentially comes into the money by signing some advertising contracts without reading them, which would be an easy way for the author to pin him down later. But they’re never mentioned again.

His origins in the trailer stacks of the midwest was also ripe for exploration that didn’t come. He escapes his aunt’s home in the first few chapters and doesn’t seem to go back. I felt that this part of his character was unnecessary except to show the dystopia of the non-virtual world. There is such obvious opportunity to explore the conflict of the down-trodden, poor man outside the simulation, and the famous man inside it (think Harry Potter forced to live with the Dursleys), that I felt let down that this never happened.

His attitude towards those less fortunate or less clever than him, while common in geek circles, is absolutely reprehensible. We see him in a customer service position later in the book, and he seems to spend his day whining about how awful all his customers are. I just get the feeling the author would be this kind of unpleasant person in real life, too. I bet he complains about the friendzone.

I liked the book for its worldbuilding, however, and I would very much like the chance to explore the virtual world the author describes. I also found myself caring about the main character and wanting to find out what happens when he confronts the villains – who, predictably, are one-dimensional without redeeming features. And the author should really learn what fascist means! He throws it around like a meaningless insult.

I also think that the predictions of the book are accurate. A lot of the future world, including the virtual reality stuff but also the collapse of the economy and other parts, seemed realistic to me. I can certainly imagine this coming about in the next few years.

But while it was fun to explore the world of this book, I feel that a lot of the appeal is the author just shouting “Isn’t this cool??” while we look on, and he equates referencing something with homaging it, which isn’t quite enough. It’s exciting to an extent, but it’s also unrealistic and there are too many wasted opportunities for me to recommend it.