Book review: The Oracle Years

The Oracle YearThe Oracle Year by Charles Soule
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again Goodreads 5-star system fails me, as this is a solid 3.5 star effort for me. But if I have to choose between 3 or 4 stars, I’ll go with 3, because while I enjoyed the ride, there are some flaws in The Oracle Year that bring down the overall experience.

First, I love the premise. An unremarkable bassist in New York named Will Dando has a dream in which 108 predictions over the next year are revealed to him and he uses these predictions to create the persona of The Oracle. He enlists his business and security-savvy friend full-time to create a website that allows people to see a subset of the predictions, along with providing an email address for people to inundate The Oracle with requests for winning lottery numbers and such.

Will Dando’s friend, Hamza, starts orchestrating selling certain predictions by offering 10-minute chunks of time to corporate interests looking to get a leg up on the competition. Soon the pair of friends has amassed literally billions of dollars. But Hamza presses on, saying they need more before they can reach a point where they will be completely secure.

This didn’t strike me as particularly believable, but even if it is, the morality of what Will and Mamza are doing is only treated in a weird, offhand manner. Will is unhappy, but doesn’t stop the pointless accumulation of more money than he could ever use. His friend, Hamza, seems to have no reason to be best friends with an ordinary, struggling musician, but at least has a convincingly obsessive, detail-oriented personality.

This also touches on another issue–Will Dando is not a very interesting person. He is a loner (apart from Hamza and Miko, his wife) and spends most of the story trying to avoid people and relationships. He has no real arc, no growth. He starts out bland and unremarkable, and ends the same, albeit richer and happier. He does create an elaborate system to track and correlate the 108 predictions, to try to see the big picture that binds them all together, but there is nothing to suggest how he has this ability. Most of the novel shows him making bad decisions and treating others poorly, because he can’t keep his inner voice from being an outer one.

The opening of the book also suggests a lighter tone and it bubbles up occasionally, but overall the story is dark, world-ending stuff, and I can’t help but wonder if the cipher-like quality of Will would have been better-served with a more deliberately humorous approach similar to what David Wong uses in John Dies at the End (and related novels).

Also, almost all of the supporting characters are unlikable. The subplot featuring the evangelist Hosiah Branson doesn’t really pay off, except as a late punchline, and could have been cut entirely. The liberal use of fictional countries also undercuts some of the drama, because it starts to feel manufactured for the plot.

And, though this is not something author Charles Soules has any control over, it’s hard to imagine a president acting in a mature manner (the fictional President Green and various staff and associates play key roles as the story unfolds), given the destruction of the office by its present occupant.

On the positive side, I was invested enough to keep going and the effects on the world of predictions destined to come true is played out in interesting, if ultimately bleak, ways. For me, this is an almost irresistible premise, story-wise, a kind of ultimate “What if?” scenario. Overall, then, The Oracle Year is recommended, with some reservations.

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(Don’t) Go Solo

I watched Solo tonight on Netflix so you don’t have to.

Haha, no. It wasn’t that bad. But it really wasn’t very good, either. Here are my thoughts in list form:

  • I’m glad I didn’t pay full price to see this in a theater
  • Aiden Ehrenreich was okay, but really didn’t have much to work with, and didn’t feel at all like the same character Harrison Ford played
  • Not enough Lando
  • Lando’s emotional attachment to L3 (a droid) was kind of weird
  • Never have a character talk about how predictable everyone is in a movie that is predictable
  • Competent special effects but few that had any real “wow” factor
  • The fan service bits weren’t as overbearing as in the prequels, but they were still bad
  • We get it, any band in a Star Wars movie needs to be really weird and alien
  • The movie started out slow, almost dull
  • Han is supposed to be a great pilot, but we are literally never shown this until he is suddenly forced to fly the Falcon
  • The tone was way too dark for a character who is a lovable rogue
  • We don’t need a backstory on the name Solo
  • Bring back the opening title crawl
  • If they still go ahead and make a Boba Fett movie, I will be very cross
  • It ends hinting at a sequel. Ha, fat chance.

Book review: You’re Saying It Wrong

You're Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words--And Their Tangled Histories of Misuse

You’re Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words–And Their Tangled Histories of Misuse by Ross Petras

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is good fun for word and language nerds. The title is a bit misleading as the authors dig up some fairly obscure stuff to hit that 150 total, but there are plenty of expected words, too.

(I was expecting to see “halcyon” on the list, but apparently I’m one of the few that gets tongue-tied over it.)

The authors also cheat a little by including a few phrases or misunderstood words, but a little cheating is fine when it’s in service of showing how “would of” is wrong and stop writing it!

As you read through the entries it becomes clear that most of the pronunciation trouble arises from a word’s origin in another language, most often French, at least as far as this list is concerned, though Latin and other languages come get called out, too.

And then there are the recurring nautical words that make no sense at all because of drunk sailors slurring everything they say. None of these words come close to being pronounced the way they look–gunwale, boatswain and so on.

I will also happily own up to mispronouncing more than a few words covered here. In my defense, as is the case for most people, I never hear the words spoken, so I am always making a best guess and my guesses seem to line up with everyone else’s, as no one ever corrects me. Or maybe everyone is just too polite to say something.

The book ends abruptly after “zydeco”–there are some endnotes, but it would have been nice to have a brief wrap-up. I also think less-is-more would have worked here, by culling out some of the more obscure words and perhaps expanding on the number of phrases. Overall, though, a neat little book that will make you feel a bit smarter–or dumber.

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Book review: Kiss My Asterisk

Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar

Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar by Jenny Baranick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, sassy and innuendo-filled collection of tips on grammar and spelling that stays PG despite references to Richard Gere and gerbils. The book is derived from the blog Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares, a title that pretty clearly sets the tone for the book.

I think my favorite thing in Kiss My Asterisk were the examples of the creative spelling used by some of Baranick’s students:

whorable (“I am having a whorable day.”)
thoughs (“I love old black and white comedies. Thoughs are the best.”)
celeberde (“Have you ever met a famous celeberde?”)

While the book on the whole covered familiar territory for me, it did help me to better understand my abuse and misuse of commas, so I consider the purchase as money well-spent. If there are any misplaced commas in this review, don’t blame the author. I am not always a fast learner.

My only serious complaint is how abruptly the book ends. I mean, it just stops and you’re looking at an answer key for the exercises. It was a bit disappointing. The tone, though consistently cheeky, sometimes misses the mark, but I did find myself chuckling more than a few times. There aren’t a lot of books on punctuation out there that can do that.

Overall, recommended, though you might want to read a sample before committing, because if the tone doesn’t work for you, the whole book will be fingers-on-a-chalkboard annoying.

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Book review: BFF

BFFBFF by K.C. Wells
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

(Note: For some reason I missed reviewing this book, so here is my review, six months late.)

I bought this the way I’ve bought most books the past year–it was cheap and I found the description interesting enough to give it a chance.

BFF is a story about two guys who become best friends at an early age, then pal around and hang out together as they edge ever-closer to adulthood. Neither is especially unhappy and their friendship is so adorable it’s enough to make you think there might be more there–which is the hook of the story. David (the narrator who tells the story) comes to realize he might have romantic feelings for Matt, and grows afraid of confessing them, fearing it could destroy their friendship.

It’s a romance novel, so you can probably guess what happens.

And although it’s a fixture of romance novels, the sex scenes near the end felt weirdly out of place, given how utterly sweet and cute the story is up to that point. I ain’t no prude, but in terms of tone, I think the story would have been more consistent if the sex had not been so explicitly depicted.

The bigger issue is the framing device used. The story is told as a long series of flashbacks, with it already established in the present that David and Matt are a happy couple. I mean, not that there is any doubt that would be the outcome, but it would be nice to at least pretend there might be a different ending. As it is, the story is robbed of any tension or suspense. The flashbacks also usually end with David offering this odd, blog-style commentary on what he’s just written about. It pulled me out of the story every time. I’m not sure what the intent was.

If you are expecting a story about how two seemingly straight friends evolve their relationship into a romantic one, you will be disappointed, as there is only a small bit of this near the end, as the flashbacks get closer to the present. If you like the idea of seeing a pair of best friends go through the travails of growing up together, then having their bond eventually turn into love, this might be your thing.

Overall, I found BFF to be a light read hampered by tonally weird sex scenes and framed in a way that makes it read more like a diary than a narrative. Thumbs sideways.

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Book review: A Bridge of Years

A Bridge of YearsA Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(I would actually rate this a strong 3.5 stars if possible.)

Wilson loves to play around with time travel and time paradoxes and A Bridge of Years is one of his earliest efforts, originally published in 1991.

In a few superficial ways it is reminiscent in structure to King’s 11/22/63 (though it’s important to note King’s novel came out 20 years later) in that a young man travels back to the early 60s and then pretty much falls in love with the era (and a woman) and wants to stay there. The specifics of Wilson’s story have a much stronger science fiction flavor than King’s, though Wilson doesn’t go into great detail on how the time travel and other future tech works.

Because it’s time travel there are complications.

I found the protagonist Tom Winter, a 30 year old man coming out of a failed relationship and lost job as rather curious–there is a setup for the inevitable character arc of him finding himself, but that never exactly happens. He learns things about himself, but by the end he has only a vague plan for moving forward (without spoilers–I won’t say where he is at story’s end). In a way it’s anticlimactic, but at the same time I rather liked that it bucked convention, even if it is less viscerally satisfying overall.

The realtor character of Doug “I want to believe in weird shit but have never really seen anything” Archer is entertaining, and serves as a reliable foil to the more conservative Tom.

The purported villain of the piece is another young man named Billy, a soldier thrust from the future into the past and equipped with golden armor that makes him virtually indestructible and fills him with an insatiable appetite to kill. This is easily the most chilling aspect of the story, taking the common concept of fusing a person to machinery not just to augment and enhance their abilities, but to chemically change them to absolutely need to kill. I have no difficulty imagining future governments creating these kinds of soldiers if the technology existed.

Less impressive is how quickly everyone jumps into bed together. I guess causal sex is timeless. :P

Also, unlike King’s million-page behemoth, A Bridge of Years feels a bit too short, leaving the whole 1962 part of the story feeling a bit underdeveloped. We are shown (and told) how Tom comes to want to stay in the past, but it never feels overly convincing. His erstwhile 1962 girlfriend Joyce offers a more nuanced take on the era (obviously having a better feel for living in it), but even she never gets more than sketches.

Still, the sketches are effective and while the ride is short, I did enjoy it. Wilson doesn’t bog down the story with a lot of explanations about how the time travel works, and this is for the best. He lays down a few rules early on, then uses them to buttress the rest of the story.

If you like a good time travel yarn and don’t want to get bogged down in an epic-length adventure, A Bridge of Years is a solid entry in the crowded field of time travel novels.

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Book review: The Hike

The HikeThe Hike by Drew Magary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a delightfully nutty story.

A man goes to a seedy hotel to conduct a business meeting and gets there early. He decides to go on a short hike before the meeting and follows a nearby path into the surrounding woods. Then things get terrifying and weird and weirder still.

The Hike is probably better without knowing too many details before going in–even the illustrations on its cover (well, the busier version of the cover) are a series of mini-spoilers. Without going in too deeply, The Hike finds the protagonist Ben on a path that he is warned to stay on, under penalty of death. From there, he begins a long journey that tests his sanity, mental and physical strength, and resolve to keep pushing forward in the hope of seeing his wife and three children again.

The overall tone is light and at times quite amusing, despite the horrors sometimes visited upon Ben, and while you might be able to poke holes in the logic of this strange universe if you look closely enough, doing so is going entirely against the spirit of the book.

The Hike is silly and weird and I was entertained throughout. If you’re looking for a surreal take on the hero’s journey that never takes itself too seriously, The Hike is an easy recommendation.

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Book review: Against the Fall of Night

Against the Fall of NightAgainst the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Early Clarke novels are like comfort food to me. They check off a lot of boxes:

– big, galaxy-spanning ideas set over vast gulfs of time
– smart, confident characters driving the plot forward instead of being manipulated by it
– short!

I don’t mind long novels, but I mind when most novels are long, which is a lot more prevalent now than it was some decades ago when I first started reading by the light filtering into my family’s cave. Early Clarke novels are wonderfully compact and Against the Fall of Night is a fittingly slim volume. Its scenes move quickly, the dialogue is snappy and to the point, there is no interminable world-building that goes on for pages or chapters. Clark sketches out his world in handfuls of sentences, letting the reader fill in the details.

In this novel a young boy living in the last city on Earth millions of years in the future, starts to get a little too curious about what really happened to the planet and begins a quest that will change civilization forever. He also meets another boy who has a giant tame bug as a pet.

Along the way, there are mysteries to be unraveled, authorities to be thwarted, robots to be commanded and technology to be marveled over, but never understood, thanks to the knowledge being lost millennia ago.

As the novel was originally published in 1953, some of the science is a bit wacky, notably a super computer that can take decades to produce an answer–then after printing it out for you, it immediately erases the information as it doesn’t have enough memory to hold everything. While Clarke envisioned a lot, he did not foresee Google.

Today this book might be considered a Young Adult novel, given its youthful protagonist, and it is very much an accessible read. I ate it up like a bag of popcorn, enjoying the sweep of its ideas and the smaller human dramas that played out in the foreground. Recommended for anyone who enjoys early science fiction and is looking for a lighter exploration of big ideas concerning the possible future of humans.

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Book review: In Such Good Company

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the SandboxIn Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox by Carol Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would feel bad rating this book lower than four stars because it is an adorable, gushing and heartfelt love letter to the show Carol Burnett put on for 11 years.

If you are looking for behind-the-scenes dirt, you’ll find none here, save for one brief mention of a troublesome guest star who walked out. Apparently high at the time, Burnett only goes so far as to allude the person was “on something.” Even with the worst guest ever she pulls her punches because she is just that sweet.

Her reminisce does touch on some negative aspects of the era in which The Carol Burnett Show ran, though (1967-1978), particularly the sexism that allowed men to be “commanding” and take charge on their shows, where women were expected to keep quiet and know their place. Burnett, to her regret, played along, finding the absolute nicest ways to raise any criticism when she thought the writing of a sketch was weak, or a particular bit just wasn’t working.

The majority of the book, though, are reminisces of Burnett’s favorite episodes, sketches, characters, musical numbers and guest stars. She lavishes praise on her own cast and the many people who appeared on the show and you can’t help but come away with how incredibly kind and generous she is. It made me want to go back in time to be on the show. Especially if I could go back in age, as well. :P

I was 14 when the series ended in 1978, but I watched the last four seasons or so and loved it nearly as much as Burnett herself (though I was a little impatient with the musical numbers and I didn’t catch a lot of the references in their movie parodies–though I still clearly remember the trampoline in their Airport ’75 spoof).

There are a surprising number of photos included (Carol watched every episode as research for the book) and while they are screen grabs, they immediately took me back to the 70s (the contemporary fashions are as tacky as you’d expect), the nostalgia hit immense and satisfying. If you read the ebook on a tablet, the photos are in color as a bonus.

If you expect deep insights or as I mentioned earlier, dirt, you may come away disappointed, but Burnett walks the reader through the entire production of the show from first script reading to taping, with lots of amusing bits sprinkled in. In the end, this was what I expected–a fond look back at Carol Burnett’s favorite part of her long career, showcasing her own personal highlights from her show–and it is the warmest, friendliest book I’ve read in a long time.

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Book review: Crawlspace

Crawlspace: Dark Gory HorrorCrawlspace: Dark Gory Horror by Dan Padavona
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Spoilers in this review after the next paragraph, so be warned.

Crawlspace is a fairly standard “psycho killer(s) on the loose” story, but there are areas where I feel it falls short, bringing down the overall experience.

First, the author may find himself surprised when he turns 50 and discovers that everyone does not turn into haggard, out of shape old people as soon as they hit the half century mark. Every observation about an older character in the story would convince you otherwise. This is a common issue with younger authors and even Stephen King bungled middle-aged or older folks in his early novels. Still, it’s 2018, not 1718. People live past their 30s now and can actually stay in shape. :P

The biggest problem with the story is the protagonist. Jerry Laymon has bad judgment, a bad temper, a bad attitude, regularly makes impulsive and irrational choices, and claims he’s not all about sex while constantly describing the physical characteristics of every female character (that isn’t a decrepit 50-year old) in lurid detail. He is, in a word, a schmuck. And he narrates the story, so you don’t even get the satisfaction of him nobly sacrificing himself at the end.

The main issue with the character, though, isn’t that he’s actively unlikable, though at times he is, it’s that his odd decisions are needed to drive the plot forward and as always this remains my least favorite thing authors do in their stories. When the plot drives the characters, you are unlikely to engage readers or make them care much about the characters. They become pieces being moved across a game board, except in this case the game board is covered in plastic to catch all the blood of the victims of the wife and husband team of Satanic and occasional serial killers.

Also, there is a weird anti-university thing going on that gets played up a lot in the first half of the book that feels more like the author’s personal politics being injected than anything that actually serves the story. Laymon views all other students as entitled and spoiled, wasting their time while they acquire debt. The professors are terrible people who live in mansions and protect each other at the expense of the student body. The townfolk also apparently hate the university and all who attend it, leading to clashes–literal clashes, like fistfights and such–between the university crowd and the “townies.” It all seems a bit odd, but maybe I’ve just lived in nicer cities.

Anyway, the last chapter is a drawn-out fight between the haggard/old/in their 50s Satanic killers, Jerry, Kelli (his girlfriend) and Charlotte (his next girlfriend) and it mostly takes place in near or total darkness so there’s lots of wondering who’s where and what’s what. It all feels very conventional after the build-up to a possibly supernatural pair of murderous killers who move seamlessly through time to kill and kill again. No, they just use the crawlspace.

Some of the scenes moving through the titular crawlspace are actually fairly well-done, and the writing is always decent, if sometimes melodramatic. But this story is just a little too weird in the wrong ways to really recommend.

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Book review: Him Standing

Him StandingHim Standing by Richard Wagamese
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novella has one of the most delightfully creepy covers I’ve seen in recent years. A quick glance at the premise–a young Ojibway man carver is asked to make a spirit mask by a mysterious stranger, with possibly dire consequences–and I was in.

Him standing is one of those stories that doesn’t surprise in any way, but it achieves everything it sets out to do, making the time you spend with the amiable and slightly goofy protagonist Lucas Smoke perfectly enjoyable. Smoke’s ability to capture a person’s likeness, their essential essence, in wood attracts the attention of a vaguely menacing stranger who conscripts him to make a spirit mask for what turns out to be a Very Bad Reason. Hijinks follow involving shaman both good and evil, alive and not-exactly-alive, the dream world and more.

Richard Wagamese does a nice job of capturing the voice of Smoke, a charming, uncomplicated man whose core decency is as much a part of what saves him as is his ability to tap into mystical abilities he never knew he had. While his fight against the stranger–identified later as Gareth Knight, a modern-day shaman, is predictable, it’s a fun little ride, peppered with quirky touches, like Knight’s apparent obsession with different hats.

Him Standing is a solid read that does justice to its subject matter without descending into hokum.

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Book review: Time Was

Time WasTime Was by Ian McDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This time travel novella zips along, taking the sorts of twists one often expects in stories of time travel, and McDonald’s facility with language elevates it. At the same time the brevity of the piece undermines the story to a degree, leaving some characters more as sketches than feeling like real, living people.

And like most time travel stories, if you pull at a thread you’re likely to unravel the entire thing.

The story takes place in the present, with Emmett Leigh, a book collector, coming across a mysterious collection of poems called Time Was. The volumes (there are multiple copies, though they come without any information regarding publication or any other kind of record) contain letters written by one lover to another during World War I. And World War II. And the conflict in Bosnia and so on. Emmett comes to believe they are jumping through time and becomes obsessed with learning all he can about them.

The two lovers, Ben and Tom, are featured both through the letters, and in separate scenes, with the story jumping between different eras and the present. McDonald does fairly well with the protagonist and the present-day characters but Ben and Tom never feel particularly real, perhaps in part due to the way they are presented in the story. This also happens to contradict the marketing push for the novella, which sells it as a love story. It’s more a mystery and the focus is very much on Emmett Leigh, not Ben and Tom.

Still, McDonald has tremendous fun with his prose and it buoys the story beyond the wobbly time travel shenanigans and thin characterizations. It’s a solid, if flawed, read, but one I’d still recommend to those who are suckers for time travel adventures (as I am).

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