Algorithm, by Arthur Dowekyo / **

51fhcmloe1l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Ideas can only get a book so far. Which can be frustrating, but it’s the truth; no matter how engaging and interesting the ideas of a novel are, ultimately, as Roger Ebert said (and I quote so often), stories aren’t about what they’re about; they’re about how they go about it. And it’s that quote that explains why I was so put off by Arthur M. Doweyko’s Algorithm, despite some interesting ideas at play and a couple of genuinely neat concepts.

It’s not just the frequent grammatical errors and typos that put me off – although, I’ll be honest and say that having three of them within the first two pages doesn’t fill me with confidence about the book I’m about to read. No, it’s the haphazard nature of the plotting. When you have such a neat hook – which revolves around a gold medallion uncovered in a lump of coal, buried for thousands of years, which leads to a young man making connections not only with an alien race, but possibly with the origins of human life itself – sometimes, you need to realize that you have enough. That goes doubly when you’re as ambitious as Algorithm is, mixing discussions about the purpose of DNA, evolution of humankind, alien life, and so much more into an adventure story.

Instead, Algorithm throws in literal Nazis, cackling about world domination in the most cartoonish and ridiculous way imaginable. And a shape shifting religious alien zealot (maybe?) who comes and goes as the plot needs him to, and otherwise conveniently stays offstage. And shoehorned in exposition. And badly written dialect that grates. And a female character who’s constantly described in terms of her looks and whose whole purpose to provide “tension” and “banter” with our hero. And all of that is just in the book’s (admittedly lesser) first half, before the second half throws all of that out and gets more complicated and somehow sillier still, with continued reliance on some one-dimensional characters and overly contrived plotting that obscures the interesting ideas Doweyko is wanting to explore and play with.

There’s a great book buried somewhere in Algorithm, and I mean that honestly. I really liked the shape of what Doweyko was going for, and the revelation of what the medallions were used for was genuinely surprising (if a bit nonsensical, if you try to think about it). But in the end, to get through that, I had to get through some flat characters, a lot of grammatical issues, inconsistent actions, convenient plotting, and so many other problems that I can’t recommend this book. The ideas are great, but sometimes, that’s just not enough.

Amazon
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Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage / *** ½ (Advance Review)

babyteethI’m not going to deny that Baby Teeth got its hooks in me fast and never really let go. Alternating between the perspective of a lonely, isolated mother and her increasingly unsettling young daughter, Zoje Stage’s debut novel moves like an absolute rocket, one that will have you constantly saying to yourself, “Well, one more chapter couldn’t hurt.” That alternating chapter structure works like gangbusters, letting us see both the intense, vicious mind of little Hanna and the effects it all has on mom Suzanne, constantly shifting our reads of the situation. We know when Hanna is bluffing, or when she’s every bit as dangerous as Suzanne fears; we also know how Hanna’s actions are exacerbating Suzanne’s fears both as a mother and as a woman trying to figure out how to define herself now that she has a child.

And trust me, this is a nasty little novel in terms of making your sympathies hard to pin down. Do you prefer little Hanna, whose devotion to her father has her wondering if the best plan would be to kill her mother, and who acts out against the world – and other children – in increasingly disturbing, amoral ways? Or do you side with Suzanne, a woman whose sense of self is almost non-existent, driving her to need more and more time to herself and away from her child in an effort to figure out who she is? Sure, that’s a feeling that almost any parent understands – but Suzanne has a way of making it really, really hard to really like her, even as we understand how hard it would be to deal with Hanna.

Really, Hanna is the novel’s best feature, in so many ways; a truly unsettling, focused, amoral creation, Hanna takes a page from The Bad Seed and absolutely runs with it. Even Damien from The Omen might be a little freaked out by Hanna’s icy approach to the world and indifference for anyone who doesn’t understand her, doesn’t let her live as she wants, and isn’t her father. By the time we’re watching Hanna’s chilling interactions with some special needs children, we are all too aware that this isn’t just a case of a child acting out – this is something far more disturbing.

So, yes, Stage does a fantastic job alternating between these two, playing them off of each other in incredible ways, ratcheting up the tension throughout the novel as we see how far the two of them can push each other. It’s twisted, compulsively readable, and gleefully nasty…

…so why did it leave me so unsatisfied by the end?

Part of it comes from the book’s absolute whimper of an ending, which feels not so much as like a great climax so much as a great beginning to a final act that we never see. Stage’s tension all just sort of peters out, ending in a set of scenes that feel pretty unsatisfying on almost any level. (There’s a little bit of interesting subtext to the final chapter, but not enough.) More than that, though, Baby Teeth feels incredibly fun while you’re reading it, but ends up feeling like empty calories when you’re done. Sure, it’s a fun, nasty little story, but is there any “there” to it? It doesn’t feel like it, when you’re done, and it has a way of making the book feel pretty unsatisfying and even a bit irritating in how it squanders all of the tension and momentum it has going.

When Baby Teeth comes out, later this summer, I guarantee that there will be a lot of Gone Girl comparisons made – it’s twisty, dark, twisted, and has a dark humor to it. But trust me when I tell you that it doesn’t compare to Gillian Flynn’s sick masterpiece – not with an ending that leaves you unsatisfied and a general feeling of “there’s nothing here” that begins to sink in as you hit the book’s final chapters.

A final side note: After I finished this review, I ended up reading Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, which I feel like is a better version of this book in so many ways, despite the numerous differences; both are books that grapple with the disconnect between parenting and being an individual, particularly for women, and both use the guise of a psychological thriller to get to those issues. That being said, Baby Teeth is a far pulpier novel, if that’s more your speed, while The Perfect Nanny is far more oblique and literary, for lack of a better word, to say nothing of getting to a much darker place in some ways. (For those interested, I’ll have a review up of The Perfect Nanny in a couple of days.)

Amazon (Available July 17, 2018)

Elai Nelson and the Prophecy of the Child, by Michael Ban / **

51kw-dpqzelThe more I read, the more I’m convinced that one of the hardest things to pull off is first-person narration. Essentially, you’re taking all of the difficulties of natural dialogue and forcing yourself to deal with them over the course of an entire novel. More than that, you’re requiring yourself to sustain that voice and make it engaging and interesting, building your character and driving your plot simultaneously. And the only way to add even more to that is to try to make your narrator funny, because the only thing writers struggle with more than dialogue is how to be funny when you’re writing.

The obvious model for Michael Ban’s Elai Nelson and the Prophecy of the Child is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and that’s a worthy goal to set for yourself. I’ve read – and enjoyed – most of Riordan’s books, and admire the way his books are seemingly effortlessly silly and funny, all while creating a rich world, interesting characters, and strong plots. But to think what he does is easy is to lie to yourself, because when you can’t pull off strong narration, solid humor, or an interesting plot…well, you get Elai Nelson and the Prophecy of the Child.

Elai Nelson has a simple enough hook – a teenage boy ends up on the run and in a fantasy world after his parents are attacked. He’s guided by his sentient toothbrush – a sword in disguise – which seems to be guiding him towards his destiny. Meanwhile, our pop-culture fixated, video game-playing narrator struggles to make sense of this world, and it’s all approached with a bit of ironic distance, a la Riordan, a choice that’s most effective when it’s contrasted with the formal, stylized dialogue of the fantasy world.

That all sounds great, and sporadically, Elai Nelson works okay. The story is fine enough, and moves along at a great pace, even if it doesn’t really “end” so much as it just “stops” (a chapter or two after it should). But Ban never gets his first -person narration to work, and that’s a problem. It feels flat, never coming to life or really flowing in the way you need first-person narration to do. It feels, more than anything, like the dialogue that most writers come up with in their early writing, before they get a natural feel going – and that’s a critical error in first-person narration. That same issue keeps the humor from ever really landing; humor needs a deft touch, and Ban doesn’t really have it, laying it on either too thick or too thuddingly, and while I could see where the jokes and laughs were supposed to be, none of them hit for me at all. More often – and more problematically – they often detract from the book, feeling like they’re there in place of character work or development. (None of this is helped by the fact that Nelson himself isn’t a particularly interesting or likable protagonist – something that doesn’t feel like Ban is doing consciously, which could make him more compelling; instead, he’s just grating, shallow, and not particularly enjoyable to listen to.)

Elai Nelson and the Prophecy of the Child feels like a first-draft of something that could be solid at some point. It needs some revisions and smoothing, and it needs another eye to help read it over and fix the sore points. The framework isn’t bad, and the idea is a good one, but as it is, it’s mainly just tedious.

Amazon

The Blighted City, by Scott Kaelen / **** ½

37905869I can’t claim to know exactly what made George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and its TV adaptation Game of Thrones so popular, but I’ve often thought that part of the appeal came from the way that Martin gave readers fantasy that often didn’t feel like fantasy – or, at least, not what fantasy is popularly conceived as being. These weren’t elves bantering about the role of men in the world, or forces of moral darkness arising in shadowy lands – Martin’s world was full of human beings scheming, thinking, and feeling, and if it was set against a fantasy backdrop, well, the price of admission was easier to pay for a mainstream audience than a more traditional high fantasy novel would have been. (None of which is to say that Martin invented the genre, mind you.) And authors like Joe Abercrombie, I think, have done similar things, giving rise to a new blend of high and low fantasy that’s deeply appealing to readers, giving us all the fantasy elements we enjoy while also giving us characters that we can engage with.

This is a long buildup to discussing Scott Kaelen’s really great The Blighted City, I know, but it’s also helpful, I think, in telling you what kind of book this is. There’s little denying that Kaelen has thought about his world and fleshed it out incredibly well – there is a sense of history to this place, from old friendships to fallen kingdoms, from forgotten villages to old war wounds, and every bit of it feels naturalistic and lived in. Indeed, even as I sometimes (and very rarely) got a little swamped in some of the world building, I never really minded it, because it was clearly given a shape and structure that made it all work. This never felt like exposition dumps or an author cramming in details; instead, it felt like a world slowly revealing itself to me.

But for all of that, at its core, this is a book about a trio of mercenaries (sellswords, in the language of the book) who are given the job of retrieving a family heirloom from a crypt in Lachyla, the titular blighted city. A place of unburned corpses and many superstitions, it’s a place with a reputation that keeps almost all visitors from its gate. But our trio of sellswords – the religious Dagra, the very atheist Oriken, and their leader (and superior fighter, as well as the sole woman of the group) Jalis – decide that the price can’t be beat. Mind you, if they knew what was waiting for them, they might reconsider that…

Look, the plotting here is a ton of fun – Kaelen does suspense and action well, and the way he slowly plays out his storyline is great in terms of pacing and reveals. I have a couple of issues (Oriken and the number of women who throw themselves at him over the course of these pages, with his constant reluctance, gets a little odd), but they’re relatively minor, and that’s largely thanks to how well-written and crafted the characters are. Kaelen brings this trio and their banter – and interpersonal ties – to rich life, making their dialogues about religion or their fears every bit as intriguing as combat to the death or the revelation of what’s going on in Lachyla. That’s not a small thing, but it’s a welcome one to have, and it kept me rocketing through The Blighted City with more attention and interest than I honestly expected it might when I first was offered a copy for review. By the end, I was sad to see the story come to an end, but glad that it ended well – yes, it may be part of a series, but Kaelen writes it like a standalone, and that’s a welcome choice in an era of constant serialization.

The short version, here at the end: I started this review with mentions of Martin and Abercrombie. If you like those, give this a read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the least.

Amazon

Dustrunner, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

36592503I’ve been reviewing Dean F. Wilson’s books for a while now – Dean provides them for me to read, and I’m more than happy to accept, because at this point, I’ve come to trust that I’m going to get a great read out of him – engaging and exciting action, solid character work, and great storytelling. That started with The Great Iron War series, continued for me with his high fantasy trilogy The Children of Telm, but for my money, Wilson’s current series, Coilhunter Chronicles, has been his most satisfying, enjoyable, and just plain great series to date.

Essentially a steampunk Western about a bounty hunter (the titular Coilhunter, whose given name is Nox) tracking down criminals, the Coilhunter Chronicles works because it’s all story. Wilson builds rich worlds, and his density of history in them – prophecies and ancient feuds in The Children of Telm, war and grudges in The Great Iron War – can sometimes get overwhelming, forcing the characters to figure out their own place in the world before they can even act. But by creating a character who knows himself so deeply, and who’s opted out of “civilized” society, Wilson has allowed himself to do pure storytelling. From hunting down killers to forays into cybernetic battlefields, this series feels like pure Western pulp with sci-fi trappings, and I’m eating it up.

What’s more, as Wilson gets further into the series, it only gets better. Dustrunner, the third entry in the series, has a simple hook: a village has been slaughtered, and the Coilhunter has been framed. What results from there is all-out war, as every bounty hunter in the Wild North comes after him in the hopes of collecting one of the biggest bounties of all time – well, that and the chance to settle a lot of old scores. And if that’s not enough, the tribes are also uniting against the man who seems to have slaughtered some of their own so coldly and brutally.

Simple hook, sure, but what it leads to is pure action, as Nox fights his way against incredible odds, does his best to investigate the case while keeping himself alive, and struggles to convince even a few people that this is a case of mistaken identity. There’s a slight sense of confusion when we get to the ending – without getting into spoilers, this is less a case where we’re re-meeting some old nemesis of Nox’s, and more that Wilson has created some new character we’ve never heard of to be the Big Bad. But that doesn’t really end up mattering that much; what matters is whether the story works, and does it ever. The action, as always, is crackling, full of devices, feints, gunfights, and clear writing that brings everything to instantly comprehensible and exciting life. And, as ever with this series, there’s Wilson’s great drawling dialect and prose, bringing his landscape to life every bit as well as his characterization.

Dustrunner is the best book of the three Coilhunter books to date, and when you consider that every single entry in this story has been great, that’s no small thing. Jump in here or in any of them – it doesn’t matter. Jump in and have fun with it – I certainly did, and I’ll be glad to do it again when book #4 comes out.

Amazon

Rustkiller, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

34932417I get a lot of requests to review books by various authors, but Dean F. Wilson is one of those that I’m most excited to hear from – when I get a Wilson book, I know I’m going to get solid writing, rich worldbuilding, interesting characters, and just a crackling good story. And that all goes doubly for Wilson’s recent Coilhunter Chronicles series, which takes the steampunk trappings of his Great Iron War series and brings them into the Western genre, with absolutely fantastic results. And, as I’d hoped, Rustkiller (the second book in this series, after introducing the character in The Great Iron War and giving him his own book with Coilhunter) is great – even better than the first, and a just plain great read on every level.

Mind you, it helps that the Coilhunter Chronicles have such a great protagonist – a bounty hunter named Nox, known as the titular “Coilhunter” (“coils” being the currency of Wilson’s post-apocalyptic world). The Coilhunter is a ruthless, take-no-prisoners sort of guy – think a combination of Batman and John Wick, and you might end up with the character Wilson’s created, complete with complex motivations and a yearning for justice that takes its form in lethal bullets and captures.

In other words, you’ve already got a great antihero. And you’ve already got a great world – the unsettled Western frontiers of a war-torn landscape, a place where people go because they’re opting out of a violent world torn apart by war and strife. All you need is a good story, and as usual, Wilson delivers. The plotting here starts out simple enough, with the Coilhunter encountering a young pair of siblings on their own, and trying to help them. Things spiral out from there, and Wilson turns his focus to the Clockwork Commune, a sort of junkyard populated by wound-up, self-running machines which rip apart anything that comes into their realm, all in the hopes of finding some machinery for their self-replicating world.

The result is a ton of fun; Wilson uses his short chapter lengths perfectly, constantly giving you the need to read “just one more” at the end of every one, pulling you along in a cavalcade of tension, suspense, and great action. As usual, the writing is fantastic, evoking that Western drawl despite all of its steampunk and science-fiction trappings, but best of all is the way that Wilson brings his characters to life, as ever. That goes most for Nox, whose fatalistic worldview is tempered by his desire to help those in need, but it’s equally valid in the case of the young siblings, whose motivations, drives, and needs don’t feel like stock “children in peril,” but something more interesting, all the way up to a brutal choice they’re forced to make.

These books, more than anything else, are fun – they’re exciting, inventive, well-written, and just plain great. They’re pulpy but satisfying, action-driven but character-rich, and enjoyable enough that you’ll rocket through them. And they’re all standalone stories, giving you a great sample of Wilson’s work in the hopes you’ll come back for more. And you most definitely should.

Amazon

The Fatness, by Mark A. Rayner / ****

61iyv8rqaulIt wasn’t until I finished The Fatness, Mark A. Rayner’s satirical novel about obesity and how we handle it both personally and as a society, that I realized that I had read an earlier book by Rayner. Back in 2013, Rayner sent me a review copy of his novel The Fridgularity, another piece of satire, this one focusing on our dependence on social media and the internet. The Fridgularity, I wrote at the time, was “entertaining, if not entirely successful”; it was often very, very funny, but felt a bit spread thin at times, and struggled when it came to plotting. Nonetheless, the ideas and the writing were solid, and the book as a whole was a lot of fun.

I bring this up largely to say that, when I realized that The Fatness was from the same writer, I was really impressed, because it was clear that Rayner had learned from his mistakes in that book while never turning away from what he did well; The Fatness is every bit as wild and funny as The Fridgularity, but its focus, plotting, and character work are all far tighter, and its satirical points all the more effective for that craft.

The Fatness takes place in Canada – but more specifically, it takes place in a mandatory health center known derisively to its occupants as “the Fatness”. In Rayner’s novel, insurance companies, public disgust, and societal pressures have resulted in those above a certain BMI to be more or less forced into these centers until they’re able to reduce their weight. Mind you, as Rayner reminds us in his humorous interstitial notes between chapters, losing weight isn’t as simple as that, and to blame the obese for their weight loss is often to overlook all of the factors that have gone into this modern trend of obesity – factors that range from fast food technology to modern jobs to diets and more.

Rayner reins in some of the more excessive aspects of his style here that occasionally threw The Fridgularity off balance, instead keeping this largely grounded with just enough exaggeration to make his points. (The one exception is the recurring hallucinations plot line, which is sometimes funny but often just a bit odd and out of place.) Instead, he focuses on a society that judges the obese and finds them wanting, preferring to keep them out of sight and judging them for their faults, even as they’re using them to line their corporate and personal pockets. It’s trenchant stuff, but Rayner makes it work by investing us in his characters and their story, and allowing the environment and world to make his critiques.

As with most good works of satire, The Fatness goes for broke sometimes, taking on Weight Watchers, fast food corporations, dating expectations, gender norms, exercise fads, ludicrous dieting therapies, and more; what’s good, though, is that he makes it all feel of a piece, instead of scattering it too far afield. Everything in The Fatness feels like it matters to the story, and Rayner’s ability to both take on so much and make it feel streamlined and focused speaks well to his evolution as a writer. And if those interstitial chapters occasionally feel a bit too on the nose – too much telling in place of showing – he makes them self-effacing and light enough to work, allowing him to bring in some research while still making them feel like humorous asides more than lectures.

The result is a lot of fun, and if it’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as The Fridgularity, that’s to the credit of the book; he’s traded the constant jabs for focus, a grounding in his characters, and a discipline that makes the book more engaging and more effective. More than that, as his afterword shows, it shows a writer who’s reflecting on his strengths and weaknesses, and working to make sure that he doesn’t speak for things he can’t understand. All in all, it’s a satisfying, fun, clever read, one that makes its points with all the barbs they deserve while still telling a fun story.

Amazon