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.

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The Chains of War, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

23001356It’s almost become a fun trope of fantasy novels to see how many of them feature a dense and absurd glossary of terms in the back of them. For a long time, it was almost a requirement of the genre (I constantly used them as I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, for instance), but they’ve fallen by the wayside over the years. And while generally I’m fine with that, there have definitely been times as I’ve read Dean F. Wilson’s epic fantasy trilogy series The Children of Telm that I could have used one. With its dense style, its huge cast of characters, and its epic scope, it’s easy to lose one’s way for a bit in Wilson’s world, or to fear that you may be missing out on some of the details.

But what makes The Children of Telm so great – and in particular, what makes The Chains of War, the final book in the series – is that not only did I follow every page of the book even without remembering every detail, but that I found myself wanting to read the entire series over again, to see how Wilson had been writing these details from the beginning and how much of the world and the story’s arc had been foreshadowed since the beginning. Wilson is playing with any number of tropes of the genre – an ancient evil released from its bonds, the gods reincarnating themselves in mortal bodies, the armies of the dead amassing, a love of the natural world that may lend itself to certain powers – and yet, The Chains of War (and the series as a whole) never feels like anything other than itself, and the characters become wholly their own. Yes, they may have started as archetypes, but they become something far more compelling and unique as the series has continued, with moral debts, shades of complexity, guilt that hangs over them, and a difficulty grappling with their own powers.

In many ways, as much as I loved Wilson’s Great Iron War series, it feels like The Children of Telm may be his greater accomplishment, in no small part because of how far Wilson pushes his writing. Consciously mimicking the formal, “ancient” diction of Tolkien and other high fantasy writers, Wilson lets his words carry some of the weight of his world-building, turning this story into a chronicle of something larger and more ambitious. That he does this while still letting the characters live and breathe, while still bringing out ambiguities and nuances, while still surprising with plot points – that’s no small feat.

Look, The Chains of War is hard to describe – it’s the final book in a fantasy series, and builds on what’s come before it. To talk about what happens in here would ruin some of the joy of the rest of this series, or of the surprises to come in its pages – the sudden realization of what’s causing the ancient evil to be unleashed, the slow dawning of how our heroes can fulfill the prophecies, the cost of the battles, and a perfect epilogue that not only concludes the story, but also gives us closure on the characters. But it manages that difficult feat of concluding a fantasy series in a satisfying way that feels both appropriate and surprising, delivering an exciting story that ends the series but doesn’t feel like it’s just the formula playing out. It’s a great read from an author whose quiet, assured talent has been pleasing me for book after book, and really pays off so well here. In short, if you like high fantasy? You owe this one a read. Just, you know, maybe read them all back to back, and don’t wait months like I did.

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The Witch’s List, by Andrew Cairns / ***

29006270One of the biggest gambles that first-time writers often take is the idea of first-person narration. It’s an understandable risk – first-person offers more chance for you to make a distinctive voice for yourself, to say nothing of the benefits for your characterization. But the risks are high ones to take, since first-person takes all of the same skills that good dialogue takes – a natural flow, a lack of reliance of overly formal speech, and so forth. Do it right, and you’ve established your character and a mood for your book; do it wrong, and your reader will end up suffering through your awkward, stilted flow before giving up.

So, it’s worth starting off by saying that Andrew Cairns’s The Witch’s List takes the gamble and makes it pay off nicely, plunging us into the mind of our hero as he grows up and navigates the complicated waters of his love life. Adding to that complication? When you’re a young boy from Scotland, and you find that your tastes run more to women from Africa and their descendants, that could lead to some self-consciousness. Luckily, Sandy Beech makes his peace with his tastes early in life and runs with it, drifting from woman to woman with all the passion you’d expect from a teenage/college-age young man full of hormones.

As a coming-of-age novel, The Witch’s List isn’t bad. It’s aimless and drifting, but Cairns keeps things moving at a decent clip, following Beech’s romantic and social entanglements with a sense of humor and fun. The problem, though, is that The Witch’s List isn’t really a coming-of-age novel – or, at least, it’s not enough of one to sustain itself. Instead, the book dips its toes into horror every so often, teasing the reader with dark undercurrents before retreating back to love lives and dating.

The result is a book that feels like it’s kind of about nothing, and that’s an issue. It’s nearly 75% of the way through the book before the titular witch’s list is introduced, and its importance to the book turns out to be (maybe) a red herring? It’s hard to say, but whatever the case, the plotting of the book is so aimless and backgrounded as to be non-existent – that is, until a literal last page reveal that shows us some of what’s been going on this whole time. And that’s a neat reveal, in some ways, but it also ends up feeling like an effort to retroactively add some plot to a book that doesn’t have much of one.

The end result is a book that’s never quite sure what it wants to be. It’s not scary enough to be a horror novel; it’s not intriguing or complex enough to be a mystery or a thriller; and it’s not emotional or rich enough to be a coming-of-age novel. Instead, it marks out some weird “no man’s land” between all three of these, and delivers none of them in a particularly interesting fashion. (That it spends so much of the book’s first half building up a character and relationship that ultimately feels irrelevant is a big part of this; it’s the first inkling that the book is just sort of finding itself as it goes along.)

Mind you, none of this is to say that The Witch’s List is out-and-out bad; the writing flows nicely, and the characters mostly come to good life. It’s just that it feels like a book that would benefit from deciding what it wants to be, and embracing that genre, rather than trying to be too many different things and doing none of them satisfactorily.

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Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore / *****

51hmlljnwil-_sx327_bo1204203200_A good portion of the books I read are review copies, and while I’ve come to enjoy the chaos and unpredictability of reading books where I have zero expectations, there are definitely times where I’ve considered giving it up. (Why, yes, these times often correspond with long streaks of bad books – how did you know?) All of which goes to say, the joy of reviewing is that sometimes you get a book like Reincarnation Blues that can completely blindside you, coming out of nowhere and blowing you away with its imagination, humor, style, and richness.

Trying to describe Reincarnation Blues is a bit of a rough task; the best I can do is to say that it combines the millennia-spanning reincarnated souls of Cloud Atlas with the untraditional but rich love story of The Time Traveler’s Wife, with a rich sprinkling of humor that’s oh so welcome. But even that description doesn’t really do the book justice – it doesn’t convey the richness of the storytelling, the quiet silliness, and most of all, the pure warmth of the whole experience.

Reincarnation Blues is the story of a soul named Milo, who’s among the oldest souls in the universe – he’s been reincarnated nearly 10,000 times. That’s given Milo an incredible amount of experience and learning, with lives lived in the ancient past, the distant future, and everywhere in between. But Milo’s favorite parts of existence are the parts in between his lives, where he gets the chance to reunite with the love of his “life”: Suzie…also known as Death. And once you add to that the impending threat of oblivion – because any soul that hasn’t achieved enlightenment by incarnation #10,000 doesn’t get another chance – and there’s a lot of pressure on Milo to figure some things out.

And yet, Reincarnation Blues never feels like a high pressure book. Yes, there’s this deadline looming, and yes, there’s this complicated idea of having a romance with the incarnation of Death, but Reincarnation Blues remains focused, both in plot and thematic terms, on the nature of the human experience – on learning to be kind, on listening to other people, on trying to accept the universe for what it is. It’s a book that’s never really about all of Milo’s lives, despite the way it weaves in and out all of them, giving us scenes of combat, of peace, of future science, of primitive tribes, and every possible combination of all of those. It’s about what Milo did and learned in those lives, and the experiences that shaped him into the person he is.

And yet, there’s no denying that Poore’s incredible imagination gives the book a life that’s undeniable, and maybe all the more effective for how he backgrounds it throughout. More than that, the way he weaves all of Milo’s lives into one complex history – with actions in one life being referenced in another – give the sense of a complex mythology behind the book, a carefully planned out reality that we only get glimpses of. Add to that his quietly funny, sometimes silly writing style, and you have a book that succeeds in no small part to the authorial craft on display in every page.

But more than the imagination, more than the humor, what really made Reincarnation Blues work for me was the warmth of the whole novel. This is a book where the stakes revolve around finding a successful relationship and achieving some sort of internal peace and calm with the universe. And to that end, for all of the drama, for all of the stakes in each individual life that Milo leads, the book is more about connecting to other people, about learning the importance of how we relate to each other and the legacies we leave behind. That’s a great message to receive, but also a rich one, one that’s so welcome in days where we feel constantly pushed against each other. And it’s the thing that really sold me on this book – that, and the great writing, and the rich imagination, and the wonderful characters, and the great humor…well, maybe I just loved all of it, and loved it so much.

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Sent for Life, by Jason Turri / * ½

51gc2uq-m6l-_sy346_One of the common issues I’ve started to see among independent authors, especially those on their first or second book, is not knowing how to balance ambition and plotting. There’s a sense sometimes that they think to themselves, Well, I have all of these great ideas – why not put all of them into the same book? But the result is often an overstuffed, jumbled read, one that leaves you wishing that the author had focused on any one or two of the ideas in depth instead of throwing them all into the same book and doing none of them justice.

Such is the case with Sent for Life, Jason Turri’s debut novel, which follows a young scientist as he creates a vaccine for a deadly disease sweeping the world, gets framed for murder, discovers a secret cloning operation, gets told that he’s going to be sent to an alien world, discovers a conspiracy behind that launch, discovers a separate secret plan on that alien world, helps to save that world from a deadly asteroid – and all of this (and plenty more, including a few twists) happens in 300 pages. If that sounds like a lot to cover, well, it is. And every time you think the book is about to dig into a single plot thread, it swerves onto something new, until I really got frustrated figuring out who the plot’s villains were supposed to be, and why it would spend so long on things that it had no interest in paying off.

That world-shaping disease? Barely matters to the book. The framing of him for murder, and the slowly uncovered motivation of the villain behind it? Discarded as soon as the character gets ready to move onto the alien world. And again and again and again, the book jumps from plot to plot. There’s something admirable and enjoyable about a book that’s so ambitious and eager to do so much, but as a reader, there’s also a sense of frustration as you deal with a book that has no idea what it wants to be about. (That even becomes more of an issue as the book randomly breaks from its first-person narration without warning at times, without rhyme or reason.)

Not helping things is that our hero is…well, “flawed” would be putting it mildly, and it’s never quite clear how much we’re supposed to dislike him. If the answer is “a huge amount,” that would be great; between his habit of describing every female in terms of her looks (all are “beautiful” in various ways) and his constant whiny, wheedling pressure for all of them to sleep with him regardless of their interest level, he’s undoubtedly a slimeball. But that’s pretty tame compared to his behavior when he gets to the alien world, where he introduces drinking, drugs, and wet t-shirt contests for his own entertainment among a species that knows none of these things. Far from being funny or endearing, it makes him a fairly repellent figure, and his ego as he approaches basically every situation makes him hard to root for.

There’s some interesting ideas in Sent for Life – any number of which could have made a single really fun book. But putting them all together, and the sheer revolting nature of its hero, really keeps the book from being something I can recommend. I think Turri has great ideas, and he seems like the kind of author who can learn from his mistakes – hopefully he can see the issues with Sent for Life and learn from them in the future.

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Monsters of Venus, by Martin Berman-Gorvine / ***

513gh0jx4ul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Monsters of Venus boasts a pretty great premise – it’s a science fiction tale set on Venus, but one created from the mind of a Polish Jew alive during the rise of the Nazi party. Desperate to escape, her pulp tales took on a life of their own, and she ultimately escaped into the world she had created, along with a couple of other girls – and she can still make changes to this world by writing them on her typewriter and having others read it. But now, others have found their way into this universe, and they have more malicious intentions – and typewriters of their own.

That’s a really cool idea for a book, and at its best moments, Monsters of Venus becomes this wonderful piece of metafiction, with characters literally writing their way out of their predicaments. Mind you, it’s worth noting that Monsters of Venus is actually a follow-up to an earlier book entitled Seven Against Mars, which I hadn’t read, nor did I realize going in; the learning curve here is a bit rocky, although you’ll get the hang of everything eventually. It’s just that Berman-Gorvine doesn’t exactly lay out his premise or things that have already happened in any sort of clear, easy way for a new reader.

Unfortunately, that’s also the case for much of Monsters of Venus, which feels constantly jumbled and unclear, with characters bleeding into each other, overwrought accents, and messy action scenes that left me trying to figure out what was going on. None of which is to say that the big picture of Monsters of Venus isn’t a lot of fun – on the macro level, there’s a neat story here, and a lot of cool ideas. But the execution is less effective, with me often confused as to who was where, why certain actions were taken, or what people’s goals were. Add into that a number of literary allusions that feel fun but ultimately distract from the story (I’m still not quite sure what the point of all the Hamlet allusions is, or what they were supposed to mean; while they end up aligning with a couple of characters, the question of what it matters beyond being cute is unclear), and the result is a great idea, poorly executed.

That seems to be Berman-Gorvine’s M.O., though – I said similar things about his Heroes of Earth, which had great ideas but once again felt overstuffed and cluttered. Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, and some really cool ideas; it just feels like it needs some tightening and polishing to make it work as well as it should.

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Roofworld, by Christopher Fowler / ***

9780399180422A London man with a boring job and average life suddenly finds himself drawn into a side of London that he’s never seen before – a place where those who have dropped out of normal life have set up their own alternate society, where the rules are different, life is dangerous and exciting, and there’s nothing but disdain for the “normal” people. There’s a sense of old ways here, a sense that this is a way of getting back to something primal and mysterious, and maybe even magical. But our hero finds himself falling into something he doesn’t understand, and not only this new world, but our own, could be in danger.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “ooh, I’ve read that – it’s Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman,” well, you’re not wrong, really. Indeed, even though Roofworld predates Neverwhere by some time, I couldn’t help but spend a lot of the time as I read it comparing it to Gaiman’s richer, stranger, and altogether more successful novel. It doesn’t, however, really detract from Fowler’s imaginative idea, for this society lives on the roofs of the city, navigating from building to building with ropes and ziplines, and refusing to touch the ground. That’s a neat idea (I constantly found myself thinking of the navigation of Bioshock Infinite as I read), and the glimpses we get of this world are more than enough to draw you into the strange, shadowy society on the roofs of London.

It’s a shame, then, that Roofworld doesn’t have the substance it needs to support the fun and imagination that it promises in the first half. The book’s opening promises all sorts of fun, with a missing book of notes, a dangerous death cult, a series of brutal murders, and an odd couple romance. But by the time I hit the halfway point of the book, I was rapidly coming to realize that Roofworld is in desperate need of some fleshing out. Yes, it’s fun, and yes, it moves well. But the characters end up thin and generic (even now, less than a day after finishing, I’m struggling to remember much about some of them), and the plotting ends up making little to no sense, with the bad guy basically being motivated by…um…evil, I guess. (It doesn’t help that I never quite figured out the point of his evil scheme or what he was hoping to do, and it doesn’t seem like the book wanted us to, either.) It feels like a book that’s had about 30-50 pages of exposition and character work cut out of it, and the result feels like nothing so much as the weak screenplay based off of the fun and imaginative book.

Is there some fun to be had in Roofworld? Most definitely. But don’t be surprised when you end up feeling like it’s got nothing beyond a neat idea and a few fun scenes when you’re done.

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