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REVIEW: Travels in Elysium

Author: William Azuski

2013, Iridescent Publishing

Filed Under: Literary, Mystery

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 4
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 2

Billed in the jacket blurb as a “metaphysical thriller,” Travels in Elysium proves neither particularly enlightening nor thrilling. What it is is a slog, 539 pages of one-track characters having the same conversations on an over-described Greek island.

It actually starts out okay. The writing isn’t terrible, and the setup is pretty good as far as the “thriller” aspects of the novel go. Nicholas Pedrosa is heading for the island of Santorini where he will join an archeological expedition headed by the famous Marcus Huxley. When he arrives, he finds a team wracked with internal rivalry facing a local populace divided over the dig. Some of them like the money it brings their tiny island; others see it as sanctioned looting.

Then some mysterious things start happening. Someone searches Nicky’s luggage before it’s delivered to his lodgings. He learns that his predecessor, Benja, died in an on-site accident after Nicky had already been hired to replace him. Local laborers working the dig report sightings of the undead Benja, and refuse to continue work until an exorcism has been performed. To top it off, it turns out the goal of the dig may be unearthing the lost city of Atlantis.
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REVIEW: The Best of All Possible Worlds

Author: Karen Lord

2013, Ballantine Books

Filed under: Sci-fi

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 4
Entertainment..... 2
Depth..... 5

I think my sci-fi kick is officially over. I started reading this book after seeing a gushing post about it at io9, a preeminent sci-fi website. The post was titled “If you want to see what science fiction is capable of in 2013, you ought to pick up this book.” There are other bold claims in the piece (like “it’s a quick, fun read”), but the title is heart of the matter. If this is all science fiction is capable of these days, I don’t want any part of it.

In The Best of All Possible Worlds, there are four races of humans in the galaxy: Terrans, Ntshune, Sadiri, and Zhinuvians. The Sadiri are long-lived telepaths who have explored the universe with their “mindships”—they’re basically halfway between Vulcans and Elves. In fact, one Sadiri clan actually calls themselves Elves. It’s almost stupefyingly derivative, and the world-building is by far the best part of the novel.

The Terrans are humans as we think of them, the Zhinuvians or performers are something, and the Ntshune are… I don’t even know. Partially that’s because the utterly dry and life-devoid prose put me to sleep every time I started to read this book, and partially it’s because it doesn’t matter what the Ntshune are, because they have nothing to do with anything.

The inciting incident of the novel (I actually hesitate to call it a novel, more on that shortly), is a horrible act of genocide, committed by the Ainya against the Sadiri. Specifically, the Ainya blew up Sadira altogether. Which seems to have been a stupid decision, because the Sadiri and their semi-allies the Zhinuvians are the only ones with ships that can reach the Ain. So the Ainya are stranded wherever that planet is, and they literally don’t factor into the novel again, ever.
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Dear Blurber: Alice Sebold

[Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, a shamefully overhyped book (C4 review here), has just come out in paperback and continues to wail for attention: the book sports 11 full pages of laudatory front matter, including snippets from 27 reviews and several dozen blurbtastically purple and inane write-ups from novelists.

Many of these blurbs confuse C4 contributor Dave Duhr, so for the next couple of weeks he will be writing open letters to a few of these blurbers and we’ll run them in this space. Because we’re confused, too.

The first is addressed to Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), whose Yellow Birds blurb reads, “This is a novel I’ve been waiting for. The Yellow Birds is born from experience and rendered with compassion and intelligence. All of us owe Kevin Powers our heartfelt gratitude.”]

 

 

Dear Alice Sebold:

Hi!

I write to you today in the hopes that you’ll clarify for me the first line of your Yellow Birds blurb. When you said, “This is a novel I’ve been waiting for,” did you mean that when you wrote the blurb, you still had not received the manuscript? How long had you been waiting? Sometimes when I order a book the shipping takes nearly two weeks! So I understand your aggravation. But I wonder if it was really necessary to take a public potshot at Mr. Powers and/or his publicist for their tardiness in getting a copy to you.

It’s strange, too, that you would then write the rest of the blurb before receiving and reading the book. Unless you wrote the second and third lines days later, after the book arrived and after (I hope, though I’m not certain) reading it in its entirety? In which case—and this is solely for future reference, of course—I would have recommended expressing the passage of time in some manner. For example: “This is a novel I’ve been waiting for. (Dum dee dum dee dum.) Mail came today, no bird book. (Dum dee dum dee dum.) No mail on Saturdays now, WTF? (Dum dee dum dee dum.) Oh wow it came today! (Dum dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum.) I have now read a few pages of The Yellow Birds and can confidently say that so far it seems born from experience and rendered with compassion and intelligence,” yada.
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Book Rush: March 2013, The Rush Begins

[Unless David Duhr reads 80 books in the year 2013, he's committed to reading publicly from Fifty Shades of Grey while wearing a hot pink onesie. Follow the Book Rush here.]

 

Last month I stated on my blog a goal of reading 80 books in 2013, and I asked friends to suggest methods of public shaming and humiliation if I don’t reach this goal. I did this partly for accountability and partly because I’m a whorey attention whore.

The consensus was that if I fail I must perform a public reading of Fifty Shades of Grey while wearing a hot-pink onesie. (Imagine being inside the mind of the person who envisions me in tight baby-pajamas.)

After a strong start to the year, knocking over a dozen books in January and another nine in February, 80 looked to be a breeze. But I ran into a March buzzsaw that began with a bookless week in Boston: four days for AWP—where nobody reads a damn thing—and the surrounding four days going on benders with the gang here at Chamber Four.

And then I took an assignment to review a 520-page werewolf novel, and the longer I read this book, the further away the ending seems. So between travel, dice baseball (more on that later), and these goddamn werewolves, I only read four books in March and am starting to browse jumbo hot-pink onesies.

Now that I’m firmly entrenched in this project, for the rest of the year I’m going to cover my monthly progress for you here at C4, and include a quick review of each book.

And if I come up short, we’ll include some onesie video footage here on the site. Here we go.

 

Bottom of the 33rd, Dan Barry

(New York Times Review)

This book tells the story of a 1981 Triple-A baseball game that went 33 innings and ran very, very deep into a frigid Rhode Island night (it was eventually concluded days later). Among the future big-leaguers were Cal Ripken Jr., and a bunch of guys that BoSox fans will remember from the ’86 debacle: Wade Boggs, Rich Gedman, Bruce Hurst, Marty Barrett, and more. But Barry, an NYT staff writer, focuses on the stories of those players who never made it above AAA, including Dave Koza, Pawtucket’s cleanup hitter, who starred in the minors for years but never received a call-up. (He just couldn’t hit the curveball.)

Barry’s writing is stellar throughout. The book has the leisurely pace of a ballgame, but offers several moments of quick excitement—and plenty of devastating sadness and bitter nostalgia over missed or blown opportunities. (Note especially the story of Bobby Bonner, who was called up by the Orioles late one season, missed a groundball, got shitcanned by Earl Weaver and never saw the Majors again.)

This is one of the best baseball books I’ve ever read. You don’t have to be a Sox fan, or even a fan of the game, to enjoy it. And if you’re a failed ballplayer yourself, take a deep breath and plunge in. Consider it therapy.
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REVIEW: Portrait of a Spy

Author: Daniel Silva

2012, Harper

Filed Under: Thriller

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 3
Entertainment..... 4
Depth..... 4

Portrait of a Spy is about what you’d expect of a mass-market paperback spy novel. A new terrorist mastermind threatens the post-9/11 world and an elite force of spies must penetrate the evil network before it’s too late. Sigh.

The main character, Gabriel Allon, is a cross between a Dan Brown and a Robert Ludlum protagonist. Except, unlike Dan Brown’s hero, he’s not an art historian, he’s an artist. That’s right, an artist spy! No, seriously.

I actually think an artist spy could make for a unique and engaging character. Unfortunately, this book is missing a few pieces, and the most noticeably absent is character development. Gabriel Allon is a flat character, and throughout most of the book very little is invested in developing him any further. I get the impression that the author probably made more effort to establish his protagonist’s character in an earlier novel. Unfortunately, Portrait of a Spy is little more than Allon in action, and since the reader never really is able to connect with the character, there’s little reason to fear for his safety or otherwise care.
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REVIEW: The Demi-Monde: Winter

[This unbearably bad sci-fi disaster is the latest babytown frolics.]

Author: Rod Rees

2011, William Morrow

Filed under: Sci-Fi

Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 2
Entertainment..... 2
Depth..... 2

This was my own fault. I’d been reading a lot of books that were good, but not very memorable. I wanted something that would get my juices flowing, and that meant either a really good book… or a really bad one. Bad books are much easier to find.

I’d taken a look at the The Demi-Monde: Winter a few weeks before, and I’d given up because its writing, even in just the first few pages, was wretched—full of cliches and clunkily unpoetic. But then, wanting a bad book, I turned back. And I got a bad book. I got everything I was asking for and much, much more. I barely made it through a hundred of Rees’s dense, awful pages before I had to put it back down. This review will be less a review than a catalog of what makes this book so bad. Take a deep breath.


Premise

In the year 2018, the “Demi-Monde” is an elaborate computer simulation made to train military cadets to fight in “asymmetric warfare environments” like Iraq and Afghanistan. The bulk of the action, as you might guess, will take place inside the simulation.

So far, this is a solid, if boring, idea. It’s also rather dramatically weak. Militaries use a lot of simulations, and they use them because there’s no risk for the participants. But “no risk involved” is not a good recipe for a thrilling novel, so Rees has to turn up the heat. Unfortunately, a concussed 5-year-old could come up with a more coherent imaginary world.

First of all, there’s a critical flaw in the Demi-Monde itself: if you die inside it, you die in real life, much like the Matrix. That makes it a more interesting place to set a thriller, but an utterly ludicrous method of training your army personnel. If a simulation is actually life-threatening, what’s the point of it? Just send your recruits straight into battle, where at least their deaths might not be entirely in vain.

Next up in Rod Rees’s cavalcade of bad ideas: the fact that the Demi-Monde is restricted to technology from the 1870s. A military simulation in 2018 teaches its participants how to use muskets. By gaslight. Ugh.


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REVIEW: The Siege of Trencher’s Farm

Author: Gordon Williams

1969, Titan

Filed Under: Horror, Thriller.

Get the book.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 2
Entertainment..... 4
Depth..... 1

This is a book that is (to the best of my knowledge) being reprinted for the first time since its original 1969 release. This is because it’s the basis for the movie Straw Dogs (1971), which is getting the remake treatment and hitting theaters this fall–with Dustin Hoffman being replaced by James Marsden. In fact, “Straw Dogs” is presented on the new cover in much larger type than the book’s actual title. This makes sense to me: with it’s one-dimensional characters and blindly stumbling plot, Trencher’s Farm would make a better horror movie than a book.
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REVIEW: Hot, Shot, and Bothered

Author: Nora McFarland

2011, Touchstone

Filed Under: Mystery.

Get the book.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 4
Entertainment..... 4
Depth..... 2

Hot, Shot, and Bothered is the second installment of a planned trilogy of mysteries featuring Lilly Hawkins, a camerawoman for a local news station. (Although I haven’t read the first Hawkins story, the plot of this novel stands on its own just fine.) I’m no stranger to mystery series like this: churned out quickly with little pretense of literary quality. Such books can be high on mindless entertainment and great to read by a pool or on a plane. So I picked this up expecting Janet Evanovich, not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even by those standards, Hot, Shot, and Bothered fell pretty short.

The story opens with Lilly covering a wildfire in the mountains a few hours east of LA and spotting a coroner’s van on its way to the site of a drowning accident. Fifty pages of unnecessary and convoluted detail later, it’s finally revealed that Lilly knew the victim from her own “shady” past.* Despite more pressing news coverage of the fire and her boss’s direct orders to drop it, Lilly becomes increasingly determined to solve what she is certain is a homicide case. Her suspicions are founded entirely on believing that the victim was so wholesome when Lilly knew her thirteen years prior that she couldn’t possibly have been the “party girl” that she is now alleged to have become. Later, these suspicions are confirmed by a decidedly weak “aha!” type of reveal.

There is also a subplot around Lilly’s career aspirations and the development of her romantic relationship, which is woven nicely into the larger plot, adding some substance without ever taking over the main stage. And, having lived in a town bordering mandatory evacuation zones of a serious wildfire not too far from the setting of the story, I can say with confidence that McFarland’s treatment of the fire is the book’s strongest aspect. It was both well-researched and true to experience. It would have been an easy mistake to use the fire to drive plotlines by manufacturing urgency or manipulating situations, but to her credit, McFarland rarely did.


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REVIEW: Dominance

[This poorly written mystery is the latest babytown frolics.]

Author: Will Lavender

2011, Simon & Schuster

Filed under: Mystery

Get this book

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 4
Entertainment..... 4
Depth..... 2

Dominance is one of those books, like a bad one-night stand, that fills you with shame every time you remember another detail. Oh, and the flashbacks, I’ll think to myself, even now. Just awful. What was I thinking?

The plot goes like this: in 1994, Richard Aldiss—a professor who’s been convicted of two murders—teaches a literature class from jail by remote CCTV. The purpose of that class is to find the identity of a mysterious author named Paul Fallows, whose two puzzlesome books hold secrets, and might also hold the key to Aldiss’s freedom.

One of the students, Alex Shipley, does just that. She unlocks the mystery of Paul Fallows, which leads her to the real killer and helps her free Professor Aldiss. Fifteen years later, members of the “night class,” as the CCTV Fallows seminar is called, are being killed in the same manner as those two long-ago murders. It’s up to Alex to reconvene the members of the night class, and figure out which one of them is the killer.

The novel—the present timeline, at least—is a fairly basic locked-room mystery, with a lit-class face on it, presumably because Will Lavender was a literature professor. But none of this was why I started reading Dominance. Instead, it was this detail that seduced me: the way these students engage with the Fallows books, the way they unlock the secrets therein, is by playing a game called the Procedure.

What does such a game look like? How does it work? How does a book function as a puzzle? This, rather than who killed so-and-so, was the mystery that led me to pick up Dominance. I should’ve known better.

[Minor spoilers ahead regarding the Procedure and how dumb it is.]
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REVIEW: Scattershot

Author: Richard Goodwin

2011, Seedpod Publishing

Filed Under: Literary, Humor, Short-Run.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 4
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 2

Here’s a pretty good set up for a short story: Wicker, a down-on-his-luck hitchhiker trying to get to Vegas, scores a ride from Edna, a senile retired school teacher looking for the Pacific Ocean. There’s plenty of comic potential in the contrast of characters, but more than that there’s an opportunity to explore the strange ways that people use one another, taking turns lending direction and meaning to each other’s lives, helping and being helped, exploiting and being exploited.

Scattershot is what happens when you stretch that premise into a rambling novel by adding an irrelevant subplot about Edna’s unhappy son, Andrew, and refusing to see her senility as little more than a punch line. She bumbles along, always certain that she’s doing just what she means to be doing, never doubting, never angry, never afraid, ready to follow Wicker wherever he thinks they should go. The problem is, once he loses his bankroll in Vegas, Wicker is just as aimless as she is.

After that, all the aptly named Scattershot has to offer is the impulsive leading the senile with the sad tagging along.
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