The Circle, by Dave Eggers

The CircleWhen The Circle ended up as a book club pick earlier this year, I was like, ennnnhhhhh. As much as I liked Zeitoun when I read it, my book club learned more than a few things about the story and the people involved that have changed my stance on the book since. It didn’t help that I had heard all sorts of things about The Circle that left me with absolutely no interest in reading the book, but I am a good book-clubber and I dutifully put the book in my office and read the whole thing in five days of breaks.

I was about as meh as predicted on enjoying the book, which I only kept reading because a) book club and b) I didn’t have anything else to read on break. But let me tell you this: if you need a good book for your next book club meeting, this is it. This book lends itself to some great discussion, fueled by paranoia and whatever paranoia is called when someone’s really out to get you. My book club is still remarking on things in real life that are very Circle-like in nature…

Right, so, the story. The story follows bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Mae, a new Circle employee whose friend is a higher-up and pulled a few strings to get Mae this customer service gig that is way better than any other job Mae could get on her own. Lots of money, lots of prestige, lots of opportunity for advancement, lots of fun stuff going on on the Circle campus 24/7. Pretty sweet deal.

Or is it? After just days, Mae finds herself staring down something like nine screens on her desk — one for her actual customer service queue, one that lets her chat with her boss and get help, on that lets her chat with the underlings and give help, one for her Circle account that she’s expected to update constantly and also spend time on to smile or frown or comment on friends’ statuses, one for… I don’t even know. Lots of screens, lots of expected screen time. Mae is also getting in trouble for not checking her email constantly enough and missing meetings that she’s been automatically RSVPed for and not going to allegedly optional events on campus and not recording all of her reactions to everything that happens in her life.

It’s got all the makings of a really fascinating story. The Circle is billed as the next step after Facebook and Gmail and Amazon and all the big internet players get swallowed up by this giant corporation that gives you a single sign-in to everything and connects everything you say online to your real name, which is something that could totally happen and is probably on the way to happening right now. Spooooky. And Eggers introduces all of these technologies that sound completely reasonable and useful, like tiny cameras that you can put at your favorite beach so you can see if the waves are good for surfing or that you can put in your favorite public protesting place to capture police brutality, until they start being used for more Big Brother-ish activities. Suddenly Facebook’s Nearby Friends feature is even creepier.

But I just couldn’t get into the story as written. I sometimes found it tough to even pick up the book and continue reading, because I knew what I was going to get — a new technology that’s cool until it’s evil, Mae getting a lecture about enjoying the outdoors without taking video for poor quadriplegics who can’t go outside and need her video to make their lives better, Mae’s ex-boyfriend being completely anti-Circle and Mae just not getting it. The ending of the book is pretty fantastic in its horribleness and correctness, but it’s really not worth the 500 pages of dull that it takes to get there.

Recommendation: Read it for your book club, but really for no other reason.

Rating: 5/10

Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen

Bad MonkeySomewhere around eight million years ago (read: before this blog and therefore lost to time), I read Carl Hiaasen’s book Skinny Dip and recall loving it dearly. But then somehow I managed not to read another of his books, which seemed like such a shame that I picked his newest book for my library book club just so I’d have an excuse to read it. I am smart like that.

Now I think I understand why I didn’t immediately read every Hiaasen available. Bad Monkey was funny, ridiculous, absurd, and weird, but it was also… weird.

So basically, there’s this guy, Andrew Yancy, who was a cop until he assaulted his girlfriend’s husband with a vacuum cleaner where the sun don’t shine, even in Key West. Now he’s on roach patrol, but angling to get back into the police department’s good graces. He gets tasked with driving a severed arm found in the Gulf up to Miami and ditching it for their cops to take care of, but instead he ends up storing it in his freezer and deciding to take on the case of this dead guy in order to get his job back. In the meantime, there’s a dude called Neville Stafford living in the Bahamas with his ex-movie star monkey, Driggs, trying to pull some voodoo on a rich white dude who bought Stafford’s land from Stafford’s sister. Stafford just wants his house back, but between the questionable loyalty of his voodoo witch and the strong right hooks of the white dude’s security team, he’s got some work to do.

The story was almost too obvious from the beginning — obviously Yancy and Stafford’s stories will collide, obviously the dead guy story has something more to it, obviously things aren’t going to be as straightforward as anyone (including me!) wants them to be. I thought one key plot point was so clearly labeled that Yancy would catch on immediately and then spend several dozen pages trying to convince everyone else, but instead he spent those pages and more doing everything but catch on. Come on.

But I suppose one doesn’t come to a Hiaasen novel for the intricate plotting, one comes for the zany characters and the hilarious writing, of which there are many and much, respectively. Yancy’s nuts, obviously. Then you’ve also got this poor guy trying to sell an eyesore house next door to Yancy’s place, which Yancy is passive-aggressively against (but more aggressive than passive, really). Then there’s Yancy’s old girlfriend, who turns out to be wanted by the cops for something completely unrelated, and Yancy’s new girlfriend, who works and does more than work in a morgue. Stafford and his monkey and the voodoo witch and the bodyguards and basically everyone we meet on the Bahamas is a little off, and the dead guy’s family is a piece of work, too. Altogether I am very happy with the relatively sane friends and family I’ve got!

So, A for absurd characters but, like, D for deranged but dragging plot. I might read another Hiaasen in the next eight million years, but it’s going to have to come with some strong recommendations.

Recommendation, mine: Read it if you love everything Hiaasen or need a book that will break your brain in the best ways.

Rating: 7/10

Illusive, by Emily Lloyd-Jones

IllusiveSometimes when I’m talking about books here, I’ll say that a book reminded me of some other books or in my recommendation I’ll say “For fans of x or y or 7.” Sometimes I do this because I think people who liked x will like the book I’m talking about, sometimes I do it because I worry that if you just read y you won’t want to read the book I’m talking about for a while in case of accidental overdose.

This book was sold to me on the first premise: “X-Men meets Ocean’s Eleven in this edge-of-your-seat YA sci-fi adventure about a band of ‘super’ criminals.” Let me tell you, this is wrong on almost all counts.

YA? Yup. Sci-fi? Sure. Adventure? Why not.

On the X-Men slash “super” criminals front, the comparison is that there are people in the world who have superpowers ranging from creating illusions to reading minds to completely controlling someone’s free will. Said people are subjugated and corralled and made to work for the government because of course they are, but a) there’s, like, seven powers that everyone gets, b) the powers are side effects of a vaccine rather than mutations at birth, and c) there is certainly no Xavier Institute for Higher Learning here. So… not quite.

On the Ocean’s Eleven front, I guess the comparison is that there’s a heist going on and a team must be assembled, except that a) there’s way more than one “heist” going on, b) the “team” is almost entirely assembled from the start, and c) the heist doesn’t actually matter in the end.

Edge-of-your-seat? I kept reading because I wanted the book to be what it promised, but it was kind of a slog.

The book as written was actually fairly interesting. There’s a girl called Ciere who can make illusions, and she uses that power for criminal activity because the other option is being a slave to the government. At the very beginning of the book she’s robbed a bank, and she soon finds out that that was a mistake when the mob comes to get their money back. Ciere embarks on her next criminal enterprise with one eye toward the mob, but things soon start to go south, again.

There is excellent world-building in this book, with Ciere’s chapters in the present interspersed with chapters about Ciere’s past and how she ended up where she is and chapters about Ciere’s crewmate, Daniel, who has been detained by the government and then recruited by one of those free-will controllers to do his bidding.

The rest, though, the characters and plot and writing in general, were just kind of okay. A lot of the tension in the book relies on people not understanding each other even though they’re supposed to know each other, and while that makes sense with guarded criminals to a point, the book goes a little too far with it. And there are a couple of Extra Special After School moments that made me want to barf a little.

Overall, it’s a solid effort, and when taken on its own merits it’s a pretty decent book. But whatever you do, do not expect X-men crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, because it’s just not.

Recommendation: For fans of teens doin’ what teens gotta do, people with super powers, and books that are their own thing.

Rating: 7/10

The Hunt for Pierre Jnr, by David M. Henley

The Hunt for Pierre JnrI picked up this book for two reasons. The first was the abbreviation “Jnr” in the title, which was strange enough (oh, those Aussies) to make me stop and read the blurb. The second was the blurb, which began, “He can make you forget. He can control you. And he is only eight years old.” Soooooooooooooooold. (Someone’s been watching too much World Cup lately…)

At the beginning, the book lived up to all of my expectations, which were basically, this is going to be awesome. It starts with a big-headed child controlling people to do everything he wants and then discarding them when he’s done, and expands to include another telepath turning himself in to the government to help them find this child that the government doesn’t really believe exists in the first place, and then starts to describe this future world where there are telepaths who are greatly feared and therefore subjugated and where people are even more connected to the internet (here called the Weave) and each other than we currently are.

But where I thought the book would be about, you know, the hunt for Pierre Jnr, it’s far more about this future world and the consequences of connectivity and and the perils of prejudice and whether anyone’s mind is really his own.

And that’s pretty awesome, don’t get me wrong. Henley puts a lot of thought into our future government, where leaders are chosen by the Will of the people, who are polled constantly about their thoughts and their preferences and the people they like are put into power immediately. He also posits machines that allow people to communicate like telepaths between themselves and the Weave, and people who are bred to use these machines from birth. I am fascinated by this world.

But, two problems. The one with me is that I found myself thinking often, “This sounds reaaaaally familiar.” It turns out that this book is kind of a mashup of several books I’ve read recently, some of which I haven’t even gotten around to talking about here, and so I kept getting distracted thinking about the other books while I was meant to be thinking about this book and I got quite confused at times. I won’t spoil every crossover detail, but if you’ve read The Circle, Lock In, The Word Exchange, or Brilliance recently, you might find yourself in the same situation.

The one with the book is that it turns out that this is the first book in a trilogy, and as such Henley answers almost none of the questions that he brings up within the story — Is Pierre Jnr real? Whose minds is he controlling? What is his end game? What is the government’s end game? — and I finished the book completely frustrated and almost unwilling to seek out the next book whenever that comes out. Ugggh.

But even just a few days later, I find myself really wanting to know what happens next, so I suppose Henley wins this round. There had better be some answers in the next book, though, or I will take my complaints to the Internet!

Recommendation: For dark speculative fiction fans and those under the control of Pierre Jnr.

Rating: 8/10

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

LandlineI maaay have already mentioned in this space how super in love with Rowell’s novels I am. I haven’t gotten around to Fangirl yet, but you can bet I will very very soon, and then I will be able to say that I absolutely adore everything Rowell has ever published. (Right? Wait, has she written stuff other than novels? Note to self: look into this.)

Because Landline? Is adorable.

Landline is about a TV-industry workaholic (is that redundant? Probably…) called Georgie McCool who finds herself stuck working in LA over Christmas when she’s supposed to be spending the week with her husband and children and in-laws in Nebraska. Her husband, Neal, who has put up with Georgie’s shenanigans long enough, decides to take the kids with him to Nebraska while Georgie stays behind. Between Georgie’s phone’s inability to hold a charge and Neal’s propensity for leaving his phone behind when he wanders off somewhere, she finds it impossible to get a hold of her husband until she drags an old landline phone out of her childhood bedroom closet and calls Neal on his mom’s landline — fifteen years ago.

So yeah, there’s this weird magical conceit where present Georgie is talking to past Neal, who’s living in the week between the last time they had a huge fight and the time that Neal drove all night from Nebraska to propose. Georgie’s not sure if she’s, you know, certifiably insane, or if she’s actually talking to actual Neal and influencing the actual course of events that led to her talking on this phone now. And with all the horribleness happening in Georgie’s present, she’s not sure if she wants that course of events to stay the same.

The story jumps back and forth between Georgie’s present, where her mom is convinced that Georgie’s about to get divorced and she’s convinced she’s losing her mind, and Georgie’s way past, where she meets Neal, becomes infatuated with him, and overcomes more than a few obstacles to snag him as a husband. Fascinatingly, you can see from those flashbacks that Georgie and Neal are kind of a terrible pairing from the beginning, but it’s also obvious that they’re the kind of people who decide what they want and then stick with it and that they want to be together. Which is not something I would like, but whatever floats your boat, I guess?

I love a lot of things about this story, starting with the characters, who are fun and delightful and maybe not always the most realistic of people (unless your mom is like Georgie’s mom, in which case I want to meet her) but nonetheless realistic emotionally. I love the sort-of time-travelling conceit, which gets me absolutely every time. I love that nothing is cut and dried, from the fight at the beginning to the resolution at the end.

It’s not perfect, of course — it is especially full of clichés of grand sweeping gestures and also the beauty and optimism of snow and also the miracle of puppy birth — but it’s pretty darn awesome. My biggest lingering concern after reading this book is that I should probably get my phone fixed or replaced before its battery becomes as unreliable as Georgie’s. I don’t particularly want to find myself talking to people from my past any time soon…

Recommendation: For those looking for a fun read and some reassurance as to the normalcy of their own relationships.

Rating: 9/10

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick

The Secret Diary of Lizzie BennetOh, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, how I adore them. As I mentioned when I finally read it, it took me a looooooong time to work up the will to sit down and finish Pride and Prejudice, due largely to the fact that I don’t read books from that time period and didn’t understand the nuances of class and society and all the things that make that book really good.

So The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which is a modern-day adaptation of the book as a YouTube vlog, was perfect for me. Five unmarried daughters? So what? Three underemployed daughters still living under their parents’ roof while their parents are having financial troubles? That I understand. The series made the book so much clearer and more entertaining to me, and I maaaay have watched Episode 98 more times than I am willing to quantify in a public forum. Dizzie 4eva!

Naturally, when I found out that this book, which purports to be a sort of behind-the-scenes look at the vlog and Lizzie’s life in general, existed, I had to read it. Give me all the juicy details, Bernie Su!

There are some of those juicy details, definitely, like why Jane wanted to get the heck out of Netherfield and what exactly was in the letter Darcy gave to Lizzie (which is only really hinted at in the web series) and a better look at Lizzie’s transition from hatred to tolerance to love of Darcy, and if you’ve watched the series you’re probably going to enjoy reading the book.

But the novel as a novel is… lacking. It bounces between being Lizzie’s actual diary with actual diary-type writing and being more or less an updated version of the original Pride and Prejudice novel (now with more internets!) complete with long passages of quoted conversation that you would not see in an actual diary. It sometimes obliquely references events from the web series that I didn’t quite remember and sometimes copies verbatim the script but leaves out important things like stage directions and, you know, emotions. Episode 98 appears as just such a transcript, and considering most of that episode is pregnant pauses and searching looks, it does not come across well.

I’m left wondering if I’m missing something here — I read the book as an advance copy in ebook form and I’m hoping that the finished book fills in some of the missing context or has some kind of fancy formatting that make things make more sense. Fingers crossed?

Recommendation: If you’ve watched the series, go for it. If not, go watch the series immediately. It won’t take long.

Rating: 6/10

Weekend Shorts: Sleep Donation and TAH Update

Happy weekend! I am headed way up north to Georgia (still weird to say that after four years…) today to see the gorgeous and talented men of Home Free do their thing, so I will leave you with some brief thoughts on some brief stories.

Sleep Donation, by Karen Russell
Sleep DonationI found myself in the odd situation the other day of having a Kindle full of books to read but having the actual next book I wanted to read sitting at home in print. I didn’t want to start another entire book, so I took that as a sign that I should finally get on the Karen Russell train with this teensy novella. I knew the premise going in — future world where some people have stopped sleeping but scientist have figured out how to give sleep transfusions — and not much else, and I was pleasantly surprised by the story.

The novella focuses on Trish Edgewater, a sleep recruiter who uses the story of her dead-from-insomnia sister to convince people to donate their own sleep. She’s pretty darn good at her job, but she suffers a crisis of faith in the Slumber Corps when she butts heads with the father of Baby A, a universal sleep donor who happens to be an infant, over the safety, usefulness, and purpose of the sleep donations.

The world that Russell builds is very cool, and I was absolutely fascinated with the idea of sleep donation and Baby A and Donor Y, this mysterious dude with poisoned sleep who is causing people to want insomnia. I would have loved a story that was basically the oral history of this phenomenon, a la Unlocked, but Russell spent most of her time on Trish and Trish’s inner turmoil over using her dead sister and outer turmoil over finding out things she’d rather not know about the Slumber Corps, which was less exciting but still pretty cool. I will definitely be seeking out more Karen Russell in the future.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour, continued
Thrilling Adventure HourWhen last we spoke about TAH, I was twenty-ish episodes in and liking it quite a bit. Two months and a hundred episodes later, I am, as you may guess, loving it. “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars” continues to be the greatest half-hour of “radio” known to man, especially a recent (to me) set of episodes in which Paul F. Tompkins “impersonates” Croach and Sparks, separately and terribly, and hilariously ruins the theme song while he’s at it. “Beyond Belief”, which I was moderately annoyed by before, has become far more delightful, with less reliance on the drinking thing and more reliance on the sickeningly adorable relationship of Sadie and Frank, which is something I can totally get behind. Also I can’t get enough of Paget Brewster’s Sadie voice. The other segments are just as awesome as they were before, and the behind-the-scenes episodes have actually made those secondary segments far more interesting now that I know some of the history and can attach some faces to the voices I’ve been hearing, now that I know who all these people are! If you need a new podcast in your life and can listen in a laugh-friendly place, you should definitely put this one on your list. Start “Sparks Nevada” all the way back at the beginning, because it’s the most continuity-heavy, but everything else you can pick up wherever.

What stories are you guys reading and listening to this weekend?