Version Control, by Dexter Palmer

Version ControlThis book was not quite what I expected. I saw the premise — a woman who thinks the world is slightly off-kilter with a husband who’s invented what is totally not a time machine, thank you very much — and I was immediately sold. Time travel! Possible unreliable narrator! Give it to me now! And then when I started it, I thought it might end up like The Fold, another strange little not-quite-time-travel-y book.

But instead of The Fold‘s crazy-pants plot, Version Control gave me something more Margaret-Atwood-y, with interesting characters and interesting circumstances that revolve around the plot rather than moving it forward. This book is definitely more about its world than its premise, and what a strange world it’s got.

The book opens up with the stuff I came for, the off-kilter feelings and the potential time travel, but though that all comes on strong in the beginning it becomes much more subtle over the course of the story. What comes to the front instead is a world not entirely unlike our own, with millennial unemployment and malaise and interactions that take place almost entirely online, including those very important interactions of dating. The bulk of the story is really about our protagonist Rebecca’s relationships with her friends and her husband as they all sort of belatedly come of age and try to make their own paths in a tough world.

In the meantime there’s that time travel business, which mostly manifests itself in the social awkwardness of physicists and some strange lab experiments that totally don’t work, except they really should be working, and seem to the reader to be working, but are definitely not working. Probably. There’s a lot in this bit of the plot about the politics of science and the relationships between coworkers and the, you know, ephemeral nature of time. No big.

Also peppered in throughout the novel are little discussions about race and presentation and living in a “post-racial society” that seem a little out of place when they start popping up but do a good job of fitting in to the whole story when it wraps itself up.

I had hoped that the time travel part of the book would be more active and exciting, because, you know, time travel, but in the end I very much liked that it stayed primarily in the background, which is quite appropriate given how things end up. I like the way the author plays with time and with the characters’ actions and conversations throughout the novel, but it’s hard to say why I like it so much without sort of spoiling the book. It’s not that there’s some big plot twist or action sequence that would be ruined; it’s more that the novel has a lot of moments that are great because you recognize how they fit in with something else and I don’t want to take away that delight of discovery.

What I can say is that pieces and ideas from this book have lodged themselves in my brain for at least the next little while, and the parts that aren’t making me nervous about my mental health are giving me a lot to think about. I need you all to go read this book so I can have people to help me figure it all out!

Recommendation: For fans of Margaret Atwood, mildly alternate universes, time travel, and books that make you go, “Aha!”

The Leveller, by Julia Durango

The LevellerFor all that I enjoyed this book, I have to admit one thing: I have no idea why it’s called The Leveller. I mean, yes, it’s called that because the main character is a “leveller”, but the connotations I have for that word are “someone who destroys” and “someone who levels up in video games” and neither of those describes what the main character actually does, which is get people to leave a video game world. This really super bothers me.

But if we’ll just take as a given that the title makes no sense, the rest of the book is pretty okay. It takes place in a world where Second Life (or OASIS, if you’re a Ready Player One fan) is neurologically based and people, like, have a little nap and go play in the video game world for four hours at a time, unless they have illicit cheat codes that let them stay longer. Our protagonist, Nixy, is a teenage girl who makes her money by going into the MEEP (because that’s totally what I would call my virtual reality) to drag other teenagers back to the real world and their really ticked off parents.

Then she is recruited by the inventor of the MEEP to go get his son back from a virtual reality world littered with traps that have terrified grown adults, and things only get worse from there. Nixy has to battle her phobias, enemy agents, and a creepy MEEP artifact called The Black — oh, and try to figure out the butterfly feelings she gets around the guy she’s trying to bring home.

There’s lots of action and adventure, is what I’m saying, and if this book is not already in production as a future summer movie I will be kind of shocked. There’s also a decent amount of worldbuilding, both literally in the MEEP and about the outside world where the MEEP has its own, possibly unintended consequences, but the story doesn’t really delve too far into any of that. Probably the sequel will, though, and yes, the ending pretty much requires a sequel to really finish up this story, which is a bit frustrating.

I thought I would hate the love story, which was prominently featured in the blurb I read about the book, but it was actually pretty okay, with a nice straight line instead of a triangle and only the requisite awkwardness of teenagers. What got me more was the part where a teenager was being asked to do this rescue mission that adults couldn’t — the reason for a rescue being needed is sufficiently explained but why they would ever send in a person without a fully formed frontal lobe is not.

But, regardless of the weirdness and plot holes, I enjoyed the heck out of the book. I read it in almost exactly two hours and was eager to get back to it any time I had to leave, because action and adventure was happening and I didn’t want to miss it! If that sequel happens I will definitely be getting my hands on it and hoping that it doesn’t go too off the rails.

Recommendation: For fans of dystopian worlds who want something with a little less death involved, I think.

Rating: 8/10

Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey

BrillianceI initially picked up Brilliance because I had been hearing a lot about it from the same places that told me lovely things about Lexicon, which I adored, and because those places told me it was a book about people with special powers who have to live in a world that doesn’t like special powers, which, yes, I am going to read that. But then I thought that Scott might also be interested, seeing as how we’ve watched the not-terribly-good-but-entertaining-anyway TV show Alphas together, which seemed to be of a similar nature to the book, and so I found it on audio and brought it along on our northern migration.

I’m not sure if it was the expectation of a different kind of story, or the fact that the audio narration felt bigger than the story itself, but I was not as thrilled with this book as I wanted to be.

First, the story. The premise is that back in the eighties, kids started being born with special brain skills that allowed them to think faster or bigger or more creatively than their peers, and they were eventually labelled Brilliants or Abnorms or Twists or “those guys that we hate for being smarter than us and taking our jobs.” As you do. In this particular book, we’re following along with a Brilliant called Nick Cooper who works for a department that corrals Brilliants who are trying to kill government people or blow up buildings full of citizens in an attempt to create some sort of Brilliant-ocracy. His department gets wind of a huge plot of the latter kind, and he tries to stop it but fails, and then he convinces his boss to let him use this failure as a way to “go rogue” and infiltrate the bad guys and take them down. As you may guess, Cooper soon finds out that things are not what they seem.

The world-building in this book is really fantastic. Sakey presents an incredibly plausible reality where technologies are advanced by Brilliants and prejudices that might normally have turned into, say, constitutional amendments have been ignored in favor of anti-Brilliant sentiment and the government has figured out a way to harness the power of Brilliants without having to consider them human beings. Things start out seeming pretty much the way they are in our actual world, but as the differences are doled out throughout the novel you slowly realize just how messed up the world has become.

But plot-wise, things are pretty predictably thriller-shaped, with our protagonist with the home issues and the secret organizations and the femme fatale and the things not being what they seem. And that’s not a bad thing, if you like thrillers, but I was hoping for something a little more think-y and a little less action-y and I did not get it.

I had a hard time with the audio narration, its one redeeming quality being that the narrator gave everyone a distinct voice and I always knew who was talking. However, those distinct voices were taken way over the top (and here I’m not sure whether to blame the narrator or the producer or both) and often they were imbued with emotions that seemed incongruous with what was actually being said (see: Dumbledore in the Goblet of Fire movie). This is not a short book, but by the time I was getting sick of the thriller plot and the voices I was too invested in finding out what was going to happen to give up on it, and besides we were in, like, West Virginia and I wasn’t going to be able to acquire a new book!

So I don’t know. It may be that if you eyes-read this book, you’ll get a better narration from your brain than from the audio, and maybe the plot reads better, too? I liked the world that Sakey created so much that I don’t want to steer anyone away from this book, but if you eyes-read it and it’s still got problems, let me know!

Recommendation: For fans of alternate realities and super-brain-powers.

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: Unwritten #42 and A Window or a Small Box

Happy weekend, everyone! Here are a couple of stories I’ve read recently; what have you been reading?

The Unwritten #42: “Live Like Lazarus”
Live Like LazarusThis issue picks up where the last volume left off, more or less, with first a look into what my new favorite character, Badass Detective Didge, experienced in the world of stories. Turns out she met Lizzie (though I have no recollection of Lizzie being over there, darn memory), and so of course Tom wants to find a way in to Lizzie that won’t get him caught by the bad guys.

And so they drive into the middle of the bush and BD Didge tells them all the story of a whale (of course) who came from the desert, and I LOVE when this series introduces me to a story I’ve never heard of and also I love mythology and so therefore this is basically the greatest issue yet. Wait, there was that choose-your-own-adventure one. And all the ones with Mr. Bun. Well, anyway, she tells the story and Tom heads off to fiction-land, but things don’t go quite as he’d probably planned.

Also in this issue: A preview of Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland, which proved to me that I’m still not a fan of Fables, and which makes me nervous for the Fables/Unwritten crossover coming in eight more issues. Also also the horrible fake geek girl ad that I hope I don’t have to see again, because dude.

“A Window or a Small Box,” by Jedediah Berry
A Window or a Small BoxI’ve had this one in my internet bookmarks since Carl mentioned it many moons ago, and I finally had a chance to read it when I had a lull in lunch-time reading materials. It’s pretty short, go read it and then come back!

Spoiler: I liked it a lot.

It’s a fantastic little story that drops the reader in in the middle of the action with no idea what’s happened before, and then soon you find out that even the main characters don’t really know what’s happened before. They’re stuck in this Sliders-style alternate universe where things are more or less the same except everyone carries around babies for no discernible reason, and they’re being sort of chased by these creepy dudes whose motives are similarly indiscernible. They’d really like to just go home and get married, though the latter seems to be just out of a sense of obligation rather than love.

If you’ve heard me rave about Berry’s The Manual of Detection, you may be able to guess that this story is strange and baffling and has fantastic writing. An example: “‘Trouble at six o’clock!’ the bartender cried, which was strange, Jim thought, because no one here told time that way, but apparently six o’clock still meant right behind you, because there was one of the goons, smiling and ready to pounce.”

I’m not too sure about the ending to this story — I like that it didn’t answer all the questions raised by the story, but it would have been nice for it to answer some of them, you know? But I am very content with the fabulous writing and the ability to lose myself in it for even such a short period of time. When is Berry coming out with a new novel??