Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: Behemoth (Leviathan #2) by Scott Westerfeld

Behemoth (Leviathan #2)Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, a steampunk YA series revolving around an alternate WWI Europe. Middle books in a series tend to slump, but this proved an exception to that tendency.

Behemoth brings the crew of the Leviathan to its destination of Istanbul (not Constantinople, as the text reminds us several times. I don't know if Westerfeld is a They Might Be Giants fan). Like Leviathan, it leaps straight into the action, with a skirmish against German Clanker technology. They go up against a Tesla cannon, which projects electricity. In their hydrogen-breathing airship, such a weapon could prove deadly, but the ship's Austrian engineers think quickly, and they evade the lightning.

We learn in this book the true purpose of the Leviathan's journey to the Ottoman Empire, as well as the numerous contingency plans put together by Dr. Nora Barlow, a Darwinist scientist constantly referred to as "the lady boffin." Boffin is a slang term for British fabricators, scientists who splice creatures together to make something more useful for wartime. This book, like Leviathan before it, is chock full of creative slang and swearing, though Deryn, our resourceful heroine, also picks up the German dummkopf, and uses it liberally.

We also learn what's in the eggs, though the creature's usefulness doesn't become apparent until late in the book. Even then, it doesn't seem as valuable as Dr. Barlow makes it out to be.

Most of the action revolves around a revolution to overthrow the German-sympathetic sultan. Alek escapes the ship, while Deryn finds herself stranded in Istanbul after her secret mission has some unforeseen complications. Several more characters learn that Deryn is a girl disguised as a boy, and Deryn gets a (female) love interest, much to her dismay.

The book is told through Alek's and Deryn's perspectives. Often, my only clue about whose perspective I was reading was whether they referred to Deryn by her real name or as Dylan, her male alter ego. They even have the same mental shorthands for other characters. It may have been to illustrate how they're of the same mind or how close they were, but it was often confusing.

Overall, I found this book entertaining and fun and fast-paced. And, I appreciated the section at the end acknowledging the changes made to the real history for this book's sake. I know very little about the history and politics of 1914, so I found it useful.

I listened to an audio edition, narrated by the delightful Alan Cumming. I highly recommend this format. He's a dynamic narrator, with an array of accents at his disposal. He turns the experience of reading this book into pure entertainment.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pet Peeves, Resurrected (Deus Ex Machina)

I had a series of posts about pet peeves in writing, grammar, storytelling, et cetera. I thought they'd run their course, but then I started watching more TV.

My first knitting project. Everyone has to start somewhere.
You see, a friend taught me how to knit* in December, and I've been practicing while catching up on shows I'd been meaning to watch. It makes me feel like I've spent my time productively, even if the show is mindless drivel. It also makes me process the show in a different, slightly detached way.

I'd been noting about one show I was working my way through that the writing had gotten sloppy within the last dozen or so episodes. As it hit more pet peeves I hadn't written about yet, I started making note of them as things to avoid in my own writing.

For today's post, I wanted to discuss the deus ex machina. Literally, "god in the machine," it goes back to Greek stage plays, when a god would show up to fix everything in the end. Nowadays, it's used as a negative, as something that comes along out of nowhere to fix the story, rescue the protagonist, save the day, or wrap everything up nicely.

As a pantster, I've written myself into more than a few corners. I can understand the allure of throwing in, "Rocks fall; everyone dies" when the story arc isn't going the way you planned. I completely sympathize with realizing halfway through that you're writing a completely different story than you thought. It's fine. In an initial draft, your ending can come out of nowhere. In your first draft, you can have all the randomness you want.

That's what rewriting is for. Once you know where you're going, you can go back and put in the ground work. You can hint at the big reveal, or drop hints about what inner resource will pull your hero out of the fire. Foreshadowing is best placed once you can see the big picture.

Just don't leave it that your hero's saving grace comes out of nowhere, with no way to anticipate it. That's how you lose your reader. Life is random and unpredictable, which is why fiction has to have some predictability, even if it's only in retrospect.

*On a completely unrelated note, has anyone else noticed that writers tend to be creative in other ways, as well? The people I've been talking to about knitting are other writers, and the ones who don't knit draw or design or crochet, or have some other creative talent I envy.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount CultureCheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a nonfiction book about our (especially Americans') drives toward bargains driving down living and working standards for the global marketplace. It made me more closely evaluate whether I truly need to purchase something if I want to buy it cheaply, though I'm not certain I would've been swayed if I hadn't started out distrustful of big box retailers. Enlightened self-interest is a nice concept, but too many have day-to-day struggles that make these arguments easy to ignore. I suppose that's the major point of the book, but the author is writing to the wrong audience, then.

The first chapter of the book discusses the rise of discount retailers, and what purchases looked like before their inception. Ellen Ruppel Shell ties in bulk purchasing, Henry Ford and his five dollars a week for workers, low wages and high turnover, manufacturing standards, unions, and current big box stores. It reads as an infodump, and the history's salience doesn't emerge until the last few chapters. It was better than assuming I knew all of that and plowing ahead, but its presentation in a great big, contextless chunk took away from its importance.

Later chapters are devoted to outlets, the advent of the shopping mall, Ikea, cheap food, and Chinese manufacturing.

Shell ends on a hopeful note, discussing what stores like Wegmans and Costco are doing to reverse the damage of the other discount retailers. But she doesn't propose how to push the other stores toward their business model, or how to even the playing field. Our only solution, apparently, is to vote with our wallets. And, if there's no Wegmans or Costco near you, well, too bad. She doesn't discuss the small, locally owned business much, nor does she point us to nonprofits or political organizations.

It's books like this one that have contributed to the climate that bore the Occupy Wall Street movement, and that's lending it credence. It's just too bad the book seems to assume it'll go away if enough people know about it.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Lorna Raver. Her narration was clear, and sometimes even impassioned. She had a few verbal oddities that made the frequency of the word "price" annoying, and she sounds like a smoker, but, overall, her narration didn't detract from the book.

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Review: Walk the Plank (Human Division #2) by John Scalzi

Walk the Plank (The Human Division, #2)Walk the Plank by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second installment in John Scalzi's The Human Division, of which there will be 13 parts. This was much shorter than the previous episode, and serves mostly to thicken the plot. There is a mini-arc within this installment, but its resolution is unknown. One can guess, based on the information presented.

The story is told through voices on a recording. The leader of the New Seattle colony, a hardscrabble settlement with few resources, is called in to speak with a mysterious new arrival, a young man who's severely injured. He'd been on the cargo ship scheduled to drop supplies when it was taken over by pirates. At least, that's who the young man assumes hijacked his ship, and he never saw their faces. Then he and the rest of the makeshift security team is dropped out in cargo containers onto the planet.

The colony has a shortage of painkillers, and no way to combat the disease the young man got in an open wound, something apparently nastier than run-of-the-mill sepsis. They could cut the leg off, but, if the Rot is in his bloodstream already, that won't do him any good, anyway.

The story closes without telling us the young man's fate, nor does it reveal how this ties into the greater plot. I'm sure the latter question will be answered before long, but the former, I suspect, is left to the reader to surmise.

This installment is less exciting than the first, but no less intriguing. It adds to a greater picture of a world that's hostile to humankind, and of the people determined to survive in it.

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Review: The Night of Wishes by Michael Ende

The Night of WishesThe Night of Wishes by Michael Ende
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a middle-grade book by the author of The Neverending Story. It's meant to be read in real time, meaning the events take place over the course of five hours, and it's meant to be read in five hours. I suppose if a parent read this to a child, the timeline would line up nicely.

Much of the premise of the book is younger than middle grade: a talking cat and raven, a witch and wizard who are evil because they're evil, and transparent main characters. Jacob, the raven, is clever and observant, but cowardly, while Mauriccio, the cat, is easily fooled but brave and loyal. In the end, they're rewarded for their fight to end the evil plot cooked up by their masters, Beelzebub Preposteror and Tyrannia Vampirella, Preposteror's aunt and financier.

There are some plays on words within the text, though they may have been harmed from their translation from German. Or, the fact that I'm not the target audience might've made them fall flat.

I think a 7- or 8-year old might find this perfectly entertaining as a bedtime story. Adult readers looking for the magic of The Neverending Story would do well to look elsewhere. This is far more simplistic and silly. It does have a few genre convention nods, but, overall, it doesn't stack up.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Writing as Therapy

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about writing about traumatic events. The more real something feels for you, the more real it's going to feel to the reader, generally, and so upsetting things can be good to tap into.

I wanted to set down the line between doing so to your benefit and your detriment, though. While writing from an emotionally raw place can be liberating, it can also lead to characters growing one-note, or your books feeling repetitive.

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons
The difference is in whether you're working through it. An upsetting past can be excellent fodder for fiction, but it can't be one's only inspiration. At some point, you have to move on.

To give a concrete example, maybe your school years were stunted by years of bullying. So, you write a book about a kid who's the only one who can see that bullies are possessed by demons. The kid teams up with a spunky sidekick, they exorcise their school, save the day, and all is well.

Maybe your book languishes as a trunk novel. Maybe it becomes the next bestseller. In either case, what's your next book about?

If your answer is, more evil bullies, it's time to take a step back. Your first book may have helped you deal with your issues, and maybe the second one is your way of trying to spark that feeling of freedom again. It won't work. And, if you didn't actually deal with it in the writing of the first book, you're just malingering.

It is possible to write about the same subject that upset you in more than one book. You can even have your issues emerge as themes in more than one novel. But, if you're always writing about the same thing, and never moving forward, you're stagnating. Readers will be able to smell that a mile off.

As with writing from trauma, the solution is to know yourself. When you're revising a manuscript, look for common threads that appear in other books, or things that particularly resonate with you. If there are a few that crop up every single time, cut them, and find something new to explore. If you find yourself drawing a blank, it may be time to speak to a therapist to work through the unresolved issue.

Captain Awkward has a guest post on finding low-cost mental health solutions in the US and Canada, if it's cost and lack of health insurance that's stopped you so far. Give it a try. It's worlds better than turning your potential readers into unpaid therapists.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: The B-Team (Human Division #1) by John Scalzi

The B-Team (The Human Division, #1)The B-Team by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Audible posted a free download of the first part of John Scalzi's serial novel, The Human Division, for anyone who likes their Facebook page. I'm sure the idea was to get people hooked on the story so they'd buy each of the installments as they come out, once a week.

It worked.

At least, for me, it did. Part one, The B-Team, introduces a science fiction world with the technology to halt aging, implant computers in people's minds, jump through space, and survive a trip through the void with only a flexible suit and an oxygen supply. I haven't read Old Man's War, but I understand this is that same world. The introduction in this installment is enough to bring me up to speed.

In this installment, a diplomatic ship considered to be low-tier is sent to handle an emergency situation. Another ship, sent to negotiate a treaty with a race that's been reluctant to speak to humans before, was blown up, and they're sent in last-minute to not only handle negotiations, but figure out what happened to the other ship. The installment is probably best summed up by a character who notes that Harry Wilson, the character through whom most of the action is filtered, keeps things interesting. When Harry wonders if that's a compliment, his friend points out where "interesting" got them.

The installment is a self-contained short story all on its own, while also building toward more action and hinting at a much bigger conflict. It had interesting, diverse characters, and a nice balance of action and setup. The world-building was interesting, but not overwhelming. I didn't feel lost, nor did I feel inundated with science fiction jargon or infodumps.

I listened to the audio edition, narrated by William Dufris. I was paying a lot more attention to the action and characters than the person reading, so he must've been doing an effective job. There were a couple of points where I noted characters sounded rather similar, and I hoped they didn't have any upcoming scenes together, or I wouldn't be able to tell who was speaking.

I'll definitely be picking up the next installment.

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Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading it. You'd think there was reason to dread it, with how I kept putting it off, and rereading other Gaiman works before cracking this one open. In the end, it took a library audio edition, read by the author, to get me over my reluctance, and thank goodness.

Neverwhere is an urban fantasy in the Borderlands mold. It shows a world beneath our own (literally—the distinctions are London Above and London Below), one our surface-dwelling perspective character, Richard Mayhew, has difficulty adjusting to. It's through Richard we learn the rules of the underground, and he asks all the questions the reader might have. All Richard wants is to go home to a world he understands, and where he's safe and warm and comfortable, and where no one's trying to kill him.

He's dragged into this world by a young woman named Door, who has the ability to open portals locked to anyone else. Her entire family was just killed by two creepy assassins who call one another Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and they're after her when Richard finds her and helps her. She's on a mission to find the angel, Islington, to find out what happened to her family and avenge them.

Door recruits help in the form of the Marquis de Carabas, whose power derives from swapping favors, and who Richard mistrusts, with good reason. Door hires Hunter as a bodyguard from the Floating Market, where she proves she's the strongest fighter in London Below. But, she's unable to go to London Above, and of course Door's quest sends her back to that world.

The book does an excellent job both of capturing the romanticism and otherworldliness of a fantasy realm tucked in right beneath our own, and of showing the grit and pain and fear of being on this kind of quest. Richard's desire to return to London Above makes perfect sense. London Below is filthy, dangerous, cold, chaotic, and utterly unpredictable.

The book is transcribed from a BBC miniseries, which I saw before I read the book. It fleshes out a lot of the story, and explains parts in the miniseries that had confused me. It also expands the ending by a couple of chapters, and gives a lot more insight into Richard.

Overall, I found it an enjoyable story. It reminded me a lot of Charles de Lint's Newford stories, though a bit grittier.

I highly recommend the audio edition. Neil Gaiman is an excellent reader, and it added to my enjoyment of the story to hear him reading it. He integrates the actors' mannerisms from the BBC miniseries into the dialogue, which really distinguishes each character nicely.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Instilling a Love of Reading

One of my Christmas presents this year was an audio book. It wasn't just any audio book, though. My father recorded himself reading Songs for a Machine Age, in a format I could import into my iPod. He did it all in one take, so I have his stumbles, misreadings, corrections, pauses to turn pages, and background noises. At one point, the phone rings, and he informs me upon resuming that it was a wrong number. Another time, he pauses to tell my sister's dog what a good girl she is. There are a couple of points where I can hear the murmur of conversation, and I recognize my sister's and my mother's voices.

So it's hardly a polished production, but it's certainly something to hold onto. Not just for those personal gems, but also because my father has a wonderful voice. He majored in speech in college, and had a radio show for much of my childhood. Many of my memories as a kid involve visiting him at the radio station, making faces at him through the soundproof glass to mess him up while he was on the air (he never faltered), and making paper airplanes to throw off the second floor into the lobby. He also performed several roles for the Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater, of which I got to watch some of the recordings.

Photo of father reading to his daughter courtesy of
the Library of Congress (Public Domain)
I didn't know how he'd worked to hone his voice when I was a kid, though. All I knew was, my father's voice soothed me, and I loved to hear him read. My sisters and I would make him read us Dr. Seuss books (One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish was a particular favorite), and make him read it faster and faster, trying to trip him up. We couldn't read sections of it, even slowly, without spoonerisms galore, but I remember that he always read flawlessly.

I don't remember how old I was when he read me The Hobbit over the summer, one chapter at a time. I remember the voices he had for the characters, and how some of them made me laugh. I remember begging him to read a little more, but I don't recall if he indulged me. I remember it started me on my interest in fantastic narratives, and I couldn't get through The Lord of the Rings for years because Bilbo played such a tiny part in it. I remember when the local high school's summer drama program cast him as Gandalf, my mind couldn't grasp anyone else in the role.

I'm well aware that I was lucky to grow up with both of my parents, and that I was downright fortunate that my father had that half an hour to spend with me every night, reading me a story. Not everyone comes by their love of reading this way, and I'm privileged to have this story to share with all of you.

But, if you have children, or you're thinking of having them, also think about how you want them to feel about reading. Whether you love it, or you feel indifferent to reading, if you want your children to grow up to love reading, part of it is making time for teaching them how.

And, if you're uninterested in children of your own, or unable to have them, consider volunteering with a local literacy nonprofit, or at your local library. Lifelong readers start young. These are the memories fond readers carry with them for a very long time.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

StardustStardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I reread this as part of a book club, and we also watched the movie. By all rights, the fact that I read a paperback last time, and I read an illustrated edition this time should mean that I'd add a star. But this time around, I was more aware of the flaws.

Stardust is a new fairy tale that takes place during Victorian times. It's about Tristran Thorn, and it starts with his odd origins when his father meets a woman with furry, pointed ears at the Market, the one time every nine years people are allowed through the gap in the wall that gives his hometown its name. The wall separates Faerie from the mortal realm, and the rules are different on either side.

One night, Tristran promises the woman he's in love with to fetch a falling star. He sets off, encountering enemies and allies, and finds the star, who's furious to be treated as a thing. She's the daughter of the moon, and has only watched the goings-on of the world from far above. Meanwhile, a witch wants to cut out her heart to eat for its vitality, and the star is carrying the key to Stormhold's succession.

The book is highly entertaining, though not as quick-paced as the movie. There's no ticking clock, and Tristran is gone for months. Unfortunately, there are also a number of fairy tale conventions that go unexplained. They're simply "the rules," or how it is, and waved off without further explanation. Tristran grasps things instinctively which could've made a good point for the reader to figure out how this fairyland works. So readers looking for a world that's fully explained to them will be disappointed.

If you've seen the movie and thought you were getting the whole story, I recommend you give this a read, because they are two different entities. I strongly recommend you get your hands on an edition illustrated by Charles Vess, because the illustrations are just gorgeous.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review: Songs for a Machine Age by Heather McDougal

Songs for a Machine AgeSongs for a Machine Age by Heather McDougal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wouldn't have read this book if I hadn't gotten it as a Christmas present. Not only did my father purchase it, but he also read it aloud, and gave me the mp3s to listen to. It certainly made for a memorable reading experience.

The book follows Elena Alkerson, who's on the run after having narrowly escaped a witchcraft conviction. She has the ability to see structural flaws, and to know what effect they'll have on the structures they're part of. With this gift comes the inability to keep her mouth shut about it, so many people think she's speaking curses when her predictions come true.

She meets Fen, a young man with a gift for mechanics, and who was burned by superstitious village folk. Fen is shy to the point of speechlessness around Elena, but opens up after they journey together to the capital city of Helseve, fleeing the Duke who's after Elena, and seeking a formal education in building machines.

I thought Fen's transformation a bit too quick. When he first meets Elena, he can't even talk, but soon he's walking in a Festival parade and completely unconcerned about his burn scars. I was under the impression the scars were prominent, but they become a non-issue in the second half of the book, which seemed inconsistent.

The plot is also very linear. Each complication is encountered, plotted about, and solved, successively. It took a lot of tension out of the narrative. The world doesn't seem to be a terribly complicated one; the threatened upheaval comes from one corrupt political power, and he doesn't seem to have allies, other than the ordinary folk who are working for him for reasons they don't even fully understand. The intervention of gods plays a part in his plot, but they seem fairly limited in power, and I'm not sure I understand why they choose to inspire the people they do.

The simplicity of the plot and some of the spoon-feeding of information made me think this was meant to be YA, at times. This wasn't helped at all by the strong reliance on father figures.

The book's major strengths lie in theme and characterization. Characters have good reasons for behaving the way they do within the story, and they all experience growth.

The themes are many. The book seems to speak out against both capitalism and socialism, favoring art and expression and equal opportunities to raise oneself up. It's also the most pacifist fantasy novel I've ever read; the evil in the book stems from building machines to hurt people. It also takes a strong anti-industrial stance, treating assembly line work as a horror to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, some of the themes were hammered in a bit too strongly; the evil Duke was a bit of a straw man.

Overall, though, the unique packaging of this Christmas present made it well worth it. I'm not sure if I could recommend the book to you if my father didn't read it out loud to you, or even yours. But, it's definitely one I'm going to hold onto for a long while.

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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Writing from Trauma

I've been reading a lot of advice about using one's own personal experiences and trauma to make for a better story. I can see the wisdom in it, but I always thought I was incapable of it.

Photo used from Free Stock
Characters do need motivation. They need painful consequences for the wrong decisions. The stakes need to be high. What better way to show that than with something you, yourself, have lived? I've read a lot of excellent books that came out of an author's personal pain. My favorite romance novel I read last year was one of the ways of the author dealing with a death in the family.

I thought I've never been able to do it, though. I was just diagnosed with PTSD, so maybe that's part of it. The distancing nature of the disease keeps me from embracing any memories that make me feel vulnerable. Even things that happened 30 years ago, I shy away from remembering in detail.

In the immediate aftermath, I do find some comfort in writing about something, but that's always nonfiction, and often private. I push things outside myself until they're less raw.

Does that make me a less effective writer? I should hope not, though it's part of why my new project fizzled out. I couldn't keep myself in the mind set of being in the house that frightened me so badly. I couldn't keep putting myself through that.

But an interesting thing happened when I was reading up on my diagnosis. The psychologist diagnosing me had noted that I'd had it for a long time, and so I wanted to see how it had been affecting my life. And, as the symptoms unfolded before me, I realized that I had been writing about it.

In the trilogy I've been working on, in fact, I've been writing characters I relate to, and each of them show signs of being marked by trauma. They all handle it differently, of course, but the supernatural element is tied strongly to symptoms of PTSD.

So it would seem that, even if you don't mean to write about your scars, you will, anyway. I'm not going to explicitly use the things that left marks on me in my writing, if I can help it. But my response to it will always be there.

I'm okay with that.

The best advice I have for you, then, is to know yourself. Elements of yourself are going to keep showing up in your writing, whether you want them to or not. Turning it into a deliberate act will allow you to do so purposely and in a way that positively affects the narrative. Keeping it all subconscious could get messy.

Review: John Dies at the End by David Wong

John Dies at the End (John Dies at the End, #1)John Dies at the End by David Wong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book does a lot to draw the reader in within the first hundred pages. Unfortunately, it then shifts in tone throughout. Had the book been able to sustain its tone of psychological horror mixed with a wry sense of humor, I'd be rating it much higher. Instead, it devolved into silliness, seriously undercutting the earlier horror.

In this book, David (both the author's pseudonym and the narrator's name, for reasons that escape me) is accidentally injected with a drug called Soy Sauce, a substance that kills a large portion of its users, but gives survivors a perceptiveness akin to psychic power, which lets them see demons from another world who are infecting ours.

Initially, the horror comes from demonic entities who haunt people's minds, rather than physical spaces. It was effectively done when it kept to this aspect, because the author is able to catch the inescapable inevitability of it rather well. But then, the story turns into an interdimensional travel tale, and there it sags. The demons lose all of their mystique, being outside and limited to a dimension, and the author leans far too heavily on disgusting elements to try to make up for it.

Had the story started out with the juvenile humor and gross-out antics of the latter half, I don't think I would've held it against it as much as I did when it had such effective horror at the start. Had it maintained that level of horror, I'd likely still be hiding under my covers, but I would've had a lot more respect for the author.

I can see why the book is popular. The notion of there being things only the narrator and those who understand him can see is a popular one, and getting there with drug experimentation is bound to appeal to a large swath of the population. A lot of the book is well-written, and I did find several laugh-out-loud moments, especially toward the end.

But, overall, I expected better of this book. It feels like two very different books, cobbled messily together. I would've liked to have read one or the other, but not this mishmash.

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