This was just a fascinating read. It is rare to find a book where the characters, their interactions, responses, and motivations are all so simply and rightly done. There really wasn’t a point where this didn’t seem to work, and no point where I was just over it.
This is the story of Jacob (properly, and inexplicably, Jacobus) and his friends Connor, Moses, Gordon, and Jemma (and sometimes Hartun) as they experience and (mostly) unwillingly explore the multiverse in and around Chicago. The setup is simple – Jacob has a rough home life, is bullied at school, and has a case of Crush On ‘Unattainable Girl’, 1 of. As an aside, that is the second book with this in a row, and it feels old. Not the authors faults, I picked them, but still…maybe YA/NA needs to retire this one a bit. Anyway, Connor leads Jacob into an abandoned house to check it out, and they find the oversized mad scientist switch you see on the cover. Working together (as there is substantial resistance), they pull. And reality shifts.
Without telling too much, this causes major impacts on the kids. Life as they knew it is radically different – in almost all respects. This leads Jacob to return, and try again. And again, and again. Always hoping the next switch would be the switch home… Ok, it isn’t Quantum Leap. The Switch does, however, owe a lot to that show – because there is the hope they will get home, and there is the Sam Beckett ‘inhabit the body’ aspect as well. People undergo slight physical changes on switching – nothing drastic, they are still themselves. But minor differences.
The biggest differences are in the worlds themselves, and this is where it shines The authors use a simple thing – Orange Julius – to show the seemingly minor differences in the worlds. And once that is understood, it allows greater changes.
One of my personal interests is the how of things – and that is where the book falls short. We know a lot of the surface how, but little of the different worlds is explored. The most jarring shift has, oddly, the lease fulfilling explanation. And since some of the less drastic worlds have none, that is indeed saying something. But then, when the difference is somewhat less major than the ending of Back to the Future, exposition isn’t really needed. But when you give the reader a major change – and not just in who people are, but in the entire world – you might want someone to give something more than was provided.
And when that is the biggest flaw…yes, this is a good book.
We heard an awful lot about how hateful the white pride movement is this past weekend. And have been hearing it for at least a year, probably longer. I tend to tune it out because in my experience the people most likely to shout about the evils of white pride are the same ones extolling some other form of identity-based pride.
And that confuses me. Has for at least a decade and a half. Probably longer.
I have never understood the concept of having actionable pride in things you have nothing to do with. Not being ashamed, yes, that is a good thing, and to be encouraged across the board. But pride?
I did nothing to be born white, male, straight, brown haired, etc. And no one else did either. You have nothing to do with your gender, race, nationality, skin tone, whatever. Nothing. At. All.
You didn’t achieve anything, sacrifice anything, or overcome anything to be born whatever you were born. Your parents may have. You may overcome things later in life, but the action of overcoming, of succeeding, of achieving…that is something to be proud of.
Not the genetics your parents brought into play.
I long believed that people who fostered this absurd pride in things they had nothing to do with were at least a little defective. Either they were prone to claim achievements they had nothing to do with, or raised by ignorant people who did the same. Of late, that has had another factor added to it.
They have nothing else to be proud of.
It may be judgmental, but there it is. If I get violently upset because of some moronic ‘racial pride’, I must not have anything else to feel proud of. Alternately, it also seems that a lot of the people manifesting this mental defect expect to be treated as somehow superior because of the incidence of their birth. As if that makes them, well, anything special.
Pro Tip: It Doesn’t.
If you want to be treated as exceptional, be exceptional. Be better at a thing. Be creative, be innovative, be a success. This modern conceit that says someone can claim superiority solely because genetics made them black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, or female, is damaging to both the individual and the society as a whole. It is the root of eugenics, which was evil, twisted, and wrong the first time around.
So there is a lot going on here. A lot. How I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freakin’ Days covers a ton of ground – from teen romance / angst to magic 101 to divorce drama to a weird latchkey kid subplot to trust…almost too much.
It almost succeeds.
In brief, this is the story of Bryant Adams, 17, who, along with his best friend Devon, finds a prototype magic Hitchhiker’s Guide. This wreaks some havoc, places them at the center of a magical civil war and/or revolution, and causes no end of trouble. Sucked into that vortex are Bryant’s mother, his high school drama department, his not-a-girlfriend-crush-kinda Elizabeth, and the entire magical community of New York (possibly the world? unsure…). Never let it be said this isn’t an ambitious book.
But it might be too ambitious. The price paid for this is a lack of developed characters, lack of growth, lack of interesting sidelines, a somewhat implausible collection of reactions to the impossible, and a feeling you are on rails the entire time. Yes, it is a novel, so obviously you are on the author’s rails, but truly great fiction doesn’t feel like you’re on those rails. This does – at no point did I feel there was another possible outcome to any situation. I hoped for it whilst reading, but once done, there was only the one result. It just never felt like a near thing. This may be the result of Bryant being too much of a chosen one, and not enough of a reluctant hero. He doesn’t exactly fail…ever. He does have failures due to not understanding the rules, but once understood, he just moves from success to success.
His companions are important, if sometimes vaguely so. The ability to see through veils / glamour is useful, and used well. I didn’t find the ‘I’ve always been afraid of the dark because I saw what was really there’ explanation original or even believable. Someone who makes it to high school with fear of the monster they see in the closet would likely either be medicated into a coma or committed to an asylum. Best-Friend-Devon exists to serve as a foil for the insecure Bryant, as he is the amazingly outgoing sort, who spends his days flirting with (more?) everyone in sight. He is so loyal he makes Golden Retrievers look bad, and is just all around perfect. Which is a bit much. Elizabeth is the goddess-love interest-perfect girl who is shoved together with Bryant because she needs to pass a math class, or her father will forbid her from participating in the theater stuff. She is also too good to be believed, once complaining that he never noticed her…despite the repeated passages about how much he stares at her every move. Bryant, on the other hand, is mopey, depressive, and generally a drag. Well, except for the stupidly rich father who gave him a credit card. Because dad is super-rich. Like, penthouse overlooking Central Park that he never lives in rich. These characters are fairly shallow, and don’t seem to develop much, if at all.
What is done well is the basic story. I like the ‘I found X, and can use it, and now what’ story. If you think about it, that can describe some of my favorite stories – Last Starfighter, Krull, Dragonslayer, Star Wars… That is a fun trope to play with. But here, it is just a trope. It loses a lot of the wonder (which fits the story), but never seems to fill that void with much of anything. I get it – the results are somewhat more horrifying than wondrous, but the kid is doing magic…and feels no awe? No wonder at that new world he just found? And same for the friends…there isn’t much down time, but none of it is spent wondering at the suddenly expanded universe.
That lack of wonder suffuses the book. All through it, the only wonder we see is when the girl actually likes the boy. And even then, it isn’t much wonder. Just enough to remind you it is there, and then on with the story. And blase acceptance of magic. Heck, there is barely an eyeblink when we find out Bryant has access to effectively unlimited funds. Just an ‘oh, this is on you then’. Come on – rent a car, take an Uber to Jersey, G6 to LA – something creative to flee the bad guys. Especially when you are supposed to be creative kids.
But no, we mostly walk or cab around New York.
There is a lot of promise here. A lot. And a lot of room to expand the story. Sadly, this is not a great start. What it has in potential, it loses in a lack of wonder and depth of character.
Here is where I make some disclaimers. I tend to, absent facts to the contrary, default to believing the police, prosecutors, etc. in matters of criminal law and so forth. So, when presented with a book whose very premise is that those same individuals not only broke the law, but did so for no material gain, only to salvage a reputation after some errors of stupidity, well, it takes some doing to win me over. This book does that, but not without some serious problems along the way.
Some background. This is tagged on the publisher’s site as both ‘Biographical’ and ‘Literary Fiction’. The cover lists ‘Based on a True Story’. This is all correct. It is indeed based on a true story. Specifically, I use that term because the first listed author is in fact the man convicted of, then found not guilty of, “matricide…also found guilty on twenty eight counts of mail and wire fraud based on insurance claims arising from Elizabeth Veltmann’s death and fire damage to the family home.” This is his memoir and story of exoneration.
The basic facts are: in 1990 a fire damaged the author’s parent’s home, and as a result, his mother, Elizabeth, was killed. The father and son defendants were convicted in that, and wire fraud, and sentenced to life without parole in a federal penitentiary (United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg to be specific).
That seems to be where the simple part ends. According to the book, the Veltmanns were convicted of arson and mail/wire fraud, and sentenced to life without parole. Despite his claims in the book and blurb, the appeal document states that Christopher & Carl Veltmann were convicted of murder as well (Defendants Chris Veltmann and Carl Veltmann were convicted of matricide and uxoricide respectively.). The Bureau of Prisons lists no inmates since 1982 by those names. There is nothing on the internet that I could find in a week of infrequent but intense searches about the trial – only the appeal. Nothing about the second trial. Nothing, in fact, but the appeal, a dismissed lawsuit, and an article about an SEC action against their company in 1997.
Do you see what I did there? I called the truth of the whole thing into question by listing facts that suggest a conclusion, without drawing the lines myself. ‘Dysfunctional Conspiracy’ does a lot of that. It presents events as fact, and then other events as fact, and lets the reader draw a line that may not be real, but leads you to the desired conclusion.
BOP not listing the names – well, that can be explained with the outcome of the book. Although the BOP site does state clearly that the inmate database may have people released before trial, material witnesses, and so on listed – that listing does not mean conviction, only that they were housed in a BOP facility.
The internet having nothing…it may seem odd to the younger reader, but getting news articles off the general internet from 1992 can be harder than getting articles from 1045. The internet existed then, but was mainly AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserv…with some bulletin board sites hosted on people’s home systems. So no news outside something like a Lexis-Nexus subscription isn’t a shock – and ditto for the legal documents. Hell, I would have moved to have them sealed were I the Veltmanns.
So, back to the book as a book. As you may suspect, I have some issues with the whole thing. Among those issues is not how it is written – that is excellent. Matthew Cox takes the story from Chris Veltmann and makes it coherent, readable, and much more linear that I suspect it was handed to him (knowing how I tell stories to people and all). As a novel, this would be a fine job, if too far-fetched to be believed.
And there is the rub. I have encountered so many things in my life that are ‘too far-fetched to be believed’ to easily dismiss someone else’s, but I just keep running into that with this book. I find the story believable – petty motivations often do lead to actions that are inexplicable to the observer. And yes, I can believe that a local official wanted to cover up dropping the ball on, in that area and time, a huge case. Where I kept loosing it was in the number of people we need to believe were rank incompetents in close proximity. And blisteringly stupid to boot. And that a US Attorney with no skin in the local game would assist in this. And that not one of the people involved ever experienced enough guilt or remorse to recant or apologize.
That is just too much in one place. Further, Veltmann makes it clear he sees this as some kind of conspiracy against him and his father. I don’t see anything put forth as motive beyond covering one’s own errors. Certainly nothing that suggests a conspiracy to ‘get them’. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and I don’t see it.
I do see a lot of whitewashing in the Veltmann camp. And some outright…untruths. I believe a lie requires intent, and I am not willing to go there with this. But the book repeatedly makes the point that if Elizabeth Veltmann were to be killed via arson for money, why not just take the $1.3 million offer on the house, since the insurance payout was only $600,000(ish). Well…yes but also no. The homeowner’s policy was about $600,000 (and huh? who insures their home for half the value?), but there were also four life insurance policies on her, bringing the total up to about $1.2 million. Making this a far more likely motive than just the home’s insurance value. The suicide note is also not mentioned. Wait, what? Yes, a note. Carl Veltmann found a note behind a picture frame in his study some 18 months after the fire. The note was a problem, as Carl added a date on the note. But still, it would help the story about suicide make more sense from the outset.
So what did I think? I think this was a decent story, if too much from the ‘every man the hero of his own story’ perspective. Some interjections from a third person view, providing more than just the Veltmann viewpoint, would have been very welcomed. Give the reader some context. Make it easier to relate to the story, and make it less of a personal middle finger to those who wronged the author.
There is a lot here – and a lot I didn’t cover. I would strongly suggest this as a read, just take with a fairly healthy dose of skepticism and remember that this is not intended to be even-handed or objective. And in that, it succeeds.
This is the sequel to Prelude To Mayhem, and while some things in the world have changed, my mental block that insists that ‘mayhem’ is spelled ‘meyham’ persists. I blame the [spoiler] that broke the world. Neener.
Really, though, this is a good follow-up to ‘Prelude’. It expands the world without making things complicated, adds layers without going too far overboard, and generally is a good addition to the canon. Characters develop nicely, and we get a lot more background on what happened and why.
Despite all that, however, I found I was just not as into the book as the first. I suspect is is because the protagonist was portrayed as much more of an insensitive jerk than originally. In ‘Prelude’, Harrison came off as a well-meaning, if terminally clueless, introvert thrust into a world even less understandable than the real one. Here, we get him portrayed as less clueless and more cruel – not a bully, just so amazingly unaware that ir crosses from cute to insensitive to outright mean in the course of the first half of the book. And that bugged me a lot. It seemed fairly out of character for the Harrison in my memory, and a needless addition to his personality. In short, it didn’t have a cause, wasn’t a setup for redemption (although he is redeemed), it just seemed like the author was told to make the guy a jerk – readers like jerks.
We don’t, by the way.
Otherwise, there was a lot to like. We got a ton of background on the world and not only what happened, but why and even how. And who caused it. That was interesting, if a bit drawn out. Several sections were like that – interesting, but too long. Oddly, this doesn’t have the feel of an author bulking up the page count. It feels a lot more like there is something I am missing in the extended passages. These could be connected to future books, important to the author personally, or just me ascribing motive where the is none. However it works, the pacing suffers from these bits.
Now, one thing I did like had to do with the characters with powers. If you recall, Harrison can open locks. It seems our voice on the radio () is using a power as well (being heard over distances), and we meet several others. Without going into spoiler territory, there is a really interesting use of the concept of magical sympathy here. That was impressive, and a good way to bring a old idea into a new format, and possibly introduce it to a new readership. What really makes this work is the touch of non-static reality that enables the sympathy. To those who remember Mage: The Ascension, this is the idea that perception creates reality. So, if enough of us believe in X, X becomes possible. See also Neil Gaiman’s ‘A Dream Of A Thousand Cats’ from the Sandman series. Very cool stuff.
So, while I found this to be far less fun than Prelude, there is no reason to not check it out. The world building is pretty amazing, and there is a lot of hooks to get caught on.
Which, yes, means it doesn’t. But this is simple, and we can’t seem to pull it together enough to get the simple stuff like this right. It makes me worry. I see so many examples of the kind of things that make this list feel needed every day. It is, in fact, the main reason I would have dropped all social media, if I didn’t need it for work. Yes, it’s that bad. I can’t seem to grasp how this is so easy to ignore – and how many people insist on acting against the simple ‘duh’ level reality I am talking about.
So, here is my list of things it’s past time to realize:
If the other side does it, and you think it’s wrong, it’s wrong when your side does it too.
If your side does it, and you think it’s good, it’s good when the other side does it too.
Your side is not all saints.
The other side is not all sinners.
It is good, right, and just to call out those on your side who are bad actors.
No one is all of anything. Hitler was a decently talented artist, and loved his dogs.
You aren’t all of any one thing either…
Objective truths exist – wrong is wrong, regardless of who did it or why. Or to whom.
Speech is not violence. Violence is not speech.
Hold law enforcement to a strict standard, the same laws they hold us to.
Politicians are not heroes. Or stars. They are, at best, ineffective middle managers who have delusions of superiority. Stop lionizing them.
If you define everyone on one side as evil, expect some of them to become evil. If you make it clear your side thinks an entire demographic is stupid / uneducated / worthless / second class (or lower), you can expect them to hate you in return.
We used to at least try to get along, we should look at that again.
Give it a try…you might be shocked what happens.
Ah, the sequel. This is the part of a series that is tricky – balancing the need to bridge the introduction to the climax. There is a reason that one assumes a sequel will just not be as good as the original. It’s hard to get that lightning in the bottle twice, after all.
Organic is the follow-up to Jadah McCoy’s debut novel ‘Artificial’, and has a case of the sophomore slump, that is undeniable. That is not to say this is a bad novel – because it isn’t. Since I have my guess as to where this is going, this book had to be what it is. That is to say, it needed to move the timeline forward, not kill anyone important, and establish a conflict that had to be overcome in the finale.
And it does all that fairly well. I wasn’t overjoyed to see the course it took, but I understand why it went where it did. The author, we are told, pitched the book as “Bladerunner meets Pitch Black”. I see that, and the parallels to Pitch Black are solidly there. Bladerunner…less so to me, but then I never much liked Bladerunner (gasp!). I did like the source material, so my geek cred isn’t totally shot. I think the idea of that being used in the pitch was to highlight the conflict between humans and androids, but here is just doesn’t work (didn’t in Bladerunner either – the replicants just wanted to invade Earth, and be left alone). The inter-personal conflicts are much more interesting than the inter-species(?) conflict. Especially as the androids have all the advantages here – literally.
On the interpersonal conflict front, we get Syl and Bastion trying to save her people from destruction at the hands of the androids. And deal with Syl’s unexpected transition to being an android herself. That was interesting – from her horror at the fact that she needs to power off (and the nightmares it inspires) to the challenge of dealing with vastly improved strength, without the inherited understanding that comes with normal android manufacture. These segments alone make this a good book – and had we been trekking across the world exploring this, I would have been a happy camper.
But we aren’t. We are saving the humans too, and that part is all over the place. From the hesitant acceptance of some to the outright hostility of others, the humans are…human. I just found the human villains to be nearly comic book level of over the top. They were all about the grandiose plans, but executed by morons. And that hurt the narrative – they never felt like a threat. The other androids didn’t factor in much, so no threat there either.
In fact, the main source of conflict was Syl herself. Whipsawing between emotional states, she alternately clings to and shoves away her only real friend in the world, Bastion.
I am not a woman, and I cannot (and do not) claim to understand how another person processes emotional states, much less someone (or a whole population) whose neurochemistry is so radically different from mine. I just have read too many of these sorts of books where the female lead is all over the place in regards to a male character. This is not a ‘he’s cute, but a jerk…I want to be with him, but not deal with the personality’…that I get. It is more of the ‘he is devoted and loyal, and I have to attack that quality, then demand it, then attack, then push away, then demand it again, and he can never say a word’. And the male characters in these tend to be…well, not all over the place. Either they are dedicated and devoted, or not. And that seems to never change. It just doesn’t click for me.
Despite that annoying interpersonal thing, this is still a decently good book. Like I opened with, I get why Organic has to be what it is. I expect the third in the series will redeem this wholly, and also be a lot more ‘Pitch Black’, and a lot less ‘Bladerunner’. After all, the dark is coming…