Worst Books I Read in 2012 – Book List

Much like last year, I read very few 1-star books. Go me! Unfortunately, this meant I had to make my 2-star books fight it out amongst themselves to see which ones received a place on my list of worst books for 2012. So it is with a heavy heart and no small amount of regret that I say that I can’t thoroughly excoriate every single book here. While some of them are truly awful, others simply have the misfortune of being mediocre or just not good enough.

Reviews

10. Pretty Little Dead Things

by Gary McMahon

Pretty Little Dead Things cover image
ISBN:
9780857660718
Format:
eBook, 416 pages
Published:
Angry Robot, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I read Pretty Little Dead Things with shivers down my spine. It’s that kind of book: Gary McMahon creates suspense and no small amount of dread as he introduces us to Thomas Usher, a sometime private investigator who sees dead people. Usher becomes mixed up in a series of grisly murders that all point to something much more sinister going down (yes, more sinister than murder). And he isn’t the only one who is slinging supernatural power. A malevolent being from another dimension has discovered Usher’s powers and is now playing a fatal game of cat and mouse.

Pretty Little Dead Things has an impressive, gritty atmosphere to it—but it also got me down. It’s just not a very uplifting book. This guy’s family dies in a car crash in the first chapter, and then we skip forward a few years and find him kind-of-functioning but still unable to move on. He’s a loner who hangs out with low-life businessmen. The closest thing he has to a friend is a police detective who is dying from cancer and therefore not long for this world. Thomas Usher is not having a good time—and neither did I.

It’s a clever little title, and this is a clever little book. But it never seems to go beyond clever. It’s all surface and no depth beneath. McMahon tours us around Usher’s life and shows us Usher’s power—and that’s it. Usher sees dead people. He can’t talk to them per se, but they can communicate certain things to him in a kind of subliminal way. This should be a very cool power, but the way in which McMahon portrays it makes it the most mundane thing ever. So Usher uses the power to help solve crimes, but mostly all we see of it involves the flashbacks McMahon provides to help flesh out Usher’s backstory.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not happy with how Pretty Little Dead Things takes so long to get to the good stuff. Most of this book seems like filler—tasty, albeit depressing filler, but filler nonetheless. It doesn’t get good until Usher figures out that the mystery is much bigger than anyone so far has supposed. And even once that happens, McMahon dashes any hope of redemption by writing an ending that, to me at least, was rather difficult to follow. I’m still not sure what happened (or why I should care).

And that’s the bottom line: nothing really made me care about Thomas Usher or this book. It’s written well enough, so if noir urban fantasy is your cup of tea, you might enjoy this. I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm though.

9. Deadline

by Mira Grant

Deadline  cover image
ISBN:
9780316081061
Format:
eBook, 581 pages
Published:
Orbit, 2011

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

So here we are again, almost one year later. Another Newsflesh novel nominated for a Hugo. I’ve decided that everything I want to discuss about this book takes me into hella spoilers territory. So that spoiler flag I put on here? Don’t ignore that if you were thinking I was kidding. I wasn’t. From here on out, we will be knee deep in zombie guts and spoilers. If you want a non-spoilery review, check out Kemper’s well-articulated reasons for this book’s mediocrity. I particularly agree about the lack of actual zombie combat. What’s up with that?

I don’t remember exactly how I felt about Feed after reading it, but I think I liked it but did not see it as a remarkable, Hugo-winning book. It had an interesting take on zombies and bloggers but was hobbled by less-than-stellar plot. Deadline, in my opinion, improves upon the pacing and structure of Feed quite a bit. However, its plot and characterization fall into the same old traps—and this time, the zombie honeymoon is over. And I’m coming for braaaaaains.

I’ll hand it to Mira Grant: Deadline is definitely action-packed and fast-paced, though for every “action-packed” scene, I suppose there is an accompanying scene of painfully slow dialogue and exposition as everyone stuffs more wads of cotton into their ears. The plot is convoluted owing in no small part to the fact that everyone in this book sucks at communicating. It seems like every time someone has something important, perhaps even life-saving, to say, they decide it would be better to sleep, or eat, or do something else and defer the conversation for the morning. Because that always ends up so well. And then when they do have a discussion, it seldom advances the plot or provides much new knowledge. Instead, the team has to go to some kind of nefarious research facility to hear the same thing, only this time from someone in a lab coat.

So Deadline is fast-paced, but a lot of those pages are boring and somewhat unnecessary.

Speaking of unnecessary, let’s talk about Shaun for a moment. I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t pretend to understand how people react to death of loved ones and deal with grief. But I do think that the reaction of other people to Shaun’s reaction to Georgia’s death is unrealistic (at best). Setting aside the fact that Shaun hears Georgia’s voice in his head and admits he is probably crazy, we’re supposed to believe he has spent the past year moping around and doing nothing and no one has told him to snap out of it? I understand that the might not snap out of it, but the level of accommodating that his colleagues are being is unbelievable. In ordinary times, maybe I would buy it, but this is a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested wasteland. You want everyone on your party functioning optimally. Shaun “I hear dead people” Mason is not functioning optimally, and he should not be in charge.

I suspect my experience with Shaun as a narrator is likely what other people feel when they cringe at Harry Dresden as a narrator. I love Harry; I love his smartass observations and dry, sometimes self-deprecating humour. To me, his voice is something that makes the Dresden Files books come alive. But I know some people can’t stand him, and thanks to Grant, now I can empathize. Shaun is not a very good narrator. His repetitive reminders of the prevalence of blood tests, the genesis of Kellis–Amberlee, the adoptive nature of him and his sibling all become so much noise. And meanwhile, I am asking, “Shaun, why are you wasting time visiting various CDC facilities when you could just post the information to the Internet?”

That’s the problem with not going full cyberpunk. Feed was innovative in the sense that it really tried to portray what a zombie apocalypse might be like in the post-Information Age. The combination of geographical upheaval and increased physical isolation to reduce the risk of transmission definitely increases the potential role of the Internet in everyone’s life. But it behoves authors to consider how this affects everything and not just certain plot points that might benefit from it.

Conspiracy thriller wisdom in the Internet age is pretty clear: when in doubt, leak it online. Shaun et al have contingencies in place to leave encrypted backups with friends and frenemies alike, ready to distribute the keys in case they don’t safely return. That’s prudent and great. And I understand the need to keep this information quiet and seek out second opinions personally in order to avoid alerting the conspirators that you’re on to them. However, once your cover has been blown and they know that you know, why not release it all online? Post it everywhere, and make everyone party to the secret. It worked for another science-fiction conspiracy (TVTropes).

Instead, Shaun and friends plan some kind of midnight ride on the CDC facility in Memphis. And Shaun decides to do it on a motorcycle. Yes, he wears Kevlar, but that’s beside the point. It is not acceptable to go riding into a potentially zombie-heavy situation on a motorcycle. Does Shaun potentially have a death wish? Sure, maybe—hence why I said above that he shouldn’t be in charge. But all his friends, instead of stepping up and standing up to him for his own good, step aside as if everything is normal, and let him ride his motorcycle to his death.

Well, kind of. He gets better. So does Georgia, at the very end. Yay for cloning and memory transfer! I’m not actually all that bothered by this twist, or by Shaun’s own miraculous survival. In order for this series to succeed, the Kellis–Amberlee mythology needs to evolve; the potential for a cure is the next logical progression. I don’t begrudge Grant making her main characters an integral part of that.

Lastly, I guess I should talk about the incest. It makes sense, if one considers the family situation in which George and Shaun grew up. Their parents were attention-hounds, constantly seeking validation from the media and audiences in the form of ratings. This led them to treat George and Shaun as a means to an end, a commodity and resource rather than actual, you know, flesh-and-blood beings. With such distant affection from their adoptive parents, it makes sense that George and Shaun would look to each other for intimacy. Combined with the fact that I imagine it’s harder to be intimate, physically or emotionally, in this world, and I can see how the potential existed for that relationship to ignite into something more than just sibling love. That being said, I have to agree with those reviewers who found it dubious that Georgia wouldn’t mention it in her own narration. There’s unreliability in one’s narrator, and then there is just gaping omission.

Deadline was easy to read, and that’s something. I’ve focused almost exclusively on what didn’t work for me with this book, but the truth is that I could see it working for other people—many of these objections are quite subjective. I’m not convinced of Shaun’s mettle as a narrator, and I’m sceptical that Grant can deliver a resolution to this conspiracy that will satisfy me (conspiracy thrillers rarely do). And, as I said before, the honeymoon is over. The best things about Deadline were also the best things about Feed, and I need my novels to evolve as a series goes along, not stay the same. If it were up to me, I might not bother picking up Blackout—but I suspect it will be on the nominations list for next year’s Hugo awards, in which case we’ll be doing this all over again.

See you next year!

8. The Revisionists

by Thomas Mullen

The Revisionists cover image
ISBN:
9780316176729
Format:
, 435 pages
Published:
Little, Brown and Company, 2011

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

“The Revisionists” is the name of my next band.

Time travel is a very broad trope in science fiction. There are so many stories to tell using time travel and so many ways of doing it. I love time travel stories (particularly Doctor Who), the nitty-gritty, wibbly-wobbley, timey-wimey type of stories that can leave you utterly confused and gasping for breath by the end. For all their intricate potentialities, however, time travel is really only good for two things: observing history, and fucking with history. Everything else is just variations upon the theme.

Since stories always need conflict, and conflict is hard to do when one is an observer, most time travel stories lean toward the latter. (You can still do clever things with an observer premise, but it’s seldom as fun.) When one travels back in time, it’s to change the past—hopefully with an eye of making the present better. In The Revisionists, our protagonist wants to stop people from changing the past. Zed works for the Government, who have taken Leibniz literally and believe they have found the best of all possible worlds. So Zed stops “historical agitators”, or hags, from screwing up that utopia. Except, as he protects various important Events in contemporary Washington, D.C. that lead up to the catastrophic Great Conflagration, Zed begins to learn things make him question his loyalties.

From here, The Revisionists can go one of two ways. Through Zed’s first person (and therefore unreliable) narration and the limited omniscient narration following Tasha, Leo, and Sari, Thomas Mullen presents two possibilities. First, Zed is a time traveller from an undisclosed time in the future, as he claims. Second, Zed is actually his cover identity—Troy Jones—suffering from paranoid delusions brought on by the trauma of losing his ex-wife and daughter in a traffic collision. The time travel trappings are all part of an elaborate conspiracy fantasy Troy has constructed and is now living. True to postmodern form, Mullen declines to collapse the wavefunction and tell us which interpretation is “true”, leaving us to decide for ourselves. This is supposed to be artsy and clever and make the book that much more appealing. Unfortunately, neither interpretation leads to a satisfying experience.

Let’s assume, then, that Zed is actually from the future. Thomas Mullen tells us exactly nothing about how time travel actually works in this universe. Apparently there is a “ritual” of some kind that allows Zed to be recalled to the future (or a future). But we’re spared any of the technobabble infodumps characteristic of most time-travel stories. Mullen is similarly vague about the technology Zed possesses. He appears to have cybernetic enhancements: he can communicate telepathically and wirelessly infilitrate neary computer systems; he has some kind of internal database that he can access using mental commands or eye gestures; and he can detect non-contemporary individuals by scanning for the DNA. He doesn’t carry a lot of futuristic technology on his person—ostensibly to avoid accidental contamination of the timeline—with the most exotic tool being “flashers”, small grenades that appear to disintegrate everything within a limited radius.

None of this is very impressive or satisfying from a science-fiction standpoint. Furthermore, the monolithic and suspect Government that Zed protects is a very vague sort of dystopia. I’m tired of this trend: it’s lazy worldbuilding. There’s something to be said for not specifying the nature of the cataclysm preceding one’s post-apocalyptic society—perhaps it makes the author’s vision of the future more accessible. However, this does not excuse a failure to explain the post-apocalyptic society itself.

All Mullen tells us is that it’s called “the Government” (almost as original as the Capitol, that) and it does not allow its citizens access to much in the way of history. According to Zed, this is for their own good—ignorance, after all, is bliss. Indeed, after his wife and daughter die in an all-too-convenient accident, minions come around to Zed’s abode and eliminate any traces of their persons, from photographs to toys to clothing and scents. This is all very sinister, but it’s still far too vague. We get no sense of who is in charge of the Government, and we meet fewer than five characters aside from Zed.

So, as a time-time travel story, I have to give The Revisionists a failing mark. It’s just so incredibly vague that it’s more the outline of a story than an actual story. This is not good enough to keep me occupied until Doctor Who comes back in the fall. I’ll go watch some episodes of Stargate SG-1 or something.

Then what if we regard Zed as the somewhat deranged Troy Jones? Does this make the book any better? The problem with normalizing The Revisionists and interpreting its science-fictional elements as hallucinatory is that it forces us to view the book as a conspiracy thriller. And, while I admit that I am somewhat of a snob when it comes to thrillers, I suspect that I would not be alone in concluding that this is a fairly lacklustre thriller. The characters are dull. Removed from its trappings of temporal preservation, the plot becomes one of counter-terrorism and counter-espionage, a commentary on the conflict between capitalism’s commitment to globalization and the patriotism expected of the American intelligence ecosystem. There’s never really a sense of impending danger, though. Neither Leo nor Tasha are very good at what they do, and while I suppose they are likeable enough as far as people go, I never became emotionally invested in their stories. I did like Sari and wished she would come to a good end but wasn’t particularly optimistic.

Then there’s the fulcrum of The Revisionists: the tension between the Great Man theory of history and the theory that people are merely the product of their times. I think this issue would be a lot more interesting when explored through the lens of time travel. Attempting to sort through the machinations of Enhanced Awareness, Ltd., or Leo’s employer, Targeted Executive Solutions, doesn’t really provide the same sort of epic scope that such a discussion deserves. As a straight-up thriller, then, there is very little in the way of purpose to The Revisionists.

I take issue neither with Mullen’s writing nor with his ideas, which are themselves pretty good. Rather, he has managed to construct a plot that can be interpreted in two ways yet fails to work on either level. I guess I’m disappointed because I was looking forward to an intense time-travel-themed thriller. Instead, I got a book that wants to pretend to be an intense time-travel-themed thriller and … isn’t quite convincing at it.


Creative Commons BY-NC License

7. Napier's Bones

by Derryl Murphy

Napier's Bones cover image
ISBN:
9781926851099
Format:
Paperback, 250 pages
Published:
ChiZine Publications, 2011

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Do you ever feel like you have let down a book, not the other way around? That if you had been smarter, funnier, prettier, then the book wouldn’t have broken up with you by text message and started dating your friend, who really isn’t all that much prettier than you and has terrible taste in clothing and music and restaurants anyway? No? Just me? OK. I kind of feel that way about Napier’s Bones.

I first heard of this book from a “Big Idea” piece on John Scalzi’s blog. It sounded amazing: mathematics as magic! People, called numerates, who can see and manipulate numbers. I had a coworker this summer who has a form of synesthesia where numbers move around for her, and I was really curious about this phenomenon. Derryl Murphy’s concept reminds me of that, and of course as a mathematician myself, I’m fascinated by the idea of being able to manipulate numbers in a very real way. So I was excited for this novel and bought it new a few months later.

Alas, this is one of those times when the premise is far superior to the execution.

For the first few chapters, this is an OK book. Indeed, my mathematical interests had me positively tingling as I read about Dom’s acquisition of an adjunct, the shade Billy, and his newly-minted status as a fugitive from a shadowy opponent. It was an in media res opening that promised Murphy would keep the action going right until the last page. For the most part, he delivers on this promise, which is one reason I decided to go with two stars instead of one. I have many criticisms of Napier’s Bones, but “dull” is not one of them.

The cracks are tiny but appear early. Murphy loves his exposition, and although Jenna is by no means a minor character, her primary role for the first half of the novel is as a listener to Dom’s Mr. Exposition-pants (TVTropes). The action/travel sequences are really just what happens in between the lengthy conversations in which Dom explains how numbers behave, how numerates manipulate them, how mojo enters into the equation, etc. Jenna nods and smiles. It’s the most unsatisfactory way to explore a mythology and a magical system; I wish Murphy had put as much effort into unfolding his universe as he did constructing it in the first place.

The real trouble begins about halfway through, when Jenna and Dom get rescued from near-certain death by a mysterious, defrocked priest who introduces himself as Father Thomas. It turns out that John Napier is back from the dead, has possessed someone important to Dom or Jenna, and is after some of his old artifacts in a quest for ultimate power. Fair enough. I mean, his name is in the title, so I was expecting Napier to show up—in body or in spirit—at some point, and I was pretty sure Napier’s actual bones would be an important part of the story. I have no problems with this. Once again, however, I take issue with how Murphy communicates all this information. (And I could have done without being told, almost every time his name comes up, that Napier invented logarithms. I get it.)

Father Thomas explains why it is so important for Dom and Jenna to hop on a flight he has booked them to Scotland. And then we never see Father Thomas again.

When you introduce a character for a single chapter whose only purpose is to provide major exposition and a plane ticket, you are doing something wrong.

So Dom and Jenna hop the pond to Scotland, where they gallivant across the countryside, searching for several important artifacts. They meet another ally in their quest, in the form of intelligent numbers who collectively choose to call themselves “Arithmos”. I wish I were making this up. When the talking numbers enter the story is where I draw the line and where Napier’s Bones goes from slightly flawed to outright bad. Murphy’s interesting idea about numbers being a form of magic degenerates into a messy equivocation of magic and quantum mechanics. With each chapter, he introduces new rules—and exposition to go along with those rules—and more conditions for victory (or failure) on the part of Dom and Jenna. I dislike it when magical systems don’t feel consistent but instead appear to change based on the needs of plot.

Speaking of which, the ending itself is somewhat of a literal deus ex machina, at least as far as I can tell. By the time we got that point, I was not so interested in the story any more. The plot had become hard to follow, and my emotional connection to Dom and Jenna was tenuous. This is probably the dealbreaker, in my book, even though it is the most subjective part of the relationship between reader and story. I can handle oppressive levels of exposition and poorly-constructed systems of magic. But ultimately a story is about the reader connecting to a character (or characters), and that did not happen here.

Napier’s Bones is just a mess. Its narrative is jumbled, chaotic, and confusing. Its themes are feeble and spread thinly across a book that is longer than it needs to be and still feels far too short. The “magical system” that underlies the story is unsatisfactory and, worse, feels completely arbitrary. The characters start off as interesting and actually become less well-defined as the story progresses. For all of these reasons, I had a difficult time feeling anything more than ambivalence toward this book.

Is it me? Did I do something wrong, Napier’s Bones? Am I too mathy for you—was that voice in my head going, “This isn’t why mathematics is magical!” too loud? Did I say the wrong thing in front of your parents on that one Saturday night when I was tired from a long day at work and they dropped by, despite the fact I told you to tell them Saturdays weren’t good for me, and I would prefer that they give us advanced warning so I could at least tidy up the place, because it’s not like you ever bother to do it? Just … give me a sign, please. I can change.

Maybe it’s better if I just see some other books for a while, you some other readers. We can get some perspective. A lot of perspective.

6. The Games

by Ted Kosmatka

The Games cover image
ISBN:
9780345526618
Format:
Hardcover, 360 pages
Published:
Random House Publishing Group, 2012

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Genetic engineering used to be purely science fiction. It’s a mark of how far we’ve come that these things are now becoming part of our everyday world. The once-hypothetical question of how to deal with augmented athletes in events like the Olympics is no longer so hypothetical. In The Games, Ted Kosmatka deals with the question in a simple way: no tinkering with the human athletes, but attach a single event that allows countries to showcase their skills at genetic engineering. This is a blood match between designer monsters, and the United States has taken the gold every time. But the pressure is on to triumph again, and so the commission in charge takes control out of the hands of Silas Williams and has an experimental supercomputer design the monster instead. I’ll let you guess what happens.

At first glance, The Games seems like a cheesy science-fiction thriller, easily dismissed as “probably enjoyable but not all that fulfilling”. I gave it a try anyway, and my estimation was almost spot-on. It simmers for the first half, carefully laying out all the threads that will come together for the bloody climax. Then The Games discards that disguise in the second half to reveal itself as the adrenaline-fuelled thriller it wants to be.

There are some interesting ideas floating around here. The idea of designing creatures purely to fight to the death, while it rises moral qualms, is a fascinating look at the possible celebrity applications of genetic engineering. Kosmatka doesn’t spend much time explaining how his near-future society differs from the present day; he definitely shows instead of tells. His characters drive hybrids, and there are hints of eerie differences like a “track” system that uses testing to determine what field of study the government will finance for each person. These are all nice touches because they communicate a sense of difference without actually getting in the way of the story.

Likewise, I enjoyed the philosophical tension inherent in the gladiator competition. On one hand, this is the elevation of science to an art form. As Silas observes, this competition provides an opportunity for countries as well as individual scientists to show what they can do. And the byproduct of all this time spent designing killer creatures is nothing to shake a stick at: medicines, new gene therapies, and all sorts of important scientific discoveries. Although I can sympathize with the protesters outside the stadium, there is a lot to be said in favour of the competition.

On the other hand, there is a darker side. Winning the games has become a point of national pride for the United States. Chekhov once said, “There is no national science, just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science.” And that is precisely how I feel about this competition: it’s a perversion of science, not because of what is being created but why it is being created at all. And there’s more than national pride at stake—the competition attracts large donors, and the companies in charge of manufacturing these creatures like that cash flow. Winning is an important way to secure contracts and accounts, and it’s this avarice that naturally leads to everything going FUBAR in the third act.

So Kosmatka sets up a very satisfying conflict on metaphysical as well as physical levels. Unfortunately, I hated the resolution of this thriller. I don’t mind what happens to Silas or to his reputation. (Is that cold and callous? Or is it merely a sign of how little I invest in one-dimensional thriller characters?) However, I wanted the bad guy to get his comeuppance in front of some kind of board of inquiry; I wanted him to answer for what he did. Instead he gets incinerated in a rather impersonal nuclear blast. What kind of justice is that?

Don’t even get me started about the relationship between Silas and Vidonia. Any hope The Games had of being anything more than a cheesy thriller went out the window the moment we learned the supporting character was an impossibly hot female scientist. Naturally enough, they hook up, because it just wouldn’t be right for the male and female leads in a thriller to be just friends. This is but one of the many branches The Games hit as it fell out of the cliché tree.

Oh, and there’s an entire subplot involving the nascent sentience of the supercomputer. As with everything else about this book, it is predictable and features nothing I haven’t seen done better elsewhere.

The Games isn’t quite as bad as Fragment. It restricts itself to a smaller cast of characters, to good effect, and its plot makes more sense, if it is somewhat dull in its plodding predictability. Both of these books have a biological bent to their science-fictional premises, which is probably why one reminded me of the other—but The Games’ premise has far more interesting social and ethical consequences than the reality-TV-show ideas in Fragment.

As I’ve said before, I’m somewhat biased against thrillers. They can’t help being what they are. The Games probably isn’t bad as far as thrillers go, nor is it all that good. It’s mostly just unremarkable. As a work of science fiction, it raises interesting questions about issues that are on our doorstep. But flat characters and an uncomplicated plot make this book difficult to praise as anything more than mediocre.

5. Firethorn

by Sarah Micklem

Firethorn cover image
ISBN:
9780553588019
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 566 pages
Published:
Spectra, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I went to the library last week for the first time in too long. I got 14 books, most of them added to my to-read list in 2009. I love that Goodreads lets me never forget which books I want to read, but sometimes I still forget the why. Such is the case here.

Firethorn begins with 28 pages of the protagonist alone in a forest for a year. She eventually eats some berries from the firethorn tree, passes out from hunger, decides when she wakes up that her new name is Firethorn and it’s time to go back and live among people in a village. It was a long, dialogue-lacking first chapter, and I was bored out of my mind. This summarizes two of my major complaints about the book: the chapters are too long, and we spend too much time in the narrator’s head and not enough interacting with other characters.

Chapters are, for me, session markers. I try not to interrupt my reading unless I hit a chapter break (getting tea before it has oversteeped is probably a notable exception). Chapters that are too short can be annoying, but overly long chapters are just evil: there’s nothing worse than slogging through a book one isn’t enjoying and flipping forward only to find there are twenty more pages until the next chapter. Unfortunately, the massive chapters in this book are more of a symptom of its glacial pacing—more on that in a moment.

Firethorn is a nice enough person. She cares for people and uses her knowledge of herbs to help them. However, the interface that Sarah Micklem provides between the reader and Firethorn is cumbersome. It’s laden with a lot of archaic terms, such as cataphract and armiger, and a conflation between the names of gods and the houses that claim to be descended from those gods. (That is, there is a god named Arbor and a house/clan named Arbor, and sometimes when Firethorn ascribes an action to “Arbor”, it is difficult from the context to know to which Arbor she refers.)

Micklem borrows a lot from British history (and British slang) but never delves into the details behind her faux medieval world in any satisfactory way. I suppose one might try to justify this by saying that this is how Firethorn would understand what’s going on; peasants don’t really grasp the intricacies of the conflicts between nobility. If we accept the premise that this book is an attempt to show us a “woman’s perspective” of life in a camp as soldiers march to war, then perhaps this is a satisfactory explanation. However, I’m not so sure peasants would be that ignorant. With no TV and the population functionally illiterate, it seems like they would have the time and the memory to parse out all those details.

I wish I could follow Booklist is praising Firethorn as “a great piece of gritty, feminist fiction”. But it’s not all that gritty. Grim and sometimes brutal in its portrayal of men’s attitudes towards women like Firethorn? Yes. Yet in my opinion, grittiness has an element of language to it—an element that Micklem conceals beneath layers of slang terms for genitalia and prose that is overly formal to the point of being stilted. It’s difficult to feel connected to Firethorn or any of the other characters, because I feel like I’m reading the book through a very thick fog.

I’ll tiptoe around whether this work is “feminist” and instead look at the related question of how well it presents a woman’s view of marching to war. Obviously I am ill-suited to such a discussion, being neither a woman nor a medieval peasant going to war. In many respects, Micklem captures the sense of tension that must exist for someone in Firethorn’s position: she is at the mercy of her patron, this Sire Galan, particularly when it comes to whose bed she shares. Our society is very enlightened by comparison and women still face a number of challenges to their autonomy and self-determination. So in this sense, Firethorn deserves its praise.

But what a long journey it is to reach such a conclusion!

Firethorn’s downfall as a book is that nothing happens. It is most definitely not “a sweeping adventure saga as mystical as it is raw”, Publishers Weekly. Sweeping adventure sagas require adventures to be had on a sweeping scale. While I understand that this is a character-driven novel and the events are all about Firethorn’s experiences, I wouldn’t describe them as “sweeping”. As for “raw”, refer above to my discussion of grittiness in relation to language.

I spent a great deal of time lightly skimming, because most of this book feels like filler. It could be slimmed considerably and would probably pack a greater punch as a result. As it is, I had a very difficult time with this book: every time it betrayed a glimmer of promise, Firethorn strangles it to death with purple prose and poor pacing. She’s a nice person but a poor narrator. Firethorn shows all the signs of sincere effort, but it doesn’t deliver the excitement that needs to accompany its emotional depth. Firethorn might be feminist … but it’s also boring … and when it comes to reading, the latter trumps any other consideration, every time.

4. Codex

by Lev Grossman

Codex cover image
ISBN:
9780099491224
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 376 pages
Published:
Arrow, 2004

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

If you were an investment banker before the 2008 recession, and you had just begun your first vacation in four years prior to moving from New York to a cushy new position in London, would you take on a job unpacking and cataloguing an ancient library for an elusive, eccentric, and extremely wealthy British couple who also happen to be nobility? That’s what Edward Wozny does in Codex, and it changes everything. On the surface, that seems like it should be a good thing to say about a novel. Change—and specifically conflict—keeps things interesting. Unfortunately, Lev Grossman seems to have a knack for writing characters with whom it becomes difficult to sympathize, and Codex proves no different in this respect from his later efforts.

I’ve catalogued books before. During one of my summers working at the art gallery, I spent several hours a week in the tiny room that served as our library. It contained a diverse collection of arts books, catalogues from other galleries, newsletters and flyers announcing exhibitions from other galleries, and all manner of slides and film reels and bric-a-brac mouldering away. Armed, like Edward, with a laptop and a cataloguing program and, like Edward, lacking any experience in this field, I gamely went through the collection. I looked up books in online databases, estimated how much they might be worth for insurance purposes based on their condition and a search of used booksellers. I printed labels with Dewey classifications on them and stuck them to the spines before replacing the books on their shelves. It was an interesting experience, but it took a long time. And that tiny library is a lot smaller than the one Edward must tackle.

So I can understand Edward’s reluctance to get involved initially. And to some extent I can empathize with how he gets sucked into the task after that first day. But I don’t understand how, after he is dismissed, the hunt for a codex by Gervase of Langford still consumes him. Why is he still so obsessed with the Duchess? Grossman gives Edward an academic background in English, probably in an attempt to make Edward’s atrophied interests germane to the subject matter here. It’s not enough, though. Similarly, Edward’s newly found passion for the game that his techie friend Zeph passes on to him is unimpressive.

The problem here is simple: Grossman tries to emphasize that Edward is acting out of character. Yet we have met Edward so recently that we don’t have a good baseline for his character. So instead of internalizing this idea that Edward is deviating from his typical lifestyle, it just seems like Edward is a massive idiot. And my opinion of him does not improve at any point in this novel. He consistently and constantly invites disaster by confiding in people or failing to act when action should have been taken. The entire fizzling, disappointing coda to Codex could have been titled, “Why Edward Deserves to Fail”. At no point does he decide to take charge and do something his way.

Its black hole of a main character aside, Codex tries to be a thriller and just doesn’t work. Worse, it tries to be a literary thriller. This is no The Name of the Rose, an eminently superior book that Grossman name-checks with a bit of a pretentious literary wink. I don’t think Codex is trying to be The Name of the Rose, because it lacks any of the academic or philosophical depth that makes the latter such an amazing book. Nevertheless, Codex just isn’t very thrilling.

One reason is a lack of strong, nefarious antagonists. The Duke and Duchess are remote characters whom, aside from a brief cameo at the beginning, we never see. Moreover, Grossman tries to build the former up as this imposing person who should not trifled with, but he doesn’t even kill off a lackey. How are we supposed to find these people threatening? About the worst thing that happens is that Edward doesn’t sleep enough and fails to pack before his move to London. Oooh, so terrible. Where are the consequences here? Various people seem to insinuate that it isn’t easy to disentangle oneself from the grasp of the Wents once they have their cold, rich fingers closed around you. Yet at no point does Grossman ever do anything to demonstrate this is true.

And then we have the ending. Without going into spoiler territory, let’s just say that the eponymous codex puts in manifests in time. But, of course, Edward screws it all up even as he gets betrayed. We don’t really learn why he gets betrayed, nor do we get even a hint of the aftermath involved. Indeed, after all that sabre-rattling about how unpleasant his life would be if he failed at his task or displeased the Duke, the ending of the book makes it seem more like Edward is just going to get let off the hook. But I guess we’ll never know.

Reading Codex wasn’t a waste of time. It provided a certain level of empty enjoyment. It’s clear that Grossman did some research here, and his love of literature shines through. Edward and Margaret’s conversations about medieval scholarship and speculations on Gervase of Langford were genuinely interesting. It’s these few redeeming qualities that make this book so disappointing. As with The Magicians and The Magician King , Grossman infuses the story with a highly sophisticated literary subtext—but he does so at the expense of the story itself, and that is problematic.

3. Love the One You're With

by Emily Giffin

Love the One You're With cover image
ISBN:
9780312348663
Format:
Trade Paperback, 342 pages
Published:
St. Martin's Griffin, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

So I started sticky-noting this book on page 8. (Well, I started on page 12 and then retroactively stickied something on page 8.)

I will sometimes mark up books I own when I feel like it, but I usually prefer to use sticky notes if I find something I really want to reference in my review (they are easier to find and allow me to be more verbose than scribbly margin writing). But I don’t do this that often. When I sticky-note, it’s usually for non-fiction books, occasionally for books that are really, really good, and sometimes for books that are really, really cringe-worthy.

Sorry, Emily Giffin. But Love the One You’re With is not non-fiction, and it’s not winning any awards from me. It forced me to confront some of my attitudes towards chick lit as a genre and how I, as a straight, white man, critique that genre. Not only do I have little experience with chick lit, but I also feel like an outsider when it comes to the target demographic. While I’m certain not all women enjoy chick lit as characterized by Love the One You’re With, I’m also certain some women do (and many of them have written reviews here on Goodreads explaining why). So even as I attempt to deconstruct this book and what I perceive to be its subtext, I don’t want to seem prescriptive or judgemental about people’s reading choices here. Please go ahead and read this if you choose … but that doesn’t change the fact it’s not very good.

My sticky-noting died off a little bit before the hundredth page, for a few reasons. Firstly, I went to have a bath, where it is easy to read but hard to sticky-note. Secondly, my sticky notes would just have gotten really repetitive. I think the book actually improves as it goes on, but mostly Giffin repeats the same types of tropes and clichéd writing that led my initial bout of stickying enthusiasm. Here’s the passage that started it all:

As it turned out, I was right about both Andy and Margot. He was nice, and she was just about everything I wasn’t. For starters we were physical opposites. She was a petite yet still curvy, fair-skinned blue-eyed blonde. I had dark hair and hazel eyes, skin that looked tanned even in the dead of winter, and a tall, athletic frame. We were equally attractive, but Margot had a soft, whimsical look about her while my features were more easily described as handsome.

There’s something about the phrase, “We were equally attractive” that set me off. It’s just so clunky. Do women really talk like that? I went to the trouble of finding a woman and asking her! My friend, who shall remain nameless, agreed this paragraph sounded more like plot device than serious internal monologue. And while I can understand that some women would probably have these sorts of attractiveness comparisons, the way Giffin chose to phrase it set the alarm bells ringing.

See, Giffin is clearly writing to an audience, and that audience is not me. It’s obvious in the way she tosses out little reminders that assume a like-mindedness I can’t muster:

I know for an absolute fact that Leo and Andy met once, at a bar in the East Village. At the time time, it was only a brief, meaningless encounter between my boyfriend and a best friend’s brother…. But years later, after Leo and I had long broken up, and Andy and I had begun to date, I would deconstruct that moment in exhausting detail, as any woman would.

And, a little later in the book, as Ellen talks about how she first met tantalizing ex-boyfriend, Leo:

The thought took me by surprise as I wasn’t accustomed to assessing strange men in such a strictly physical way. Like most women, I was about getting to know someone first—attraction based on personality. Moreover, I wasn’t even that into sex. Yet.

It’s the “as any woman would” and “like most women” phrases that get under my skin. I’m sure some women certainly fit this rather narrow mould that Giffin realizes in Ellen, and perhaps those are Giffin’s target audience. But she does this audience a disservice when she serves up a story devoid of real controversy or conflict, filled instead with stereotypical characters and a pre-packaged plot that has been microwaved to room temperature.

Ellen is one of the most bland narrators I have encountered in a long time. I don’t usually hear a character’s voice in my head when a book is in first-person. But in this case I kept imagining Ellen’s voice as Kristen Stewart’s. Love the One You’re With is actually just an urbane version of Twilight (without the vampires and werewolves and if Bella had chosen Jacob over Edward). Leo is Edward: the attractive, subversive bad boy whom Bella—sorry, Ellen—just can’t help but find so dreamy. Alex is Jacob: the stable, safe, but slightly boring choice, who happens to be from an alien culture (Atlantan instead of Native American). And, like Bella, Ellen is spineless and indecisive, with the personality of an empty box of Tic-Tacs.

Ellen’s marriage with Alex is “perfect” (according to the back of the book) until she runs into Leo one day, a meeting that precipitates a crisis of careers as well as feelings. Alex wants to move back to Atlanta to practise law with his father and have a big, ostentatious house. Ellen doesn’t really want that, or pretends she doesn’t care, or something, but goes along with it because she wants him to be happy. Surprise, surprise, she isn’t happy when she suddenly has to be steeped in Southern Hospitality 24/7 and conform to certain social expectations. Then, she blames herself for her own unhappiness because “he gave me a lot of outs.” So instead of discussing the issue with her husband in a calm manner, she gives more thought to having an affair with Leo.

I suppose there are some legitimate issues that Giffin tackles here. Having never been married myself, I’m only going off what I know from books and romantic comedies, but it seems like resolving differences about where to live would probably be a big deal. Similarly, everyone in the book keeps asking, in one way or another, when Ellen is going to start popping out babies. Again, not something that I can speak about from experience, but I can understand why that would be annoying and even demeaning. So I can see how some women who read this book might identify with what Ellen is going through.

Yet for all the seriousness of these issues, Giffin never actually challenges or critiques them in any meaningful way. Without going into spoiler territory, let’s just say that a careful deus ex machina and predictable phone call result in a happy ending that just begs “motion picture, please!” Instead of contrasting Margot’s cheerful pregnancy with a more adamant desire not to enter into motherhood, Ellen, in her typical indecisive way, never really commits one way or the other. Giffin tries to tell us that Ellen is a strong, independent person: “Yes, I’m Andy’s wife. And I’m a Graham. But I’m also Suzanne’s sister, my mother’s daughter, my own person.” Ellen’s actions throughout the novel belie this claim, for she seldom forges her own path when another sees fit to offer her one to follow.

I don’t go for the defence that books like this are “beach reads,” are leisure reads, and should therefore get a free pass. Literature, all literature, is powerful, and being something read for leisure does not excuse it from being well-written or thought-provoking. There’s nothing wrong with craving something with more story than substance, but there’s a difference between a book that is light and fun and a book that is just shallow. Love the One You’re With, to be fair, does not land squarely in the latter category—but it dangles perilously close. Moreover, what saves it from this label is not so much any redeeming quality as it is the fact that, like the main character, this book suffers from an incurable case of blandness.

2. Pirates of Nirado River

by Michael Setala

Pirates of Nirado River cover image
ISBN:
9780978272128
Format:
Paperback, 78 pages
Published:
Beaver Tales Publishing, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Pirates of Nirado River takes place in an alternative universe where kids have been forced to form ad-hoc pirate gangs that cruise down the rivers around Dog Lake in tricked out canoes. These gangs fight wars with crap apples, commit arson on abandoned cabins, and poach rabbits off Crown land. When one or more gangs have a dispute, they settle it through complex negotiation, kidnapping, and bondage.

All of the above is true, except for the “alternative universe” thing. Actually, the pirate gangs are just “clubs” (the precise amount of formal organization is never made clear) that children belong to based on age group. The Nirado River Pirates are one such club, with children aged 11 and 12 in it. There are a few other bands: the Dog Lake Pirates, the Spruce River Pirates, and the Silver Mountain Pirates. But the (potential) arson, rabbit poaching, and rampant crab apple warfare are all true; I swear.

This book is perhaps the furthest from my usual fare that I’ve read all year. I’m making a conscious effort to read more young adult fiction in an attempt to stay connected to what the students I’ll be teaching are reading. This, of course, is not young adult fiction; it’s a chapter book billed for ages 7–12. I am doubtful I would ever have picked this up on my own.

The school where I’m doing my student teaching practicum is reading this. Every class has to read it together and do some kind of activity based on the book, culminating in an assembly next week with a visit from the author. Michael Setala is local and the book is set nominally in an area outside our city, though it doesn’t really matter. Our class is reading the book this week, so I read it in preparation. At 78 pages of large print, it was not a massive infringement upon my time. Indeed, my tea hardly got cold.

Children’s literature is, in some ways, a whole different ballgame from adult literature. I don’t know how to review it (or really how to read it, for that matter), so take this review with a grain of salt. From what I know of children’s literature, though, writing it must be hard compared to writing adult fiction. An author writing adult fiction has the benefit of being on relatively even ground with the audience, who will have about the same vocabulary and comprehension skills (though authors are probably more practised in these categories for occupational reasons). With children’s literature, the author is writing to an audience whose skills are neither developed nor nuanced. Moreover, the variation across and within age groups is staggering. Some 6-year-olds are reading chapter books for 10-year-olds while their older siblings struggle with the 6-year-old material. So not only do authors have to get in the right mindset to write stories that will captivate kids, but they need to write in a language that is meaningful.

What I’m trying to say is that I have the utmost respect for children’s authors and their labours.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll let just anything slide. If anything, I’m going to be more critical, because what children read is almost as important as what they eat—food fuels the body; books fuel the mind.

Pirates of Nirado River is set to the northwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Thunder Bay is my hometown and the only place I want to live (though I may move away for a few years until I find work here). I love this place, even though I am not the most outdoorsy type of person, and I’m always thrilled to learn of fiction set here. While this book is set here, it’s not really set here. All the author does is drop the names of some local rivers and landforms. I feel like the story could be transposed to any other location with rivers and a mountain and work just as well. Perhaps this universality is a virtue for the book and its potential audience, but I think it undermines any argument in favour of this book simply because “it’s set in Thunder Bay”.

For all its sweeping universality, though, Pirates of Nirado River contains a lamentably uncomplicated story. The Dog Lake Pirates are trying to burn down the Nirado River Pirates’ cabin in retaliation for something they think the Nirado River crew has done. So the venerable Captain Corey decides to negotiate, and after several misunderstandings, all gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and they sit down for some rabbit stew. I suppose Setala is trying for the message that compromise and conversation are better ways to resolve conflict than all-out fighting; he wraps the message in several scenes of crab apple warfare for some action goodness. But the conflict and its resolution seem wildly unbalanced.

At its core, the conflict is basically a territorial squabble between gangs. It’s not very interesting, so I can understand why it only takes a few chapters to resolve. There is no real meat to the story, just scene after scene of the Nirado River Pirates paddling up and down the river to meet with various gangs and fling crab apples. It’s supposed to be invigorating and suspenseful, but it’s unremarkable more than anything else.

The only part of the plot that really got my attention was the two attempts to burn down the cabin used by the Nirado River Pirates. I don’t know who owns the cabin or the land it’s on, but I doubt they would take kindly to arson. What kind of “club” structure is this that encourages children to retaliate by burning down cabins? And this cabin is off a lake, presumably in a wooded area, where an uncontrolled conflagration can easily lead to a forest fire. Where is the forest ranger? Who’s supervising these hooligans?

On some level I’m sure I’m taking this too seriously when I should just sit back and enjoy where the story takes me. I disagree, but the plot isn’t the only problem with Pirates of Nirado River. Its characters are similarly dull and lifeless. Now, just as Setala does an excellent job describing the action, he also does a good job describing the characters themselves. I don’t take issue with how he describes them. But the characters he creates through these descriptions are just as uncomplicated as the conflict they solve. There are never any moments of doubt, nor are there moments of heroism, of treachery and betrayal, or of regret. Children experience emotions every bit as complex as adults; they may not be able to understand the emotions using the same language we do, but those emotions are there and should be portrayed in the characters they read about.

Also, Pirates of Nirado River is a boys-only book. The single female character is someone’s mother, and I think she has about one line. There are no older or younger sisters hanging about, let alone any girls in the gangs proper. From cover to cover, this is a book about boys doing stereotypical boy activities. Granted, they resolve their problems through level-headed discussion, which is commendable. Ultimately, though, if we ask girls to be a part of a reading experience—such as when an entire school reads a book—we should try to find books that will appeal to them as well. I’m not saying Pirates of Nirado River appeals only to boys, but it doesn’t go out of its way to make it easy for girls to identify with the characters or their problems. Despite its positive theme and upbeat conclusion, as far as genders go in this book, girls are invisible—and I find that deeply problematic.

I feel a little bad adding this book to Goodreads and then eviscerating it. To be fair, it’s not so much poorly written as it is poorly conceived. The book itself is probably—I don’t have much experience to go on—fairly typical for the kind of fare I expect we’re feeding children. But it’s not amazing, and if anything it’s too simple, especially for an older audience like my Grade 8 class. In the afterword, we learn that the author wrote the first draft of this story when he himself was around 12 years old … and frankly, that explains a lot. There’s a reason most authors have consign the first novel they ever write to the deepest, darkest corner of a locked drawer in the bottom of their filing cabinet: no matter what the skill level or the intent, the product just isn’t that good. Pirates of Nirado River is an earnest effort and definitely something I would love reading if it came from someone in Grade 7 or Grade 8. From an adult trying to write to children … it’s lacking.

Creative Commons BY-NC License

1. Brains: A Zombie Memoir

by Robin Becker

Brains: A Zombie Memoir cover image
ISBN:
9780061974052
Format:
Paperback, 182 pages
Published:
Eos, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Sometimes having a good idea just isn’t enough. This might hurt, but it’s the truth. For whatever reason, sometimes writers have amazing ideas that don’t pan out. And when those ideas stall mid-story, they take the entire book down with them.

In Brains: A Zombie Memoir, Jack Barnes is an English professor who gets bitten during the zombie apocalypse. After transforming, he discovers that he can still think and still feels like himself—aside from a craving for brains and human flesh. Also, he can still write (not too shabby for a decaying corpse), though he can’t speak. So Jack travels across the United States, gradually finding other “smart zombies” like himself, looking for the scientist who unwittingly unleashed the zombie virus on the world.

When I put it that way, Brains sounds downright intriguing. Who doesn’t want to hear about the zombie apocalypse from the zombie’s perspective? Much to my disappointment, Brains isn’t just bad; it’s terrible. It falls flat in almost every respect: characterization, plotting, and humour are all gruesomely murdered and resurrected as zombie versions of themselves. It’s been a while since I read a book as bad as this. I considered not finishing it, but at only 168 pages, I decided to stick it out until the bitter end.

The length alone is an early indication that the Robin Becker lacks enough story for a good story. After all, her premise is sound and exciting. But after Jack has been transformed and starts wandering across the country, Brains suddenly loses all sense of direction or even progress. So what that he’s going to find Howard Stein? So what that they’ve made it to Chicago? The book drags on and on, describing Jack’s newly found affinity for brains and how he’s drooling over Eve, the hot-but-stupid zombie, and I’m just waiting for something really interesting to happen or for real conflict to break out. Finally, with the pages rapidly running out, we reach a climax of sorts as Jack confronts his creator. But it’s actually very anticlimactic, because the end is not difficult to predict. To Becker’s credit, she tries to include revelations and ruminations that are deep and meaningful … but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t really care whether Jack or his new zombie-friends survive.

I don’t read (or watch) much zombie fiction. Like the larger horror genre in general, it is not my cup of tea. I don’t find zombies very interesting as monsters. Whether they are the traditional shamblers or the new-school runners, zombies don’t impress me. Zombie stories tend to deliver two interconnected moral dilemmas: the cost of survival and the fate of a main character who has been bitten. It’s certainly possible to write excellent, creative zombie stories—still, most of the zombie stories I like tend to be the ones that parody or deconstruct the genre instead of playing it straight: Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland (although it played the genre straight to some extent) … Fido was really weird but had its moments. I enjoyed Feed and found it problematic in equal doses. (I notice now that I have a similar genre-generalizing paragraph in that review. Good to know I’m being consistent in my opinion of zombie fiction!) So a zombie book has to work harder to impress me, perhaps, than someone who is more invested and more forgiving of this genre. But Brains hardly seems to work at all.

This is mostly Jack’s fault. He’s an asshole, and he admits it. He claims dying has changed him for the better, but I disagree. I don’t think he’s any closer to having a soul now (if souls existed) or being a better person as a zombie: he goes around eating brains, biting people to turn them into zombies at a whim, and dropping pop culture references in an attempt to sound erudite and hip at the same time. His diction, I gather, is supposed to have a similar effect, and I suppose I can’t fault Becker for her ability to establish a voice for Jack. It’s just not a voice I like very much, and regardless of Becker’s intentions in this matter, it adversely affected my enjoyment of the book. Frankly, I had no emotional investment in zombie Jack or his great plans for his smart-zombie gang. The only zombie I cared about was Guts, because Becker managed to make him cute and endearing, but even that was only a surface affection on my part.

It is possible that I could have found it in myself to overlook Jack’s unsympathetic nature if Brains had a more compelling plot. Without going into too much detail, however, nothing interesting happens here. Brains is just … boring. With no reason to care about the main character and little interest in the thin plot, I had a difficult time making it through this short book. That’s a shame. There’s a reason we describe books as page-turners or non-stop action thrill-rides; we yearn for books that draw us into a wider universe beyond the story on the pages and make us salivate for knowledge of that universe. Described in such a florid way, perhaps it sounds like a tall order for a book that might claim to be some “light zombie fun”. I don’t think it is, which is why I’m being so hard on this book. Not only is Brains pointless, but it could be much better. I really like the main idea and wish it were better executed.

I’m not so convinced this is all Brains’ fault. The blurbs on the back of this book, which have no doubt been carefully selected to give an impression of agreement, all praise it along the same line. Using adjectives like “smart”, “snarky”, “witty”, and “clever”, these reviewers cast Brains as a “smart” book that taps into popular culture. This idea, that pop culture allusions and a sarcastic narrator are sufficient ingredients for a “smart” book, seems to be a literary myth of sorts. It conflates style with substance and rewards an empty feeling of currency over true depth and emotional impact. That’s not to say that all books that feel current or have lots of pop culture allusions are bad—but these alone do not a good story make. So Brains might be a “smart” book, but it’s a stupid story. If your decaying corpse is lusting after some ripe zombie fiction, look elsewhere—this feast is far from fresh.