Review | The Hollow City, Dan Wells

Michael Shipman is crazy. A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, Michael sees Faceless Men and gets splitting migraines whenever a cellphone rings. So when we see the world through Michael’s eyes in Dan Wells’ The Hollow City, we know not to take it at face value.

It takes great talent for an author to get into the mind of someone who’s had a psychotic break from reality. Wells takes this to a whole different level by having readers mistrust his narrator from the beginning, yet slowly begin to question this mistrust. Some authors are able to make psychologically disturbed characters sympathetic and their views understandable, usually through eloquence (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange) or through comparison with a villainous “sane” world (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Wells however  offers actual clues and details that make us wonder if Michael is, in reality, seeing Faceless Men, and if there is some rational, physiological reason for his adverse reaction to electronic devices.

Hollow City begins as a tragic depiction of an unbalanced mind. Michael’s hallucinations are as real to him as reality is to us, and the intensity of his fear at things we view as ordinary (cellphones, TVs, hot water faucets) inspires sympathy. His condition, particularly his obsession with Faceless Men, makes him a prime suspect in the investigation of serial murderer The Red Line Killer, whose trademark is slicing his victims’ faces off. Worse, Michael has lost two weeks’ worth of memory and is himself unsure if he is the Red Line Killer. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be not to be able to trust yourself, and when Michael begins to doubt the reality of people around him, some of whom he loves and depends on, he becomes even more isolated.

Then the story takes a completely different turn when Michael’s hallucinations start making more sense. We’re never quite sure if Michael’s perceptions are turning out to be real or if we too have been sucked into his mind. But this does open up a science fiction/horror story angle to the plot. It’s a thrilling ride to the end, and I was as desperate as Michael to find out what, exactly, is going on. Wells never gets as complex as China Mieville or as seductive as Vladimir Nabokov, which he could have done given his premise, and this is perhaps the reason Hollow City didn’t blow me away. The murder mystery that drove the plot started out compelling, but wasn’t really developed, and the big reveal regarding the murderer was fairly obvious and anti-climactic. That being said, I was definitely taken by surprise by the other big reveal, the reason behind Michael’s hallucinations. I love that Wells took a big, unexpected leap with that, and while the ending seemed a bit rushed, given the build up, it made sense. After all the uncertainty, and all the wondering about where Wells could possibly be taking this story, the ending satisfies. A good, solid, fast-paced read.

Review | Redshirts, John Scalzi

Okay, this book is just awesome. I started reading John Scalzi’s Redshirts before work one day, and almost instantly regretted my decision. Tip: Start it on a weekend, or after work, whenever you have a few free hours, because you will not want to put it down. That evening, watching me walk around with my nose stuck in this book, my sister observed that I was going through it pretty quickly. Yes I was, and it’s because, in my sister’s words, Redshirts hit all my geekspots.

I am a huge geek. I fangirl over Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock from Star Trek, for those who don’t know). When I saw this book in the Raincoast Books catalogue, even before reading the description, I immediately thought of Star Trek redshirts and was momentarily embarrassed that I may have confused a serious thriller with a Star Trek parody when I realized I right. Now, if like me, you know why you should never wear a red shirt on an alien planet, stop reading this review right now and find yourself a copy of this book.

Redshirts, as any self-respecting Trekkie knows, are the characters killed off before the first commercial break in the 1960s Star Trek series. Deaths usually occur when the crew beams down onto an alien planet, and they are usually pointless, put in only for some dramatic tension right before the opening credits. But what if the remaining future redshirts realize that there’s something fishy going on? What if they band together and decide to do something about it? In Redshirts, when Ensign Andrew Dahl joins the crew of the Intrepid, he finds out that a low-ranking crew member dies in every Away Mission, and that his more senior co-workers go into hiding every time a high ranking officer enters the room.

The first part of the book is a total send-up of Star Trek, and I suppose, other cheesy 60s science fiction shows. Scalzi’s observations about logical inconsistencies in Star Trek are spot-on, and he mercilessly undercuts them with biting humour yet also with an insider’s wink at the reader that belies the affection of a die-hard fan. To clarify: Redshirts is not just a Star Trek parody, in that it’s not an episode rehash with different names and caricatured details. The book is very much aware of how ridiculous some of its situations are, but there is enough underlying menace that even as we laugh, we realize how serious the situation is for the poor redshirt in it, and we genuinely want him to survive.

On an Away Mission in the first scene, Science Officer Q’eeng reveals that pulse guns are ineffective against Borgovian Land Worms, that in fact, pulse guns send them into a killing frenzy. Ensign Davis, who had just fired a pulse gun at an attacking worm, wonders why Q’eeng didn’t just reveal that very important bit of information during the mission briefing. The scene is hilarious, and we can just see it happening in a Star Trek episode, but we also can’t help but wonder why, indeed, Ensign Davis wasn’t provided with information that could save his life. Along with the hilarity comes the sobering realization that characters you come to care about are indeed treated as alien fodder. Because the story is told from the perspective of these redshirts, they become real to us, and, even as we laugh, we are struck by the unfairness of their situation.

The story takes an unexpected turn when Ensign Dahl and his friends discover the reason behind the redshirt phenomenon and make it their mission to change things. It’ll be difficult to discuss my reaction to the rest of the story without giving away any spoilers, so please excuse my vagueness. (Or, conversely, if what I write makes you guess something spoiler-y, I’m sorry — I definitely don’t want to give anything away.) Personally, with all the mystery and menace built up in the first part of the book, part of me wishes Scalzi had taken it in a different direction, a more straight up, mystery/thriller angle. That being said, I see how his choice actually makes even more sense for this story. While still keeping us on a crazy, hilarious ride, Scalzi’s twist introduces a philosophical angle, and offers us a new train of thought to ponder. I enjoyed the rest of the book — I laughed perhaps a bit less, but the plot remained compelling, and it was an interesting shift in reading experience. As with the first part, however, what kept me reading were the characters — I’d come to care for Ensign Dahl and his friends, and I wanted them to have much more of a life than redshirts usually do.

Minor quibble: You know how jokes have a point where, if you push it just that teensy bit over, it stops being funny? I personally thought Scalzi crossed that point in the last couple of chapters. He was coy enough about it, and smart enough not to belabour the point, so that it wasn’t annoying. As well, in fairness to him, it did fit with the rest of the story. Still, part of me went “meh” at that bit of development.

The novel ends with three codas. I hated the first one, mostly because if the last couple of chapters toyed with pushing the joke a bit too far, the first coda takes the joke all too seriously. I found it tiresome and just tad too self-aggrandizingly clever, and at that point, I wished the book had ended with just the novel. The next two codas, however, are brilliant. The second coda took the novel’s philosophical themes and expanded them by offering a different perspective. The “moral lesson” near the end was a bit too pat, a bit too neatly tied up, for me. It involved a message being delivered, and I wish the contents of the message were just less obvious. Still, other than that “moral lesson”, I loved the perspective provided by the second coda, and the new questions it raised.

The third and final coda, however, totally made the book for me. It took a funny, sometimes philosophical, other times exciting, novel and made it real. The characters felt real enough to care for — as I’ve said, I really wanted Ensign Dahl to change the redshirts’ fate — but the third coda took it to another level entirely. It gave a fully fleshed out story to a minor character, and in doing so, added texture and depth to the story of another secondary character in the novel proper. Definitely one of the best parts of the book.

Redshirts is as hilarious and thrilling as you would expect, but it works because Scalzi takes it far beyond that. Trekkies and fans of cheesy science fiction shows in general will find much to recognize and laugh at in this novel. Non-fans may not have as many knee-jerk laugh out loud moments, but I’d say it’s worth flipping through anyway, just to see if it’s for you. I had such a blast reading this book, and highly recommend it to fellow geeks everywhere. Trust me: it’ll hit all your geekspots.


Thank you to Raincoast Books for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | A Dog’s Journey, W. Bruce Cameron

My aunt and uncle owned a dog. I can never remember the name of the breed, but she was an adorable white fluffy ball of energy. I loved visiting their house and having that dog run up to me, tail wagging. She was probably more excited just to have guests around than to see me specifically, but it was always a nice welcome. She died last year, and every time I visit my aunt and uncle, a part of me still expects to hear her excited barks, and to see the little ball of white fur hurtling towards me. Something’s missing now, and I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel for my aunt and uncle, for whom that dog was such a big part of their lives.

What if beloved pets don’t die, however? Rather, what if they are reborn as another dog, and what if fate finds a way to bring them back into our lives? W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Journey is the sequel to his bestselling A Dog’s Purpose. Buddy, who has lived several lifetimes searching for his purpose in life, begins Journey believing that he has found and fulfilled it, having taken care of his owner Ethan. So Buddy dies, believing it to be the final time. However, it turns out that Ethan’s granddaughter Clarity needs a dog of her own, and Buddy finds himself reborn and adopted by Clarity, beginning a whole new cycle of birth and rebirth throughout Clarity’s lifetime. (Buddy is reincarnated in various forms and given various names throughout the novel, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just keep calling him Buddy.)

To be honest, a part of me feels uncomfortable with this idea. Surely a dog exists for far more than his human’s needs. Why would a dog’s value in life be determined by how comfortable he’s made ours? More importantly, why would a dog’s entrance into doggie nirvana be dependent on our human lifespan? At one point, I felt pretty bad for Buddy, who, in all his various reincarnations, kept thinking of finding Clarity, because she needed him. I just wanted to let the dog have his rest.

That being said, there is something reassuring in the idea that loved ones — human, animal — never really leave us, that they will be around in some form for as long as we need them. Putting aside my desire to give Buddy a life beyond the support he can give Ethan and Clarity, A Dog’s Journey is really a very touching book. It reveals how devoted our pets are to us, and, just as important, how devoted we are to them. On the book jacket is the question, “Do we take care of our pets, or do they take care of us?” A Dog’s Journey suggests that it’s both — humans and dogs as best friends, very much linked to each other.

If anyone ever needed a dog’s unconditional love, it’s Clarity. Growing up with low self-esteem and a hypercritical mother, Clarity feels unloved. Even when her best friend Trent, who is obviously in love with her, asks her out, she suggests he find someone prettier. Best thing about Clarity is that she’s not a self-pitying sad sack. She does feel low about herself, but she is also funny and charming, and you can see why Trent would be in love with her.

You can also see how much she needs the unconditional love Buddy provides. Being completely free to talk to Buddy about her problems, and having to take responsibility for Buddy’s well-being helps Clarity. I especially love the part where she has to perform community service and chooses to help train cancer-sniffing dogs. Even though Buddy wasn’t being trained himself, he learned how to do it by watching the other dogs. Cancer is one of those truly horrible diseases that’s become so common you probably don’t think about it much unless it happens to someone you know. Having lost a loved one to cancer myself, I love the idea that dogs can be trained to detect cancer early, and thereby help get the patient to a doctor before it’s too late. I hope the author based this particular bit on research.

Cameron does a great job at presenting a dog’s eye view — things we take for granted (e.g. a woman can be called both “Gloria” and “mother”) are things Buddy, as a dog, makes a conscious effort to teach himself. A visit to a TV studio leads to a heroic misunderstanding and one of the funniest moments in the book. Trent is probably my favourite character — such a nice, sweet guy! Like Buddy, I wanted Clarity to realize what a good man she has in him, and as a reader, I had the most emotional response while reading this book at a plot twist concerning Trent.

Buddy, especially, is a hero to cheer for. Smart, playful and fiercely loyal, he’s the kind of dog kids probably have in mind when asking for a dog. A Dog’s Journey is a funny, touching novel, highly recommended for dog owners, animal lovers, and anyone who’s ever considered getting a dog.