Syrup by Maxx Barry

Syrup by Maxx BarrySyrup by Maxx Barry is as good as an icy cold Coca Cola on a sweltering hot summer day. In other words, Syrup is satisfying! It’s a fun romp that takes well deserved swipes at marketing, Hollywood, ambition and corporate ethics. Amid the social commentary is a romantic plot that, while a bit one-dimensional, is … well … fun. It’s not the romantic swoon you’ll get from Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, but more like … Sawyer and Kate’s relationship on Lost. Yes, it’s a TV reference, but it’s apt in my opinion, particularly given the role books are playing in that series.

Syrup follows Scat (formerly Michael George Holloway), a recent college graduate, who seeks to become famous. Really famous. Acknowledging his lack of acting ability he seeks to make fame and fortune in business and marketing. The premise is that everyone has at least three big ideas in their lifetime. Three ideas that, if pursued, can make millions of dollars. And it just so happens that Scat has one of these amazing ideas about a new brand of cola named Fukk.

Scat’s idea brings him into contact with 6, a beautiful, young, driven marketer at Coca Cola. No, that’s not a typo, her name is the number 6 and the back story to this unusual name is one of the more intriguing gems in Syrup. Barry doesn’t follow this thread, but I wish he had. Scat is immediately smitten and immersed into the shark tank of corporate politics and ladder back-stabbing. Fukk is a success but doesn’t make Scat millions. In fact, it creates an arch-nemesis, Sneaky Pete, who Scat and 6 fight together through the rest of the novel.

Syrup is composed of very short micro-chapters much like Steve Erickson’s Zeroville. This format lets Barry be creative and playful. You can feel his energy and passion for the story. He’s having fun and thereby, the reader is as well. The format also lets Barry sprinkle in bite size case studies like the following:

Pick a random chemical in your product and heavily promote its presence. When your customers see “Now wth Benzoethylhydrates!” they will assume that this is a good thing.

This is a tongue in cheek send-up which flirts with deeper issues like the difference between perception and reality, the friction between art and commerce and finding yourself. But Barry never delves into any of these areas in greater depth. They’re nearly offhanded comments or topic sentences to a potentially longer essay. Could he have done more? Maybe. Would it have worked? Maybe. Is it necessary to make this novel complete? No!

Syrup by Maxx Barry is fast paced and funny, a marriage of soap opera and satire that is a pleasure to read.

Outrageous Fortune by Tim Scott

Outrageous Fortune by Tim ScottOutrageous Fortune by Tim Scott is a rare blend of action, humor, absurdity, science-fiction and personal insight. You know things are going to be interesting when the first word of Outrageous Fortune is ‘Fuckers’, uttered by main character, Johnny X67. He has every right to be pissed. His house has just been stolen. But that’s not even in the Top 10 of strange things that Johnny encounters in this non-stop adventure.

The world that Tim Scott creates is a fantastic collection of interesting ideas, vivid imagery and incisive social commentary. On top of that he’s laid out a riotous action plot coupled with interludes of penetrating observations. I knew I was hooked when he described a city that had been divided by music genres. Such a brilliant concept I’m green with envy!

The Classical section is high-brow and well maintained with sound ordinances and large signs that chide the noisy with large flashing ‘shhhhh’ signs. In Jazz you have all sorts of strange free-form architecture but can’t be sure to get a decent pizza since they might be ‘experimenting’ with an ‘all olive’ phase. Or visit Compilation, the haven for those pale, boring souls who don’t have taste enough to identify with any one type of music. And stay away from Holiday Song, an area with perpetual snow and roaming, ho-ho-ho-ing Santas.

Scott takes readers on a fast-paced ride that reminds me of the movie After Hours and Brazil. It’s a desperate, funny, bizarre world where you (and the characters) are struggling to catch-up and digest what is going on. You don’t want to put the book down because you know something else is going to happen in the next few pages.

The only thing that distracted me was the mix of English and American phrases and places. Scott is English and that comes through unmistakably through his prose. However, the novel takes place in America in some sort of composite of Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Perhaps the cultural collision is intentional and part of the alternate reality Scott wants to create. I don’t know, but it jolted me out of the regular reading and flow of the story.

Amid the Monty Python meets Philip K. Dick prose are amazing reflections on relationships, religion, reality and happiness.

On relationships:

I watched her character shrink before me and I felt so helpless. The spirit I’d loved her for had turned into fear, so that she no longer thought she could cope with the world; was so scared of the thought of being on her own that she crushed the present, suffocating any joy from life, and turned everything into a battle for survival. I knew this was not right – not for us, not for people who had a house and food and friends. And the more she clung to me, the more we both drowned, sinking under an invisible sea of desperation.

On religion:

Now the emphasis was on seeking peace rather than clinging to spurious explanations for our existence – and once the focus moved toward peace, religion seemed to lose a lot of its hold over the masses. Religions never had been interested in peace that much, anyway.

On happiness:

What mattered was regaining who I was, because the pleasure of being alive is not pining for different lives, or different things, but just being.

For every talking elevator who tells bad jokes there is a literary gem. Tim Scott gives readers both sizzle and steak; swashbuckling science-opera and high-minded literature. Read Outrageous Fortune and then wait for Scott’s next novel.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy TooleA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole sticks with you long after you finish reading. I was initially turned off as I began reading since the ‘protagonist’, Ignatius J. Reilly, is somewhat unlikeable. In real life, you’d run the opposite direction from Ignatius – and fast! He’s an unkempt, ill-tempered moralist with a dim view of nearly everyone else in his rather large orbit.

I’d heard quite a bit about A Confederacy of Dunces. If you’re at all interested in literature you have likely heard the one about the Pulitzer Prize won by a dead man. Sure enough, A Confederacy of Dunces, written by Toole in the early sixties, won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 12 years after his suicide in 1969. Reading the foreword you learn that it was Toole’s mother, having tremendous faith in her son’s work, who made sure A Confederacy of Dunces saw the light of day.

Ignatius J. Reilly makes A Confederacy of Dunces unforgettable, though I could have done without the descriptions of his gas, flatulence and other ailments. As the centerpiece of the novel, Ignatius is an over-sized bowling ball that flattens everything in his path. Reilly is a self-serving sloth who can rationalize his way out of any situation, responsibility or principle. Toole uses Reilly to look critically at nearly all facets of life: family, sex, relationships, commerce, politics, education, race and class.

A Confederacy of Dunces also succeeds as a historical composition. Toole paints a very visceral portrait of New Orleans. It feels grimy and worn at the edges. It feels like there’s a burgeoning lower-middle class stuck between the past and the future. The characters and dialog are pitch perfect whether it’s the wealthy, quarrelsome couple who own a struggling clothing factory or Darlene, a simple young woman performing burlesque (poorly) in a French Quarter bar.

The story really begins when Ignatius is pushed into the work force to repay a debt that he incurred. Though he certainly doesn’t see it that way! Most memorable are the scenes at Levy Pants, where Ignatius finds a co-dependent doormat as a colleague and boss. It’s here that Ignatius is allowed to do the most damage. We’re treated to Ignatius whip-lashing back and forth between adoration and derision of both the owner and the poor working class. In particular, his ‘leadership’ of a worker’s riot and crippling forged missive to a business partner are astoundingly funny.

It’s tough not to think about Toole and whether this was a chronicle of his own inner struggle. He obviously had many opinions, sometimes conflicting in nature, which found voice in Ignatius. While the events are often humorous, it’s a black humor filled with sharp edges of anger, dissatisfaction and resentment.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is a fascinating book because I seem to like it more and more upon reflection. That’s high praise for any work of art. So, in this case you can believe the hype.

Company by Max Barry

Company by Max BarryCompany by Max Barry was, to be direct, not very good. I had high hopes for Company, coming on the heels of Barry’s very interesting Jennifer Government. Unfortunately, Company has all the snappy dialog and cheeky humor but falls short on nearly every other front. My copy of Company has the image of a glazed donut on the cover, which I find an apt metaphor: sweet sugary exterior with nothing but airy dough on the inside. Oh, and there’s a hole in the middle and it’s not at all nutritious.

Barry’s aim is to explore and poke fun at large corporate business culture and their reliance on Six Sigma, KPI, TQM and other management techniques. Trust me, I’ve experienced some of these corporate torture devices and they are absolutely inane. Thing is, others have been down this road, most notably Douglas Coupland in Generation X. While not the direct assault that Barry is looking to deliver, Coupland winds up capturing the soul-sucking combination of boredom and stress far better than Barry.

In Company, Stephen Jones, a recent business graduate, joins Zephyr Holdings, the antithesis of a toxic corporate culture. His co-workers are a pale Glengarry Glen Ross and Office Space amalgamation who have no real idea what the company does or sells. There are some clever bureaucratic gags, anecdotes and insights, but not enough to offset the stale setting and hollow characters. In particular, Eve Jantiss, the model-like, amoral love interest comes off more like a caricature of a junior high version of a corporate fantasy girl.

Perhaps he’s too far removed from his days at Hewlett Packard, or there’s a cultural difference or time-zone like delay on this type of corporate satire. Whatever the reason, Max Barry’s Company is an easy read but, like a donut, you’ll search for something else to fill you up the minute you’re done.

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

Bad Monkeys by Matt RuffBad Monkeys by Matt Ruff is a condensed, fast-paced, insightful romp that walks the line between gritty literary realism and surreal science-fiction. I’ve been waiting for the next Ruff novel for quite a while and Bad Monkeys will hold me over until I get my next fix.

Bad Monkeys revolves around Jane Charlotte as she converses with a psychologist and explains how and why she’s now arrested for murder. The explanation is, as you’d expect from a Ruff novel, a whopper! Jane details two secret societies locked in a battle of good and evil.

She explains how, as a child rejected by her mother, she found herself in central California on the trail of a serial pedophile and murderer dubbed The Angel of Death. It’s here that she first encounters the ‘organization’ and uses an NC gun to fend off and kill the The Angel of Death. What’s an NC gun? Come now, it’s a gun that kills by Natural Causes. Quintessential, inventive Ruff!

As you may have realized, the topics covered by Ruff aren’t shallow or glitzy in an Elmore Leonard way. Like Set This House In Order, he’s dealing with serious issues that fracture the lives of people. Bad Monkeys covers some of the same ground as Set This House In Order, and nearly feels like a mash-up of that novel and Sewer, Gas & Electric.

But Ruff makes it different enough and keeps you guessing as to whether Jane is just a very troubled woman who’s built a fantastic and bizarre world as a coping mechanism, or if she’s on the level and is on the front lines in the war against evil. Just when you think you know which way it will go, that’s when the plot twist(s) make you doubt yourself.

I read Bad Monkeys in two round-trip BART rides. It’s a rather short novel, particularly for the usually Homeric Ruff. So part of me wishes he’d taken one more year and written another 200 pages to fully explore the fantastic framework he established. Another is happy that the next novel is that much closer.

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff is a good read and Fool On The Hill is required reading. Extra credit? The Matt Ruff home page.

Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs

Magical Thinking by Augusten BurroughsMagical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs is an over-the-top memoir that walks the tightrope line between magnetism and repulsion, between curiosity and the desire to know more and the impulse to shout ‘too much information’ and cover your ears while loudly singing ‘la la la’.

There’s a lot to like in Burroughs’ writing and in areas you feel like you’re making a connection with the author, that it is a true memoir. The topic of whether a memoir is ‘real’ has been a hot topic lately. Starting with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, bouncing off of David Sedaris and now squarely on Augusten Burroughs, the idea that memoirs are factual is highly subjective. In fact, reality is highly subjective which is why two memoirs of the same event could be and most likely are very different.

So, I don’t ding Burroughs for writing through the filter that is his mind and experience. All good writers do this and no one should be surprised at the differing views on a subjective experience. But is it evocative and effective for the reader? I’m still inclined to believe that fiction is a better proxy for relating real life experience than the memoir format. I definitely subscribe to the axiom that there’s more truth in fiction.

I enjoyed most of Magical Thinking, though being a Sedaris fan it’s difficult not to draw some comparisons between the two. And I’d choose Sedaris hands down. I find Sedaris to be more steady and even in his most shocking, there’s something … else going on that anchors his text.

Burroughs starts out strong, with back-to-back winners about his childhood with ‘Commercial Break’ and ‘Vanderbilt Genes’. These are quirky, insightful pieces that are both hard and tender at the same time. He scores again with ‘Debby’s Requirements’ a very interesting story about relationships and work life balance. ‘Holy Blow Job’ walks the line but works; ‘Ass Burger’ is another gem and isn’t at all what you think it might be about. Finally, ‘Life Cycle of the North American Opossum’ and ‘Magical Thinking’ are both excellent vignettes. See, there’s a lot to like!

But then there’s ‘The Rat/Thing’ which is just a bit too ugly and drawn-out. It was clearly traumatic, but honestly, I don’t want to hear about it. I’d cozy up and ask an exterminator to tell me his greatest hits (pun intended) if I wanted this type of story. There’s also ‘I Dated an Undertaker’ which is more shock-and-awe, and feels like a poorly done Six Feet Under spin-off.

There are references to a very disturbing childhood and a laundry list about his love life and personal habits which make him seem quite shallow. In some ways, reading Burroughs is like hanging around after a fire or a train wreck. You’re interested in seeing how it all turns out and asking officials how it happened. But you don’t do this in real life, instead you move on and give people their space and feel better for doing so.

Burroughs shines when he doesn’t grandstand and when he’s not over-seasoning his text with shock value. At times he presents himself as a card-board cutout, when what I really want is his real-self invested in the pages. All at once, Burroughs complains and promotes this type of over-sharing shock-value material with his reference to Dr. Pepper. I won’t relate the details here since the story will attach itself to the drink for a long time. I can’t help but flash on the topic when gazing into the drink case.

I recommend Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs but only for those with an iron-cast stomach.

Whale Season by N.M. Kelby

Whale Season by N.M. KelbyWhale Season by N.M. Kelby aspires to be a Carl Hiaasen-like romp. This Florida tale is populated with quirky characters, film-like dialog, and a pretty standard humor-crime-drama plot. (What is that? ‘Drimor’?) It’s good summer reading, that reaches – and fails – to be more.

There’s nothing wrong with N.M. Kelby’s Whale Season – except that she’s in the shadow of Carl Hiaasen. I like Hiaasen. His work is straight and tight, slick but not overly so. His characters seem real enough and the insight provided isn’t forced. The goal is to entertain, not to challenge the reader to higher thinking or to arrive at some epiphany. This is where Whale Season loses it’s focus.

Kelby walks the line between beach reader and a more introspective read. The plot revolves around a serial killer who passes himself off on Jesus, who lands in the tangled lives of Dagmar, Leon, Jimmy Ray, Trot and Carlotta. Dagmar and Leon are divorced and there is real tragedy in their background. Carlotta is the new girl in town, and is dating Leon, much to Trot’s chagrin. Thing is, Trot and Leon are best friends. Jimmy Ray is a blues musician, and Buddhist with a penchant for sage quotes, who has taken Dagmar under his wing, and vice versa.

Jesus as serial killer moves things along and it is Leon who turns into the central character of Whale Season. It’s here that he recalls his childhood, fraught with conflicting emotions about his family’s now closed alligator tourist attraction, and his recent family life with Dagmar. Here’s where Whale Season misses in my opinion.

There’s good stuff here that could be developed into a rich and vibrant story about Leon, a ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom type character of Florida. Instead, you only get small bits and they collide strangely with the tone of the rest of the story. Ditto the death koans that Jimmy Ray employs in his dialog. It’s interesting but seems like it belongs in a different book.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Whale Season. It was a good breather between heavier books. I simply think there are far better summer reads. Whale Season is a fast food book that’s using whole wheat buns, soy cheese and organic lettuce to obscure the real meat at the center.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

A Long Way Down by Nick HornbyA Long Way Down by Nick Hornby is a novel about four very different people who unexpectedly meet on the top of a high-rise building on New Year’s Eve. Great rooftop party perhaps? No. As the title might give away, all four found their way to the roof to commit suicide. Sounds depressing, but if you’ve read (or seen) any of Hornby’s work you’ll know that it will be a (dark) comic romp.

Sure enough, A Long Way Down is a hyper-glib rim-shot of a novel that uses humor to explore the topics of loneliness, desolation and loss. Nearly all of Hornby’s work has a dark, troublesome theme residing at its core. His work is about how people find their way in the world, how they deal with hardship, how they … manage, which at times seems tough at best and impossible at worst. Laughter seems the best medicine.

Hornby has a bit of real-life experience to draw upon in this arena, given that his son is autistic. It’s tough for me not to read some of that background into his portrayal of Maureen, a middle-aged single mother with a severely handicapped son who keeps her housebound most of the time. The difficulty of that love shines around the wit of the words like an aura. You can’t help but feel it there.

The three other characters are Martin, a scandalized daytime tabloid star; JJ, a rock musician who believes his life is his career and his career is finished; and Jess, a young foul-mouthed girl without an emotional filter who lives in the shadow of her missing older sister. None of the four jump from the roof that night. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler! The book is about how they get on. It’s about how they band together and continue to live, despite their differences and despite any real fairy tale ending.

I like Hornby’s work and picked him up when High Fidelity was in paperback. I find it notable that his work translates extremely well to the big screen. While High Fidelity the movie was good, About A Boy the movie may be better than the book given the great performance by Hugh Grant. Speaking of Hugh Grant, it might be a stretch but the character of Martin seems like it could be loosely based on the scandalized actor.

A Long Way Down also covers some of the same material as Douglas Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby and there are similarities in wit and tone. However, the plot and format of A Long Way Down is somewhat formulaic. And even the interplay and dialog, while funny, doesn’t quite encapsulate the book. In the end, it’s a mood and a determination of life that is extracted.

It feels good, and at the end of the day that’s what most of Hornby’s work seems to wish upon the reader.

You Suck by Christopher Moore

You Suck by Christopher MooreYou Suck by Christopher Moore is funny, dead funny. That’s a bit of a joke since the main characters are vampires. This is actually the sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, so we are reacquainted with Jody, the hot red-headed vampire and Thomas C. Flood, a sexually charged, slightly nerdy Indiana native who came to San Francisco to be a writer and now finds himself a vampire instead. Like all of Moore’s work, the plot is quick and snappy, the descriptions vivid, the dialog crackling and the satire first-rate. And while I enjoyed You Suck, it felt a bit like paint by numbers.

I couldn’t help but think that this was something Moore just came up with in between new material. It felt like the product of fans pestering him for a ‘what happened next?’ scenario, leading to a supercharged week of caffeine induced writing. The beauty of most of Moore’s work is that he creates these believable but ludicrous worlds that are rich in surreal nooks and crannies and populated by a side-show like zoo of characters. None of that is on display in You Suck because all that good stuff has already been developed.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few characters who rise to the occasion, including Abby Normal, an attitude laden Goth-like teen who gives the fuzz all they can handle, a hooker who is entirely blue and a shaved cat named Chet. See, if you haven’t read Moore before you’re already thinking this is one crazy dude – and you’d be right! Moore is not for the feint of heart, easily offended or politically correct. Everything is in play and nothing is sacred.

For one reason or another the following quote stuck in my head and still makes me smirk.

“Oh, someone made a comment about his cape being gray when we first got here, so he went home to redye all his blacks”

You’ll do your fair share of chuckling and smirking with You Suck, but dive into his other books for the full-on treatment.

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

The Well of Lost Plots.gifJasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots is third in the Thursday Next literary detective series. Thursday (our hero and literary cop) is pregnant by a husband who no longer exists and is hiding out in an unpublished murder mystery (something like a poorly constructed blend of Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham.) Makes perfect sense right? Well, if you’re a fan it does and I am a fan.

To enjoy Jasper Fforde’s novels you should make sure you have a funny bone. Once that’s been confirmed you might want to brush up on your classic literary works. While the plot is generally of the soap opera or spy thriller genre, it is wrapped in a literary fun house where you’ll meet Heathcliff from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and speak frequently of Shakespearean works. Fforde’s alternate universe includes time-travel, a menacing corporate entity aptly named Goliath, and is populated by Neanderthals and dodos which have been genetically re-engineered.

Fforde uses the absurd for both comic effect and astute social commentary. And he’s keenly interested in the act of writing and reading. That is perhaps the highlight of The Well of Lost Plots. The plot surrounds an upgrade to how a book is read, aptly described as an operating system. The new version is UltraWord, which would help books gain market share on a populace that is reading less and less. One of the benefits of the upgrade would allow the reader to do away with all of the ‘he said’, ‘she replied’, ‘he shouted’ and any other identifiers of who was actually speaking each line of dialog. To me, I can image Fforde exasperated with these markers, but at the same time chiding readers for the inability to simply engage and partake in the reading experience.

The Well of Lost Plots is Fforde’s most ambitious thought exercise into the creation of a book world. On this level the book is the best of the series. From a plot and narrative perspective, it is just this side of satisfying. While I recommend The Well of Lost Plots, any reader should read the series in order, starting with The Eyre Affair. For a sneak peek at the oddities you will find, visit the fabulous Jasper Fforde website.