Category Archives: Fiction

Book Review: “Startup” by Doree Shafrir

Startup by Doree Shafrir

Yet more Revenge of the English Majors  (and also  this, this)

Silicon Valley has grabbed vast amount of mental and cultural capital, especially among the best and brightest youngsters. World champion self congratulators, the Valley crew has made enemies on many fronts, not least among the hordes of talented people sucked into the startup culture.

Amazingly enough, the new way of work doesn’t look as great from bottom as from the top. And now we are getting a stream of stinging cultural commentary from disenchanted English Majors and others.

And many of there are-gasp-girls!

Shafrir’s novel is a highly realistic description of Startup life in NYC. There is little need to exaggerate, much of this stuff is self-satirizing. Shafrir is a frequent reporter and commentator on tech life, so she has plenty to draw on, and she doesn’t seem terribly sympathetic.

The setting is a tech company about to get VC funding for its pointless app, and also a media company in the same building, obsessed with traffic and twitter mentions. The details are fictional, but I’m sure many people easily recognize the real life nonsense of the new economy.

Much of the story involves the hazards of sexual politics in the office. “New economy” or not, Boys and girls are still boys and girls, and trouble is likely to ensue. This book is, unfortunately, a pretty realistic rendition of what kind of trouble can ensure. In places, it’s basically a text book for what not to do.

This story is definitely focused on several female protagonists who all face the double standards and icky pressures dealing with male bosses, colleagues, and significant others. Shafrir is almost certainly writing autobiography here.

These women are neither trivial nor superheroes.  They all have flaws and make mistakes.  And they are all struggling to make it, what ever that means.

One of the best features of the story is that Shafrir gives reasonable amounts of sympathy to many of the male characters. Even when they are being hypocritical and/or clueless bastards , she lets us see some depth and a glimmer of likability

On the other hand, the business school twats get little sympathy. Shafrir has sympathy for imperfect and naïve people who are creating something. She has less sympathy for people who are just moving money or selling stuff. One suspects that this, too, may be passed on personal experience.

There is a certain amount of whining about how NYC is just as good as Silicon Valley, and how SV steals all the talent, and so on. The vast majority of us really don’t care about this competition, and many of use hate the tech industry on both coasts.

There quite a bit of sighing and complaining about these feckless twenty somethings, who aren’t the way we were when we were 26—ten years ago. Kids today have no respect, they dress like bums, and their music—its just noise. They certainly have no clue about raising kids.  All this from thirty somethings.

I suppose this is supposed to be  humorous social comment, but it wasn’t all that entertaining for those of us in even older demographics. You are all feckless kids to me.

Finally, I have to say that there are places that are outright preachy and boring. Actually, quite a few places. Shafrir has some messages about the fate of journalism, sexual harassment, and other serious topics, and she has here characters lecture us about them. I agree with a lot of what she is driving at, but its not that interesting to read.

Overall, this is yet another in the growing shelf of contemporary fiction set in the nutty world of the new economy.   She leaves the whole story hanging, so perhaps there is a sequel coming.

  1. Doree Shafrir, Startup, New York Little, Brown and Company, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Off Rock” by Kieran Shea

Off Rock by Kieran Shea

Shea’s third novel isn’t quite as punch-em-up as his earlier stories, but he’s still out there on the ‘gratuitous violence’ spectrum (heralded by one blurb as ‘king of badass’). Don’t expect deep and meaningful.

This story involves the not-especially-plausible escapades on an asteroid mine (or comet or moon—some small rock). During clean up, aging miner Jimmy discovers a valuable load apparently missed by mining operations. He decides to try to sneak it “off rock”, as a retirement stake.

Are you out of your mind, Jimmy??

This cunning plan becomes tangled with several other individuals, including a hit woman and his ex. Stuff happens. Fights. Explosions. Lucky escapes. Etc.

The plot moves along pretty well., The shallow characters and “action packed” story were OK. After all, what do you expect?

I had some serious problems with the future technology, though. This is supposed to be hundreds of years from now. Yet the tech was less advanced than the original Star Trek. The IT is basically the same as in any office today. That’s pretty silly for SF.

There are other massive implausibilities. This mining operation is not only not 100% robotic, but has a crew of dozens if not hundreds. That’s just insane, both technically and economically.

The plot hinges on the supposed value of the seam of gold that Jimmy finds. I’m finding it hard to believe that an economy that is harvesting asteroids for centuries will still care about gold or any other specific metal. Frankly, I took the chunk of gold to be a symbolic “big, valuable thing”.

I guess I’m telling you that this isn’t deep stuff.

On the other hand, we kind of like Jimmy are kind of rooting for him, even if nothing makes much sense.

  1. Kieran Shea, Off Rock, London, Titan Books, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Wrong Dead Guy” by Richard Kadrey

The Wrong Dead Guy by Richard Kadrey

The Wrong Dead Guy is a sequel to The Everything Box, which I liked. The latest story is even better, in my view.

At the end of TEB, Coop was shanghaied into the US government Department of Peculiar Science and reunited with his old sweetie Giselle (who works for DPS).

When a run down museum brings a sort of famous mummy to town, professional thief Coop is called upon to extract it for DPS. It seems simple enough, but things don’t go as planned, and Coop is cursed by the mummy.

Events ensue, many of them magical and/or bureaucratic.

Kadrey revels in clever banter and goofy images of supernatural LA. We like Coop, Giselle, and their posse of friends. Along the way we meet quite a few other interesting characters, including crooks, various government experts, museum staff, used car dealer, fortune teller, a hapless band of animal rights guerillas who are determined to “friendmancipate” oppressed animals, or I should say “beings”.

Coop and company have to overcome the rogue mummy who, of course,  is out to resurrect his old love, raise an army of the dead, and take over the world. Coop also has to deal with treacherous enemies and the auditors within the department, and the general randomness of life in LA.

The good news is that things seem really great at home with Giselle, which we are all happy to see.

As I suggested before, this is one of the contemporary flourish of supernatural noir fantasy, much of which is set in California. (The book jacket features endorsements by Christopher Moore, which is fine company to keep.) Kadrey is certainly good at likable (if weird) characters and snappy dialog.

‘Nuf said

It’s good.

  1. Richard Kadrey, The Wrong Dead Guy, New York, HarperCollins, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Earthly Remains” by Donna Leon

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

Yet another installment in Sonna Leon’s the long running and beloved Venetian stories.

Like the author and many of her readers, Commissario Brunetti is aging. The thoughtful and introspective detective grows ever more thoughtful and introspective as time goes by. (If you are hoping for swashbuckling cinematic excitement, these stories are not the droids you are looking for! :-))

As Brunetti faces his own eventual retirement and mortality, he acutely observes other older people. He also worries about the past and the future, and what will be left for the children.

In the last decade, Brunetti has watched his beloved city of Venice become overrun with tourists, touristy junk, mega cruise ships, and all the other horrors. He has also had to watch the slow degradation of the fragile coastal environment under the pressure of industry and human activities.

This story involves the death of an old man Brunetti is staying with, which may or may not have been an accident. The Commissario cannot let it lie without finding the truth of the matter. This requires uncovering the old man’s life, including dramatic events in his past, grief follow the death of his wife, and the slow death of the Laguna, including his colonies of bees.

(It’s not all about old people—Brunetti’s younger colleagues are fascinating as always.)

It’s all a rather sad story, beautifully told in Leon’s understated style.

As I said in an earlier review,

Reading Lean makes me want to live a little more “Venetian”. Not indolent luxury, but gently caring for my home town and the people who live here.

And, of course, “I wish I could write this well!

  1. Donna Leon, Earthly Remains, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Underwriting” by Michelle Miller

The Underwriting by Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller gives us an entertaining bit of slander and character assassination, slashing away two of my own favorite targets, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. I liked it a lot.

As timely as today’s headlines about Uber-holes, Silicon Valley “diversity” reports, and the most interest-conflicted administration in US history, this fiction hews awfully close to the bone. It’s fiction, but we know it’s too true. Ouch!

The story involves a very peculiar tech IPO from a company not unlike Tindr, handled by a troubled Wall Street bank. From the start, a lot of things make no sense, and we gather that there must be stuff going on behind the scenes. But the young people tapped to implement the deal are drooling at the chance to make it big, however dicey things may be. Fourteen Billion Dollars buys a lot of swallowing hard and looking away.

Much of the story is about the lives of ambitious Stanford kids, and it ain’t pretty. Most of the men are horrid, snooty, egotistical scum, and some are really stupid. Too many of the women put up with it for no good reason, and are all twisted up worrying about being accepted by men. This part of the story is surely written from autobiographical experience.

The workings of the fictional bank and tech company are pulled together from real world events and characters, too. Miller herself (a Stanford grad) worked in this field, so she is writing from solid knowledge. Yes, it really is this bizarrely horrid.

Miller strings us along with one twist, intrigue, and surprise after another. Frankly, I lost track of all the subplots, secret motives, clandestine revenge, and what not. Phew. There is even a murder mystery that is far from wrapped up by the end.

Along the way, Miller delivers some serous spankings that are richly deserved. She savages loony Silicon Valley corporate life, tech CEOs, and venture capitalists. She slaps around location based apps. She also puts the boot into the vicious conflicts of interest and insider dealing of Wall Street and SV VCs.

She has a soft spot for her Alma Mater Stanford, but doesn’t seem impressed with many of its products.  One suspected that these characters contain slices of real people she has known. If so, this book is probably well deserved revenge.

This story is mostly told from the point of view of her generation, and she develops quite a few characters with an acute eye to their confused mess upness. But there is sympathy here. Even the shallowest and obnoxious bros and the most clueless party girls attract our sympathy.

It is also very easy to see Miller herself in these characters, especially the ones who eventually drop out of this awful game. Just like she did.

Miller joins the growing early 21st literature  critiquing the digital generation, both non-fiction (Valley of the Gods, Chaos Monkeys, Hatching TwitterDogfightStraight To Hell) and fiction (Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore, The Circle, The Golden Gate, The Assistants, ).

Miller has a bad attitude and deft hand at story telling—a formula for a fun read.  I like it.

  1. Michelle Miller, The Underwriting, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Luna: Wolf Moon” by Ian McDonald

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

Wolf Moon is a sequel to the earlier Luna: New Moon. MacDonald’s stories are consistently great, and full of wonder, and this one is no exception.

The Guardian’s reviewer hit it on the nose, calling this “A Game of Moons”. Like GOT, this story is a fierce and violent power struggle among the “Dragons”, the major corporate powers on the Moon in the 2160s.

At the end of Luna : New Moon, the Cortas were overthrown, and this story takes up what happens next to the scattered remnants of the vanquished, and the other feuding clans. It isn’t pretty. Strike and counter strike. Death and destruction. Betrayal.

Worse, at long last the powers on Earth want to take control of the Lunar colony. Nothing good can be expected from this political development.

(The “Wolf Moon” is a reference to the full moon in January in Northern climates, which is a bleak and dangerous time, with hungry packs of wolves on the prowl.)

McDonald gives us more views of the complex and fascinating cultures on the moon.  These societies on the moon seem to take every idea ever imagined on Earth, and implemented it.  It is  far beyond “diversity”, to the edge of our imagination. Some of it is cool, and some of it is just, “whoa!”

But regardless of the strangeness of the culture, the story is full of love, courage, heroism, and compassion.

This story is far from finished, so we  all await the next installment.

Get it. Read it. McDonald is not to be missed.

  1. Ian McDonald, Luna: Wolf Moon, New York, TOR, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Huck Out West” by Robert Coover

Huck Out West by Robert Coover

Coover has written quite a bit, but I haven’t read his works until now.

Anyway, Huck Out West takes Twain’s nineteenth century stories of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and gang into their later lives. Part of the joke is that Coover works hard to retain the fractured, illiterate, nineteenth century dialect of the original stories. Even for a native of this region, it’s a chore to read, so one wonders how non-natives (over there in NY or LA, let alone the rest of the Anglophone world) manage.

Tom and Huck are famous for their youthful adventures in Missouri, and Huck rode Jim’s raft down the river. This book picks up their adventures as they mature during and after the war, and head out West.

Huckleberry narrates this account of his travels and “adventures” during and after the war, up until the Little Big Horn. Huck and Tom (and Jim and Becky) are American archetypes, so it is no surprise that they are involved in practically every significant event “out west”.

According to Huck, they served has Pony Express riders, as scouts, hunters, and cowboys. Huck isn’t much for prospecting, has a deft hand with horses, has killed but doesn’t enjoy it. He’s worked for the US Army, for wagon trains, cattle drives, lived with some Lakota, and hid out in the hills. He’s met generals, slave owning Cherokee, missionaries, prostitutes, Indians, prospectors, and every sort of rough character, Everywhere he goes, events and people conspire to ruin his life. Even his love life is a catastrophe. It’s one darn thing after another, and all of it pretty rough and ugly.

Perhaps like the original, this book has shocked some people with its coarse and blunt depiction of racism, violence, and general unattractive behavior of the white Americans in this story. This sure ain’t the way Hollywood and Western music depict the good old days!

Huck is yarning, of course, and he and Tom are allegorical characters, standing for “America”. This hardly literal history, but the truth is that this is what the Westward expansion was like if you were an Indian, non-white, female, or just not interested in killing. This may upset and shock some folks.

Myself, I wasn’t especially surprised by the story. It is true to history. In any case, I grew up on revisionist books and movies such as Little Big Man, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Vidal’s 1876, and even Blazing Saddles. The truth stings.

If this book has a point (besides the dialect), it’s not really clear to me.  But Huck’s tales aren’t about getting there, they are about going on down the river to see what happens next.

  1. Robert Coover, Huck Out West, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews