Quote #1

I have requested of the shrink: Find me the thing that I can make the greatest impact in and I will do that thing.

You and everybody else, she replied.

– Weike Wang, Chemistry (p. 74)

Book Review: The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson

Disclaimer: I was given an advance copy of this book with a request for a review.

The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson

Last year I came across a recommendation for a book called The Room and just had to read it. No, not the best-selling Room that was turned into an Academy-award winning movie (although I also read that, and watched it, and you should too, because it’s great). No, I’m referring to the lesser known short work by Swedish actor/author Jonas Karlsson. In it, the antisocial Bjorn seems to find a secret room in his office that none of his coworkers will admit is there. Here is my brief 4 star review from Goodreads:

To some extent, this is the book that I wanted to write: an absurdist look at modern life and conformity. I love its humor, darkness, intensity, and brevity. Jonas Karlsson does not waste the reader’s time with unnecessary details simply to drag out his clever conceit. The character Bjorn comes across as the 21st century ambitious stepson of Bartleby.

Such a compelling review, I’m sure you just want to rush out and pick up a copy yourself, right?

Regardless, I really loved the book and when I saw that he had a new one coming out this year called The Invoice I was totally stoked and didn’t even bother reading the summary. Certainly there was some mysterious invoice that the protagonist would need to find the origins of. Maybe he would keep shredding the paper and yet it was always on his desk. The possibilities are endless!

At this point you may think my trademark sarcasm is overflowing but trust me, this is sincere.

Yes, this book is, indeed, about a mysterious invoice that shows up in our hero’s mailbox one day. An invoice for an extraordinary sum that he quickly assumes is a mistake, but soon finds that not only is it very serious, it is a matter that affects everybody. It turns out that the timeĀ  has come for people to pay, for lack of better words, for their quality of life. Unfortunately in the case of our unnamed protagonist, his bill has reached a level one might expect of a celebrity or a movie star or… a CEO, not that of a video store clerk living in a crummy apartment eating pizza mostly by himself.

Unlike his last work, Jonas Karlsson does not focus on the absurd setup for too long. Instead he uses the conceit as an exploration of the nature of happiness. Crap, I think I may have written the same line in my last review. As incredibly different as these two books were, there are some similar themes. But The Invoice is a much more lighthearted look at what matters most in life and how that is measured. Is there really an objective way to look at our experiences? Does our attitude toward life shape the highs and lows as much as the actual highs and lows themselves? Can a part-time film buff with few personal relationship and no plans for the future really be one of the most satisfied individuals in the country?

Karlsson is an enjoyable writer with a brevity that serves this kind of narrowly-focused speculative fiction well. I would give The Invoice 4 out of 5 stars if I knew how to add ratings.

Book Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Disclaimer: I was given an advance copy of this book with a request for a review.

Dark Matter by Black Crouch

Here’s the thing, I have a tendency to figure out sci-fi plots rather quickly. I’m sure most sci-fi fans can say the same thing. There’s a somewhat limited number of ideas to go around (time travel, clones, working class vs. elites, etc.). So when I started reading Dark Matter and figured out the basics of what was going on with our semi-mild-mannered protagonist I got worried. Was I just going to go through some logical progression of how Jason Dessen, the local college’s physics professor who gave up on a brilliant career to start an unexpected family, figures out into what type of alternate reality his kidnapper has dragged him? Would the story provide any real suspense beyond some made up sciencey BS to justify a convoluted plot?

Crap, I think I already said too much. Forget those questions…

But seriously, that was not this book. Sure, I probably had the first 70 or 80 pages pegged as Blake Crouch paints a picture of a man with a happy, albeit uneventful, family life that resulted from his abandoning a path that would have won him all sorts of awards that rival the Nobel. And from my vantage point, it seemed obvious who was kidnapping him and where he was being taken. However that didn’t stop the novel from being enjoyable, because he paints the picture well.

Our hero, Jason Dessen, is a believable and relatable kind of guy. He is not driven by ego but rather by the question of whether he’s given up too much of his ego for what might be considered a mundane life. He loves his wife (who also walked away from her aspirations to be a serious artist) and their son, who is most responsible for the divergence of their lives from the original paths they had wanted, but is that enough? Did he make the right decisions? Would he be happier as a celebrated theoretical physicist? What would have become of his relationship and child?

And what if he could actually find out the answers to those questions?

I really don’t want to say too much about the plot, because Blake Crouch does such a great job of letting all of this unfold in front of the reader and it’s easy to spoil. The science may be just a flimsy take on some real theories, but the execution is great. The concept of the box (uh… you’ll have to read the book) is very clever and makes the whole journey to find Jason’s real self almost make sense. Honestly, as crazy as the story gets towards the end, it really does continue to make sense in the semi-logical construct Crouch has erected.

There really isn’t much I can say bad about this novel. It’s suspenseful and thrilling and the metaphysical discussion is thought-provoking yet fun. Without sounding too pretentious, Crouch successfully touches upon some deep ideas. What makes us… well… us? Do we dictate the choices we make or do those choices dictate who we become? Is every possibility truly possible? Can those possibilities change us to the point that we are unrecognizable? Whether or not alternate or parallel universes exist, they provide a fascinating basis for a thought experiment on human nature and this story goes beyond just a surface skim of the concept.

Overall I found Dark Matter to be an enjoyable sci-fi thriller that’s even a little intellectually stimulating and highly recommend it. If I could figure out how to post stars on this page it would be 4 out of 5.