On honesty and Book Reviews

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” ~Oscar Wilde

Anyone who’s browsed through this blog may have noticed over time that most of the reviews I put up are generally laudatory.  There’s a reason for that.  What with a finite amount of time for both reading and writing, owing to, well…life, I generally finish books I like and stop reading those I don’t.  There are times however when I will finish a book that I’m not well disposed toward.  Usually, in that case it’s a book that a publisher has been kind enough to send me for review purposes, although there are times when I’ve bought a book and said to myself, “dammit, I paid for this…I’m damn well reading it!”  Having said that, I reserve the right to give an honest opinion of any book sent to me for review.  It may not be a recommendation that you read it, but anyone willing to send a review copy deserves the satisfaction of a review for their efforts, whether it be good or bad.

 As an example, awhile back Titan Books sent me a copy of Kim Newman’s JagoMy only other experience with Mr. Newman’s work was the delightfully wicked Anno Dracula, and on the basis of that experience, I was quite excited to read something else by someone I consider a superior genre (that genre being Horror) author.  Alas, while the premise was intriguing, it proved to be an overly long behemoth of a novel that suffered from a lack of brevity.  The same novel could have been told better in about half the space and by the time I was done reading it I was more relieved that it was over than excited about writing a review.  That review is still forthcoming, but it will be written.  Quid pro quo, remember?

Of the books this past year that I’ve finished and chosen not to review, John Scalzi’s Redshirts stands out as a novel that I a. bought, b. read to the end, and c. hated.  Yes, yes, I know he won a Hugo, but to me, it was little more than fluff, a derivative bit of fan fiction with several codas tacked on the end in a failed effort to appear “literary.”  As for the Hugo, well, it reinforced my opinion that some awards are more about good marketing or an author’s popularity.  Granted, there are many rave reviews of Redshirts on-line, so I’ll direct you to them, or maybe suggest that you read a much superior novel by the same author, Agent to the Stars.  As for Redshirts, the best I can say about it is that it didn’t take up a lot of my time.

So, what’s the point of this diatribe?  Well, basically this: I want to institute a slight format change to the site.  I want to let you, the reader, know where I, the reviewer, got my source material, whether it be a review copy from a publisher, off an advance review site such as NetGalley, or something I bought at the local bookstore. I’ll include this information before the body of the review. That way you’re forewarned of any biases in my reviewing.  I hope you don’t find any.

Agent to the Stars: John Scalzi

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi is the first novel I someday hope to write.  Started as what he calls, “a practice novel” (that novel everyone tries just to see if they can do it) back in 1997 and posted to his website as “shareware” (from the preface),  there it sat, gathering fans until 2005, when he was contacted by a publisher (every writers dream) and an initial run was printed by Subterranean Press.  This time around, Agent to the Stars has been picked up in paperback format by TOR.

Now Scalzi is not new to writing, beginning his career as a film critic and humour columnist, later becoming a freelance writer and author.  Since 2005, when Agent to the Stars became his second published novel ( Old Man’s War beat Agent out of the gate by mere months but it can be accurately claimed to be his second novel), Scalzi has focused on follow-ups to OMW and his personal blog entitled “Whatever“.  So, he’s had some practice.  However, that doesn’t detract from the impressive quality of a novel he wrote on a lark.

As to the story:

Suppose you’re a member of an alien society wanting to make first contact with the silly little creatures that inhabit the third planet around a very average G-type (aka yellow dwarf) star.  Then suppose you’ve tapped into all the random information (specifically television and movies) they’ve been broadcasting into space for the past century or so.  For every E.T.  you watch, there’s a Thing, or more specific to the Yherajk (as you call yourselves), a little movie called, The Blob.  Well, you might have second thoughts about the whole thing, based on the apparent xenophobia exhibited by the local populace.  However, if you’ve spent the time and energy to come half way across the galaxy, you’re not going to let a little paranoia get in the way of first contact.  The question is how to make a good first impression?  The answer…hire a great publicist!

That, in essence, is the premise of Agent to the Stars.

When Tom Stein, an up and coming talent agent is told he has a meeting with the head of the agency, he expects that Carl Lupo (legendary agent and owner of the agency) is going to congratulate him on his latest deal.  Tom certainly doesn’t expect to take a meeting with some gelatinous goo named Joshua, sitting on the table in an aquarium.  Once he gets over the initial shock of first contact with an alien that resembles a bad b-film monster (and incidentally, smells like ass), Carl sets forth a proposition.  Find a way to market the Yherajk to humanity, a way to gently introduce the populace to a genuinely agreeable alien society wrapped in very unpleasant form.  No big deal for one of the hottest talent agents in Hollywood, right?

And with that, Tom takes home Joshua (in a water jug) to brainstorm ideas on how not to spook the entire human race when the time comes to introduce the  new neighbours.  The answer they come up with is a doozy.

If there were any comparison to make to other first contact stories, I would equate Agent to the Stars to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, only with a really, really uncute alien.  The refreshing thing about this novel is the lack of any sinister motive.  There’s no desire on the part of the Yherajk to ingratiate themselves into earth’s society only to round earthlings up to process into tasty treats.  They don’t want our water, or to subjugate the planet.  I spent most of the novel expecting that overused plot device to crop up, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that the Yherajk have no ulterior motive.  Of course, there is also the comedic element of this entirely benign alien society that resembles something from our worst nightmares. 

The cast of secondary characters are well thought out, from Tom’s feisty assistant Miranda, to Jim Van Doren, the mildly slimy, yet talented journalist who has no idea where his snooping will eventually take him (Let’s just say, it’s not Kansas).  There’s also Michelle Beck, Tom’s biggest client, a beautiful actress long on legs but short on intelligence.  Unfortunately, she wants to stretch those legs, insisting that he get her a casting of substance, regardless of talent.  As if Tom doesn’t have enough on his plate, what with that whole, “introducing an alien species to mankind,” thing…he’s got to keep a spoiled (yet loveable) actress happy.  Which will prove harder?

By the end of the novel, Scalzi’s got the whole situation wrapped up in a satisfying bow (no spoilers here, thank you!).  Agent to the Stars is so much fun that the reader (well, this reader) couldn’t put it down, and deserves a place of note in a genre where (usually) the only good alien is a dead alien.  Very refreshing and well worth the time.