Review: Armada

I confess I’ve struggled to articulate my thoughts on Ernest Cline’s Armada. As the tricky second book following a blockbuster like Ready Player One, the temptation for this reviewer is to throw down comparisons in an endless series of bullets: Ready Player One was like this, but Armada‘s like this, which means XYZ.

That’s unfair. But not entirely. Armada isn’t related story-wise to RPO, and yet the two books overlap in many ways. Both have a teen male protagonist whose expertise in video games is the spine of the story. Both are rich with pop-culture references anchoring the story firmly in our world. It almost feels as if both books have a common ancestor, an ur-plot in Cline’s head. More likely Cline’s simply projecting his own experiences, as all authors do to some extent, and these two lenses have much the same prescription.

If I try to forget RPO exists, how do I feel about Armada?

The plot is captivating and straightforward: on page one our hero, Zack, looks out of his classroom window to see a UFO darting across the sky. What’s more, it’s a craft identical to the ones he sees and battles in a video game – called Armada. How is that possible? Is it real, or is he hallucinating? Either answer signals trouble, which subsequently arrives at a pace speedy enough to keep me turning the 350 pages. It’s exciting, thrilling and eventful. It feels almost like the novelisation of a screenplay (which is handy, as the movie rights were sold for seven figures).

It also feels aimed at a specific audience: teenage boys who might see themselves in Zack’s place. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, complete with absent father and a school bully.

In that sense it’s a disappointment. I have nothing against these sorts of stories at all. I suppose I was hoping for something a little different, in the way that Ready Player One felt different. But ignoring RPO, as I claimed I was: it’s a great story and it’ll make a watchable brain-off blockbuster movie. It has its faults, though: not least the massive implausibility of <spoiler>.

Aside from that, some lesser but important characters lack any depth: you can’t make an emotional connection to someone who’s little more than a checkbox. “Oh, we need one of them, and one of them…”

Also, the pop-culture references tend on occasion towards the gratuitous. The bickering is real enough: characters bitch and joke about real-world fictional characters just as we would. Sometimes it feels shoe-horned in, possibly disguising the lack of character depth. I have fewer reservations about the unlikeliness of the characters having sufficient composure under extreme stress to wisecrack quite as coherently as they do: hey, that’s fiction for you. Gibbering and damp trousers would not be the average teen boy’s idea of wish fulfilment.

There is one particular scene late in the book in which certain real-world people “guest star” as characters. I am not a huge fan in general and in this case I was overwhelmed by the aroma of cheese. For me, this device bumps up against a line: I understand it, and it makes sense in context, but… just no. I sincerely hope it doesn’t appear in the film, as all tension in that scene will evaporate in laughter (at least in UK cinemas).

These criticisms are niggles rather than chuck-the-book-across-the-room-isms, and possibly amplified by my own expectations after Ready Player One. This was always going to be Cline’s problem: follow that. People of a certain age (hello!) who enjoyed revisiting the minutiae of 80s video games and films in Ready Player One, who can nod sagely at discussions of Pac-Man tactics and mullets, might have anticipated and wanted another spin around the Pole Position track.

Armada is not that, and yet it’s too similar to Ready Player One to escape comparison, and that might ultimately be its biggest problem. JK Rowling wisely keeps well away from magic with her non-Hogwarts books, and in Armada Ernest Cline perhaps drifts too close to Ready Player One for safety.

Still, I’m sure he’s worrying all the way to the bank.

Review: Whispers Under Ground

And so to book three of Ben Aaronovitch‘s Peter Grant series: see my reviews of book one and book two to catch up with the meta-story so far.

Whispers Under Ground is not the book I was expecting. I’m not sure what my expectations were, precisely: perhaps something focusing more on what seems to be the arc of the series. I should have known better. To reach the end-of-level baddie you must fight several skirmishes, and this is merely book three of n where n ≥ 6 (I’m three books behind the curve).

The arc features in Whispers, of course, as a subplot. Our protagonist Peter makes progress on the hunt for the big bad, with his mentor Nightingale and colleague Lesley.

The main plot is a murder-mystery, with a suitably magical twist. The son of an American senator is killed in a manner curious enough for the Met to call in their experts on the peculiar: Grant and chums. This is one of the things I love about the series. Magic and its attending weirdness is known within the Met, to those in the higher echelons at least. It’s not something they especially want civilians to catch on to, and Peter Grant’s adventures in previous books have become a little too high profile for those with the peakiest of caps.

Nevertheless they need him. And he needs them, for they can bring the corporeal might of the force into play when some old-fashioned coppering is required. In this case, some below-ground sniffing around in the sewers and amongst the tube mice after the middle rail has been unplugged for the night.

The looming question for me – and whether this is tackled by later books I have yet to learn – is for how long the public can remain unaware of the Met’s mini-Hogwarts. Given the number of goings on, and the constabular tonnage that must surely by now be starting to twig, it’s becoming ever more implausible that the secret remains a secret. But then, in Grant’s universe, the secret has already been successfully kept for several generations, and deployed in two world wars. (I’d like to learn more about this back story. I suspect I won’t: clunking out a full chronology causes all mystery to waft up the chimney. Plus it commits the writer, leaving no room for manoeuvre should better ideas spring to mind. Tolkien is the exception, mainly because he knew what everyone in Middle Earth had for breakfast every day of their lives and wrote it all down in elvish poetry.)

I didn’t feel as much tension in Whispers as in previous: the climax is not as jangly. Not a bad thing – too many TV shows, for example, believe that each season’s finale must outdo last season’s by a factor of 2.718, proceeding rapidly to exploding universes resolved by honking red reset buttons, hand-waving, love, dreams, etc. Here it’s a calmer outcome, and I wonder if book four in the series, already on my pile, will include a major revelation or two to make up for it.

The last few pages of Whispers Under Ground indicate Aaronovitch knows where he’s going, back in the past present when this book came out. Pieces on the board shuffling into position. Characters I’m sure we’ll see again In my case, in a couple of months, I expect.

In summary: I’m still amazed this isn’t on TV yet.

Review: More Happy Than Not

More Happy Than Not – cover image
Please excuse the colour cast and the delicately distributed muck on top of my fridge.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an LGBT-themed book. Having finished Exo I saw the next few on my official to-read pile weren’t going to change that, so as a Christmas treat I decided to sneak in something new. Amazon opened its unwashed mac to show me a barely distinguishable selection of beefcake covers, and if you’ve read any of my books you’ll understand that’s not the sort of thing I write and it’s not my preferred reading material either.

I scrolled down, and saw a cover lacking both beef and cake. More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera. One blurb-skim later it plonked into my basket. It proved a fine choice.

I don’t remember reading anything like it before. A Bronx teen, Aaron Soto, struggles to figure himself out, torn between his girlfriend and a new, male best buddy, Thomas. Aaron’s father killed himself; his mother barely manages; his other friends run hot and cold, often violently. To Aaron, Thomas represents hope – and more? And threaded through the story, talk of a near-miraculous process offered by the Leteo Institute: the selective rewriting and deletion of memories.

A coming-of-age story, then, lifted by the generous peppering of a gritty setting and a dollop of SF mustard. In More Happy Than Not, no holds are barred, and teenage activities occur. This is not the (perfectly reasonable but) pastel, idealised world of some books. There are choices, and there are consequences. And the genre-mashing keeps you guessing, and keeps you reading, all the way.

Aaron is utterly believable: his thoughts, his feelings, his worries, all resonated to various degrees. The first-person present-tense style, not to everyone’s taste, brings an immediacy to a story focusing often on Aaron’s past and his future. I genuinely muttered “oh, god, don’t do that,” on at least one occasion, though I can neither confirm nor deny I was in a public place at the time and anyway it was noisy and nobody looked at me apart from that one lady.

I suppose if I were forced at knifepoint to find fault, I’d say I’d have liked the story to continue a little longer. That’s the reviewing equivalent to “my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist,” I know. I guess some of the supporting characters feel a little interchangeable (not a great sin here). I can’t say whether the Bronx scenes are truthful in any way – my reality involves regular sightings of students in three-piece tweed, and consequently I’m an unreliable judge. It feels real enough, as does Aaron’s family and its fractured lives.

This is a book I rattled quickly through (always a good sign) and I wish I’d been able to read it as a teenager. The SF angle would’ve given me the excuse I’d have been looking for and it would have helped me, I’m sure. Oh, to be a teenager again (modulo school, acne, exams, climate change, Brexit, Trump… hmm, on second thoughts).

More Happy Than Not is Adam Silvera’s debut novel, which makes me both happy and envious. I look forward to his next dropping onto my pile soon.

Review: Exo

Jumper series

Last year I reviewed Impulse, the third book in the Jumper series by Steven Gould. I’ve just finished Exo, the fourth. Yes, I’m still a way behind in my reading.

As in Impulse, Exo follows the activities of the Rice family: parents Davy and Millie, written in third person, and their 17-year-old daughter Cent, in first person. All three have the ability to jump – teleport – from place to place, subject to some plot-enabling constraints. In my review of Impulse I suggested Gould seemed to be moving pieces around in preparation for something bigger, and Exo is definitely that. I wasn’t expecting quite how big.

Impulse was Buffyesque: teenage girl with powers has to deal with school, boys, villains, etc. Exo has more ambition. The scope is not local, but global. Exo is about a young woman taking control: knowing (mostly) what she wants, and setting out to get it. Emerging from the shadow of her parents, from the shadow of their necessarily secret lives – they have enemies, trailing them through the books, who’d rather see them dead than jumping.

What does Cent want? Consider this: she can jump to places she can see or has visited. She can also jump “in place” adding velocity. So she can jump up, and keep going, adding bursts of speed to counter gravity, and then she can jump instantly back to where she started – and then instantly back to where she ended up. With the necessary equipment, how far up could she go? And what could she do when she got there?

And of course: what happens when, inevitably, she’s tracked?

Cent is a convincing protagonist, albeit implausibly bright. She still has to endure late-stage teenagerism with its embarrassing parents and boy-related awkwardness, even as she steps and/or jumps towards adulthood and the accompanying Stuff. I’m pleased she’s not the only focus: the many chapters following Millie and Davy broaden and support the story, linking it to the previous books and showing more of that Stuff. For example, Millie’s mother is very ill in hospital – and they suspect their enemies know, which brings obvious and non-obvious complications.

Gould doesn’t skimp on the technicals. Exo is a little heftier than its predecessors, and much of that seems down to the fine detail, the research brain-dumps he scatters throughout the story. Perhaps these are intended to appeal more to the teenage boy audience, to balance the female protagonist viewpoint. I know my proto-nerd self would’ve lapped up every nut and volt. It doesn’t feel like padding, slowing the story down. Instead it grounds the story in the real world: despite all the jumping you still need X and Y, and you still can’t do without Z.

What’s missing, curiously, is any great sense of threat beyond the dangers Cent experiences as a natural result of her ambition. The Rice family’s enemies are always in their thoughts, and Davy especially is constantly on his guard fretting about attack vectors, and that’s mostly as far as it goes. Not entirely. Perhaps that’s a more realistic approach than an attack-of-the-chapter style, which would only submerge the main plot in treacle. The reader wants to know what Cent does next, and that’s enough to keep the pages turning.

Exo marks a change in the Jumper series. The previous books were about dealing, struggling, adjusting, fighting. Exo is about owning and achieving. It’s positive, it’s progressive, and you’ll wish it were true. On the flip side, I’m not sure where the series goes after this. At least if it ends here, Exo is a fine conclusion.

 

Review: Moon Over Soho

Now that A Room Full of Elephants is out, I’m planning to read more. Top of the pile: Moon Over Soho, the second book in the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. If you remember, I enjoyed the first tremendously.

Although not a sequel, Moon dovetails nicely with the end of the first book. Rivers had consequences, and they’re not funnelled into the Thames to dilute to nothing. Rather, they form an underlying thread at which Aaronovitch occasionally tugs, with the promise of more in subsequent books. I’m glad he didn’t wave the big red magical-realism reset wand: I’m now two books into a series, and I’m certainly here for the duration. (The third book’s already lower down the pile.)

Where Moon isn’t quite as successful, for me, is in the main plot. It feels a little disjointed, less coherent, than Rivers. Some of the plot developments aren’t as surprising as it appears they’re supposed to be. Without spoiling anything, our protagonist displays a certain… lack of due diligence in one particular area. I know from experience that it’s tricky to keep revelations revelatory: as the author, you know whose fingers are in which pies and it’s often hard to judge the correct balance between sprinkling a few crumbs and chucking buckets of pastry at the reader. Here it doesn’t distract greatly from the fun of the book, merely triggering the occasional arctic eye-roll. (I’m sorry.)

One criticism I’ve heard – entirely fairly – about my own Till Undeath Do Us Part regards its detailed geographical references: the “he turned left onto King’s Parade and waved at Charlie the bin-busker” sort of thing. Moon has these too. Not everyone likes them but I think they’re fine here: London’s a minor character, and the details help ground the reader in reality as a counterpoint to the magic. Knowing the locations – through personal experience or by reputation – heightens the fantastical elements.

I do like how Moon ends: both the end of the plot, and the winding up that takes place in the closing pages. Full of bittery sweetness, regrets and promise. The spark of magic glinting at the edges of the grey hardness of police life.

Overall: not quite as enjoyable as Rivers, but a solid, fun read that sets things up nicely for book three.

Elephants for everyone

arfoe-post-releasedA Room Full of Elephants is released today. I’m so glad that after a year of effort my deranged wittering is finally in people’s hands, and the feedback so far is tremendously pleasing.

Release day is an odd one for an author. The excitement of sales, the checking of charts. Most of all, the feeling that it’s done, at last. I can’t tweak that paragraph any more. I can’t punch up that dialogue.

There’s plenty left for me to do, of course: marketing, for instance. Giveaways. Shouting into the wind, hoping for reviews. That’s the business side of the book business.

The book itself is no longer mine: it’s yours.

My head is still full of the quantum blur of superimposed drafts and dangling, discarded threads. Every line surrounded by ghosts. You, instead, get the focused view: the paved path from start to finish, a view I’ll never have.

I envy you that.

And yet every one of us, me included, experiences the book in our heads unlike everyone else. You see Keith one way, I see him another. And everyone is right. If it’s not stated explicitly in the words (and even if it is), the interpretation is entirely up to you. So you, collectively, see a cloud far fuzzier than the one I see.

The difference is that for me, the hallucinations triggered the words, and for you it’s the other way around.

Writing is weird.

How not to advertise on Facebook

For the launch of A Room Full of Elephants I’ve been considering running a short Facebook ad campaign: a couple of days before and after the release date, to drum up some eyeballs.

The release date is next Wednesday. Yesterday, I thought it was about time I made the ad. I should have started sooner, but, you know, I’ve had a book to finish. Priorities!

Facebook’s ad guidelines helpfully supplied image dimensions: 1200 x 628 pixels. They also stated “Your image may not include more than 20% text,” to stop people using text-filled spam ads. Reasonable, I suppose. I didn’t follow the link to “see how much text is on your image” because I didn’t have an image yet. 20% is 20%, I thought to myself, I’ll make something that doesn’t exceed that limit. I’ve been counting pixels since before Zuckerberg was born, you know. I can draw bounding boxes. I can multiply*. I can divide*.

(* I can tell machines to multiply and divide.)

I created an image: not the best ad in the world, but it matched the graphics I’ve been using elsewhere, based on the book cover, and it followed the 20% rule. Here it is, for posterity:

arfoe-facebook-ad-2016-03

Then it was time to double-check using that “see how much text is on your image” link, and…

Oh.

In their tool, you don’t draw bounding boxes for your text. The image is divided into a grid, and you click to colour in each grid rectangle, each cell, in your image that contains text. If you colour in more than 20% of cells, you have too much text. It’s not as accurate as drawing a bounding box, but it’s a much simpler user interface (both to use and to write).

The accuracy of the grid method depends entirely on the size of each cell. Imagine each cell was a single pixel: here, you’d colour in all the pixels enclosed by your hypothetical bounding box, and the answer would be the same. The coarser the grid, the less accurate the answer: imagine a two-by-two grid, where each cell corresponds to a quarter of the image. One piece of text in a single rectangle, and the system would think your image was 25% text.

Would you like to know the size of Facebook’s grid? 20×20? 10×10?

It’s 5×5.

Five by five.

Have it in roman numerals too: V by V. There are only XXV cells, and I’m only allowed to colour in up to V, because V / XXV = XX%. (I’ll stop this now, it’s confusing me.)

Here’s what my ad looks like, with the cells coloured in strictly according to the rules:

arfoe-ad-text

Facebook thinks my ad contains 52% text. Not something I imagine any reasonable punter would guess, and out by a factor of three or so.

How do I fix this? Oh, that’s easy: move text so it overlaps fewer gridlines. Shrink text to fit. Or to put it another way: change my design. Make my ad look worse. (For big brands, this can mean: break your branding rules. Good luck, ad agencies, explaining to your client why Facebook won’t accept your ad. That’s assuming pros have the same term as the rest of us, by no means certain.)

The true question, though, is: does Facebook use this same 5×5 grid when approving ads, or is it just a handy tool for ad creators to see if they’ve gone massively over the top?

In other words, what’s the real rule: “Your image may not include more than 20% text”, or “Your image may not include text in more than five cells when divided into a 5×5 grid”

And the answer is: who knows? Facebook, you would hope, but the evidence suggests they’re not sure either. I’ve seen reports of ads being rejected for failing the grid, and then reinstated on appeal. More than one of those ad-yourself-to-success listicles recommends obeying the grid rule. My guess is there’s a front line of grunts who apply the grid rule mechanically, and a second line who deal with the complaints and spend most of their time eye-rolling.

As to whether any of this truly matters: yes, I think so, at least in part. Such a coarse grid encourages you to use short, shouty text to make “best use” of your five cells, or to cram text together, breaching design principles. The ads are worse as a result: bad for the advertiser, bad for the consumer, bad for Facebook.

This rule also makes it very hard to include important text such as disclaimers required by law. Not an issue with A Room Full of Elephants, admittedly, assuming we don’t get Trumped.

Anyway: I’m not placing this ad right now. I’ll think of another approach. I’m allowed to include an image of the product I’m selling, and text on the product doesn’t count towards the 20% (unless you zoom in to try to cheat the rules, and the extent of the allowable zoom is, of course, subjective). So I’ll do a photo of the book in a relevant setting, and I have an idea. All I need is a copy of the paperback: and for that, I’m still waiting.

Thanks, Facebook.