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Mark Wakely (Lombard, Illinois)

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Then We Came to the End: A Novel
Then We Came to the End: A Novel
by Joshua Ferris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great first novel, 17 Jan. 2008
While Then We Came to the End has been touted for its humor- and it is a funny book- to read it as strictly a spoof of ad agency life would be to diminish what Joshua Ferris has accomplished in his clever novel. Filled with characters that inspire sympathy and revulsion, familiarity and curiosity- often at the same time- this notable first effort captures well what pressure-cooker corporate life can do to the human spirit, no small achievement for any novelist much less a brand new one.

Told from a collective "we" point of view, the characters nevertheless have distinct voices and viewpoints, with their own hopes and desires for life beyond ad life, desires (at times) at odds with their coveted, chosen occupation. Lording over Chicago from their lofty office perches, there's a pervasive sense not only of "how did we get here?" but also a disbelieving, disheartening "so this is it?" in their daily grind. Some resent the hucksterism inherent in the advertising world- despite having fought to be a part of that world- as if the ad world should somehow be more than what is, a corporate job that just so happens to rely on teams of brilliant, creative and quirky individuals for its ultimate success. Worse, by nature some of these unique individuals are nearly the antithesis of the very idea of teamwork, which alone provides some interesting conflict. Characters strive to do their best work, or creatively avoid doing any work, as rumors swirl about layoffs and clients lost and found. With their uncertainties and insecurities surprisingly at odds with their handsome, enviable salaries, they praise and complain, encourage and slander, all the while desperate to avoid the dreaded humiliation of being the next in line to be shown the door. It's this fear of the seemingly inevitable that propels the book forward, and how each character deals with that fear (or its reality) makes the book engaging.

Ferris breaks from the "we" to the first person singular only once, and that's for a stern woman supervisor who's been diagnosed with cancer. Her ruminations on her life and circumstances are poignant without being maudlin, and add an extra, unexpected dimension to the book.

Like other first novels based on real places and events, Then We Came to the End does a fine job of letting outsiders in as it exposes the unglamorous aspects of ad agency life. Readers who spend their allotted time in cubicles and offices anywhere will undoubtedly recognize many of these characters- and maybe even themselves- since corporate life is corporate life no matter where it's found.

Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein


Next
Next
by Michael Crichton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An important, timely novel but not without its flaws, 27 Nov. 2007
This review is from: Next (Paperback)
Michael Crichton does in Next what he's always done so well in his novels- he explores the scientifically possible and shows us how our decisions to use (or misuse) new technologies can lead to unintended, even disastrous consequences.

Although a case could be made that there are enough characters and plotlines in Next for three or four novels, Crichton's intentions seem to be to deliberately overwhelm us with the dizzying pace of genetic research and all the opportunities for both tremendous good and alarming malevolence in its application. A true Pandora's box in that our scientific curiosity can sometimes get the better of us, the more we learn how to tinker with the very building blocks of life, the more temptations we face to play God. And as Crichton correctly demonstrates in his multi-layered novel, these temptations will not be meted out in some easily digestible fashion, they will come screaming at us in ever increasing numbers until our ability to distinguish the good from the bad is overwhelmed. And just like those multitude of spirits Pandora set free, there will be no going back into the box- discoveries might be lost, but they aren't unmade, particularly ones of this significance and magnitude.

The upside in Next: the end to most diseases and genetic defects is finally within sight. The downside: with all the money involved, there comes a loss of individual privacy and even certain freedoms.

Crichton's first question: are these remarkable discoveries truly worth the price? Crichton's next two questions: will we ever really know the answer to the first question, and will it come too late?

One misstep on Crichton's part: the abrupt switches between story lines- he makes readers work harder than they should have to in order to follow along. But given the timeliness and importance of the story, it's worth the extra effort even though the problem could have been mitigated by some restructuring.

Nonetheless, as thrilling as anything he's ever written- made even more dramatic by the potential for some of it to come true, and sooner rather than later- Next is a worthy read.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein


Then We Came to the End
Then We Came to the End
by Joshua Ferris
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great first novel, 27 Nov. 2007
While Then We Came to the End has been touted for its humor- and it is a funny book- to read it as strictly a spoof of ad agency life would be to diminish what Joshua Ferris has accomplished in his clever novel. Filled with characters that inspire sympathy and revulsion, familiarity and curiosity- often at the same time- this notable first effort captures well what pressure-cooker corporate life can do to the human spirit, no small achievement for any novelist much less a brand new one.

Told from a collective "we" point of view, the characters nevertheless have distinct voices and viewpoints, with their own hopes and desires for life beyond ad life, desires (at times) at odds with their coveted, chosen occupation. Lording over Chicago from their lofty office perches, there's a pervasive sense not only of "how did we get here?" but also a disbelieving, disheartening "so this is it?" in their daily grind. Some resent the hucksterism inherent in the advertising world- despite having fought to be a part of that world- as if the ad world should somehow be more than what is, a corporate job that just so happens to rely on teams of brilliant, creative and quirky individuals for its ultimate success. Worse, by nature some of these unique individuals are nearly the antithesis of the very idea of teamwork, which alone provides some interesting conflict. Characters strive to do their best work, or creatively avoid doing any work, as rumors swirl about layoffs and clients lost and found. With their uncertainties and insecurities surprisingly at odds with their handsome, enviable salaries, they praise and complain, encourage and slander, all the while desperate to avoid the dreaded humiliation of being the next in line to be shown the door. It's this fear of the seemingly inevitable that propels the book forward, and how each character deals with that fear (or its reality) makes the book engaging.

Ferris breaks from the "we" to the first person singular only once, and that's for a stern woman supervisor who's been diagnosed with cancer. Her ruminations on her life and circumstances are poignant without being maudlin, and add an extra, unexpected dimension to the book.

Like other first novels based on real places and events, Then We Came to the End does a fine job of letting outsiders in as it exposes the unglamorous aspects of ad agency life. Readers who spend their allotted time in cubicles and offices anywhere will undoubtedly recognize many of these characters- and maybe even themselves- since corporate life is corporate life no matter where it's found.

Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein


The Road
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Road Trip Through Hell, 29 Mar. 2007
This review is from: The Road (Hardcover)
Cormac Mccarthy's The Road is a dark, post apocalyptic journey through the remnants of the world as we know it, with the faintest flicker of hope at the end.

Destroyed by some never quite explained catastrophe, the Earth has become nearly inhospitable to life. A thick ash smothers everything and hangs in the sky, making a cold, quiet moonscape where things had once been green and alive. Through this nightmare world travels bands of desperate survivors, including an unnamed man and his son. The father's plan is to travel south to warmth and the ocean, where he hopes to find their salvation. Along the way they are confronted by cannibals, thugs and others as adrift as they are, a Darwinian struggle reminiscent to some degree of the lost boys in The Lord of the Flies, but far more sinister and disturbing. In particular, the image of the captives of the cannibals- who are being eaten bit by bit, shrinking grotesquely but kept alive so their flesh remains fresh- is a vision of Hell right out of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. Calling themselves "the good guys," the father and son still carry a gun- with two bullets- to end their lives if needed rather than suffer a crueler fate. The father also struggles with the ethical dilemma of having to "unteach" his son about compassion and empathy, afraid that the boy- who wants to help those equally in need- will only die in the attempt. This "every man for himself" situation is in stark contrast to everything the father believes, and how the boy has been raised. It's this struggle to hang on to the noble aspects of humanity while surrounded by the worse that makes the novel insightful, haunting, and a riveting read.

Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 18, 2010 11:53 AM BST


The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale
by Diane Setterfield
Edition: Hardcover

49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant debut, 14 Oct. 2006
This review is from: The Thirteenth Tale (Hardcover)
When a first novel is immediately (and enthusiastically) compared to the works of such literary luminaries as the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, a large dose of skepticism is in order. I read this book with a jaundiced eye, expecting to eventually uncover at least one unconvincing character, a plot twist that failed to surprise, or a passage less than vivid, unworthy of the masters.

I did not.

Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale carries the reader along like a turbulent river, with unexpected eddies and undertows you can't escape. The characters are absolutely true to the worlds of Dickens and Austen, but they're originals, not derivatives. They grieve and you do, they rejoice and you do, they die and you do- almost. The whole atmosphere of the book is powerful and sweeping, in the manner of Henry James or even Joseph Conrad. (Well, minus all those ships, of course.) If I had to pick one story that gave the same overall effect as Setterfield's book, I'd pick The Turn of the Screw, since the ghost element in Setterfield's book is equally shocking and unique, although James's classic novella lacks the grand span and scope of The Thirteenth Tale. Then again, Setterfield's characters could just as easily find a home in Dickens' dangerous London squalor or in the halls of a Bronte mansion, the air thick with secrets and heavy with troubled specters anxious to make themselves known.

Intriguing, daring and even downright heart pounding at times, The Thirteenth Tale might well give you nightmares at the end, but they'll be the best- and most original- nightmares you've ever had.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein


Echo Park
Echo Park
by Michael Connelly
Edition: Hardcover

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, 12 Oct. 2006
This review is from: Echo Park (Hardcover)
For thirteen years, something's troubled Harry Bosch. Marie Gesto, pretty 22-year-old, was abducted and presumed dead, her body- and her killer- never found. Despite an exhaustive investigation, Harry's intuition tells him there's something about the unsolved murder he's overlooked, a critical piece of the puzzle that's staring him in the face but he just can't see, some telling detail out of hundreds in the case that points to the killer's identity but refuses to come into focus, maybe- just maybe- because of his overbearing ego, or some defect in his detective skills...

And then a break in the case. A killer caught, a confession and a body found. Case closed?

Harry's suspicions still tells him no, but he's not sure why. Maybe he should just let it go, swallow his pride and admit he could have caught the killer years ago. But things just don't add up, the confession too convenient for all those involved, his instincts nagging him that the real killer is still out there and now very, very close...

Welcome to Echo Park, Michael Connelly's latest installment in the trials and tribulations of Detective Harry Bosch. Unlike many one-dimensional fictional detectives, Harry is an expertly drawn character with all the flaws, foibles and contradictions that make humans...well, human. His cunning and street-smarts- along with his near paranoia and self-doubts- place him high up in the pecking order of memorable gumshoes. Better still, all the characters in Echo Park strike a true note, even the disposable ones.

And the plot! It's been said that good plots flow from good characters, and Echo Park proves that rule. The seemingly innocuous details and things said that take on new meaning and significance at the end, the way everything eventually falls in place, the stunning conclusion that's both proper and fitting...it takes a profound familiarity with your characters to put all that together and make it feel natural, and Connelly succeeds at the task most splendidly.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
by Mark Haddon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Captivaring, 16 Sept. 2005
As both an author and father of a child with Asperger's, I was drawn to this book to see if Haddon could truly capture the unique brilliance and absent social skills of an autistic boy. Not only does he succeed at the task, he adds a healthy dash of humor while avoiding the easy trap of pathos a lesser author might have fallen into. The book is stunning in its accuracy of how those with autism view the world and- just as important- how the world views them. It is this last viewpoint that elevates the book to more than just clever, because we see through Christopher's literal-minded eyes the duplicity of the "normal" world, the world that all assume must be superior. In a way, Haddon's book reminds me of that great short story "Gimpel the Fool" by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a story of a simple man who believes all the lies he's told. In the end, it's not those who tried to trick him, but Gimpel himself who's revealed to be the wisest one for remaining firm in his belief that goodness will prevail. So too does Christopher prevail, his detective work unveiling the truth and overcoming all the futile attempts to thwart or dismiss his meticulous investigation.

I don't know if I'll ever write a book with an autistic character, but thanks to Mr. Haddon, I feel like it's already been done for me.

Strongly recommended.

Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein


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