Tag Archives: satire

Book Review: Machine Man

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of Max Barry. I’ve reviewed all three of his previous books —Syrup, Jennifer Government and Company — and had the chance to meet him and have him sign my copy of Machine Man at the recent Brisbane Writer’s Festival. So I’m sure it will come as no surprise when I say that I absolutely loved this book.

When scientist Charles Neumann loses a leg in an industrial accident, it’s not a tragedy. It’s an opportunity. Charlie always thought his body could be better. His employer, military contractor Better Future, has the resources he needs to explore a few ideas. So he begins to build parts. Better parts.

Charlie’s prosthetist, Lola, is impressed by his artificial limbs. But some see him as a madman. Others, a product. Or even a weapon.

This is one of those times where I don’t think the jacket copy really does the story justice. Based on this description, I expected to enjoy Machine Man, but I didn’t expect to come to love and empathise with Charlie to the degree I did.

So here’s my version:

When scientist Charles Neumann loses a leg in an industrial accident, all he wants to do is disappear from the world, taking his shame and his top-of-the-line artificial leg with him. Then he falls in love with his prosthetist, Lola,  and realises that losing a limb doesn’t have to be a handicap. With his skills, he can improve his prosthesis until it’s as good as the real thing.

But why stop there? His employer, military contractor Better Future, has the resources for him to build a prosthetic leg that’s even better than the real thing. Then the only question is: Why stop at just one leg?


One of the things I really enjoyed about Machine Man is that throughout the story, everything Charles Neumann does makes sense. There’s never a point where you step back and think, “Woah! That’s crazy, man!” But by the time you get to the end of the book, you realise that somewhere along the way, at some point, something must have gone wrong in Charlie’s head because it’s just insane to chop off perfectly good parts of your own body. Isn’t it?

Machine Man has been described as “gruesomely funny”, and I’d agree with that. It’s also incredibly honest and, at times, quite touching.  And, of course, whatever else it is, Machine Man is a love story. It’s just a classic case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy chops off own limbs to get girl.

This is one of my favourite of Barry’s books, second only to Syrup. I highly recommend it. And, as my parting gift to you, I leave you once again with the book trailer. (If you think this is darkly amusing, you’ll love the book. Trust me.)

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Monday’s Top 5

Welcome to a new week! Links Ahoy!

Please, please, please go and visit the amazing Brian D. Buckley, for his Sixteen Simple Rules for Writers. Starting with number 1: Keep in tune with the publishing world by reading blogs, following agents on Twitter, etc. Also: avoid anything that distracts you from writing, especially the Internet. They rules are funny, contradictory, and true. You’ll love ’em.

Eliza Keller has a fantastic post about Running. No, wait. Hear me out. It’s a really inspiring story of when she realised she was a Runner, as opposed to just someone-who-runs. She takes that lesson and applies it to her desire to be a Writer.

Everywhere I look at the moment, someone is writing about the End of Borders as though it’s the End of Days. You’re probably sick of the whole thing by now, right? Oh. Well, don’t get off that train just yet. I’ve got one more must-read post for you. Head over to The Epicurean Inkblot and check out  Bye, Bye, Borders. Blot talks about how the end of Borders is really just part of the great circle of life.

I lied. One more Borders-themed link. (This is it, I promise.)

Last week I mentioned that I’d come across a new blog called C’Mere! Whatcha dooin?  and I was loving it. Well, this week K. Marie Criddle turned her sketching to an as-yet unanswered post-Borders question: What will I do instead of grocery shopping now?

Last but not least, The Surfing Pizza fondly remembers his obsession with Mister Ed. Five Nostalgia Points to anyone who immediately started singing, “A horse is a horse, of course, of course….”

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Book Review: Company

I recently read Max Barry’s third (and most recent) book, Company. As you may know, I’m a bit of a fan of Barry, and spend an inordinately inappropriate amount of time reading through the backlist of posts on his blog. When I read his other two books (Syrup and Jennifer Government), I was so keen to write about them that I had barely closed the back cover before I was pounding out a review. On the other hand, I finished reading Company almost two weeks ago, and have only just got to the point where I’m ready to write about it.

I am really loathe to say this, but… I didn’t enjoy Company as much as Barry’s other books. Excuse me while I spent some time cringing in horror at my own statement.

At Zephyr Holdings, no one has ever seen the CEO in person. The beautiful receptionist is paid twice as much as anybody else, but does no apparent work. The sales reps use relationship self-help books as sales manuals, and one is on the warpath because of a missing mid-morning donut. In other words, it’s an ordinary big company.

 Company is the story of Jones, a man employed by Zephyr Holdings to sell training programs. He quickly realises that none of his colleagues know what the company actually does. So he sets about finding out.

I sat down and read this novel in a single sitting. Seriously. I let my husband make his own dinner, I ignored my son’s plaintive cries that he needed to eat, and I locked myself in the bathroom with the shower running so that I’d have enough peace and quiet to finish the book. And there wasn’t a single part of the book that I didn’t enjoy. The characters are realistic, the plot is eerily plausible, and the twist is unexpected enough to be entertaining, without coming completely out of left field. But I still felt strangely… unfulfilled.

I sat and tried to work out what the problem could have been:

Is Company funny? Yes. Well, it’s amusing in a satirical way, although not laugh-out-loud funny like Syrup.

Is Company exciting? Yes. Well, it’s exciting in a corporate way, but not full of edge-of-your-seat thrills like Jennifer Government.

Does Company hold your attention, and make you feel like you’re in the middle of the story? Yes. Although where Syrup had me trying to think up a marketing campaign to destroy Sneaky Pete and Jennifer Government had me feeling like an action-hero in a world-gone-stupid, Company just had me feeling like I was trapped in an all-too-familiar Kafka-esque tableau.

And I think that’s why I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as Barry’s earlier ones. Syrup was set in the exciting world of LA and Hollywood, and Jennifer Government was set in an entire alternate-present world. Company, however, was set inside a single corporation; a single building; a handful of people. And it felt claustrophobic in comparison.

In saying all of that, I definitely recommend Company. I just don’t agree that it’s Barry’s best book. At least, it’s not my favourite. But I urge you to read all three and decide for yourself.

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Syrup: The Movie

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Max Barry’s book Syrup. (You can read it here if you’re interested.) So, Max Barry announced on his blog that the book is absolutely, definitely being made into a movie. Check out his blog post if you don’t believe me!

EDIT: This movie is now in production, and Max Barry is providing an hilarious commentary on how it’s all going. Jump straight over to his blog for the full 411.

I’m really excited about this – especially because the movie is going to be made using a script written by Barry himself. Let’s hope that it all goes according to plan. Now, on to the important questions:

  1.  What are the chances that the actors who cameo in the book (Tom Cruise, Winona Ryder & Gwyneth Paltrow) will cameo in the movie as well?
  2. Will Coca Cola seriously let this movie be made?
  3. How do I get me a can of Fukk?

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Book Review: Jennifer Government

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!

Jennifer Government is Max Barry’s second book, published in 2003. As I mentioned here, I am a bit of a fan of Max Barry’s writing. I approached the reading of Jennifer Government in much the same way that I’d approach an ice-cream sundae – a great deal of anticipation, coupled with the knowledge that once I’ve finished it, it will all be over. So I kept the book sitting next to my bed in my pile of “to be read” books for quite some time before finally giving in and hurling myself into it.

The story is set in a future, where the USA has taken control of the majority of the developed world, including the UK, parts of Asia, Australia and New Zealand. All of these countries fall under US control – therefore, there isn’t any need for international trading. Capitalizm is the new political structure, which is essentially rule-by-corporation, with taxation abolished and the public sector privatised. The Government no longer has any power other than the prevention of crime and, budget withstanding, punishment of criminals. The Police is a private law enforcement and mercenary company, Ambulances are only provided for sick or injured parties once payment has been made, and welfare of all kinds has been abolished.

In this world of corporate-rule, all citizens take their surnames from the company for which they work. Some of the main characters in the story are Jennifer Government (she works for the Government), Hack Nike (he works for Nike), Billy NRA (he works for the NRA), etc…. You get the picture. This naming extends all the way to children, who are given a surname based on the school they attend – each one funded by a particular corporation (Mattel and McDonald’s schools are specifically mentioned.).

The story follows the results of a marketing-campaign-gone-insane. John Nike, VP of Guerilla Marketing, develops a campaign that will allow Nike to sell the new Nike Mercury sneakers for $2500 a pair, despite them only costing pennies to manufacture. The key element of this campaign is simple: Increase demand by having teenagers who purchase the Nike Mercury’s assassinated for their shoes.

To this end, John Nike tricks one of his subordinates, Hack Nike, into signing a contract agreeing to do the assassinating. When Hack realises what’s going on, he immediately goes to the police, who helpfully offer to do the assassinations for him, for a fee. This sets off a chain of events that leads to Jennifer Government being assigned to bring down John Nike, and prevent an all-out war between rival corporations.

I absolutely loved Jennifer Government. It brought back memories of playing the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG as a teenager – hacking into corporate databases, sneaking past gun-toting corporate mercenaries, and waiting for the sudden but inevitable betrayal from the corp who hired the group. All while wearing mirrorshades. Especially at night.

Jennifer Government as a story is definitely Corporate Satire rather than Cyberpunk, but the setting could be either. And, to be perfectly honest, as much as I enjoyed the story, Max Barry’s well realised setting, established without the need for a “data dump” at any point, is what really impressed and entertained me.

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Book Review: Syrup

Max Barry’s debut novel Syrup (published under the name Maxx Barry) was published in 1999. I wanted to read it within 3 minutes of stumbling across Max Barry’s blog a couple of weeks ago. That’s prbably a slight exaggeration. Let’s go with ‘an hour after stumbling across his blog’ instead. It took me that long to tear myself away from browsing, sharing posts on Facebook, and laughing out loud at his various posts. By that time, I was desperate to read all of his novels as soon as possible, and (according to my husband) I had developed a non-sexual crush on Max Barry.

Syrup is the story of Scat, a recent marketing graduate, and his introduction into the fast-paced, back-stabbing world of corporate corruption. I mean, marketing. His easy road to world-domination (or, at least, fame and fortune) is blocked by two other marketing graduates: 6, the smart, sexy, and completely ruthless love of Scat’s life, and Sneaky Pete, a man who is so cool he doesn’t even need to speak to be successful.

I loved the meta-humour of this satire as well. As I mentioned above, Barry published Syrup under the name Maxx Barry. Accrding to his website:

He put an extra X in his name for Syrup because he thought it was a funny joke about marketing and failed to realize everyone would assume he was a pretentious asshole.

Each chapter of the book is also divided into small sections, each with a title and purpose. These reminded me of short ad-spots, and added to the feel of the book. As a bonus, the breaks make it a perfect novel for reading in short bursts on public transport, etc. In saying that, I read the entire novel in a day and a half, and when I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about the book.

It’s fair to say that I had very high expectations before I started reading Syrup. It’s also fair to say that those expectations were not only met, but exceeded. The characters are amazing, the plot is fantastically cycnical, and I laughed out loud more than once while reading it. I then proceeded to rave about it to anyone who would listen, which immediately inspired me to read it a second time.

Absolutely awesome.

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Book Review: Chart Throb

Ben Elton’s 2006 novel Chart Throb is certainly not a new release, but is a novel that I’ve been wanting to read for some time. I greatly enjoyed reading Elton’s Inconcievable, and liked the movie he wrote based on that book, Maybe Baby. Considering my own cynical view of reality TV in general, and talent-style shows in particular, I had quite anticipated Elton’s take on ‘The Ultimate Pop Quest’.

The novel follows the producer/writer/judge Calvin Simms as he ruthlessly manipulates his fellow judges, the hopeful contestants, and the British public, throughout the process of creating his X-Factor-style entertainment show, Chart Throb. He and his fellow judges, transexual rock-superstar and reality-show matriarch Beryl Blenheim, and Rodney “nice guy” someone-or-other, sit in judgement over the countless clinger, blinger and minger hopefuls who “have a dream” and “want it so much”.

There are some great ‘everybody knows’ moments in this novel. Everybody knows that if the three judges really auditioned all 95,000 applicants for the show, it would take years rather than the 4 weeks they show on TV. Everybody knows that the singing is less important than the story and the entertainment value of the performers. Everybody knows that the producers make more money from telephone voting than they do from any kind of recording careers that may come out of the show. But everybody knows that admitting any of these things takes away from the fun of the experience for both performers and audience. So, seeing these facts presented through the cynical self-promoting bastardry of Calvin Simms is both darkly amusing and queasily unsettling.

In saying all of that, I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I thought I would. That’s really no fault of Elton’s, mind you. The characters are all suitably tacky and self-aggrandising. The plot is all-too-believable. The desperation and shattered dreams of the contestants are sympathetically presented. Really, there’s nothing that I can complain about.

Except that the novel really is a cynical look at the behind-the-scenes roller-coaster ride of a TV reality show. There isn’t a single likeable primary character in this book. And, despite hoping-against-hope that somehow the underdog wins, the truth comes out, or the bastards get their just desserts, everybody knows that the only thing real about reality TV is that nice guys really do finish last.

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