J. B. Garner
on April 3, 2015 :
Every once in a while, I feel like I have to break the rules set down for me by the Starving Reviews, LLC corporate office. So far, I have restrained myself because, well, I'm starving, darn it! I need this literary sustenance to flow and I dare not cut off my biggest supplier. Today, though, I may wind up breaking that creed, as today's long-delayed culinary snack can't be dissected without some SPOILERS!
This Changes Everything is, on the surface, a science fiction novel talking about an alternate future where aliens approach Earth and offer entrance into a galactic collective. This sort of treat, at first glance, looks scrumptious, offering a many-layered look at the interactions between our delightfully bizarre little planet and a vast series of societies and species. In some ways, Changes delivers on some aspects of that promise.
The writing itself is solid, at least once you get used to the various styles employed. The book is comprised of many nuggets of scenes, each written in a different style and from different view points. It can be a bit jarring at first but is easy to get a grip on once you realize what's going on.
The plot ... has problems. The majority of the rest of this review will touch on that, but let me get one thing out of the way. If you ever wanted a true definition of a Mary Sue, read Changes. You see, the Mary Sue concept isn't one of abilities or perfection (though those help), it is the plot black hole they represent. The protagonist in this book is the most important person in the world (literally), receives almost universal praise from most quarters, gets pretty much everything she could desire, lives happily ever after, and nothing really bad, dramatic, or dangerous really happens. There is the hint of tension at several points but, as described below, there are certain story and structure elements that destroy all the drama before it even has a chance to start.
The problems start to come in when the concepts of the 'reality' of how time and history work in this universe. The core concepts of the book (that all time exists simultaneously and that time lines can be altered and culled by anyone with the appropriate psychic training) do provide some interesting promise, but the way they are actualized in the story create a rolling cascade of issues that really break the book down as a fictional slice of cake.
It boils down to a few major, seemingly paradoxical, concepts. First, the concept of all time being simultaneous doesn't really hold out in how the events of the book work. The aliens, and later Earthlings, can alter time by changing events (which don't often require them actually doing the actions, which is strangely dissatisfying) ... but how does that work when all time is simultaneous, which suggests there cannot be true causality? Likewise, the book repeatedly talks about the existence of free will, but how can free will truly exist in a world where others can reset and alter their personal time lines, altering entire sequences of events, thereby altering those free will decisions? Finally, there are strange arbitrary limits on how often people can alter their time lines, with no mention on how this is enforced or even known to be. Maybe it's something touched on later in what is supposed to turn into a ten book series, but arbitrary, unexplained limits on what is essentially a 'magic' system in a fictional world is always a bit of a distaste for me.
The main story issue that this concept of time and time altering brings about is the total destruction of dramatic tension. Very early in Changes, we already know, from the characters that can see the future as well as future documents included, that everything turns out A-OK. The girl gets the boy, Earth turns out fantastic, and the main character gets a healthy, happy ending. We know this by (if I remember correctly) chapter 5 of a 30+ chapter book. Yes, you can argue that the meal can be no less tasty when you sneak in dessert early, but that's usually not the case. Knowing everything turns out great turns every attempt at adding some drama or tension to any point of the novel fall flat.
That is a key component of what really leeches the taste out of Changes. I could excuse the very strange time alteration parts (it is a fictional universe, after all) and roll with it, but the lack of dramatic tension, the lack of any real conflict and consequences (something that the writer tries to interject with the idea of 'Psi-P', the emotional backlash of choosing to go with time-lines that benefit others but are not the best for you personally, something that never gets written to have the real impact it could), just makes Changes a sludge of a book. It is simply tiring to read, with no real emotional high or pay-off. It's just not entertaining and that is the biggest sin a work of fiction can have.
You may be wondering where the spoilers were? Well, I saved that for last because I have to take a moment to chew the fat about something that may very well be opinion. This next bit isn't a critique of the book, which is why it comes at the end, but a critique of some ideas in the book (a very different thing). Changes has some very insulting and, to me personally, dangerous ideas about what is good about humanity. Humans are depicted in some cases as being so unable to cope with the idea of actual alien contact that they die or go crazy from the news. Like significant swaths of the population, at least before the aliens change history again. Not to mention there is an Appendix, as well as mentions in the main text, where it is shown that many human achievements in many areas, from the Underground Railroad to splitting the atom to most major religious figures (Jesus, the Dahli Lama, and others) were directly influenced by this alien collective, either through dreams or direct intervention. It frankly made my gut curdle to see so much of humanity's accomplishments turned into the results of alien meddling. Changes pains humans with a very savage and ignorant brush, laying our salvation and much of our past good points in the hands of our alien saviors. Now, about those aliens ...
The aliens in this world alter time repeatedly to change human history to make the Earth a better fit for their galactic collective. They banish people unable to conform with their way of doing things to a 'prison' alternate time line until they reform or die. They alter the biochemistry of the ENTIRE human race in one chapter to make them more receptive and peaceful without the consent of, well, anyone. They are fully telepathic and casually mind-read the main character (and the rest of humanity) for most of the book. In a different book, these aliens would be the worst kind of manipulative overlords. In this book, though, they are perfect, wonderful utopians. I find especially that their methods really don't jive with that 'free will' concept. How can you have free will when aliens are altering your biochemistry, psychically manipulating you, and implanting thoughts, dreams, and knowledge into you?
Wow, that went on for a while. Okay, so, how does this come together? This Changes Everything is a science fiction yarn that just has no drama or fun in it. Regardless of how you may feel about its philosophical or moral points, Changes breaks the cardinal rule of any fictional work, and that is to entertain. If you're looking for good, interesting sci-fi, look elsewhere. If you, however, are looking for a very unusual tract on philosophy and morals, you might want to give this a read, just don't expect to be entertained by it.
FINAL VERDICT: ** (Heavy on philosophy and moral tracts, without a single tasty bit of fun!)
(review of free book)
on July 11, 2014 :
DNF - 0 stars
Where I stopped reading: location 418 of 2632 in my eBooks app
Why I stopped reading: It was too much.
There were too many characters, too many acronyms, too many tenses. Too much of me wondered which reality was true – the one where “Clara” writes a fictional account of her alien encounters, the one where “Clara” writes a true account of her experiences, or the one where Ms. Ember struggles so much to find the truth that we, as readers, are left to question her own sanity. I’ll say this: either Ms. Ember is an absolute genius, or she’s in need of some serious psychotropic meds.
I was only part-way in to chapter three, but I’d already waded through too many “Chapter Interludes” to keep the plot straight. The most I can tell you is that “Clara” seems to be in contact with some alien life forms, who encourage her to believe that everything is happening all at once and that she should write her possible-biography/possible-novel (however confusing it might be) in the present tense. Clara also seems to lack the ability to prioritize – her examples all include gratuitous examples, and goodness help me I had no idea what I was supposed to pay attention to (and yeah, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition).
There might be more plot. It might be awesome. But, for me, there was too much EVERYTHING ELSE.
Sorry, Ms. Ember.
As reviewed by Melissa at Every Free Chance Books.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
(reviewed 5 months after purchase)
on Jan. 29, 2014 :
7/10 -- mostly because even though I didn't finish I had this nagging feeling through the whole read that in this book's particular style it's brilliant. Note to self: must read more books like this during the year.
After reading the blurb for this I was more than excited about reading. After the first three pages. Way excited about reading it. After that. Excitement slowly fizzled away into oblivion. I just couldn't get into this book. Every page I read felt like I was cramming for an exam tomorrow and if i didn't pay attention I'd fail. Information overload, brain system: crashed. The main character, Clara Branon, had a rather intriguing intro in chapter one. I laughed, my interest was piqued. Who is she. What are these visions she has, and these strange holograms in her room. Real or unreal. And the sense of wit, for me at least, was genius. Then after all that my brain was muffled down with a certain lack of flow or connective direction.
Too many acronyms for my brain to physically hold onto. Groups for this and that and just overwhelming amounts of information. If you're more into information gathering than story reading this book is for you. There's lots of perfectly sectioned and detailed accounts of things that happened over the years long before the protagonist even receives her first visit from the alien beings. Most of this info-giving is in interluded chapters, between the actual chapters. I think they are prefect. There isn't anything in theory I can find wrong with them. Except for one glaring thing. Well two things. They bored me and I had no idea what they had to do with moving along the plot.
They felt like research notes for a paper I'm not working on because I'm reading a novel. I kept reading them thinking, what do these have to do with my protagonist and her mission to bring information about the news of the alien organisation to light. Is this stuff that she would need to know. Probably. But do I need to know it. Nope. It was information that, as a reader, just distracted me. I wanted to find a way to connect these things to the storyline and just couldn't. Information just so I could know is what it appeared to be. It got so bad I actually stopped reading the interlude chapters.
The more I read the more I felt I was either stupid or just missing something. Every actual chapter, not the interludes, seemed to have some sort of information that just came out of nowhere without any hint or foreshadowing in the previous chapter. For instance, when the main character mentions her son being chosen for something in the grand scheme of things and how she gave people chapters of this book she was writing. I was like huh? As far as I knew she fell asleep thinking of who her earth media contact would be, she had a name and a physical description of said person in her head before hitting sleepy-town, and I was looking forward to her figuring out how she was going to convince this person she wasn't crazy. How she was going to convince the world she wasn't crazy. And most importantly how she was going to accomplish this if the aliens only spoke to her. I was already thinking this was a lost cause which was why I was so intrigued. I wanted to go along the ride of her becoming this new person. Needless to say we jumped into the future to find out she's writing a fiction book. Wait that's not entirely accurate, she's written a fiction book has shown it to people, her son is part of a group supporting the, oh I can't even remember. And she's ever so excited about this plan that is somehow magically already in existence. From first visit to book already being written, and obviously she's chosen the contact for said book which she is masquerading as fiction but is really truth. Still no idea how that's going to work (shoulder shrug) but it is a brilliant idea. And i don't mind reading things in flashback it's fun. It's just nice to know firstly that I'm in the future, secondly what the plan is, and then go back to mention certain pitfalls or rather entertaining dialogue exchanges.
And being able to see multiple futures, (this comes up a lot in the book. Simultaneous existence's.) is just fine. But telling me the lead will have to deal with the loss of never meeting her love for life, and then later on, a good twenty years or so in the future she's asking him to write his account of the alien intervention, again no idea how we got this far into the future when some of the chapters are still clearly working on her present day ESP training. How, when, and where did the decision get made that this was the future that would happen, if indeed it is happening as the male character muses himself in the book. Wasn't she moping over their possible nonexistence as a couple only a few chapters back. Where's the part about how she's so happy that, that future wasn't the one that actually happened out of the multitude of possibilities she saw. And probably wrote in this book she is writing.
If I could sum this experience up in one sentence it was like playing connect the dots except none of the dots on the page had numbers. So I was kind of ambling through them hoping that I'd lend on them correctly. It actually pains me to write this because the premise of the novel was great. The actual chapters are written well and are rather hilarious. I love good humor. But the lack of connectivity just pretty much defeated me. I think the reality of the situation is I'm clearly not smart enough for this type of writing style. Something to work on in future reading endeavors.
This book might very well be brilliant. But as I couldn't finish it I really don't know. I just know I was screaming to enjoy this book but didn't. If I could remove the interlude chapters, take a thread and string all the other ones together in one cohesive plot line I would. Instead I was left with this overwhelming scratching my head feeling. Just didn't get it. Again, I have this odd feeling that I'm just not smart enough for this book. I don't have the intelligence level to make good sense of it.
So even though I didn't get the greatest experience ever. If you like very well structured notes, detailed descriptions of almost everything (kind of like how Anne rice can spend five pages describing the veins on a leaf), humor (really good humor I might add), and a slight love interest, this book will not fail to impress you. In fact I guarantee you will love it if these are the types of things you look for in a book.
(reviewed 21 days after purchase)
on Jan. 25, 2014 :
This Changes Everything by Sally Ember – Review
This is one of those strange books that was, on the one hand, difficult to read, but on the other, fascinating. The basic premise is that a school teacher deeply involved in Buddhism (and who accidentally views parallel and potential realities) gets visited by representatives from the MWC, a vast community of intelligent species. She is chosen as their chief liaison to the human race since, given the state of the Earth, they doubt Earth can survive without immediate intervention.
The book deals with interesting subjects ranging from alternate realities, reincarnation, some fairly trippy interpretations of science, and alien life that’s truly alien. It has a substantial number of problems, however. The pacing and presentation of the material made it difficult to read, a decent number of the author’s viewpoints get presented a bit too on the nose, and the author plays with the fourth wall too much for my tastes.
First, the whole idea of aliens constantly resetting small chunks of the universe to try and get the best outcomes for everyone involved is downright cool. This book treats parallel universes as a given and goes to great lengths explaining the different ways the MWC plays around with them to create a greater galactic society. It’s always interesting when a book decides that alien life is not only friendly, but has a utopian agenda.
Second, when the presentation of the material works, it’s a very unusual take on things that I found enjoyable. My favorite part is still a council meeting in which MEMBERS of the MWC discuss how they intend to handle the advent of nuclear power on earth. That, as well as how they handle religion, involves sleeper agents, reality resets, calculating probabilities, and a whole host of funky stuff that’s quite interest.
That being said, the presentation didn’t gel with me too often. The book had so many different styles and trains of thought going at the same time that it ended up feeling like more of a scrapbook than a novel. The author jumped between characters frequently, had a large number of different formats for each chapter of the book, and never quite settled on any one. It made the overall book difficult to read, although any individual section might be interesting on its own. This book would have benefited from picking from a couple of different styles for the chapters (such as the MWC meetings to determine the fate of Earth) and the ones focusing on Clara, rather than jumping around as much as it did.
Also, this disrupted the pacing of the book. The moment one train of thought got developed, the author switched to a different one. There was never a point where the chapters flowed together. There were a series of chapters that, had they been back to pack, would have flowed nicely, but they were divided up and scattered about the book. It’s not that I don’t think this style of writing can work, but it’s tricky to do, and it never quite came together for me.
The plot never quite hit the point where there was enough conflict to really grab me outside of my intellectual interest in what was happening. The major conflict in the book boils down to Clara coming to terms with being the most important person on Earth and not being able to be with the man she loves. All of this, however, plays out in little drips, and the level of tension never picks readers up and carries them along.
I also think the book would have worked better if the author had focused on how Earth was changing in more intimate detail, dropped a lot of the other material, and followed Clara closely as she dealt with these changes. As it is, she’s a bit detached and removed from it all. Sure, there’s a lot of interaction with her family, speeches, and stuff like that, but the book never shows me something like how, say, a Muslim living in a German slum’s life changes. I wanted Clara to be the vehicle for the personal stories of how the world changes rather than the detached narrator.
Another problem with the book is that, it’s clear either the author, or the character, or both, have very fixed political viewpoints (some of which I don’t even like to call political, because they’re, ahem, just what any human being with a soul should support). These viewpoints get thumped onto the reader without any serious discussion of the opposing viewpoints. It’s not a terrible thing, but the tone and presentation of these viewpoints can rub a reader the wrong way, especially as they build up over the course of the novel.
My final criticism is that the character seems to be a different version of the author, but more so than is usually the case. That, combined with the way the author presents the book (she plays with the fourth wall extensively) made me a bit uncomfortable. It’s not that I feel the character was a Mary Sue, it just did not sit well with me. Maybe in a short story, a comic, a movie, but in a book, I really like the book to be a new world, and any reference to it just being this one, that reminds me I’m reading fiction, tears me out of it. It’s a personal thing more than anything to do with the quality of the book itself.
In summary, this book never flows together into a focused novel, which is unfortunate given how interesting the subject matter is. It does, however, present enough fascinating ideas and viewpoints to partially redeem its shortcomings. I’d almost recommend treating it like a scrap book and picking out the various chapters that seem to interest you, rather than reading it cover to cover straight off the bat. All told, I give it a 3/5.
(reviewed 37 days after purchase)
on Dec. 26, 2013 :
This Changes Everything. Sally Ember. Ebook.
Dr Clara Branon is visited by alien holograms one night. Although this is not shocking to her in itself because she has been visited by extraterrestrials since childhood, this is the first time the beings try to communicate with her. They call her by her full name and inform her that she is to be their chief communication officer between earth and the MWC, Many Worlds Collective.
Clara has to appoint a media contact to help her disseminate the information for the next few decades. At the same time, she has to explain to her son and other family members what she has undertaken to do, as well as her possible Future Husband.
Ember has structured the book into chapters and chapter interludes and it becomes unclear whether this is a work of fiction or nonfiction at times due to the structure and academic style used in the interludes.
There is only a loose plot and no villain as yet, which can make a reader lose interest, but Ember has appendices where she lays out the ideas for a series of ten of these books under the banner of The Spanner Series.
The book mixes world history and sociology together with extraterrestrial occurrences. It uses comic relief and shows Clara to be a really eccentric person through the story.
You may like this book if you enjoy humorous scifi such as The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
(reviewed the day of purchase)
Josephine O Brien
on Dec. 26, 2013 :
Read this, it's a true original! Clever, challenging and engaging. Throw away preconceptions as to 'how a book should be written.' This doesn't follow the rules and as a result is fresh and thought provoking.
(reviewed the day of purchase)