The Rise & Fall of Great PowersThe Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

this review refers to the audiobook version.

you know that excitement you feel when you start a book and you sort of hold your breath for a few chapters, thinking: this could be The One. or at least one of The Ones of your top 25 list, or your top 50, cause you know the longer you live the harder it gets to fit one into the Top lists, there are just so damned many fine books out there.

and so you read on, but then the book starts going into a slow dive, and still you’re rooting hard for the book, you want it to recover and soar again. but no… like a little biplane with its engine sputtering, it just can’t regain altitude.

you begin to wait for the inevitable, hoping you’re wrong and it’s not inevitable at all. and then, the little biplane just starts doing stupid things. like, it not only imagines it has a functional engine, it thinks it has jets. it gets erratic. it starts trying to do Immelman turns, it gets deluded and thinks it’s a helicopter, it hallucinates it’s an interstellar starship. you get pissed at this thing, wanting it to get a grip and at the same time feeling duped by its early promise.

the end is, alas, inevitable: it crashes and burns. and all you can do is throw up your hands and say “i told me so,” and drink a beer in an effort to wash those brain cells clean so they can instead house the next, better book.


ok so i’m in a bad mood, and this book probably deserves a better write-up, but since part of my bad mood is because of the book, i’m taking no prisoners.

the main character, a girl who grows to womanhood, is called Tooley. at the beginning (chronologically, although the book is not told chronologically), Tooley appears to have been kidnapped by a mysterious computer geek. who is this geek? he seems like a nice enough geek, but perhaps he has nefarious motives?

later, Tooley gets re-kidnapped by an exceedingly annoying woman named Sarah who seems to know Tooley, although Tooley doesn’t appear to know her. Sarah is clearly an unstable unit, full of enthusiastic affection one minute and pure disinterest the next.

and there’s Humphrey, with whom Tooley finds herself living, an apparently Russian man who again seems to have only kindness but zero parental skills. and Venn, a dashing, shady mystery man who might be Tooley’s father, but again seems to have no parental tendencies.

so who belongs to whom, in this mess? who are Tooley’s parents, and who her kidnappers? and how did Tooley manage to grow up and own a Welsh bookstore out of this whole clusterfuck?

read no further if you can’t bear spoilers.

Tooley herself is the single most unbelievable child in the history of children in literature. she never complains. she never whines. she can hang out for a day or two with no food and, rather than being the starved and needy child she actually is, instead will set about comforting the neurotic adults around her if they return.

has this writer ever met an actual child? they melt down if they miss lunch. no diss on kids implied, but they get really fucking hungry when they’re hungry, and they haven’t the self-control to ignore the distress.

now i know that actual children can be extraordinarily sensitive in neglectful and abusive situations–sensitive to their so-called caretakers. they develop some highly attuned survival responses. but in Tooley’s case, the geek definitely took care of her needs, leaving her free to be more or less normal, which she certainly isn’t.

Tooley remains blithe through the kidnappings, returning at one point to a kidnapper from a safe place for no apparent reason. Like, ya, i don’t believe it for a minute.

but her worst sin is that she’s just boring. she has no insights into her predicament, into the world around her, into the feckless adults in her life. she just rambles along, seeming to take each moment as it comes, and has all the analytical skill of an eggplant.

every adult in the book is either venal or hapless or just plain cruel and exploitative. only Humphrey even tries to put the girl’s needs before his own, and he’s not very good at it.

the book gets really, really boring in the middle. an excess of trivia, of people who get asked but won’t answer questions, of later infodumps, of characters becoming authorial mouthpieces, and just plain contrived chapter-ending cliffhangers.

the reader of the audiobook isn’t very good, either. she does guy voices as if they are talking through a head full of snot or a throat full of pebbles, and women with over-exaggerated swoops and trills enough to make you think of biplane metaphors.

enough! snarl snarl snarl