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Hello there, mates. How’s everyone doing thus far with this pandemic? I hope all is well with you and yours, and yes … I looking forward the return of Normalcy 2.0. Lets be real, normal will change for many of us, but enough of that. I came across this title during my monthly “vetting” of the booklist in order to decide what gets onto the stacks at my branch (and what does not). When you encounter a tagline, that reads “the biggest company, the perfect algorithm, what could possibly go wrong?”, on a book with a cover that is designed to parody the packaging of a certain well-known online retailer … well, an evil grin along with a good hunch emerge in my mind. And here we are. But enough with my usual bollocks and such and let’s get on with the blooming review. Yeah?
Qualityland is actually the name of a country in the (near, possible???) future. Somewhere along the line a certain country with a troubled history (I’m guessing Germany but don’t quote me on that … please) decided that they needed to change their name and voila … Qualityland. In Qualityland the citizens are known as QualityPeople that use QualityMoney (or Qualities) for currency and QualityPads for internet access (and just about everything else). TouchKiss is the way most digital transactions are concluded. Yes, instead of using fingerprint recognition, it is deemed more secure to use your lips since these are not so easily forged. A bit worrisome in the event of pandemics, if you ask me. AI along with realistic humanoid androids (apart and combined) are rampant and normal as everyday life. Self-driving taxis bicker and harass passengers to rate their service even though they may not carry you completely to your destination in what is determined as a red-zone (or unsafe neighbourhood). Yes, in case you missed that bit, algorithms have made self-driving cars very discriminating especially when it comes to certain neighbourhoods. It gets better. Daily or certain social interactions allow you to be rated. The higher your rating on Everybody (Qualityland’s version of Facebook and Twitter combined), the greater your access to jobs, medical care, and even wealth, fame, sex. If your ratings fall to 10 or less you are known as a Useless. Needless to say, your life becomes a crapshoot at that point. Oh, and another thing, surnames are based on parental or current occupations such as (for example) Melissa Sex-Worker or everyone that is unemployed shares the (indignity) of the surname, Jobless. And then there is TheShop, an online warehouse, with algorithms so tuned that they are practically psychic and knows (and delivers) what you (might) want or need before you even know it. And as it turns out they are usually correct. And for some strange reason Jennifer Aniston does not fare well and her rom-coms are seen as a celluloid curse that the world has to tolerate.
Peter Jobless, is an unemployed (shocker) slacker that inherited a scrapping business from his late father and also lives where he works. Due to some strange environmental law, repairs to any form of automatons (even Roombas) are forbidden and once discarded these devices have to report to the nearest local scrapper. Martyn Chairman is a sleazoid politician that cheats on his wife with every willing Qualiteen intern and loves browsing revenge porn sites … and also works for Conrad Cook, a celebrity chef turned president. Kiki Unknown is an enigmatic hacker that knows the ins and outs of most systems and makes a living through various unorthodox means (such as blackmailing men with videos of them self-pleasuring to revenge porn sites). Yes, I know you’ve just imagined one possible scenario in this book. Henryk Engineer is cross between Bezos, Musk with a hint of Zuckerburg thrown in, a recluse and the CEO of TheShop. And then there is John of Us, the first android poised to be elected as president of Qualityland. Somewhere along the way, Peter Jobless life hits the skids: first he’s dumped by his girlfriend since the dating app (called QualityPartner) advised her to do so and replaced him with a newer, exciting partner … whilst on an actual date (!). Then on a date with Melissa Sex-Worker (you can guess what she does for a living) he breaks a (Sex) contract by not (get this) having sex. This led to his rating plummeting and giving the status of Useless. Just when his life couldn’t get anymore complicated he gets a delivery from TheShop: a blue dolphin vibrator. To his chagrin and dismay, when he tries to return it, TheShop refuses to accept it since …well … algorithms don’t make mistakes. And so starts the strange odyssey to meet face to face with Henryk Engineer as Peter Jobless bumbles into love and unwittingly starts a revolution … all because of a blue dolphin vibrator.
Qualityland though set in the future, is a delightful parody and at the same time, a cautionary tale about where we’re actually heading (or already in). One of the most interesting moments in the book was the android, John of Us, speech about data-mining and not what but who is really the “product” that Big Data is selling out there. Not exactly earth-shattering, but enough to occasionally pop you out of sleep some of the nights and channel your inner Albert Finney (I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”). Throughout the book there are these little pop-ups of snapshots of web content, some humourous, some disturbing and some laughable … with comments (alas, there are trolls in Qualityland). A superbly hilarious, thought-provoking book with a wee touch of the disturbing (especially the obvious dislike for all things Jennifer Aniston), Qualityland has something for everyone of varying stripes. Dare I say, a nice beach companion for the coming summer (even if you’re a Jennifer Aniston fan and there is no more need of social distancing, or that coronathing hanging around).

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It’s been a few years since I read the last Weird Wild West book that was written by R.S. Belcher and needless to say I’ve been “jonesing” for more of tales from the Weird Wild West. So like any “junkie” that’s thirsty I reached for the next best thing for my literary “high” from Mr. Belcher. It’s like thinking that you settled for a whole bag of questionable bathtub meth and ended up with a bag of premium Peruvian blow … at bathtub meth prices. Meet Nightwise. But before I continue rambling on with drug metaphors that would most likely put me on certain law enforcement radars … I think it would be best if I just shut up with the bollocks and move on with the bloody book review. Yeah? Why not.

Nightwise takes place in the current world where magic, sorcery, necromancy, and alchemy goes by side by side with technology. Or as those immersed in it would call it … The Life. And we’re not talking about that Harry Potter, hocus-pocus-dysfunctim-erectus bollocks. Oh no, no, NO. This is the kind of magic that bring stuff that goes bump in the night into your room as you sleep at night while it sits on you and decides what to do with daft mortal that felt that they could mess with the unknown. Laytham Ballard is one such, immersed in The Life, known as a wizard (though he may correct you and say the actual term is Wisdom). He is Mickey Spillane meets Constantine meets Nathan Drake (from Uncharted … aye, I’m a gamer) meets Tyler Durden. Yes, your typical anti-hero. When a deathbed promise, to a dying friend, puts him on the trail of Dusan Slorzack (Serbian war criminal extraordinaire) the shit basically hits the fan (and quite early in the book). The problem with Slorzack is that he can’t be found on earth. All traces of him has vanished from the digital and magical databases. Even the Devil can’t find him, and Dusan owes him his dues. Needless to say, Dusan is into some really scary stuff that would make every who has ever bitched about Harry Potter books reconsider their perspective. Though Laytham is quite the solo act, he has no other choice but to team up with an usual bunch: magical hackers, a fetish model, a transgender Australian shaman, a Japanese gun master and Templar truckers (more on that … in another book). And it is good thing, since he’s up against vicious invisible hellhounds, backstabbing necromancers/summoners, magical boobytraps, scary god-like creatures, and bankers (yes, you are reading right). And in this world filled with magical ley-lines and other such bollocks it is hard divine who is trustworthy and who is not, and people are sometimes more than what they seem.

Written in first person (Laytham’s) perspective, Belcher does not hold back and it is quite THE ride. Along with acidic and dark humour, Laytham is the kind of chap that we can hate but still root for. And though this book is fiction (at least I’m really hoping it is) let’s just say I wouldn’t be picking up any white Bic lighters I find lying around especially in restrooms (trust me on this … it’s in the book). For those that miss Belcher’s Weird Wild West writings … fear not, he’s brought us into the 21st century and what a blast is … all the way down to the last page. Might not want to look too closely and ponder about certain symbols on your US dollar bills if you care about sleeping well at night after reading this book. And the silver lining about this is that … it is the first book in a series. Yes, we are not completely done with Mr. Ballard. Jolly good show, Mr. Belcher. Jolly good show.

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