The AL–EX Project by C.M. Donaldson

This book explores just how much control we have over our dreams, as well as what the nature of our dreams is. It’s a subject I’ve always found fascinating, and I always enjoy when authors take it on. Unfortunately, this book has a good number of issues that prevent it from living up to its potential.

The structure and presentation of the plot never finds the focus or tension to drive the story, and the author tends to tell the reader everything that’s going to happen before it does. Additionally, the focus on the dream stuff is more informational, with just a quick bit of speculation thrown in, and ultimately occupies a secondary position.

First, what works: I was able to read through the book in one sitting without getting hung up on a particular paragraph, and I never found myself frowning at the page either trying to figure out what was going on or what the author was trying to say. Clarity is important, and the author gets that down. Also, the basic idea of the book is interesting, and the core plot would work quite well if it was presented differently.

On the other hand, the author has a tendency to tell the reader what’s happening. One example I can think of is the end of Chapter 27, and another is the entirety of Chapter 36, which essentially explains to the reader that something really bad is about to happen, but everyone will be okay.

Once I know information like that there’s nothing to keep me moving. This happened throughout the book, so there was never really a chance for me to wonder what was happening. Even the stuff going on with the dreams ends up getting more or less explained in a couple of pages, so by the time there’s something to really wonder about the reader gets an answer not too long afterward.

The author also had a tendency to tell me what the characters felt at any given time. They hit several major rough patches, but I never really felt it in my gut. It’s never good to say that a character is devastated, it’s much better to show it. And even if an author does take the time to show how a character is feeling, if the author also tells the reader, it’s just the same as if we were told in the first place regardless of any showing that may have occurred.

Another issue is conflict: there really isn’t any until roughly two thirds of the way into the book. True, bad things happened, but the reader is outright told they’re going to happen, so the first half feels like a lengthy prologue.

The story starts well, leaping into the work Alex and The Scientist are doing with dreams, but then the focus shifts completely to the relationship between Alex and his wife, which really is what the book is about. It feels like the author really had two separate stories that ended up being presented side by side: one was the stuff going on with dreams, the other Alex and Keyj’s relationships.

The author really needed to pick one of these and run with it hard. Instead, the book sort of alternates between the two, and there is a good portion of it where all of the stuff going on with dreams doesn’t really matter. It very much makes it feel as if the premise of the book is just an afterthought. And then, once the relationship plotline winds down a bit, it tags off and the author jumps back into the dream material.

Additionally, the material is presented in such a way that the entire thing feels more like a detached narrative than a novel. I never felt that moment where the writer reaches inside of my chest and rips me into the book. Instead, it was like I was reading a summary of the story. There was too much telling, rather than showing, but I also believe the tone the author wrote with (some chapters ending in sentences with exclamation marks) really undermined the book.

I think it would have worked much better if the author had dived in at a fixed point in time, stuck with one character perspective, dove into the plot concerning dreams, and kept the reader’s attention tightly focused. As it stands, the story ends up being more of a sprawl than an adventure.

The last problem I noticed was that good portions of the book were fluff, interesting information that the reader did not need to know. There were too many information dumps. As for the writing itself, there were issues with excessive adjective and adverb use (something I’m guilty of), and some of the sentences felt like they could have been broken up. Again, everything I read was clear, but at times it seemed like I was reading run on thoughts. The shifts into dream sequences were also abrupt and could have been marked better.

All of my criticisms aside, it’s unfortunate the book has the problems it does because the author really was working with interesting material and had an excellent idea. I really wanted to see more of the dreams and less of Alex’s alcoholism. All of the problems are quite fixable, and I think the author has the potential to knock one out of the park. I give this book a 2/5.

You can get a copy from Amazon here.

This Changes Everything by Sally Ember

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.

You can pick up a copy from Amazon here, or a copy from Smashwords here.