Monday, December 5, 2011

Conundrum / Michael LaRocca

Reviewed by: Arthur Graham

Genre: Science fiction

Approximate word count: 50-55,000

Kindle US: YES UK: YES Nook: YES  Smashwords: NO Paper: NO
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store


A Tar Heel by birth, Michael LaRocca spent 12 years living and working in Asia before recently returning to his native North Carolina. He has edited more than 300 books over the course of his career. Conundrum is his ninth published novel.


“I'm on a starship flying to some damn place that nobody has ever gone before. No humans, at any rate. And boldly, I guess. I was born in 1964, but here I go in 2123, on past Earth and Mars and shit. Freaky.”

So begins Conundrum, security officer Drake’s account of one strange trip to the Pegasus system 50 light years yonder. Accompanying him is Miss Picasso the cat, a host of less consequential crewmembers, and the infinite possibilities inherent within them all.


On the surface, Conundrum may read like a scientific/philosophical treatise intercut with dirty jokes and snide remarks, but somewhere underneath it all lies a good, original story. LaRocca’s background as an editor of both fiction and nonfiction shines through in his polished prose and dialogue. Barry Drake comes across as likeable despite his swaggering cynicism, and while his proclivity for gender/ethnic jokes may wear thin after a while, I believe it would be a mistake to equate this general misanthropy with any specific bigotry (he describes himself as an “equal opportunity asshole”). In fact, much of the humor in Conundrum derives from these conflicts between the recently defrosted 20th century man (cryonically preserved for 100 years) and his seemingly more enlightened 22nd century peers. Like Kurt Vonnegut, LaRocca aims to expose the absurdities inherent in all aspects of human behavior, whatever the era.

I’m giving Conundrum a solid 3 out of 5, not because it left me lukewarm by any means, but because it’s the kind of book that readers will likely either love or hate. Those harboring a low tolerance for off-color humor or hoping for the standard sci-fi treatment might rate it as low as 2. On the other hand, readers in possession of thicker skin and looking for something different might find it deserving of a 4 or even 5. The term “conundrum” may not be purely synonymous with “dilemma” in this sense, but that is precisely the trouble I encountered in trying to rate this book.


Plenty of “adult” language/situations.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: *** Three stars


Joansz said...

Good review for your evaluation of the book. It makes me want to read it. But I find this statement confusing: "I’m giving Conundrum a solid 3 out of 5, not because it left me lukewarm by any means, but because it’s the kind of book that readers will likely either love or hate." I thought the rating should be based on the merits of the piece and not how readers might react to it. Or is your dilemma one of you not being sure of your own reaction?

Arthur Graham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arthur Graham said...

Thanks for your comments, Joansz. While I may differ somewhat from BigAl in my approach to ratings, I generally cleave to the standards outlined on the Guide to Reviews page, specifically where it states "A good review will give a reader an idea of whether they’ll like a book or not. How well the reviewer liked the book is secondary." Like BigAl, I'm also not a fan of star-based ratings, but I consent to use them provided I'm allowed to offer all the caveats my little heart desires :)

This is especially useful when I encounter a book that is solid overall, but may be somewhat polarizing in terms of content, style, etc. If I have good cause to believe that person A might give a book 2 stars, and person B might give it 4, then as a reviewer striving for impartiality I'll probably give it a 3 in the absence of anything major to tip the balance one way or the other. Ultimately, I don't think it's fair to readers or writers when we assume that everyone has/should have the same exact tastes. This approach of mine may complicate the ratings a bit, but the goal is to provide more nuanced evaluations where needed.

Joansz said...

Thank you for your explanation, Arthur Graham. FWIW, I'm not a big fan of ratings, either. But I suppose that's one way of drawing a line in the sand.

Anonymous said...

Why did it take me so many years to find this review? I love it!

(Incidentally, the book is available in paperback now.)