Review: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow is a quirky little book about an affable serial entrepreneur named Alan. If you think you have an odd family you haven't met Alan's. His father is a mountain and his mother a washing machine. Literally. Alan was doing just fine until he discovers something isn't quite right with his next door neighbour, who's missing her wings, and he receives a visit from his brothers, a set of Russian nesting dolls, who are disappearing one-by-one. Doctorow's prose reads effortlessly so even though aspects of the story might seem strange the book flows smoothly to its conclusion. It's is a fun and imaginative read.

Rated: 3.5 / 5

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow starts off normally enough. Alan, an entrepreneur since leaving home, has had a string of successful businesses. Now he's settled into a new home in a new neighbourhood where he's writing a book. Very quickly we learn details of Alan's background and descend into what seems like the recounting of a weird dream.

Alan's father is a mountain, his mother a washing machine, and his brothers are an undead man, an island, a sear, and a set of Russian nesting dolls. One of his next door neighbours used to have wings until they were cut off and his nesting doll brothers are disappearing one-by-one. The way Doctorow juxtaposes reality and fantasy isn't typical, which is both refreshing and strange (At least compared to what I've read to date, your experience may be different). To his credit the writing and ideas overcame the strangeness and I was immersed in Alan's story.

The story alternates between the present and a recounting of Alan's past. The past gives us insights into the current dangers Alan is facing and serve to increase the tension as well as setup the book's climax. There are a number of reoccurring themes such as is things are not always what they seem, but the major theme involves embracing your past to move forward.

A major part of this story is devoted to a project creating a free wireless network for Toronto. Doctorow's technical chops show in the writing, it's all very accurate, but ultimately it was wasted on this reader. It seemed like an awkward way to introduce some necessary characters to the story.

More so than other books I've read the fantasy elements are pure allegory. But unlike other authors, Doctorow's insertion of the fantasy elements is almost surgical. There is no mythic back story or borrowing from legend. Like a mathematical formula or physical construct, one item is substituted directly for another creating a new reality. In a marvelously counterintuitive way making stereotypes into literal fantasy added more depth to the story, not less. Rather than getting distracted by mythic back story or bored by a stereotypical character we focus on the story at hand.

Doctorow's writing style is amazing smooth, descriptive, and easy to read. We're treated to lines like: "He was drunk on the wood, of course, and would have paid much more had the realtor noticed this, but Alan had spent his whole life drunk on trivial things from others' lives that no one else noticed and he'd developed the alcoholic's knack of disguising his intoxication." This mastery of words makes for a pleasant reading experience.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town was a nice little read with some excellent writing and memorable story elements. Some aspects of the plot didn't fit the story, or were too obtuse for me to connect with the story, detracting a bit from my overall enjoyment. In the end I still found it a worthwhile read.

Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 0-7653-1280-8

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