Back to Reality
By Mark Stay & Mark Oliver • ★★★★
One of the first chapters of Back to Reality is a marvelously written scene where our heroine, a forty-two-year-old working mother named Jo, nursing a gin-powered buzz, gets up on stage at a karaoke bar and stuns the crowd with her command performance. It's an electric scene, satisfying, dizzyingly wonderful, encapsulating perfectly the adrenaline high of music performance—and the buzzkill of reality's aftermath. It's such a spectacular scene—it's impossible for the rest of the book to be as good as that early chapter.
Oh, but Stay and Oliver come pretty close. As Jo—and her alternate-universe self, Yohanna—become enmeshed in a time-space-yoga continuum fever dream (or is it a nightmare?), Stay and Oliver keep the accelerator all the way to the floor.
The writers give us a few pockets where we can breathe, but the stakes are high and the action is non-stop. The high-concept setup provides a lot of opportunities for absurdity; it's clear that Douglas Adams is a big influence to the authors. But while Adams often veered off in absurdity to its own end, Stay and Oliver keep the emotions of Jo/Yohanna front and center, as well as their goal of fixing everything that went wrong. And the mother/daughter dynamics may give readers a bit of a tearjerking moment or two.
The morass of characters can be a bit difficult to keep track of. Jo's husband, for example, disappears for the entire story except the bookends, and it's hard to believe Jo's actions toward him near the end of the book. In addition, for those of you who found the book as I did by listening to the writers' The Bestseller Experiment podcast, there are several meta moments which took me out of the story. But overall, the book hits the right notes—and it's an enjoyable journey.
It's a satisfying read, and it's a hard book to put down.
—Paul Austin Ardoin