Book Review: GlowGems for Profit

GlowGems for Profit

by Bruce Davis

 

Okay, it’s kind of a funky title. Sounds like one of those get-rich-quick seminars you see signs for on the side of the road. Thing is, there’s a pun in there that you don’t recognize: the Profit is actually the name of the spaceship that carries our hero through the solar system; Davis is creating a series of adventures about the Profit and her crew and this is only the first – all of them (presumably) will have Profit in the title. So that’s part of the reason: and also, of course, the question of profit is one that runs through the book. The idea of a get-rich-quick scheme, especially one that isn’t really what it seems, is exactly what this book is about, and greed warring with caution is another theme that runs through the book.

And this book runs. That’s the first thing you should know: this is action from start to finish. Davis spends the first two chapters giving us enough exposition to understand who these characters are – and then starting with Chapter Three, the guns start blazing and the blood starts flowing, and it doesn’t really stop until the end. It’s got everything: hand to hand combat, gun battles, chase scenes, ship-to-ship space combat, locked door murder mysteries, betrayal, secrets – everything; and all of it is wonderfully well-done. I don’t know if it was hard to put down because I never really tried: I didn’t want to put it down, I wanted to keep reading, wanted to get to the next scene, the next fight, the next sticky situation, to see how the heroes could fight their way out of it.

That’s the next thing you should know: these are great heroes. Davis has created a fantastic hard-boiled sci-fi hero in Zack Mbele. He’s got a complicated past, remarkable abilities, good friends for whom he has fierce loyalty, a deep cynicism and an inability to trust strangers, and a lone wolf streak a mile wide: he’s Sam Spade and Harry Dresden and Simon Green’s John Taylor and all the rest of those kinds of guys. But he’s also thoroughly himself: I had no feeling at all that this was an imitation of any other author’s work; this world and this hero are entirely original.

In addition to the main character (I admit I didn’t like the other characters as much, apart from Deuce, who’s awesome – but then, I’m not supposed to.) and the action-packed plot, the intricacies of both the world Davis built and the intrigues that the characters get involved with were remarkable. Mbele is a disillusioned former revolutionary, and the way his past keeps rearing its head no matter how hard he tries to escape it was fascinating. And the characters and their complex, difficult motivations, all of them deciphered over the course of the novel by Mbele’s dogged investigating, was perfectly human and completely fascinating to me. You have no idea who’s telling the truth or why people are doing what they’re doing until Zack knows the truth, and you learn it along with him – it was excellent.

This was great stuff, an excellent sci-fi thriller/mystery – the sci-fi, too, by the way, was well done, just enough advanced tech to make the story complex and interesting, not so much that you get confused – and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Sleeping Beauties

Image result for sleeping beauties

Sleeping Beauties

by Stephen King and Owen King

 

To start with, I love Stephen King. I always have. I’ve read pretty much every one of his books, most of them more than once; I’ve been reading his work faithfully since I was 13, and my friend loaned me a copy of It to take with me to summer camp. (The Summer of Blood-Soaked Nightmares, I called that one. Subtitle, We all float down here. Sub-sub-title, Don’t ever use the bathroom in the middle of the night when you’re reading It.) I am a great admirer of his remarkable ability to create characters, to build suspense, and to squeeze a thousand details, all of which are both real and also unexpected, into the framework of a story.

So going into this one, I was already going to like it: there have only been two or three Stephen King books I haven’t liked – mostly the ones that have actual aliens invading, The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher. Didn’t like Hearts in Atlantis, either, which was too bad because I love the low men and the can toi from Desperation and The Regulators. Anyway, since the man has written like 75 books, the chances were good for Sleeping Beauties: something like 25 to 1.

And I liked it.

It wasn’t my favorite Stephen King book. It might be easy to chalk that up to the influence of his co-author, his son, Owen King; but to be perfectly frank, I couldn’t even tell that this was a collaboration: it just read exactly like a Stephen King book. You’ve got a supernatural being appearing within the very first few pages, and immediately diving into a bloodbath of murder and mayhem, without even the slightest explanation as to who or what they are, or why they are ripping people’s limbs off. You’ve got a large cast of characters, most of them good but flawed people; you’ve got a male lead with a troubled love life; it’s set in a dinky little town half in the wilderness and with one spectacularly creepy location – in this case a women’s prison – that plays into the story in some prominent way. You’ve got a character or two who act as a combination demogogue and Wormtongue, whispering in the ears of the populace, playing on their fears and hatreds to bring out their absolute worst traits; you’ve got a supernatural phenomenon growing more and more powerful, and more and more apparent, though never quite becoming easily explainable; and you’ve got some enormous fight scene at the end, in which at least a good third of the characters die. This one has all of that.

That is not to say Stephen King’s work is monotonous, nor that this book is just like any others of his. Neither statement is true. It’s just that he does have tendencies and preferences, and certain themes that he keeps coming back to: like the mob. Not the mafia mob, but the driven-crazy-by-fear, pitchfork-and-torch-carrying mob. Mr. King knows that mob well, and he recognizes that there is no better reflection of the evils of the 20th century and beyond – unless it is the slick-talking small-town salesman-and-politician which shows up in many of King’s works as well; though not this one.

But there are some real distinctions, as well, in all of King’s books, and in this one. The lead character, for instance, is an interesting man that King has never done before: he is a prison psychologist, married to the town sheriff – another new element for this book, because I can’t remember another woman cop; usually his cops are the bad guys, which is true of several of the cops in this book, but not the sheriff. But her husband, the prison psychologist – Clint Norcross – was a former foster kid with old anger issues from his youth, which was exceptionally violent. He was not the madman that Jack Torrance was in The Shining, and not the epic hero Everyman that, say, Stuart Redman is in The Stand, or Stuttering Bill Denbrough in It. Clint doesn’t save the day. Clint is a mostly good guy who does mostly good things. That’s all.

The real story here is not the Stephen King setting or the tropes; it is the question of sex. Gender. Men and women. Because the concept of this book, the supernatural event that throws everything into chaos, is this: all of the women in the world fall asleep, and they don’t wake up. The supernatural being who comes in and starts removing limbs in a shower of blood is a woman, perhaps Eve or Lilith or Wonder Woman or Pandora or all of the above – certainly Helen of Troy – and she represents a greater power that has decided to give women a chance at a better world, a world where they don’t have to be beaten or raped or killed by men. So whenever a woman falls asleep, she spins a mystical cocoon; and she remains in the cocoon until further notice, while her soul goes – somewhere else.

And meanwhile, without women to abuse and destroy, the men turn on each other.

That’s the basic story, and parts of it were tough to read: the stories of women suffering at the hands of men, fictionalized but by no means exaggerated by King, were often heartbreaking and enraging. I got a little frustrated with Clint Norcross, who reads sort of like the hero, but isn’t really the hero simply because he’s a man; I did like the main villain, who leads the mob into the final fight, because he was sort of the other side of the coin from Clint, which was interesting. But I certainly didn’t like the son of a bitch. One interesting thing, though: King has said that the quickest way for an author to get an  audience to dislike a character is to have the character hurt a dog. (A lesson King probably learned from Jack London). But the villain of this book? He is kind to dogs. Make of that what you will. In some ways, the hero is no specific person, and neither is the villain: the hero of this book is the better half of the human race. (Guess who the villain is.) And they’re not all perfect either, of course, because King doesn’t write perfect characters; but they’re a hell of a lot better than the men. It was a little tough reading 700 pages about why my gender sucks. But it certainly wasn’t news.

The suspense is great; the violence is savage and glorious, as always; the big fight at the end is wonderfully apocalyptic. I actually didn’t like the supernatural element as much, because I didn’t really like the resolution. Should have gone the other way. But I did like the fox. And the Tree.

This is a Stephen King book. It’s not for everybody, but if you like Stephen King, you’ll like this one. I did.

Book Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn

 

I was undecided about this book. I’m not generally a mystery/thriller fan, though I have read and enjoyed several of them in the past, and this one was so popular, and so well-received, that I figured it was a good risk. I have not seen the movie, and I did not know anything about the book’s plot before I started, so I was in the perfect position to enjoy it as much as it could be enjoyed.

But I wasn’t enjoying it. The writing was quite good, and the plot was interesting; but – just like the last two books I’ve written reviews for, sadly – I did not like the characters. So I asked friends: should I continue reading this book? Is it worth it? Do the characters get better? I got a fair number of the responses you would expect from a question like that: a few people said absolutely yes, a few absolutely no; a few said “Why not?” and a few said “If you want to.” A former librarian friend said, “When in doubt, read your age: read as many pages as you have years, and then decide.”

And one friend said, “Yes. You won’t like the characters any more than you do now, but the book is worth it.” She said the characters are intentionally unlikable. She said that she believed the book will become know as a modern classic, and as an expert in literature, Gone Girl is a book I should read.

Well. She was right about the unlikable characters. (Not to be snobbish, but: based on what I have learned about fancy-pants literature as an Advanced Placement teacher, Gone Girl, like most popular fiction, will not in fact ever be considered a classic, as it isn’t complicated enough. The AP program describes their acceptable literature as those works which reward re-reading, meaning that reading the work again gives you new insights, new ideas, that you could not have grasped the first time through. And Gone Girl doesn’t have those hidden depths. Everything’s up front. Which I generally prefer, anyway, because my friend was also wrong to call me a literary expert. I’m not. I enjoyed the flattery, though.) She was also right that the book was worth putting up with the people in it, and also that the characters are intended to be unlikable.

So the basic story is about a married couple, Amy and Nick Dunne; and in the first chapter of the book, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing. (She’s the Gone Girl.) The question is, what happened to her? At first, you get an impression of both of these people, Amy and Nick, and one of them doesn’t come off too well. (I won’t say which one so as not to spoil it.)

But then something happens. That impression changes. You learn a few more things, and suddenly, the other one doesn’t seem too good a person, where the person you didn’t like turns out to be not that bad. That’s about where I asked about continuing, because my reaction was, The hell with both of these people.

Here’s the thing, though. That shift in allegiance for the reader: that’s Gillian Flynn’s intention. That’s the point.

The book isn’t really a mystery. There are mysterious elements, but between a third and halfway through the book, Part One ends, and when Part Two begins, the mystery is revealed. And at that point, the person you’ve been liking more turns out to be MUCH worse than the person you’ve been disliking – though that person, the not-as-bad one, is still pretty obnoxious. What the book’s really about is two things: one is the way that married couples can really destroy each other, and themselves, over the course of a marriage; and the other is the incredible way we can manipulate public opinion. Because this turns into a criminal case, related to Amy’s disappearance, and the apparent guilt is essentially worked out in the court of public opinion. It’s all about who can manipulate the public best; that is the person who will – win, I suppose, though really, you don’t want either side to win, because the entire fight is just despicable. Back to that thing I said about married couples destroying each other. It’s all ugly, it’s all bad, and nobody wins. The same for lying and manipulating appearances in order to seem more righteous: it’s all ugly. It’s all bad.

You do end up rooting for some of the characters, mostly because you want the badness to end; there are some moments of satisfying karmic justice for the ugliness. Mostly, though, my friend was right:  even though I never liked the main characters, the book was worth reading. We’re not supposed to really like them or sympathize with them: Flynn set this up to sway our allegiance back and forth, to show us, I think, that we determine our opinions too quickly on the smallest, most subjective piece of evidence; and because they are so shallow, our opinions can change completely when new information comes to light. It reminds me very much of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, a play I’ve taught dozens of times, because that play shows the Roman public for the fickle mush-heads (Props to Diamond Joe Quimby for the phrase, because the Simpsons have also done this topic) they are: first they love Caesar, then they love Brutus, then they love Mark Antony. And I have always believed that Shakespeare isn’t really talking about the Romans: he’s talking about his own audience, the English theater crowd, the ones whose favor could be won and lost in an instant. I think Gillian Flynn is doing the same thing: she’s using this book, with its masterful manipulations, to show us how wrong we generally are when we choose sides based on what we see on TV, and what we hear from the grapevine, and especially what we all “know” to be true – like how the husband always did it; or once a liar, always a liar; or that pretty people are more trustworthy.

I don’t want to think those things are true of me, too. But I’ve spent almost a thousand words now, talking about how quickly my allegiance to these characters changed: because I made snap judgments based on poor information, and never once questioned whether I should believe what I was being told. Not even when it didn’t make sense, when I had conflicting information about the same character; I never questioned whether something was credible. It was simply that the more recent piece of information had more influence on me; I tended to believe the new information was true, and therefore I should take it more to heart.

So what have we learned? I, too, like most other people, am a fickle mush-head, and I should not credit my knee-jerk opinions about public figures or controversial issues. I should think more. Gillian Flynn is a talented writer who set out to manipulate her audience into liking a character, and then hating that character, and then going back to liking the character, before drifting somewhere into a general distaste for everyone involved — including, for me, the author, who messed with me so much. We’ve learned that this is a well-done book, and people who are interested should read it. And I’m not going to read it a second time. I do not think it will reward re-reading. And I really don’t like these people.

Mr. Mercedes

Mr. Mercedes

by Stephen King

I can’t decide if this is one of King’s least frightening books – or one of the scariest.

It lacks a number of the elements that King usually includes to create fear, most notably the supernatural. There are no demons in this book, no ancient mystical objects, no magic spells or incantations; nobody is possessed, nothing comes to life, nobody comes back from the dead. There is also no raving psychotic waving a bloody knife, and – though I don’t mean to spoil anything – the dog doesn’t die. (It was King who said in an interview that the fastest way to get the audience to hate a bad guy is to have the character hurt or kill an animal; this is true, but it also makes us hate the author – I’m looking at you, Richard Matheson!)

But what this book has instead is: reality. And in some ways, that’s even more frightening. The murderer uses a car to kill people. It’s so incredibly ordinary that I can’t believe it doesn’t happen more often, with results as horrific as what King describes (Because of course there’s gore: I said nobody comes back to life, not that nobody dies, or that nobody has their arm torn off or their skull caved in. It is still Stephen King.). In the past, King has come up with some of the most unique madmen I’ve ever read – the Trashcan Man in The Stand comes immediately to mind, and the sheriff in Desperation, and the whole cast of the Dark Tower series – but the bad guy in this one, Mr. Mercedes himself, really isn’t that crazy. Oh, he’s crazy; but it’s an everyday kind of crazy. And whereas King often steals his lunatics’ sanity through some particularly appalling supernatural experience – thinking of Henry Bowers in It – this guy is crazy for a very ordinary reason, and is a largely well-controlled crazy. He’s a high-functioning lunatic, and because of that, he is able to walk among us, and plot our deaths: and that is very, very frightening.

What you have here is a bit of a mystery: not a whodunnit – King introduces the villain as a point-of-view character, as he frequently does, and then proceeds to freak us out with him, as he frequently does – but a How-did-he-do-it? The prologue shows his initial crime, the murder of several people using a Mercedes sedan as his weapon; the main plot of the book is some time later, after the lead detective on the case has retired, leaving the Mercedes Killer case unsolved. The killer has since struck again, but he has changed his modus operandi; and his new target is the retired detective himself. The detective, no easy target, begins to backtrack through the attempt on his life (And I’m giving away less than you think, here), and through the unsolved questions about the original crime, and tries to catch the one who got away during his active career. That investigation is the core of the book. Until, as so often happens in thrillers, everything falls apart and the killer moves on to a new target: then it becomes a race to see if he can be stopped – if, that is, they can even figure out what he’s planning to do. King leaves their success or failure truly in question until the very end; you really don’t know how it’s going to end until it does, and even then, it’s a surprise.

If you’re looking for a Stephen King-style gore/horror fest like It or Carrie, I’d recommend Desperation or The Dark Half. But if you want a genuine thriller, combining both mystery and suspense, by the master-of-all-dark-genres, then this one is the one to grab.

MERCE Review

M.E.R.C.E.
by J.P. Hart

I teach Advanced Placement English, and so I spend a fair amount of time involved in deep, close reading, of great and grand literary works, Shakespeare, Homer, Emily Bronte. I just spent a month poring over every sentence and every word of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, examining the diction, the syntax, the figurative language.

So it is a real relief when I can read a book that’s just — fun. MERCE was one of those books.

If you’re looking for a paranormal romance/thriller, this book has what you want: there is the damaged and vulnerable heroine whose pain hides her awesome power; there is the dark and brooding hero who is brought out of his shell by the heroine’s love. There is the all-consuming threat of evil that intrudes on their idyllic bliss, and there is the deadly fight over the fate of the world. There are secrets being revealed in nearly every chapter — secrets about the nature of the characters, about the nature of the world, about the nature of love and friendship and family.

There is action, both pulse-pounding and darkly frightening. There is humor, both sarcastic and absurd. There are twists, some a bit predictable, others entirely out of left field. There are some lovely details, and some excellent writing. There is an EXCELLENT dog, which is always a plus. Sure, there are flaws: some of the chapters cut off in strange places, and some of the writing needs some polish; the romance moves a bit too quickly into total trust and harmony and the heroine moves too quickly into full-on badassery; the terrible, traumatic events of the past are left behind a little too easily. But this is a fun, quick book, by a writer with talent, and as the first book in a series, it’s worth checking out: if you like these characters, you’ll like reading this book, and probably the ones that will follow. I’d give it around 3.5 to 4 stars.