Tag Archives: fiction

Billy Summers

It really should not take me four months to read a book, too-busy job and toddler-rearing or not. And I mean, don’t mistake me, I read really a lot of comics in this period as well, but… something isn’t right, and I need to address it[1]. All that said, despite a four month duration, I was pretty happy with Billy Summers, even though after the early act two surprise shift in direction, I expected not to be.

The way things start is, Billy is a hitman who is a) smarter than he acts, b) only takes jobs on bad people who deserve it, and c) has just been offered one hell of a payout on his next job, even though he had kind of already convinced himself it was time to retire. I, uh, think we all know what that means. Hell, even Billy knows, but the money shines a little more brightly than the flashing genre signpost in his mind does.

Later… well, that would be telling. I will say that by the end of the book, my misgivings about the second act shift in direction had largely been settled, the long delay mainly because it was impossible to be sure whether it would turn out okay until the end of the book. I can imagine wanting to stay away, though, and I’m aware of just how vague I’m being: this is for spoiler purposes. But if you personally want to know what I would be waving you off from as a hazard, just let me know and I will divulge.

Lastly, it’s a little weird how political King has become. I mean, not on Twitter, he should do whatever he wants there. And I also understand that one writes what one knows. It’s just jarring after reading everything he’s written, a catalog that by a small margin predates my own birth, to see how much politics has seeped into his overall viewpoint in just these last recent years. The good news is, boomer blind spots or not, at least he’s on the right side of history. (The other good news is that just because it’s there to notice and be surprised by, it’s not like he has, this time or previously, written a book about politics. (Even if act three is sort of a political revenge fantasy.))

[1] Possible way to address it: accept that I’m primarily a comics reader and have 35 years still to catch up on. For various reasons, I’m not perfectly happy with this option.

If It Bleeds

I don’t know if you know this about very small children, but they take up a lot of your time. That’s not the only reason the number of books I’ve read in the past month totals one, but it’s definitely high up on the list. But: when Stephen King arrives on my doorstep, I persevere and do the thing.

If It Bleeds is a novella collection whose stories are each largely concerned with mortality. Which is certainly timely, although I’m not sure it’s what I would have asked for as my leisure reading during the [first?] summer of Covid-19. But it also makes sense that an aging prolific author is thinking about death. Like, natural causes death, not horror fiction death, which to be fair he has always been thinking about.

The title story has the least to do with this theme; it is instead another Holly Gibney mystery story, and I liked it, but it’s hard to feel like it belonged. But weighing in at half the length of the book, it was good to not overstuff it into a full-sized book, and it had to go somewhere? As for the other stories: The Life of Chuck was the most ambitious, and while I don’t think it quite hit the mark, I have a lot of respect for the story it was trying to tell. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone continues King’s fascination with the dark cracks in modern technology through which supernatural horror can slip. And Rat is yet another in a long line of stories about authors in dire straits. But, well, write what you know, I’m told? And he is pretty good at that particular topic!

Anyway: if you ever thought he had it, he’s still got it.

Dodge and Twist

To be honest, I’m not even sure Dodge and Twist qualifies as a thing I review. It’s in a weird netherzone heretofore unexplored. Because it’s a book without a book. In a dim forgotten age, it would have been a radio drama played out in half hour segments over a series of weekly appointments with the local PBS affiliate. But here in modernity, I got it with one of my Audible credits because I had so much new stuff to read between Malazan installments. So, does that even count as a book? I still can’t decide, but a full paragraph in, I may as well finish as scrap the whole thing, right?

This is a sequel of sorts to Oliver Twist, a book with which I am somewhat familiar without having really ever read it. Like, I know the first half pretty well from summary kidbooks, where the boy who wants more food at the workhouse eventually falls in with a master criminal who is more of a petty thief through our eyes, and also a murderous guy and his tragic girlfriend, and most importantly the Artful Dodger, best of the pickpockets in Fagin’s child criminal army. How or why the book ends, though, I could not tell you. Did I never finish the kidbook version? Was the story boring once all the pickpocketing interludes were over, and so I’ve forgotten? Who knows!

Anyway, now it’s twelve years later, and our characters (those still alive) are brought back together by circumstance, with stand-ins aplenty for the characters who are not (still alive, that is). Will Oliver be corrupted this time? Will Dodger have a brilliant plan for the biggest heist of all time? Will everyone sound terribly British? The answers may surprise you! …I mean, probably not though.

The biggest upside, of course, is that this sequel was in fact not written by Charles Dickens. But that’s because it’s a really big upside. At 5 hours, this was not a huge investment, and I liked the return. Plus also, now I have a slightly better idea of how the original book ended. Only slightly, but still.


Elevation is an unusual Stephen King book, by multiple measures. First, it’s tiny. Barely over a hundred pages, and it’s a small factor book on top of that. I’m not saying he only writes doorstops, but this is just barely north of novella-sized, almost certainly shorter than, say, The Mist.

Second, it’s… I started to say it’s overtly political, but that’s not true. To be overtly political in this climate, you have to go a lot farther, and I’m not sure you can do it in written fiction, period. His politics have been pretty clear to me for a number of years anyway (and thank goodness I don’t hate them, because man, that would be a blow), but as far as I can remember this is the first time I’ve seen them bleed into his work, and in such an obvious manner.

Third, it’s definitely not horror (which okay is not super unusual for King, and especially lately, but it’s still what he’s known for). There is a central mystery which is well outside normal experience, but it is the least interesting part of the story. The meaty parts are about what it means to be a good neighbor[1], and about the rot at the heart of Smalltown, USA (both conscious and unconscious) and whether it can change, and about the things we leave behind.

Anyway, I liked it. Not a bad way to spend a lunch break.

[1] I’ve never tried to be a good neighbor. Don’t misunderstand me, I want to not be a bad neighbor, and have definitely tried to do that. But I never really cared about who lived near me, much past junior high. Maybe if I were less suburban and more rural, I would feel differently.

The Handmaid’s Tale

51qGjF8UHJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Another month, another book club book. This time out, a horribly dystopian near-future examination of some religious dudes stealing everything from women. You know, to save them from how cruel the world can be. I must say, despite taking a while to get to a point where it was believable, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed utterly plausible from then on. Due to plummeting birthrates and the aforementioned (aforeimplied?) enslavement of functionally all females in the nation, our mostly-nameless heroine viewpoint character heroine has been enrolled as a Handmaid; which is to say that, Genesis-style, she acts as a stand-in for the wife of one of the high muckety-mucks of the fictional future nation of Gilead, so they may be fruitful and multiply. Keeping in mind the disdain these people have for fertility clinics (or, indeed, science), well, my point is to say, yes. That is every bit as horrible as you’re imagining it to be.

The rest of the story, with its leisurely revelations of the world Atwood has built[1] and its insistence on hitting the reader with one terrible event after another, is a surprisingly difficult slog. Well, if you’re looking at the size of the book it is, anyway. If you’re considering the emotional toll of the things I’ve mentioned and taking me at my word that I’ve left out five or ten reveals for every one that I’ve spoiled so far, well, it’s easy to see why the emotional density of the book makes for a slow, miserable read.

The worst part is, it was extremely good and I wanted to know what would happen. If only it had read as badly as it made me feel and I could have quit a few chapters in!

[1] She revealed things far more leisurely than I just have! In my defense, I’ve still only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

41E4+fttDjLIn case you are wondering why I should read such a very Snow Falling on Cedars type of book, and nevermind that I haven’t read comics in ages or that there’s a new Stephen King book in the world? Book club.

So, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There’s this Japanese guy, living in a house with a wife and a secret alley that wanders through the neighborhood and a missing cat and some fortune tellers and a Lolita neighbor, all of which are also Japanese[1]. And…. okay, I have no idea where to start or end this review, spoilers-wise, because very little of what actually happens is the point, and I’m going to spoil the hell out of the themes of the story, because that’s what I usually do, except this time if you take away the themes there’s actually nearly nothing to discover, so I may be doing it wrong. If you’re worried about that kind of thing or this particular book, you should skip the rest of this, only then you’d have no review at all. So here’s what I’ll do.

Before all the despoiling of the fecund thematic territory I am about to perpetrate, I will say that I did not particularly like the book, and mainly it was because of a probably cultural difference between myself and the author that leads me to strongly disagree with the points his book is making. (I am not so sure he himself is making them, but it’s hard to explain why. Hopefully I succeeded below, in the spoiler part you aren’t reading? Still, it seemed like I ought to say so, in case.) However, and this may strongly tie into the recent parenthetical distinction, the way it wrapped up was pretty satisfying, so at least I don’t resent the whole endeavor.

Anyway, though, themes. Well, theme. Toru Okada (the Japanese man I mentioned earlier), as he wanders through his world, growing more and more confused by the ever stranger events and people he comes into contact with, is presented with one unifying message from every single character, except possibly the cat: “there is no way to control fate, not yours, not mine, not anyone’s.” And I mean, the name of the book itself: there’s this bird that nobody can see, up in a tree somewhere, winding up the world every morning, and then the world goes off on its preordained path until it winds down again. And while that’s an interesting thought exercise, it makes for a pretty horrible world. Nobody can fight for happiness. Nobody can feel good about any accomplishment, nor feel regret about any shortcoming. It all just is, and that’s the end. My ability to maintain interest in characters for whom I don’t feel the slightest shred of empathy? Turns out to be vanishingly small.

The one good thing about all that is that I’m pretty sure the pivot on which the story swings is Toru’s decision whether to accept that message or not. If you are saying to yourself, “He can’t decide that or it undermines the entire premise!”, well, a) that’s what makes me feel a little better about things but also b) that’s why I’m not sure if I read the book correctly. Because, seriously, if I’m right, it’s 95% “everything is outside your control” and 1% “I disagree”, and that’s a weird proportion when you are arguing the converse. So I may really just be inserting what I wanted to happen instead.

(The remaining four percent is Japanese history lessons, ca. World War II.)

[1] I point this out repetitively because it will be important later. I pointed it out with one repetition instead of one per noun because that would have been as horrible to type as it was going to be to read.

Swan Song

You guys. You guys. Do you know how long it’s been since I finished a book? Thanks to the magical powers of the Internet, I can reasonably speculate. Two and a half months. I… I am literally convinced that the last time I went two and a half months without finishing a book, it was because I had never finished a book. Like, ever. Because I was still three or something.

If you have any questions about my job (which, to be clear, I had only just accepted when I started reading), I think all of the meaningful answers lie in the previous paragraph, and anything else I could say is just window dressing. But anyway, yes, I have read a book. It is Swan Song, by Robert McCammon. It is one of those apocalyptic nuclear war books from the ’80s, only it shares a lot more in common with The Stand than with the Deathlands books I’ve been reading lately (and may skip ahead to, since they go so well with camping and also I am about to be camping).

See, there’s a nuclear war, and then different people, like a bag lady and a quasi-pro wrestler and a Vietnam vet turned survivalist slumlord and the embodiment of evil and a girl named Swan who has an affinity with plants and may or may not be extremely relevant to the title of the book slowly start to shuffle their way across post-nuclear America toward one another for a dramatic showdown between good and evil. I liked it pretty okay, but if I had it to do over again, I would have been reading much shorter and faster books, so that I might have had a chance to enjoy this more when I eventually did read it. (Or, possibly if it was spread over two weeks instead of ten, vast flaws would have been revealed? There is no way to know!)

I of course liked the apocalypse sections, as always. The eventual post-apocalypse was saved from being too simplistically preachy by likable characters. The downside was that the majority of evil characters were too caricatured. If you tell me that a fourteen-year old boy is going to point an unloaded .357 at his dad’s head and pull the trigger several times as a joke, you can’t justify that by calling it foreshadowing. Not unless you plan to do something to make him nuanced and redeemable later. Otherwise, he was just a budding psychopath from the start, and that’s not a very interesting entrant into the armies of evil. But the good characters, yeah, pretty likable and maybe even two-dimensional in many cases. And of course there’s always that apocalypse.

The Road

I got on a plane to Portland on Thursday night, and, as one does, I brought a book along. It had been recommended by a librarian and by a used bookstore’s regional manager, both friends of mine. Pretty rarefied praise, right? I read about three chapters of it around the discomfort of my late arrival to the front seat, you know the one, it has no tray and no space for your stuff. Then, when the plane landed, I set it down to get my backpack out of the overhead luggage, and then walked off the plane, fiddled with the internet for an hour thanks to free wifi, and realized as I was at the end of the line for the next plane that I had never picked it back up. A quick check in my backpack confirmed the sad tale, but by then not only was the first plane almost certainly gone, I was also on the jetway, three people back from the actual plane entrance. So I sat on that flight, sad about the lost book and the inability to read until I finally fell asleep, and then I found a Powell’s at the bookstore in the Portland airport and bought the first book that really caught my eye, the long-recommended The Road. (There was a movie starring Aragorn as the man who is on said road, which I never saw, if that helps to identify which particular road I have in mind.)

In a strictly plot-derived sense, this could be a book of the first years of the apocalypse that resulted a century and change later in my ongoing Deathlands series[1]. Something horrible happened, and the world (presumptively but never explicitly America) is a broken, terrible place where you can only rely on yourself or, in the case of pretty close to 50% of the book’s characters by presence, your father. Food is gone, shelter is gone, animals are gone, even the sun is gone. The prose reminds me a lot of Hemingway, only with a richer vocabulary of colors to paint from; I could almost understand, reading it, why people can appreciate a spare canvas over a rich, vibrant, and above all completely full one. It will stay with me, I know, but I’m not sure I can say that I liked it.

How is this, you may ask, knowing my love of the apocalyptic? It occurs to me that, aside from the dire events themselves, my apocalypse porn addiction shares another consistent thread throughout the collection. All of those books, however high- or low-minded, have a generous amount of hope buried within them. The Road was as bereft of hope as it was of sunlight, and no amount of spare beauty could ever make up the lack. And now that is a thing I know about myself!

[1] In the character and prose senses, of course, they could not be further apart.

The Passage

The Passage is exactly the kind of widely popular fiction that I avoid, the kind that is probably cited as the most recent book read on 3 out of 5 new eHarmony accounts right now. (Well, the ones that acknowledge reading as something people actually do.) I honestly have no idea how it got on my radar in the first place, given that. I guess from a person I know, or NPR? It’s a total blank, I just remember that it got added to my shopping list notepad on the iPhone, and that at the time, I was not shocked, so apparently remembered having added it. My brain works like this far more often than I am comfortable with. Anyway, whatever I had heard was sufficiently convincing, I guess, so I did end up reading it, and really quite early after purchase considering my enormous queue.

But, okay, whatever convinced me was basically right, as the book is at its most basic level a post-apocalyptic overrun-world story, with only a few beacons of huddled humanity in pools of infinite darkness. And I like that setting a lot. As you can perhaps imagine from the title, the people with whom we are concerned don’t just stay huddled under the beacon, but why they go, from whom they are huddled, and what they hope to accomplish are all questions with interesting enough answers that I don’t want to spoil them, except to tease by saying that Amy, introduced in the first sentence of the book as The Girl Who Lived a Thousand Years, is definitely involved. (Every good post-apocalyptic story that isn’t about the actual apocalypse needs a character from Before, to tie the reader to the shattered landscape. Otherwise, it might as well not be set on Earth in the first place!)

So, it has a setting I like and a story I’ve approved of. Why am I not gushing, as I almost certainly too often do? It’s a number of little things that add up to overall dissatisfaction. Like, the perfect record of using “wretch” as a verb. Or the innocent murderer on death row in act one of the story who eventually provided nothing to the plot’s genesis or resolution. Or, and I suppose this is not so little, the overly coincidental coming together of the hero and the plot token just as doom was assured through means unrelated to that doom, without there being some kind of fantastic element or prophecy to justify it.[1] Or the spiritual underpinning throughout the story that never quite gelled for me. Or the sadism of the last sentence of the epilogue. And now it sounds like a story I didn’t like, which isn’t right either. I guess it was a story that I liked a lot, but that had some real need for editing, enough so that I was too often pulled out of the story by it. There is some irony in the fact that I’ve never had this complaint about what are objectively worse books in the Deathlands series.

[1] I am apparently willing to swallow all manner of implausible coincidence, as long as the author tells me that some person wrote it down cryptically generations before.

Blockade Billy

There’s a thing that happens when Stephen King books come out, and it is this: I buy them and read them. Of course, sometimes they slip by me unnoticed for a little while; and for that matter, sometimes they should. Blockade Billy and its companion piece are not bad stories, by any means. I enjoyed them both! And despite the tiny size of the book, I only paid paperback pricing or so, and even for a book that only took about a day to read the lot of, it’s not like I feel ripped off by undersizedness or anything. The only real problem I have is that the two stories (one about the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of an eponymous baseball catcher, the other about an indecent proposal) are both too short to really count as a book, and now I feel like I should be reading the rest of a short story collection that I do not, in fact, have to hand.

Leave ’em wanting more is one thing, but I’m pretty sure leaving ’em entirely unsatisfied is a bad motto. And it’s a pity, because the first story especially was quite good. I should caveat that it was very baseball-heavy, though, as some people who are insane don’t like baseball.