Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: The Long Walk

The Long Walk The Long Walk by Richard Bachman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I kind of blame Stephen King for reality television.

That’s not fair because he certainly wasn't the first person to do stories about murderous games done as entertainment, and it’s not like he produced Survivor or Big Brother. However, two of the books he did under the Richard Bachman pen name before being outed are about death contests done to distract the masses in dystopian societies. So whenever I see an ad for those kinds of shows I can’t help but think that the people who make that trash read those books but saw them as great TV concepts rather than horrifying visions of the future.

The scenario here is that 100 teenage boys volunteer to be part of an annual event called The Long Walk. The rules are simple. You start walking and keep up a speed of 4 miles per hour. If you fall below that pace you get a few warnings. If you don’t get back up to speed immediately, you get shot. Easier than checkers, right? Here’s the real rub: You absolutely cannot stop. All 100 boys walk until 99 of them are killed. Last one still teetering around on whatever is left of their feet then wins the ultimate prize.

On the surface you could say that this concept that could seem silly or absurd. Why would anyone volunteer for this? Answering that question turns out to be one of the best parts of the book as King moves the walkers through stages while things get progressively worse for them on the road. What King tapped into here is that realization that deep down we all think we’re special, that things will always work out for us, and this is especially true when we’re teens with no real ideas about consequences and our own mortality.

While the story focuses on one character it really becomes about all of the walkers, and we get to know them through their conversations and how they deal with the death that is literally nipping at their heels. Eventually the grim reality of their situation sets in, and we also view how the boys react to realizing the true horror they signed up for. We also learn a bit about the world they live in, and it’s an interesting minor aspect established in a few stray bits that this is essentially some kind of alternate history where World War II played out somewhat differently.

I’d read this several times back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but hadn’t picked it up in the 21st century so it felt like there’s a dated element to the way that Long Walk functions. The boys essentially just show up in whatever clothes they have and they start walking with little fanfare. It almost seems like a contest at a county fair instead of something that captures the nation’s attention. There’s some explanation given about how they don’t want crowds or TV cameras around as distractions at the start until the walkers get settled into the routine.

However, that doesn’t seem to fit with the idea that the event is being orchestrated as a distraction and weird kind of motivational tool. If the story were told now there would be a lot more about the media coverage, and the whole thing would probably have a corporate sponsor. Plus, the walkers would have matching shoes and uniforms designed to look cool and keep them walking longer. They’d also probably have a more sophisticated method than soldiers with rifles and stopwatches dispatching the lollygaggers, too. This doesn’t hurt the story at all, though. Instead it gives the whole thing a kind of dated charm like watching a movie from the ‘70s where everyone is smoking and people have to wait by the phone.

One more note about Stephen King: The man really needs to have a spoiler warning branded on his forehead. I had to stop following him on Twitter after he spoiled major events on both Game of Thrones and Stranger Things. My friend Trudi had part of The Killer Inside Me ruined for her by King's introduction in which he described several key twists. I was listening to an audible version of this that had an intro from him talking about why he did the whole Richard Bachman thing. In it, he casually gives away the end of The Running Man novel. Fortunately for me I'd already read that one, but Uncle Stevie clearly just doesn't get the concept and why it pisses people off.

Overall, The Long Walk held up to my memories of it as one of the better King books as well as having a chilling idea at the heart of it. Sure, some might say that the idea of contest that dehumanizes people for entertainment to make things easier for a fascist ruler is far-fetched. On the other hand, this TV show will be premiering a few days after a certain orange pile of human shaped garbage takes power.

It’s a Richard Bachman world, people. Get ready to walk. Or maybe run.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: Star Wars, Vol 3: Rebel Jail

Star Wars, Vol 3: Rebel Jail Star Wars, Vol 3: Rebel Jail by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I was in the middle of reading this one news broke that Carrie Fisher had suffered a heart attack so that added a certain bittersweet flavor to a story that focuses heavily on Princess Leia. It also provided further evidence for the case against 2016 when we finally haul it into court for its crimes against humanity.

Leia’s part involves her delivering an important Imperial prisoner to a secret Rebel prison and being caught there when a mysterious man attacks the jail. Meanwhile, Han and Luke are off on a supply run which gets complicated, there’s a single issue story about what Obi-Wan was up to on Tatooine while waiting for Luke to grow up, and the first annual has an off-shoot story about a Rebel spy on Coruscant. (If you’re reading these as single issues from the Marvel Unlimited app you should check that one out first.)

Overall, this is still a fun and solid set of Star Wars stories in which Jason Aaron and the other creators try to fill the gap between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and do a pretty good job of it. Since we know how things shake out they can generate much tension regarding the main characters, but there’s a lot of interesting turns here. My favorite part was in learning that Han Solo was literally a nerf herder for a brief time.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Review: Babylon's Ashes

Babylon's Ashes Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My life has become a single on-going revelation that I haven’t been cynical enough.”

This is the kind of cheery thought one is apt to have when facing a narcissistic megalomaniac who has gained power by convincing some people that all their problems can be blamed on other groups while setting humanity on a self-destructive path it may not be able to recover from.

Geez, I thought I read science-fiction to escape reality.

The Expanse series took an epic dark turn in the last one, and this book is mainly about dealing with the fall-out from that as well as trying to resolve the new threat that arose. The short term stakes involve a fight to control the outposts outside of Earth and Mars, but the longer view will determine nothing less than the fate of humanity itself.

Like the other books this has a self-contained story that features all kinds of political intrigue and strategy as well as a healthy dose of interesting characters riding around in spaceships being all Pew-Pew!. Which is what The Expanse does really well as a general rule. The new wrinkle here is that because this is the aftermath of catastrophic events that there’s a tone of shock and even a certain wistfulness in this one. Things will never be what they once where and everyone knows it. This makes the conflict here literally a fight for the future, and all the characters are under enormous amounts of pressure because of it.

There was one element I wasn’t entirely happy about near the conclusion, but on the other hand there’s still story to be told so I’m trying to set aside any feelings of mild disappointment I have about the ending here because it’s likely that there is more pay-off coming.

As always after finishing one of these I’m left wanting more and am already counting the days until the next book releases. It helps that we’ve got the second season of the TV show coming to fill the gap between books.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

Review: Keller's Fedora

Keller's Fedora Keller's Fedora by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always thought that a man had to have a certain amount of class to pull off wearing a fedora, and Keller fits that profile even if he is a hired killer.

In this short novella Keller gets an interesting proposition. A potential client wants a hit man to take care of his wife’s lover, but he doesn’t know who it is. So the job involves doing some investigating before getting to the murder, and Keller finds himself so intrigued that he buys a new hat because he’s in a detective frame of mind. Things seem to go according to plan at first, but as usual it’s only the killing itself that goes smoothly for Keller.

I was a little hesitant about this because Block had taken Keller through a journey in the novels that seemed to end with his happy retirement, but that’s kind of turned into a semi-retirement which I worried might undercut the entire Keller story a bit. However, Block’s landed at an interesting place with Keller and how he feels about his work so that him dipping a toe back into murder-for-hire doesn’t seem that out of place or a contradiction of what came before.

A lot of the previous books were built off short stories in which Keller goes on gigs that take weird turns while his doubts about what kind of person he was bubbled up in interesting ways. (Any TV producers looking for a crime series to adapt for a show could do a lot worse than Keller.) So getting another installment in this form seems like a natural fit, and I've always loved Keller's tendency to drift off on musings and questions sparked by everyday things he encounters. So it was a genuine delight to be back in Keller’s head that was sporting a spiffy new lid.

In addition to being a fine piece of writing it also functions as great advertising for the hat industry because I wanted to rush out and buy a fedora while reading it.

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Friday, December 9, 2016

Review: The Tommyknockers

The Tommyknockers The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I mean, The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act. And I've thought about it a lot lately and said to myself, "There's really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides, and I ought to go back." The book is about 700 pages long, and I'm thinking, "There's probably a good 350-page novel in there."

- Stephen King in a Rolling Stone interview.

You got that right, Uncle Stevie.

Bobbi Anderson is a writer living outside a small Maine town who trips over a hunk of metal sticking out of the ground while walking in the woods with her dog. She finds herself strangely compelled to dig it up, and she soon realizes that she’s stumbled across a flying saucer that has been buried for thousands of years.

Bobbi’s friend Jim Gardner is a poet with a love of booze and a deep hatred of nuclear power. After going on an epic bender Gardner visits Bobbi and finds that she has worked herself ragged and lost several teeth while digging up the ship. She’s also started making all sorts of home improvements like fixing her aging water heater up with what appears to be a fusion reactor. Bobbi convinces Gardner that they need to excavate the ship themselves, and he agrees to help. But the ship’s influence grows as it is unearthed to the point where the nearby townsfolk also start spitting teeth and coming up with clever ideas of their own.

The King quote I led with really sums up this book. There’s an intriguing idea at the heart of it and some nice character stuff particularly when it comes to Gardner. However, its coke-fueled writing is so evident that you expect to see leftover powder and dried blood spots from King’s nose on every page. There’s just too many tangents that go in useless directions, and it really gets out of control when he starts telling all the stories happening in the nearby town of Haven.

Detailing the takeover of the population of a small town via snapshots of the locals is something King does well in other books like Salem’s Lot, but he could never draw the line here between relevant character details and useless information. In fact, it almost seems at times like he was starting different novels. One has beloved civic leader and police constable coming to suspect that there is something very wrong happening and doing her best to hold out from it. Another has a reporter starting to unravel the mystery of what happens in Haven, but since all he is doing is uncovering what we already know his whole thread is pretty much useless anyhow so learning all about his relationship with his passive aggressive mother is especially pointless.

King also has problems in dealing with things logically from a plot standpoint. He prefers vague supernatural threats that he can routinely increase or reduce the powers of as needed, but when he has to put physical rules to them things fly apart. Here he can’t even nail down exactly how the Tommyknockers are transforming the people. It’s definitely a gas that seems to come off the skin of the ship as it’s exposed. That’s a good concept (Although why aliens would coat the outside of their ship with something that would spread on contact with Earth air is a valid question.) but the ship also exudes something akin to electromagnetism that effects electronics and radio waves.

You could make the argument that there’s no reason it can’t be pumping out both gas and some weird alien radiation. Which is true, but it gets messy when it comes exactly which thing is doing what, and King practically broke his back trying to draw parallels to the TK ship and nuclear reactors so you can see what he's trying to do. However, Gardner is immune to the Tommyknocker transformation because he has a metal plate in his head so that seems to indicate that it isn’t caused by the gas, but it is repeatedly shown that others can avoid its effects by not breathing the air. It just isn't consistent at all. There is also a whopper of a continuity error right at the heart of this that shows that King wasn’t thinking through the details. (view spoiler)

He also didn’t think through the implications of including the usual Easter eggs to his other works. The town of Derry exists here along with a direct reference to IT as well as other books, and that seems harmless enough at first. However, the end of this one would literally be the biggest story in human history. So that means the Stephen King universe should include it and the aftermath, but it doesn’t. Yeah, yeah, I know. The Dark Tower has many levels, blah, blah, blah. You can believe that if you want, but it increasingly feels to me that the references aren't so much clever winks to reader as they are lazy tricks that undermine the story King is trying to tell at the moment.

Plus, Stephen King just plain sucks at writing about aliens. He proved it again in Dreamcatcher, and if you read that whole interview I linked to you’ll see that he also doesn’t like that one much either and blames the Oxycontin he was on following being struck by a car. So that’s two bad books about evil aliens he wrote under the influence. I’m sensing a trend here.

Aside from the drugs though there’s an element of King’s personal outlook that makes him trying to do an alien invasion story problematic. Like a lot of Baby Boomers he has a general distrust of the guvment, and Uncle Stevie’s distaste is so strong that he just can’t imagine them doing the right thing. He also has some anti-tech tendencies and doesn’t think much of science. (The Stand is a prime example of this.) So the aliens are evil, but he also doesn’t think you could trust anyone in authority or with scientific expertise to do anything about them. That’s when King’s anti-establishment nature is at war with his own plot. It's like his alien stories are trying to be both E.T. and The Thing at the same time, and it just doesn't work like that.

For example, we get a long conversation when Bobbi (Who is part-Tommyknocker at this point.) is trying to convince Gardner that they can’t call ‘the Dallas police’, and that’s a big point that wins him over because he’s an anti-nuke protestor who doesn’t trust the powers that be with an alien ship. So that means that an alien influenced western writer and a drunken poet who shot his own wife are supposed to be the ones we trust to deal with the discovery of aliens? And yeah, I get that this is a con job to get Gardner to help dig up the ship, but that thread of thinking that the Feds would somehow be even worse than murderous aliens runs through this and Dreamcatcher in defiance of internal plot logic.

I mean, do we really believe that some idiot would be so distrustful of government agencies and science as well as have such a strong belief in crazy conspiracy theories that he would shun the system and instead choose to side with a hideous monster in human form who is telling him nothing but lies? Oh….. Never mind.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review: Sinner Man

Sinner Man Sinner Man by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Between this and Resume Speed I’ve read two Lawrence Block stories in the last week that were about men leaving town and taking on new identities. But even if Mr. Block had a dozen more books coming out soon about guys hopping busses and trains for further misadventures under fake names I’d still cheerfully read them.

Don Barshter is your run-of-the-mill insurance salesman in a small city in Connecticut, but he’s bored with his life and drinking too much. One night he tries to end an argument with his wife with a brisk slap, but the silly woman falls wrong and ends up dead. Don’s first instinct is to call the cops to turn himself in because it’s 1960 and accidently killing your wife during a fight isn’t that big of a deal, but then he decides to seize the chance to reinvent himself instead.

After stashing the body in a closet and emptying his bank accounts Don is off to exotic Buffalo under the name Nat Crowley, but what should a wife murdering insurance agent pick as a new career? Organized crime seems like a lucrative field with growth opportunities that won’t bother with a lot of background checks so he starts hanging out in bars and rubbing elbows with gangsters while beating up the occasional Canadian tourist to establish his credentials as a rough customer. Soon enough Nat is in with the local mob, but can he ever truly escape his past by engaging in even worse acts?

This is billed as Block’s first crime novel, and in an afterword he explains that while it’s actually the first one of the genre he wrote it wasn’t the first one he published. In fact, he tells a fascinating story about how it got lost in the shuffle of the various books he was churning out for the paperback publishers of the day under various pen names, and while he got paid for it he’d never gotten a copy and had only vague memories of the story. It was a chance conversation with some fans on Facebook that led to him finally learning the title and name it was released under.

It’s a testament to how much material Lawrence Block has written in his life that he has entire books that he thought were lost, but this isn’t just a gimmick trading off the idea that it’s a young Block’s first mystery novel. It’s an incredibly solid and fascinating piece of work that starts out as a plot driven story about how a guy could leave one life and start another on the run. Then it turns into a serious noir that has a lot to say about how you may be able to change your name, but you’re still gonna be stuck with what you’ve done and who you are.

Block also drew on his days as a soft core porn writer to incorporate some steamy sex scenes in the best tradition of the pulp paperbacks, but even those turn into something deeper and darker with Nat’s relationship to the gangster savvy Anne Bishop getting increasingly complicated as he works his way up the mob hierarchy.

Overall, it’s just a fantastic piece of pulp fiction that shows that even when he was starting out that Block was already a great writer. This is one of my new favorites from Hard Case Crime.

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Review: Resume Speed

Resume Speed Resume Speed by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this from NetGalley for review.

At the start of this we meet a man called Bill who is an awful hurry to catch a bus out of town, but as soon as he’s over the state line he immediately gets a job as a cook at a diner and starts establishing a new life there.

You may think that sounds a bit fishy, but honestly who among us hasn’t hopped a bus out of town and changed their identity?

This new novella from esteemed mystery writer Lawrence Block is a bit of an odd duck. It’s mainly about Bill as he develops a routine in this new town and quickly becomes a valued employee at the diner and a reliable tenant at his rooming house while he starts a relationship with the local librarian. His only vice is the single shot of whiskey he has every night before bed. Yet, we know that Bill is hiding from something.

That description sounds more mysterious than it actually is because nothing that we learn about Bill is all that surprising considering how we’re introduced to him, and most readers will probably be able to have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end.

What I found incredibly enjoyable is just the way that Block is able to write people doing even everyday things. Whether it’s private detective Matt Scudder wandering the streets of New York or hit man Keller traveling the country to murder people there’s always this steady stream of observations and actions that don’t seem like anything special while reading yet they make for compelling stories. It’s a quiet way of getting to really know a character, and Block is the master of building these small moments into something larger.

Another aspect that fascinated me was that it seems like it should be set in the past. Surely, in our modern age someone couldn’t just jump on a bus and reinvent himself in a town down the line could he? That’s what I was thinking and the first part of the book felt very old school to me like it had been written in the ‘60, but then there are mentions of computers and Google so it’s definitely the 21st century. It could have seemed anachronistic, but I found that it gave the whole thing an interesting timeless tone instead.

Overall, I was completely engrossed with Bill as he goes about his everyday life while hiding from his past, and I’m more impressed than ever with Block for the way he makes this quiet character-based story work.

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