Skrip - tyur' - i - ent: adj. Possessing the violent desire to write.


#287 In which our hero discusses what he's been reading in the past year (part 2)

Cell by Stephen King (audio book)

When I was younger, I was a huge Stephen King fan. I read everything he put out. As I got older, I became a little tired of his writing (Will this Dark Tower saga ever end?) and then finally disgusted (Bag of Bones? More like Bag of Shit). So, it was with some reluctance that I picked this audio book off the shelf.

Shortly into it, I remembered why I so enjoyed King in the first place. And also why I grew to dislike him. The story treads very familiar ground (at times I felt like I was reading “The Stand Lite”) and King deals out all the old familiar tropes that he likes so well. But, his story telling is always engaging and there were a few truly suspenseful moments.

King also has a distinct style of dialogue… I find it hard to describe, but I immediately recognize it when I read it (or hear it, in this case). It’s not that his characters sound phony, and it’s not even that they speak in contrived sentences… it’s more like they speak a unique dialect based on old-fashioned movies. I found myself thinking, “that’s an odd way to express that” in many places. Perhaps that’s how King really talks. Again, it all felt very familiar.

A thing of note: the audio recording had clearly been re-edited at some point. There are odd passages when a jarringly different voice actor inserts a phrase here and there, sometimes even a single word. Distracting, to say the least.

The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III (audio book)

I picked this up at the library after learning from the cover blurb that they guy also wrote “House of Sand and Fog.” I never read that book, but I heard good reviews about the movie, which starred Jennifer Connelly, and I have a serious thing for Jennifer Connelly so, in a round-about fashion, I was really attracted to this book.

Now, this isn’t a nice book. It’s not pornographic or gory or violent (even though there are elements of all of the above in it) but it does dive into great depths in the mind of a terrorist. A September 11th terrorist, to be exact. This is unsettling, to say the least.

That said, I enjoyed this book a great deal. I walked away feeling like I had a better understanding of terrorists and why they feel driven to do the things they do--not sympathy, mind you, but understanding.

I connected with the characters, even the “villains,” and enjoyed how they were intertwined in the plot. I was even rooting for the redneck fuck-up.

Now, as is my wont, I usually look up reviews of these books after I’m done reading them. I was surprised to read that a lot of people thought this novel was overly long, and plodded in places. I, in contrast, felt like it kept a quick pace, especially once the major tensions were established.

However, I suspect this is, again, the result of listening to the novel as an audio book and not actually reading the words on the printed page. I listen to these books exclusively in my car, so I’m only ever giving them part of my attention anyway (the majority part being not driving into another car). So, it’s possible that I tuned out for a moment during another description of Al-Qaeda training camps or the patrons of a strip club or whatnot. While I’ve fretted that I might be having a lesser experience with the work since I’m listening and not reading, in this case it may have actually improved the experience.

Regardless, I think this is a great book.

Just After Sunset by Stephen King (audio book)

As I wrote above, I was/am a big fan of Stephen King. I don’t slavishly follow his work any more, but I notice it when it comes out. That’s why I was so surprised to see this on the library shelf, a collection of short stories that I knew nothing about. So I picked it up.

I’ve always liked King’s short stories, and these were no different. I enjoyed them all, most notably Willa, N. and The Things They Left Behind. The last so struck me that I listened to it twice (I really enjoyed the voice actor in that one, too). After listening to this, I realized that I had already seen N. when it was adapted to (or maybe it was written specifically for) a series of animated shorts hosted on the Internet. As I write this, you can still find the episodes on YouTube.

Forever Summer by Ray Bradbury (audio book)

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Ray Bradbury, so it took me a minute to get into the swing of his rhythms again. Because Bradbury has a definite style, one I’ll call “American Hokey.” Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy his writing, but a lot of it has a wide-eyed, Norman Rockwell, gee-gosh-golly quality to it, especially when he’s writing kids. And about 65% of this novel is written from a 13-year-old’s perspective. Some sample dialog:
“Let’s get out of here, Doug. I got the willies!”
“The willies, heck! I got the heebie-jeebies!”
And while it’s incredibly corny, it’s also sweet. Since I was listening to an audio book instead of reading the printed word, this hokum come through even stronger, especially considering that the voice actor made the decision to give the protagonist’s 10-year-old brother a lisp. “You thure ‘bout that, Doug? That thure looks thuper thcary!”

When I started listening to audio books, I wondered if I was missing something by not actually reading the words and processing them myself. For most books I think it works out just fine, but this is one case where I think I would have gotten more out of it by reading it the traditional way.

One last thing. The entire novel was a nice coming to age, young vs. old, ah youth! tale that unfolds by comparing and contrasting a 75-year-old man and a 13-year-old boy. Then, in the final chapter, the old man has a conversation with his boner. Needless to say, I didn’t see that coming. Not only does he talk to his boner, it talks back. Tells him that he’s going away now, and won’t return. Then, the same boner suddenly appears on the 13-year-old, apparently for the first time. The results are unintentionally hilarious. Especially when the boy asks his new-found boner if he is his friend, and the boner replies, “the best you’ll ever have.” I laughed out loud in my car.

The Last Centurion by John Ringo (audio book)

I picked this up on a lark because the back blurb indicated it was about a pandemic plague that wiped up a large portion of life on earth. For some reason, I’m drawn to stories like this. That said, it turned out to be mostly a true war sort of tale, which doesn’t appeal to me. But, in the end, I liked this book… mostly.

The story is the first person account of a soldier who was on the front lines when the world-ending flu spread across the globe, and what he did to lead his men back home. I think I enjoyed it because I like engaging stories that reveal to me a part of the world I don’t know; in this case, the American military.

The author relates, in what seems to be a high degree of accuracy, how the military works, how they would respond to a disaster of this magnitude, etc., etc. He goes into great detail about military equipment and procedures and strategy and other things I am largely ignorant of. Hey kids, learning is fun!

However, the voice of the protagonist (i.e., the author) is painfully didactic at times, and just annoying. Some of the themes beaten over the head include: global warming is bullshit, city folks are stupid, farmers make the world go ‘round. And, y’know, whatever, that’s fine… it’s your book so you can have whatever point of view you want. But it just got tiring to hear him go on and on about how the “ants” (smart, salt-of-the-earth people like farmers who planned ahead) were superior to “grasshoppers” (soft, soiled city dwellers who had no commonsense and were caught with their pants down when the world collapsed). Yeah, we get it. You don’t have to go on for 10 pages detailing how the “tofu eaters” (a euphemism used ad nauseum for liberals) screwed things up.

I enjoyed most of this book, but the proselytizing became overbearing by the end, and I was glad to be done with it.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (vol. 13) edited by Stephen James

I inadvertently read this book twice.

I bought this book years ago, started to read it, but never got the whole way through. I’m not sure why. So when I finally picked it up again, I just started from the beginning instead of trying to remember where I stopped.

However, it seemed like I was familiar with every story I read. I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have read everything save the last story or two. But, it wasn’t bad to read it again; most of the stories were entertaining.

However, the editor clearly has a different interpretation of what “horror” is from what I do; with few exceptions I didn’t think the stories were especially scary or suspenseful.

Out of all the stories the only ones that stick with me (as I write this months after the fact) is “Our Temporary Supervisor,” by Thomas Ligotti and “Shite Hawks” by Muriel Gray. These are also the only two that really got under my skin. So much so, that I think I’ll seek out some of their other work.

Dune by Frank Herbert (audio book)

Sometimes I’m in a big hurry in the library, so I grab the first audio book that seems interesting and get out. That’s why I ended up with Dune, even though I had read it years before (and the first couple sequels, I believe).

It’s fantastic writing, no-one will even dispute that. And I’m amazed that more than 40 years later, it has aged so well, remaining relevant and engaging as it ever was.

I was delighted when I started listening to it to find that it had a full cast of voices. Most audio books have one reader and, like ‘em or hate ‘em, you’re stuck with that voice for the next 10-20 hours. But, for reasons I cannot understand, only parts of this book used the full voice cast. You’d be listening to one section where Baron Harkonnen was voiced with evil glee from an actor with a deep baritone, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen was acted out with wonderful treachery by an English actress, Paul was voiced by a young man… then in the next chapter, it was just the narrator, voicing all the parts again. It didn’t seem like there was any rhyme or reason to it; it’s not like specifically exciting or climatic events got the full cast. It made the audio book a little jarring, as the main narrator made some different acting choices than the main cast, as if they never spoke or compared notes on the characters. Odd.

Still an amazing story, though.

Tales from Jabba’s Palace edited by Kevin J. Anderson

A long time ago I read “Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina” and hated it. I enjoy the Star Wars universe, but I was annoyed with this book because nearly every character you see in the Cantina scene in the movie is represented in this book. And not one of them is there simply for a drink after work; everyone is achieving their destiny or some such bullshit.

This book (also gifted to me by the same guy who gave me “Glory Lane”) is along that same lines. However, for some reason changing the setting to Jabba’s palace made it more palatable for me. And maybe because most of the stories centered around one main conspiracy, I found it to be more cohesive. Not a terrible book; but not one I’d ever return to, either.

The Devil You Know by Mike Carey (audio book)

Another “this looks good, I need to get out of here” selection from the library. But I enjoyed this one immensely.

I love contemporary horror, and this book had that with a great helping of humor alongside it. Plus, the author/protagonist is English, and stories sent in England always sound so quirky to me. And the voice actor had a wonderfully engaging accent, too.

You can tell that I really enjoyed this book because after listening to the audio book, I went out and bought the actual paperback so I could see the words for myself.

The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key

This is a book I read probably when I was 13 or so. It really stuck with me, so much so that I was moved to look it up and buy it from Amazon a couple of years ago. It sat on my bookshelf until I finished my last (hard copy) book and was casting about for something else to read. So I read this.

I didn’t know at the time that Alexander Key also wrote “Escape to Witch Mountain.” But after re-reading this book, it doesn’t surprise me. It’s definitely an early adolescent book, a little heavy-handed with the morals at the end.

Fangland by John Marks (audio book)

Another book that I think I enjoyed more than I would have otherwise because I learned something from it; this time, how a televised news program operates.

The protagonist is a female field producer for “The Hour,” a thinly-veiled version of “60 Minutes.” The author clearly has some experience with the show or programs like this, and goes on at length about its internal operations.

At its heart it’s the story of a woman who encounters a modern day vampire, and the fall out of that encounter. It’s sufficiently scary in parts, and has several inventive twists on the tired old vampire mythos. It also has a surprising amount of sex and blood, with an ending that was both oddly off-putting and satisfying at the same time.

It’s told in first person, a narrative mode that has a soft spot in my heart. Several of the characters recount their version of the story, and although this can get tiresome, I thought the author handled it deftly enough. Even though he does lapse into straight third person for a couple scenes that just don’t work from a viewers perspective. Something I always hate--it seems like a cop-out. If you want to write in first person, you should tough out the tricky parts, too.

I Am Legend (and other stories) by Richard Matherson (audio book)

I had also read “I Am Legend” before, albeit in comic book form. I enjoyed it, even though it was severely dated in parts. And the science that Matherson works so hard to establish fall apart in the end (the vampire bacterium causes fangs to grow on the infected? Really?), but otherwise a good, satisfying story.

The audio book also included several short stories, some of which I had read/seen in one form or another in the past. They all tend to be the of Twilight Zone variety, i.e., build up the tension then introduce a twist ending. Not bad, and some quite good.

“I Am Legend” was read by one actor, who sounded great. Another actor read all the short stories and, frankly, some of his accents/inflections detracted from my enjoyment of the book. At least once his delivery was so convoluted that I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

This is a book that The Scientist got me for my birthday. It's about improving your writing, from a professional agent's point of view. It's interesting, even if a lot of the advice seems pretty obvious to me. Then again, I like to think of myself as a capable writer, and a lot of the insight seems geared toward the very new writer. Still, it's all good review. I haven't finished it as of this writing... mostly because it's more textbook than absorbing read. But, I'll finish it here soon, probably over the Christmas break.

Ohio Oddities: A Guide to the Curious Attractions of the Buckeye State by Neil Zurcher

Another birthday present from my wife. I love weird roadside attractions like The World's Biggest Frying Pan or whatever, and this is full of them. It's not the kind of book I'd read cover to cover, but it has an honored place in the bathroom, and I'll definitely get through all of it in time.

Fray (volumes 1 “Busted” & 3 “Sex & Death”) edited by Derek Powazek

"The Fray" used to be my favorite website. It featured true stories about a variety of topics, with beautiful accompanying illustrations or photos. I read it for years, until the guy in charge, Derek Powazek, shut it down, saying that it had run it's course. That was years ago. Recently,
for no real reason, I looked it up again. Turns out that Powazek is still compiling personal stories, only now in the form of real, tangible books (I guess they're really more like magazines). Out of the three currently available, I bought two (they were on sale together).

I finished the first (Busted) and am halfway through the second. I'm enjoying them... but they're really reinforced that true stories aren't always great stories. Most of these are well written, but seem to peter out in the end. Because that's the way real life works, I suppose: you have an interesting experience, but rarely does it conclude in a dynamic, exciting and satisfying fashion, like it does in fiction. The books are filled with beautiful illustrations as well.

And that is it! The last couple of books on the list will get me into 2010, where I'll start a new list.

And, if you're keeping score, that's 12 books and 11 audio books that I've consumed in 2009.




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