29 June 2014

Books: Mr. Mercedes By Stephen King (2014)

Much like last year’s Joyland (and even 2005's The Colorado Kid), Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes lies more with the mystery genre than horror one he is known for.

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in some unknown, distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair (“1000 JOBS GUARANTEED!"). Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

Months later, retired cop named Kermit “Bill” Hodges is still haunted by that unsolved crime. But realizing he can’t do much about, he now spends his life sitting in the La-Z-Boy watching Daytime TV and wondering when he’ll have the courage to pick-up the .38 Smith & Wesson he keeps next to the remote and blow his brains out.  But a salvation of a sort comes to his rescue when the man responsible for the murders at the City Center sends him a letter. In the letter, Mr. Mercedes not only confesses to the crime but gloats over the accomplishment and reveals information only the killer would know. He even invites Hodges to join him on a social media site called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella where killer further goads the retired detective and promises even more bloodshed.

The book is not a whodunit, because the reader is introduced to the killer, whose name is Brady Hartfield, a man in his late twenties who lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. On the outside, Brady seems normal, he holds down two jobs - at a local electronics store and a driver of the neighborhood ice cream truck. But the outside betrays a darker man inside, one filled with hate for almost everyone. Hartfield slowly draws Bill Hodges into his cat-and-mouse game, but the one thing Mr. Mercedes forgot was once a cop, always a cop and Bill is very capable of using what limited resources he has –like the neighbor boy Jerome and (eventually) Holly, who is a middle-aged, emotionally stunted woman. Together, the three make a highly unlikely bunch of heroes who must stop at nothing to prevent the slaughter of thousands.

Mr. Mercedes is billed as his first “hard-boiled detective tale” and just like the horror genre that made him famous, he does well here. He clearly understands what he’s doing, filling the novel with the hallmarks that make the genre appealing to many. But he updates it with modern technology all while winking at the audience that Hodges (and the fedora given him to by a friendly female) could be time shifted detective from the 1940’s nior of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to 21st Century of Michael Connolly and John Sanford.

As with all of King’s work, the characters come before the story and his ability to create some mean (a lot of the women here are a bit self-centered witches) characters with modern, identifiable problems continues to unabated. Not only do you feel for the man heroes and villain, but also the few souls lost at the beginning, which come to life fully realized and very three dimensional.

22 June 2014

Books: The Goldfinch By Donna Tartt (2013)

There are a lot of great things about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It is rich, with some beautiful prose and, lush in detail and filled with Dicken’s like characters and situations (the hero is Theodore Decker, who will remind both popular fiction reader and classical ones of Oliver). But it also overlong and almost falls completely apart by the end.

The Goldfinch begins with Theo in Amsterdam on Christmas Day. He is in a panic, sweaty with fever and full of narcotics, trapped here because his passport is in the hands of his long-time Russian friend Boris, who is hiding from the police after a terrible incident that left two people dead. His only solace is a brief dream visit from his beloved mother, who died 14 years ago, when he was an eighth-grader.

The story –framed with this grief- returns to that day when there was a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where then 13-year-old Theo’s mother has just explained to him the title painting’s art-historical import (Fabritius was Rembrandt’s student and Vermeer’s teacher). He also comes into contact with an older gentleman who is showing a red-headed girl around the same area. The bomb goes off, mother dies, and Theo steals the priceless painting accidentally on purpose. Before his retreat from the remains of the museum, the older gentleman gives Theo a ring and tells him where to go to return it, and then dies as well.

Placed into the rich family of schoolmate (until someone can find a living relative), Theo feels lost and conflicted, shattered with survivors guilt. The stealing of the painting was –upon reflection- a chance to keep the last minutes of his mother’s life alive. The returning of the ring also brings him in contact with an older gentle –the working partner to the man who died at the museum- named James “Hobie” Hobart. 

But just when things become less awkward at Andy’s house, Theo’s deadbeat Dad (and equally clueless girlfriend Xandra) arrives in New York and quickly bounds him up and transplants him to the outer rings of Las Vegas, in a housing development that is more a ghost town. 

There, a very unsupervised –yet smart and witty –Theo meets Boris, a Russian teen who has bounced all over the world with his violent Dad (this book abounds with bad Dads). The two become nearly inseparable and spend a lot of time hanging around, drinking, watching classic movies on cable, doing drugs and not going to school. And always, in the background, the hidden Goldfinch painting is anchoring Theo to his dead mother. He realizes the longer he has it, the more dangerous it will be to him, but he is chained to it. 

Eventually –and only half way through the book –Theo’s season in Hell of Las Vegas ends and he returns to New York (by sheer miracle and coincidences that only happens in these books) where the rest of the book goes on. Here, Theo returns to the “old curiosity shop” that Hobie toils in and runs the business. But Theo is not a saint by any means, and while saving the business, he does it in the most questionable way that leads him a reunion with Boris, the Russian Mob, his unrequited love of the red-headed girl (Pippa) and final dealings The Goldfinch painting itself.

I loved the book, and was well aware of the critical praise it was getting since its release last October. It was also on my long list of books I wanted to read, long before it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in February. But despite it being smartly written, filled with lovable and despicable characters galore, despite a writer of popular fiction winning a literary award, the book does go on about a 100 pages too long. But I still highly recommend the book because it is a rarity when an author such as Tartt (this book being only the third one she’s published) receives such universal accolades and fiction’s highest honor.

10 June 2014

Books: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair By Joel Dicker (2014)

I forget where I first heard about The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Swiss author Joel Dicker (who born grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, a French speaking city, so this novel was translated from the original French version), but I knew it had been a huge success overseas –it sold something like two million copies and translated into 32 languages. I also read that Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment had acquired the film rights, and that Penguin Books paid a fortune to publish the book here in the US -hoping that the book would be this year’s phenomenal bestseller from an unknown foreign writer, ala Stieg Larrson (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). But being the sucker I am from time to time, I decided to pounce on this title early –I sort of came to the Larrson party late in the game. 

After securing it from my library, I sat down late last week to begin it. Quickly, however, I realized how bad this book was going to be. It’s as if James Patterson (I realize he doesn’t exactly write his books, but he does plot out the wild and creepy scenarios and then hand it off to others to complete) and Bret Easton Ellis (he who thinks he's the greatest writer of his generation) had a kid and his name was Joel Dicker. The author knows no cliché he can’t use for his benefit, and stacks the book with just the most horrible dialogue (one of my favorites, of many, is when his publisher –seeing money now that he can cash in on the drama, is astounded that Marcus might have doubts about betraying his friends: ''Oh, Goldman, I'm so sick of your morals and lofty principles”). 

When the book begins its 2008 and popular author Marcus Goldman (who is arrogant, pretentious, and one of the mostly unlikable and pretty much stupid hero’s in this genre) has writer's block. He visits his old teacher Harry Quebert in a stereotypical New Hampshire town that is filled with smiles and deep secrets –Twin Peaks but without all the interesting characters and situations. But what starts out as an attempt to clear his mind turns dark when the remains of missing 15-year-old girl named Nola Kellergan, who vanished 33 years before, is discovered on the grounds of Harry’s property. Quebert –a bestselling author himself who won accolades for a novel called The Origin of Evil, is –of course- implicated in the girl’s death. But Harry says he innocent, and Marcus believes him –even when his friend admits that back in 1975, then 34-year-old Harry was having an affair with the girl.

Yes, much like Larrson’s Millennium Trilogy, Dicker sort of treats women as angels, before revealing them as whores (and let’s not go into the moral implications of Quebert being in love with an underage girl –Hey, we really loved each other, so It’s okay, don’t be creeped out by it). That is only one of many disturbing things about the book. But unlike Larrson, who brought a bit of creativity and attempted to add some literary value to his pulp books, Dicker just plots out his novel as if he’s watched every modern American procedural show –with its ripped from the headlines stories and the truth is odder than fiction style. 

So we have to sit through some 600 pages of some the most flamboyant purple prose we’ve seen since publishers unleashed James Patterson on the American market so we can get to the unbelievable twist ending (though I guessed wrong on who the murder was, I was only off by one degree of separation) that plays out like every episode of the Law & Oder franchise. 

I suppose the book does what says on the tin –it’s one of titles people would read on the beach when on vacation. It’s silly, maybe slightly fun, but completely improbable and ultimately forgettable.

04 June 2014

Books: Against All Things Ending by Stephen R. Donaldson (2010)

I don’t know. I mean, I think I remember enjoying The First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant when I read those books 30 years ago. But then again, back when the dinosaurs were roaming the Earth, I read almost every fantasy book that come out between 1979 and the mid-1990s. Maybe my perceptive of them has dimmed in those three decades. Or, after reading so many of them, when I finally decided that the fantasy genre was just repeating itself like an old song, I should’ve never gone back to the genre.

Still, there was Harry Potter, which did rekindle my interest in it a bit, along with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (though both writers pen for kids more than adults). But overall, my relevance in reading what was once a very important genre has gone the way of the dodo. Part of the reason started with Robert Jordan’s overlong Wheel in Time series. While the idea of a six book series (which was the original intention) seemed daunting –which it was back in 1990- it promised and epic story that could rival Tolkien in scope –and, obviously, length.

But from the start, I really disliked Rand al’Thor–the young man at the center of this story- along with his two friends Perrin and Matrim and potential love interest Egwene. All were petulant, unappealing and, at times, childish. While someone new to the genre might like that, by the time I started reading them (as they came out), I was bored with the whole anti-hero, because Stephen R. Donaldson had already done that with the six volumes that make up the Thomas Covenant series (plus, as Jordan began to expand the story –the six was now to become twelve, though it eventually topped out at fourteen- he needed new characters to help fully realize the many different factions within this universe he created. So while the scale of what Jordan was doing could be deemed impressive, in doing so many fans felt the novels where slowed down, and that major characters introduced in the first book, essentially were reduced to making just extended cameos in those later volumes. This has begun to plague George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series as well).

For me, Against All Things Ending suffers from being the penultimate volume in a four book series –Donaldson needs to set all the pieces for the final volume. This creates a huge problem in that the set pieces of this novel are few and far between and instead we get a lot of talking, a lot of hand wringing from Linden Avery (who had devolved into a sad, pathetic hero who thinks she can solve all the Lands problems, but really can’t so she uses the magic of the Staff of Law to resurrect Thomas Covenant from the Arch of Time) and a “fellowship” of outcasts who follow Avery, even though I can’t seem to understand fully why (and the only interesting character is The Ardent –a Time Lord/Q like man whose mission is to make sure the The Harrow keeps his word. But even he comes off as silly construct, with the ability to transport the entire Team Linden Avery away from danger when needed, creating -once again- a deus ex machina).

This reliance on an overlarge cast –so big, it seems, they’re incompetent in doing anything - because it’s simply impossible for them to arrive at a consensus about what to do next. And like The Game of Thrones series, Donaldson writes pages and pages of each of those characters reaction when things do happen. This hinders the pacing of the entire book, especially the second half. 

There is no sense of urgency in the fact that the collateral damage to Linden resurrecting Covenant means the destruction of the Land has begun. Do they try to figure out a way to solve this conundrum? Yeah, but in the meantime, Donaldson has his characters shillyshally over stupid personal issues –not to mention that everyone seems to dislike everyone else and that has to rear its head everywhere. It’s like arguing who would win in a fight, Kirk or Picard, while the Zombie Apocalypse is knocking on your door and breaking through the cracks. They torture themselves, as well, over every bad decision, wrestle with every possible action and willfully seem ignorant that their inaction is doing more damage than them actually trying to prevent The Lands destruction. 

After three books, it seems clear to me that Stephen R. Donaldson bit off more than he could chew. The plot has been very thin here, and I remain unsure why he felt The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant needed four books to conclude this series when the first two were able to be told in three. The want to describe everything in great detail, the necessity for characters to ask a question, which then demands a page and half of anxiety description before we get an elusive answer is annoying – not to mention Donaldson's prodigious vocabulary. 

I will conclude the series, but I need a break. I need to read something a little less dense, a little less whiny and a little less frustrating.