Category: Books

STEPHEN KING’S 11/22/63 – review

Published November 27, 2011

After publishing 60+ books over nearly 40 years, one would think that Stephen King – “the world’s bestselling author” – would have run out of steam, ideas, or ambition.  While he has, on rare occasion, “phoned it in,” with his latest opus, 11/22/63, he has once again fashioned as compelling a pager turner as he ever has … which is saying something when those pages number around 850.  I finished it in less than a week.

As this novel should be started with as little foreknowledge as possible, this review will be spoiler-free, save for a brief set-up.  You will know no more going in than I did.

Regarding a recently divorced, thirtysomething school teacher named Jake Epping, the plot has this wounded man receiving an urgent call from an old friend, Al Templeton, who owns a local diner.  When Jake visits Al, he is shocked to discover that the man has seemingly aged years over the course of a day.  It seems that Al, whose rapidly-accelerating cancer has given him only hours to live, has a secret to share, and Jake is the only one with whom he trusts it.  Al’s secret is this: in the back pantry of his retro diner, is a time portal to the past.  Each trip delivers the traveler to the same time and place – Lisbon Falls, Maine, September 9th, 1958 – and, no matter how long the traveler stays, if he returns, it is only two minutes later in 2011 time.  Still with me?

The reason Al has aged so much in so little time, other than his cancer, is that he recently spent over four years in the past trying to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy on 11/22/63.  Due to his illness, Al failed, and returned to 2011 a dying man.  As he tells his tale to Jake (one brief trip to 1958 is all it takes to convince Jake of this impossible story), Jake eventually decides to take on Al’s mission himself (after a trial run or two regarding other lesser matters), knowing full well that messing with such a historically watershed moment might make things worse … much worse … butterfly effect and all.  Especially when the past doesn’t want to be changed.

While one might think that such a story would be full of clichés, predictable scenarios, and political pontificating, this is not the case.  In fact, Jake doesn’t even reach the titular date until page 800.  Most of the book is spent chronicling Jake’s five year stay in the past, where the food tastes better, the music is more innocent, and racism is barely concealed.  While keeping tabs on Oswald to make sure the man acted alone before he makes his move, Jake returns to teaching and falls in love with a tall blonde named Sadie.  Oddly enough (at least to those who only know Uncle Stevie as America’s Boogeyman), the central love story here is the very heart of this novel.

Touching, suspenseful, and damn near unputdownable, 11/22/63 is Stephen King firing on all cylinders, and proving even after four decades that he is still master of his craft.  While some horrific things do occur in this book, this is not a horror novel, and will probably win the man hordes of new fans.  While I, and others, have referred to King as our modern-day Dickens, he is also like a much loved uncle who is returning to spin another fantastical yarn.  One feels like a child reading this book, cuddled up in wide-eyed wonder.  Does praise come any higher than that?  Not from me it doesn’t.

GRADE: A

RELENTLESS by DEAN KOONTZ — review

Published July 22, 2009

I’ve said it before and am likely to say it again: I am a big fan of Dean Koontz. Have been for nigh on 30 years. With over 50 bestsellers to his credit, and over 400 million copies of his books in print, the man is as prolific as Stephen King, if not quite as recognizable. His early, mid-80s novels like Watchers, Strangers, and Lightning are some of the most thrilling and suspenseful books I have ever had the pleasure to grip in my white-knuckled hands. Likewise in the 90s, tomes such as Dark Rivers of the Heart, False Memory, Fear Nothing, and especially Intensity kept me up until the wee hours. Mr. Koontz started off the new millennium with gusto: From the Corner of His Eye, One Door Away from Heaven, The Face, and then … something happened. I’m not saying the man lost his touch, but his novels over the past few years, Velocity, The Husband, The Good Guy (to name a few), have left me … wanting.

So it was with high hopes and unfortunately lowered expectations that I began his latest: Relentless.
Relentless
Rather than risk spoiling the plot with any clumsy prose, I will let the jacket copy speak for itself before I dive into any critical analysis.

#1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense Dean Koontz delivers a mesmerizing new thriller that explores the razor-thin line between the best and worst of human nature — and the anarchy simmering just beneath society’s surface — as a likeable, successful family man is drawn into a confrontation with a foe of unimaginable malice ….

Bestselling novelist Cullen “Cubby” Greenwich is a lucky man and he knows it. He makes a handsome living doing what he enjoys. His wife, Penny, a children’s book author and illustrator, is the love of his life. Together they have a brilliant six-year-old, Milo, affectionately dubbed “Spooky,” and a non-collie named Lassie, who’s all but part of the family.

So Cubby knows he shouldn’t let one bad review of his otherwise triumphant new book get to him — even if it does appear in the nation’s premier newspaper and is penned by the much-feared, seldom-seen critic, Shearman Waxx. Cubby knows the best thing to do is ignore the gratuitously vicious, insulting, and inaccurate comments. Penny knows it, even little Milo knows it. If Lassie could talk, she’d tell Cubby to ignore them, too.

Ignore Shearman Waxx and his poison pen is just what Cubby intends to do. Until he happens to learn where the great man is taking his lunch. Cubby just wants to get a look at the mysterious recluse whose mere opinion can make or break a career — or a life.

But Shearman Waxx isn’t what Cubby expects; and neither is the escalating terror that follows what seemed to be an innocent encounter. For Waxx gives criticism; he doesn’t take it. He has ways of dealing with those who cross him that Cubby is only beginning to fathom. Soon Cubby finds himself in a desperate struggle with a relentless sociopath, facing an inexorable assault on far more than his life.

Fearless, funny, utterly compelling, Relentless is Dean Koontz at his riveting best, an unforgettable tale of the fragile bonds that hold together all that we most cherish — and of those who would tear those bonds asunder.

For a novelist to make his most recent fictional villain a book critic is pretty funny. And indeed, the first half of this book is quite humorous. The tone is light, the quips amusing, and the heroic family endearing … if not entirely believable. That “brilliant six-year-old, Milo”? Um, yeah. “Brilliant” doesn’t quite do the kid justice. But I went with it. For a novel called Relentless — which I assumed was the author’s attempt to recapture the urgency of Intensity, after failing (to my mind) to do so in Velocity — the first half of this book is almost too lighthearted. Then, mid-story, the tone shifts, the ante ups, and the stakes rise significantly. However, after finishing the book only hours ago, I am still tempted to call this book a comedy. Mr. Koontz’s intent here, as always, is cross-genre (suspense, romance, humor, sci-fi), but this go round, his tongue may be firmly planted in cheek.

While some have accused this author of becoming too predictable and formulaic over recent years — an argument about which I am wont to waffle — many Koontz staples are certainly present in Relentless:

Protagonist from a tragic and abusive past: check.

Abnormally intelligent/talented canine: check.

Loving couple on the run from a corporate-based villain: check.

Completely repugnant antagonist with zero redeeming qualities: check.

Musings on the moral decline of modern society: check.

Message about the power of love and compassion overcoming evil: check.

While I could go on here (boy could I, but not without major spoilers), my point is not that the author is repeating himself with this book, but that those Koontzian ingredients are mixed with a finesse he has not displayed in a good little while. The distinction is all about the mix. When the man does it right, the result is deliciously familiar — when he does it badly (like he has of late, and boy do I hate saying that), it borders on self-plagiarism. Gone here is the maddeningly over baked prose that choked the suspense and hindered the momentum of his recent works. This book is lean, taut, and compelling … if a tad lightweight.

Is Relentless as good as the classics listed in the first paragraph of this review (all of which are good starting points for Koontz newbies)? In a word: no. But it is the best book he has written since 2003’s The Face. (Sorry, Koontz lovers, but I’m having difficulty getting through those Odd Thomas books — I will try again.) If anything, Relentless gave me renewed hope that my second favorite author (King Stephen still holds the throne) is returning to form. That’s great news … especially since his next novel, Breathless, comes out at Thanksgiving.

Can’t wait.

BOOK GRADE: B

If you have never read a Dean Koontz novel, Relentless is probably not the place to start — but definitely seek out those others I mentioned above.

In June 2009, Dean Koontz gave a rare and enlightening interview to USAToday — check it out.

THE SHACK – review

Published February 6, 2009

The publishing world is currently in a massive state of flux. There is no lack of interesting stories to publish, but in our current economic times, the day of the huge publishing deal may be going the way of the dodo — especially with the advent of electronic media. If, in the face of this, there is any example of a book being “the little engine that could,” it has got to be William P. Young’s religious allegory, The Shack.
The Shack - front cover
Initially rejected by scores of publishing houses (both religious and secular), the author and two of his associates, created Windblown Media, published the novel themselves, and in no time at all, word of mouth turned this little book into a publishing sensation. According to Wikipedia: as of January uary 2009, ‘The Shack’ has over 5 million copies in print, and has been at number 1 on the New York Times best seller list for 35 weeks. All this in under two years.

After going through personal crisis that nearly derailed his marriage, the author wrote the short novel for his six children, with no intention of publishing. Yet at the behest of friends, he was urged to make this available to the general public.

The book’s title, so says the author, is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain … the places you get stuck, you get hurt, you get damaged.”
The Shack - back cover
Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips is a husband and father of five. While camping with three of this kids, his youngest daughter Missy is abducted and murdered. Though her body is not found, the police deduce that Missy was taken to an abandoned shack nearby. In the wake of this tragedy, Mack slips into what he calls “The Great Sadness.”

Months later, Mack receives a note in the mail that simply says:

Mackenzie,

It’s been awhile. I miss you.

I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.

— Papa

Mack initially thinks this is someone’s sick joke. His relationship with his own (abusive) father is nonexistent. And the only other reference he has for “Papa,” is his wife’s nickname for God … á la Abba, or Daddy. After being relentlessly haunted by this message, Mack eventually decides to return to the dilapidated shanty, the place of his worst nightmare, and see for himself if it is indeed God that is trying to get his attention. If it is, Mack is ready to let the Big Guy have it for His seeming indifference to his daughter’s murder.

What he finds there is …

You know, I don’t really know how to review this book without spoilers, suffice it to say that … what Mack finds at The Shack is one of the most remarkable ruminations on God and His desire for relationship with us that I have ever read. This story asks some very hard questions, and the answers it provides are about as far out of the traditional box as they could be, while still remaining “theologically sound.”

There are a few individuals of Judeo/Christian faith who have taken great exception to this book. Especially the manner of physical form in which God chooses to appear to Mack. But as the book so firmly states, God is neither male nor female. Yes, we refer to Him as Father, but that does not mean He has a long Gandalf-like beard and junk between His legs, hence … God appears to Mack in a manner that does NOT reinforce religious stereotypes. He is God, He can appear in whatever form He chooses — so what’s the controversy?

Much like my own Churchianity posts, this book attempts to reach people who would never step into a church, or worse, have been burned by the church and their all-too-often Pharisaical ways. And yet somehow, this author manages to call the church out on some its more legalistic traditions, while still very much embracing the LOVING nature of God … a balancing act that I still obviously struggle with. (I am better at it in my own fiction, than I am in some of these more acidic posts.)

I would love to dive more deeply into a critical review of this remarkable story, but I don’t see how I can without major spoilers. I will say … if you have been hurt, damaged, rejected, wounded, left bitter and bleeding from shattered family relations, and have either a severely broken relationship with God or a non-existent one, this book is for YOU.

More info on the book can be found at the official site. Check out Amazon’s 2500 reviews for a different take (watch for spoilers).

Controversial and compelling, thought-provoking and paradigm-changing, The Shack is a place to which I will return.

I hope you visit it as well.

BOOK GRADE: A-

DEAN KOONTZ — YOUR HEART BELONGS TO ME

Published January 9, 2009

I’ve been a huge Dean Koontz fan since the early 1980s. He is, in fact, my second favorite author — Steve King still gets the number one spot — so it distresses me to have to give such a middling review of his latest book.
Your Heart Belongs To Me
Perhaps the jacket copy is the best synopsis of this strange novel:

From the #1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense comes a riveting thriller that probes the deepest terrors of the human psyche—and the ineffable mystery of what truly makes us who we are. Here a brilliant young man finds himself fighting for his very existence in a battle that starts with the most frightening words of all

At thirty-four, Internet entrepreneur Ryan Perry seemed to have the world in his pocket—until the first troubling symptoms appeared out of nowhere. Within days, he’s diagnosed with incurable cardiomyopathy and finds himself on the waiting list for a heart transplant; it’s his only hope, and it’s dwindling fast. Ryan is about to lose it all his health, his girlfriend Samantha, and his life.

One year later, Ryan has never felt better. Business is good and he hopes to renew his relationship with Samantha. Then the unmarked gifts begin to appear—a box of Valentine candy hearts, a heart pendant. Most disturbing of all, a graphic heart surgery video and the chilling message: Your heart belongs to me.

In a heartbeat, the medical miracle that gave Ryan a second chance at life is about to become a curse worse than death. For Ryan is being stalked by a mysterious woman who feels entitled to everything he has. She’s the spitting image of the twenty-six-year-old donor of the heart beating steadily in Ryan’s own chest.

And she’s come to take it back.

From that description, I thought the book sounded like a thriller version of the film (né, chick flick, although it’s a good chick flick) Return To Me. After reading it, that description is not accurate. Unlike most of Koontz work, it took me awhile to get into this one. Once it did take off, 30 or so pages in, it gripped me more than many of his recent novels (The Good Guy, Velocity, The Husband … all have left me disappointed). By the last third, the problems started to mount: lots of loose ends, confusing plot points, and a less-than-satisfying conclusion.

That said, the book has haunted me a bit. Things I didn’t get upon turning the last page have occurred to me organically. I don’t want to give too much away, but at one major point when a suitable heart donor cannot be found (Ryan’s heart transplant does not happen until almost the halfway point of the story), our protagonist uses his plentiful resources to move things along. Rather than trusting God in this dire situation, as his girlfriend urges him to do, Ryan takes matters into his own hands, pulls some strings and manipulates the situation. Are there consequences to this? You have to ask?

All in all, this was a mixed bag (… to say the least: reader reviews on Amazon extend literally from LOVED IT to HATED IT). I have come to expect great things from this modern-day Master of Suspense (and he is), but lately his efforts have bordered on self-parody. Early classics like Watchers, Strangers, Lightning, and Intensity have yet to be equalled in this new millennium — although I still keep hoping. All right, The Face and One Door Away From Heaven were extremely good. I may go back and review some of those early books — many of which I’ve read multiple times — just to let unlearned readers in on some of the most gripping, suspenseful, and emotionally satisfying fiction I’ve ever read.

Your Heart Belongs To Me has its moments but, sadly, cannot compare.

BOOK GRADE: B-

JOE HILL’S HEART-SHAPED BOX review

Published July 27, 2008

Never heard of Joe Hill? Sure you have, you just don’t remember. I’ll refresh your memory near the end of this book review.
Heart-Shaped Box
Since it would be a crime to reveal too much about the plot of Heart-Shaped Box, I’ll let the jacket copy speak for itself:

An aging death-metal rock god, Judas Coyne is a collector of the macabre: a cookbook for cannibals … a used hangman’s noose … a snuff film. But nothing he possesses is as unlikely or dreadful as an item he learns is for sale on the Internet. For a thousand dollars, Jude will become the proud owner of a dead man’s suit, said to be haunted by the deceased’s restless spirit. Judas has spent a lifetime dealing with ghosts — of an abusive father, of the lovers he callously abandoned, of the bandmates he betrayed — so what’s one more?

But what UPS delivers to his door in a black heart-shaped box is no imaginary or metaphorical ghost, it’s the real thing. And suddenly the suit’s previous owner is everywhere — behind the bedroom door … sitting in Jude’s restored vintage Mustang … staring out from his widescreen TV — dangling a gleaming razor blade from one hand …

Simply put, this is the best debut novel I have read in years. Despite a subject matter (ghosts) that has seemingly been milked dry, this story is fresh, briskly paced (the jacket-copy all takes place in the first thirty pages), and filled with genuine shocks. Just when you KNOW you’ve got the plot pegged, Hill yanks the rug out from under you. In fact, at many points in the book, readers will surely say, This thing has got to run out of steam soon. But it doesn’t. Heartfelt and horrifying, scary and suspenseful, introspective and action packed, Heart-Shaped Box is a frighteningly fun read. Highly recommended.

GRADE: B+

Back to the question I opened with: Never heard of Joe Hill?

You saw him back in 1982 in a small-but-pivotal role in Creepshow.
Joe Hill King in Creepshow
Not ringing any bells? How about this recent photo? Look familiar?
Joe Hill King
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll give you one more clue: Joe Hill’s real name is Joseph Hillstrom King. His father, also an author, wrote a little book with the following dedication: This is for Joe Hill King, who shines on. The name of that book: The Shining.

Yes, Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King — a fact spilled by the author himself recently. Initially wanting to succeed on his own merit, Joe could no longer deny the obvious; the resemblance and facts stated above made this a secret that could not be kept long. This debut novel, along with a collection of short stories called 20th Century Ghosts, have proved Joe is nothing if not a chip off the old block. His writing style is his own, but he has done his father’s name proud … even if he isn’t using it.

Can’t wait for more, Joe. Shine on, indeed.


AN INTERVIEW WITH JOE HILL




WORDSLINGER’S NOTE: It was reported last year that director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With The Vampire, The Brave One) has signed on to adapt and helm the film version of Heart-Shaped Box for Warner Brothers. There have been no further updates … but I’ll let you know when there are.