“Full Dark, No Stars” by Stephen King (Scribner, 2010)

Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars.  Take a moment to think about that.  Usually titles for Stephen King books are pretty obvious, and for his novella collections, they’re kind of quaint, like Four Past Midnight and Different Seasons.  In this new book of four novellas, King chose the title carefully and specifically.  Imagine a night, complete darkness, with no stars, no light.  Darkness is a key word here, for fear, for things that go bump, but also for the emotional tone and power of these novellas.  Full Dark, No Stars will terrify you, but in a different way to King’s usual writing; these are dark, twisted tales that will shock you into seeing how far certain people will go for personal gain, personal satisfaction.  As King says in his afterword, these are stories of “ordinary people in extraordinary situations”; nevertheless, they’re still people you wouldn’t ever want to meet in a dark alley.

“1922” is a confession from Wilfred Leland James on how late in the summer of 1922 he murdered his wife, with the help of his teenage son.  She pushed him one time too far and was looking to sell off a large piece of land she owned and move into the city.  James wants this land for himself and is done with his wife.  This is the story of her murder, and Wilfred’s life after, as well as the life of his son, and the friends and family.  It is also the story of fate, and how if certain actions were never performed, how different life could be.

In “Big Driver” we meet Tessa “Tess” Jean, a successful mystery writer who never strays too far from her home for readings, as she needs to be back in time to feed her cat.  After a successful reading, Tess is offered a shortcut home that avoids the interstate and will get her back faster.  On the way she runs over some pieces of wood and soon finds herself with a flat tire.  After some investigation and clearing away the wood from the road, it seems like these items may have been intentionally planted.  She has no cell phone reception so waits for a Good Samaritan.  He turns out to be a giant of a man who pulls over to help change her tire.  Tess sneaks a peak in the man’s truck and sees more wood of the same type she found in the road.  The giant man knows he’s been caught and then grabs her, rapes her, beats her, and dumps her, thinking she’s dead.  As Tess slowly pulls herself together, she plans her revenge.

“A Good Marriage” begins with the story of an ordinary, average American man and woman who meet, fall in love, get married, and have a wonderful life together.  Then one day, while her husband is away, Darcy is looking for some batteries in the basement and finds a stack of her catalogs that apparently her husband hid from her.  In between them she finds a magazine for hardcore bondage.  Then behind the box of catalogs, she finds a secret compartment with a box that’d been a Christmas gift for her husband some years past.  Inside she finds a donor card, library, and ID for a woman she doesn’t know.  Then she does some research and discovers a horror about her husband she simply can’t accept.  He comes home and knows right away that she knows the truth about him.

In the final novella, “Fair Extension,” King makes a wonderful play on the idea of the devil granting you your greatest wish in exchange for something, but in this story it’s not your soul.  Dave Streeter has had a pretty decent life, a good wife, an okay job that he hoped to do better at, but hasn’t.  Then he finds out he has cancer and not long to live.  Feeling he certainly drew the short end of the stick in this life, he meets a man who offers him a “fair extension” on anything of his choosing, who goes by the name Elvid.  Yes, he will take away Streeter’s cancer, no problem, but if he’s to take away the bad, he has to give it to someone else.  That’s the deal.  Also Streeter needs to give him 15% of everything he makes each year for the rest of his life.  Streeter thinks the guy’s a nut, says sure, and chooses his supposed best friend, Tom Goodhugh, who has always gotten everything he wanted, was able to get through high school all thanks to Streeter, and even stole Streeter’s girlfriend (his first love) and then married her and had kids.  Goodhugh is the man Streeter wishes the bad upon.  Then Streeter’s cancer disappears and in a number of months he is back to perfect health.  Then things start to go real well for him; he gets the promotion he’s been wanting.  Meanwhile things start to go bad for Goodhugh; real bad, and Streeter enjoys every moment of it.

No Dark, No Stars shows that Stephen King really has improved as a writer and storyteller over the decades, and when writing novellas, he doesn’t have room to spend too much time setting up and going on for too long, or dragging out endings.  The weakest story is “Big Driver,” as it is a similar story that King has told before: one of a woman put through horrible situations and experiences, described in intense, emotional detail.  The strongest is “1922,” leaving the reader wondering about the choices the characters made , the events that happened, and what choices he or she might make and how it can affect one’s life.  No Dark, No Stars is a dark, moving collection that makes it clear to fans that the bestselling author has still got it, and also serves as a powerful introduction for readers wanting to know what the big deal is about this guy called Stephen King.

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Originally written on November 23, 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

The Art of the Book Review, Part I – How I Write a Book Review

How I Write a Review

Pretty much from the start of this blog, I’ve been meaning to do a number of posts on writing book reviews, how I write them in particular, and what I think about the different types of book reviews and the way they are written.  It’s only taken a couple years, but this marks the first post in the series I’ve been wanting to write.

I’m sure if you scour the Internet you’ll find a number of sites and documents and perhaps even treatises proclaiming how to write the ideal or perfect book review, and how there is a set form and format to it that cannot be diverged from, if one is seeking to create said “perfect book review.”  However, as anyone who hasn’t had their head stuck in the ground (or perhaps print journalism) for the last decade knows, most of these “ideal” ways of writing a book review are aimed at newspapers and magazines, but with the advent of blogs — both professional and personal — where many people write their own book reviews, or just even blog posts on specific books they’ve read — the dynamic of the formatted book review has changed and in most cases doesn’t really apply anymore.  Many people have many different ways of writing book reviews.  There are also many people who feel certain ways are completely wrong, and that there is only “their way,” but this is what writing and the Internet is all about.  Just as there are many books in the world, and many of them I wouldn’t ever be interested in reading, but there are still many people who would and do read and buy the books.

Enough about that.  Long story short: different people like different types of book reviews.  Now, when I sit down to write a book review it will depend on the type of book it is (genre, story, etc.), how much of a fan of the author I am — I tend to write longer reviews for authors I’m a fan of, as well as books that are long (see Under the Dome and World Without End) — and what publication I am writing the book review for, as there may be a word count limit.

Here’s the basic mental outline I automatically make when doing a book review for a book I enjoyed; I have a standard three to four paragraph layout.

Paragraph 1: I usually begin with two to four sentences to kind of hook the reader into the book; much as you want the cover and first line of a book to be captivating, you want a similar effect with the opening paragraph of a book review — especially if it’s a long one and you want the reader to keep reading to the end.  Sometimes I’ll open up with a general fact that I find interesting about the author or the particular books the author writes, such as with Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars.  Other times I’ll deliver a short one-liner and then go into a brief couple of sentences about the author’s other books, especially if this is a sequel, such as with Velocity by Alan Jacobson.  In cases where I don’t know much about the author or his or her books, and this is the first book of theirs I’m reading, I’ll do a couple of sentences on what the author has done before and then give a brief hook on why this particular book is a good one, like with Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin.

Paragraph 2 (and 3): The next paragraph or two are usually the long ones where I’ll make a summary of the story.  There’s a fine line to be made here, balancing how much of the story to tell, but also keeping lots left to be discovered by the reader.  A general rule of thumb is you want to reveal who the characters  are, perhaps a little about their background, and where they’re headed in the story; about the first third of the book is usually a safe bet to tell.  Again, it depends on the type of book, and when in the story the action and plot lines really get going.  For some reviews, such as Handling the Undead and American Vampire, it becomes necessary to reveal a large part of the plot to actually show what is going on in the book, but it’s always important to keep a number of secrets hidden for the reader to discover when they read the book.  One rule that must always be followed is an easy one: never give away the ending.  I know there are people out there who read the ending first thing, before they even start the book, and those people are just darn weird; but you don’t give away any sort of ending in a book review (unlike a number of movie previews I’ve seen).  I’m the type of person who very much doesn’t like to get spoiled; usually once I have an idea of what the book is about and I’m interested in it, I’ll just start it without reading the inside flap or the back of the book.  For me it’s all about the mystery and having no idea where the story is going to take you.

Depending on the length of the book and how much story is needed to be told, this part usually takes one or two paragraphs.  At the end of this section of the book review, you want to finish with a sort of cliffhanger line that will really make the reader want to read the book, such as with Dan Well’s Mr. Monster, where I end my summary paragraph with, “But something’s not quite right about this guy from the FBI.”

Final Paragraph: If the reader is still on the fence about whether to read the book or not, this is the final chance to get them.  Here is where I usually talk about the writer and/or the writing, the style, the language used, what I enjoyed about the writing, such as with Amber Benson’s Among the Ghosts.  Or I’ll talk about what I particularly enjoyed about this book and why I think people should read it, like with Seanan McGuire’s An Artificial Night.  As for the last line, by this point you have to have captured your reader and made them want to read the book; the last line isn’t going to make much of a difference one way or the other.  I generally end with a question of what the author will do next, or what the next book in a series might be, or a quick one-liner on why I enjoyed the book.

And there you have it.  This is what goes through my head when I write an ordinary book review.  Coming up in the rest of this series will be how I write a review depending on the type of book, such as genre — fiction vs. nonfiction, etc.

“Lion’s Blood” by Steven Barnes (Aspect Books, 2003)

Lion's Blood

Consider this for a moment: what if the crusades never happened, and the Muslim world of ancient history triumphed over the west, establishing a dominant civilization that lasted into the nineteenth century, and this Muslim world was then the one to discover the New World and settle there?

Such is the setting for Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, where Islam controls the New World, where, like real history, slavery is a way of life; except the roles have been reversed: white people are now slaves, while black people are the great land holders.

Barnes does an amazing job in fabricating this alternate history, sticking true to what historical facts he can with Islam and Africa, as well as the Celts which are still going strong.  Lion’s Blood is a novel of the quest by a white man for freedom, while a black man who is the son of a great ruler aids him and learns what it is to be an heir to so much, and how important freedom is.  This bond leads to a necessary uniting in a great war against the Aztecs of the south.

Lion’s Blood is a wonderful alternate history novel of slavery, as well as on what a different world this could be, if history had only been different.  While the possibilities are endless, this is one that, after reading Lion’s Blood, could have been quite possible.

Originally published on May 12th, 2003.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“Abraham Lincoln: A Penguin Life” by Thomas Keneally (Viking, 2003)

Abraham Lincoln

One would think that the biography of such a famous man and president would require many more pages to cover his entire life happenings and events, but this is one of the Penguin Lives series, whose key is brevity but accuracy.

Keneally does a great job of covering Abraham Lincoln’s life, from birth to death.  There is no lacking, as every facet of Lincoln’s life is researched and revealed, albeit not in as much depth as one would expect, but with enough information to answer any questions.  The reader gets a true sense of this changing America in the nineteenth century, with Lincoln’s love of technology in the railroads, and especially in the steamboats traveling up and down the Mississippi.  It is here that he gets his first job.

Through the pages of this narrow book, the reader learns of the over political life Lincoln led, climbing the echelons of the government until he became president, as well as learning from a young age that slavery was a thing to be severed and got rid of from the country, like an infectious cancer.  It was this decision as present that ultimately caused the session of the Confederate States and the Civil War.

Eventually Lincoln passed the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery and achieved his goal for America, but at the price of his life.  It is here that the book justly ends, leaving the reader to contemplate what an important difference this man made with his amazing skill for speaking to the people and letting them know what needed to be done.  This is the life of Abraham Lincoln, which everyone should know about.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on May 12th, 2003.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“The Young Oxford Book of Timewarp Stories” Edited by Dennis Pepper (Oxford University Press, 2003)

Oxford Book of Time War Stories

Just about everyone has an interest in time warp stories, especially if they are science fiction fans, and the Oxford University Press has been very kind to create a short-story collection of time travel stories.  Don’t let the “young” in the title fool you; this is clearly a book for any lover of time travel stories of any age.

Two renowned science fiction writers make their presence known here: Ray Bradbury, with a story about a safari company that will take you back to any period in history (in this case, dinosaurs) and let you “bag” any animals you want; and Arthur C. Clarke, whose story entails a magical bracelet brought from the future, which can essentially stop time to less than a crawl so a perfect robbery can be carried out on the British Museum.  There is even a story about a travel agency that will take you to any time in history for a vacation, and in this story a group of people go back to the crucifixion, where a surprising reality is revealed: that it is not the Jews that condemn Christ to death, but the group of “time tourists.”

The book is an entertaining read with stories of different lengths and types that make it a really great collection, and is recommended to a reader of any age who has a penchant for time travel.

Originally published on May 12th, 2003.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“By the Light of the Moon” by Dean Koontz (Bantam, 2003)

By the Light of the Moon

It’s quite interesting to discover that with the publication of each of Dean Koontz’s books, there is a formula at work: each year the stories improve, while the writing suffers.  By the Light of the Moon is no exception, with a writing style that often annoys, with its stupidly open manner and constantly inane similes that force the reader to question why bother?  The trick is to stick with it to the end, and By the Light of the Moon eventually pays off.

The story is an average one that seems to be all the rage at the moment: three characters (one an autistic man of twenty) are injected with an unknown golden liquid by a mad scientist subdues them, ties them up, and then sticks in the big needle.  There is the warning from the doctor that the effects of this liquid can be both good and bad, and then he flees.

So the three characters are irrevocably brought together to fight for their survival.  Fortunately, it turns out that the mysterious liquid does good for all of them: one gains the ability, by touching objects, to know who last touched it and if they are evil, and is unable to stop himself from ending that evil.  Another has visions of the future that actually will happen somewhere at some time.  While the autistic man has the great ability to be able to fold time and space, transporting him and anyone else to anywhere and at any time, whether it be the past, present, or future, presumably.

One would think this a great story, but the simplistic and annoying writing keeps getting in the way, as well as the plot that has very little depth.  But ultimately, By the Light of the Moon is worth working through for the amusing ending.

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Originally published on May 12th, 2003.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“Bone: Tall Tales” by Jeff Smith and Tim Sniegoski (Graphix, 2010)

Bone Tall Tales

In this next Bone prequel after Rose, fans get to enjoy some entertaining tales set in the world of Bone before a new trilogy coming early next year, Quest for the Spark.  While Tall Tales is no epic story like the Bone series, readers get to enjoy some fun stories told by Smiley to the bone scouts and Bartleby.  First there’s the story of Phoney Bone and Fone Bone and how they had no plans of helping with the laundry, and after being led on a wild goose chase that almost gets them killed with a planted “treasure map,” they learn their lesson.  The rest of the stories focus on an important character: he discovered the Rolling Bone River, and most importantly founded Boneville; he is a bone of legend, Big Johnson Bone.  His first story is of how just moments after he was born, he was whisked away into the cold winter night, and how he came face to face with Old Man Winter and gave him a piece of his mind.  Then there’s the story of the eating contest which Big Johnson Bone has won for many years running, but this one time he might change his mind for a special bone.  The last and longest of the collection tells of multiple great adventures Big Johnson Bone went  on, fighting against the deadly Rat Creatures, as well as enjoying the company of one sneaky little monkey.

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Originally written on November 16, 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.