When originality backfires

It took me much too long to get to Chuck Wendig’s latest book, The Book of Accidents, because Chuck is from Pennsylvania and so is Sarah J. Maas, who I had already read a book by this year, and therefore Pennsylvania was already filled up on my stupid little map. But I’d been looking forward to this a lot– Chuck is one of my favorites– and I finally got to it this week.

I didn’t like it as much as I feel like I should have, and I really hate it when that happens, because I never know how to translate that to a star rating, and then I get irritated with myself for caring about star ratings— I may just start rating every single book I read that doesn’t personally irritate me at five stars on Goodreads just to stop having to agonize about this– and I think I ended up just calling this one four stars for the hell of it.

Here is the deal with this book: I said to my wife during the first or second night of reading it that it really feels like Wendig, with his last couple of books, is quite deliberately trying to horn in on Stephen King’s turf, or at least the turf that King occupied when he was writing his most well-known and immortal books. Wanderers, which I liked quite a lot, got compared to The Stand all over the damn place, and with very good reason. And while this book didn’t map onto any specific King book as cleanly as Wanderers did, it still felt quite a lot like vintage, if updated, Stephen King.

And it also very much wants you to think it’s a haunted house book for, oh, the first third or so of its length. And it is not a haunted house book. It is so very much not a haunted house book, no, it is something else entirely. Like, I really don’t think you’re going to see a lot of what this book has for you coming.

I, uh, was really looking forward to a good haunted house book, though, and I got super excited about what looked like it was going to be a great haunted house book.

Which is why I’m not calling this a review, because I’m not sure if it’s the book’s fault that I wasn’t willing to go with it where it wanted to go. Maybe it is! I mean, it’s not like I picked up a Louis L’Amour book expecting to read a haunted house book. Like, there’s haunted house DNA all over this damn thing. Which sounds gross. You know what I mean. It’s not unfair to expect a creepy haunted house story from this book. In fact, I think Wendig is pretty obviously counting on it. And normally when something like this happens while I’m reading– you think the story is going to go BLAH, but instead it goes NYAH, it’s a compliment. Predictability is generally bad. Except, apparently, in this case, where I can’t claim that it ruined the book– it’s not like I regret reading it or anything, although I think even at my most charitable it’s not as strong as Wanderers. It’s just not what I wanted from it, and as a result I didn’t like it as much as I thought I was going to.

Reviewlets: IF IT BLEEDS and THE VANISHING HALF

I finished a couple of books recently that I wanted to talk about and didn’t get around to, so I’m putting both of them into a single post.

And, hell, it ain’t like Stephen King needs my help. You already know what you’re getting with this guy; every word he’s ever written is a bestseller and there’s no one who reads who hasn’t read at least a couple of his books at some point or another. If It Bleeds, which the cover helpfully informs us is “NEW FICTION,” is another novella collection, and I’m mostly mentioning it just because I really felt like all four of the stories were winners. The title story is another entry in the Bill Hodges/Holly Gibney series, following up on the events of The Outsider, and at least two of the three remaining stories either managed to get directly under my skin or made me feel personally judged, so I’ve got to count that as a positive. In particular, the opening sequence to The Life of Chuck, which is about the slow and inexplicable end of the world, can’t really be read in 2020 without fucking with your head a little bit, and Mr. Harrigan’s Phone has a great sort of Apt Pupil vibe to it that I liked a lot. If you already know you’re not a fan this isn’t going to change your mind, but I am, and this is one of King’s stronger efforts recently.


While King has damn near 100% name recognition, I suspect a number of you haven’t heard of Brit Bennett, and The Vanishing Half was my first exposure to her work as well. This was another book that I picked up specifically because I’m focusing on books by women of color this year and the description caught my eye, and is yet another perfect example of why I do things like this in the first place.

There is no trace of the supernatural anywhere in this book, which also places it at least a little bit outside what I normally read; it’s set mostly in the past, but not quite far back enough (the story ends in the late 1980s) to really call it historical fiction, so do I have to haul out literature again? It’s a novel, we’ll leave it at that. The premise of the story is that two very light-skinned black twins are born in the town of Mallard, Louisiana, a place so small it doesn’t show up on maps. Eventually the twins basically flee Mallard in the middle of the night for New Orleans, and then separate from each other: one to pass for white and disappear into wealthy white society, and the other of whom marries the darkest-skinned man she can find and has a child that, by everyone’s estimation, looks nothing like her. The book then follows both characters and their daughters over the next several decades.

The book is all about how we construct our identity; nearly every character is either hiding part of their identity or fighting against the identity that society or biology has imposed on them or both, and I finished it in less than a day. It’s brilliant and you will see it again at the end of the year; right now it’s a top-5 entry and fighting with Conjure Women and Scarlet Odyssey for the top spot.

#REVIEW: THE OUTSIDER, by Stephen King

9781501180989_p0_v4_s550x406I didn’t want to buy or read this book at first.  That’s not my normal approach with Stephen King; the man has written approximately 5000 books, but I have damn near all of them.  I can only bring two of his books to mind that I know exist and have not read yet: his novel about the Kennedy assassination, which rubbed me wrong from the beginning and which I never started, and the third of his three Finders Keepers books, which I cannot explain why I have not read yet.  I’m gonna get to it eventually!  I promise!

So, yeah: I’m a fan.  I have been a fan since I was, I dunno, however old I was when Misery came out and I found my grandmother’s copy when staying the night at her house and managed to read most of it before she realized what I was doing.  Honestly I don’t remember if anyone tried to stop me or not, but it wouldn’t have done any good if they had; nobody was ever any good at keeping books away from me.

But I didn’t want to read this book.  The main reason?  The premise, as explained by most of the pre-release stuff, is white dude is accused of heinous sexual assault, turns out to be innocent.  And if I’m being honest, white dude turns out to not be a sexual abuser after all! is not really something I’m super interested in reading about too much right now.  There are entirely too many white men getting away with sexual assault and rape right now– some of them being elected fucking president, no less– just put me off the book for several weeks.  My wife read it in the meantime, and told me to go ahead and read it anyway, and I did.

Which was the right call, because once I started The Outsider I had the damn thing finished in two days– a hundred pages the first night, another hundred the second, and then I picked it up when I got home from work yesterday and didn’t put it down until I was done with it.  And it’s a big damn book.  Stephen King, after all.  The reason I wrote such a short post last night?  I got caught up in reading and didn’t want to put the book down to write a post.

So, a couple of things: this is King’s darkest work in years, if not in his career, to the point where I’m not even sure right now what I’d suggest its closest competition is.  The book begins with a man being arrested for an absolutely heinous act of rape, sexual torture, and murder, and despite his innocence being such a plot point that I can’t even honestly call it a spoiler to mention it, the book keeps you wondering what the fuck is going on anyway, and then at about the 200-page mark it throws a massive curveball at you and runs off to be an entirely different book than the police procedural you thought you started with.  And even before that curveball, King does an outstanding job of whipsawing you back and forth between this man is absolutely guilty and this man cannot possibly be guilty, sometimes in the same chapter, and the cops don’t always make great decisions on how to prosecute the case and when the book finally does tie everything together and explain what’s going on I feel like it earned its ending in a way a lot of books– including a handful of other King books– really don’t.

This is also his scariest book in a long, long time.  I will admit that being the father of a young son didn’t exactly help me with that, and if you aren’t a parent your mileage may vary a bit.

One gripe, though: I have always thought that one of Stephen King’s greatest gifts as an author was his ear for voice and for dialogue, which makes it weird that this book has such really weak dialogue throughout.  There are so, so many sentences in this book that no human being has ever uttered before and never will.  He does this thing at the end where he sort of thanks the people of Oklahoma and says that if he got anything wrong, he’s sorry?  And I feel like maybe he’s doing this weird thing where he’s trying to capture something he thinks is Oklahoma Folksy and instead he’s landing on Abraham Simpson:

This is especially bad in the earliest parts of the book, where a fair part of the text is interview transcripts, meaning that they’re nothing but dialogue and people telling stories.  The various cops in the book generally aren’t prone to rambling, but any time someone else is talking– again, especially in that early part?  God.

But yeah.  If you can push past that one rather notable weakness, this is excellent King and a great recovery from Sleeping Beauties, which I didn’t really like much at first and has not climbed in my estimation since then.

#REVIEW: SLEEPING BEAUTIES, by Stephen King & Owen King

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I am a big enough Stephen King fan that the majority of the time I know about his books way in advance and they get preordered.  I have read damn near everything he ever wrote, excepting only his book about the Kennedy assassination (which I refuse to read, because Wrong) and for no clear reason the third book in his Bill Hodges trilogy, which I’ll get to eventually.  So the fact that I hadn’t heard about Sleeping Beauties until finding it on a shelf in Target, of all places, was more than a bit unusual.

Here’s the inside jacket text:

In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep: they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent. And while they sleep they go to another place, a better place, where harmony prevails and conflict is rare.

One woman, the mysterious “Eve Black,” is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Eve a medical anomaly to be studied? Or is she a demon who must be slain? Abandoned, left to their increasingly primal urges, the men divide into warring factions, some wanting to kill Eve, some to save her. Others exploit the chaos to wreak their own vengeance on new enemies. All turn to violence in a suddenly all-male world.

Set in a small Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, Sleeping Beauties is a wildly provocative, gloriously dramatic father-son collaboration that feels particularly urgent and relevant today.

I read that mess, laughed, and handed the book over to my wife, saying that she had to buy it.  Now, again, usually new King is an insta-buy.  And I can’t recall any other King books that were bought so explicitly for a hate-read as this one was.  But… I’m not wrong, right?  That description sounds absolutely terrible.  From the weird “future so near and real” (the book is not set in the future, at all) to the deeply odd “urgent and relevant” (how?) bit at the end, it’s a cavalcade of bad.  It makes the book sound awful.

Having read all 700 pages in the last… week?  or so, and having stayed up way late last night to finish it, I can confirm: it’s not nearly that bad.  It’s one of those books that’s better while you’re reading it and not so much the day afterward when you’re thinking about it, though.  And I’m pretty sure, despite what Stephen and Owen have said in interviews, that Owen wrote most of the book.  The plotting is pure Stephen King, but on a sentence-to-sentence, page-by-page basis, most of the prose doesn’t sound like him to me.  Part of me wants to feed the book into a computer and go all Documentary Hypothesis on it, to be honest; I think it’d be fun.

So, yeah, the book: that description’s not far off in a literal sense, it’s just way crappier.  All the women in the world suddenly start spinning cocoons around themselves when they fall asleep, because Reasons, and there’s this woman named Evie (not “Eve,” which would have been way less subtle) who doesn’t web up and seems to be psychic because Reasons, and they get really violent if you remove the webbing because Reasons, and eventually (spoiler!!) the women all come back because Reasons.

A careful reader will have discerned my issue with the book already.  Unlike, say, The Stand, which is my favorite King book, what happens to the world’s women in this story is presented as purely supernatural, with no scientific explanation of any kind at all.  And while most of King’s work does have at least supernatural underpinnings to it, even Under the Dome did a better job of providing reasons why the Bad Shit was happening and not a bunch of handwaving.  This book is composed of 100% dura-grade premium Handwavium, and nothing in the basic premise happens for a reason. Once the scenario is up and running, okay, characters tend to respond in reasonable and understandable ways.  But the setup itself?

Why do the women all fall asleep?  Why is Eve so tremendously violent when we first meet her?  Why the cocoons?  Why can’t I spell “cocoon” without putting a double-C in there?  Why do the women go to what they call the Other Place, and why aren’t there any women from outside Dooling there?  Are only the women from Dooling sent to the Other Place?  Why?  Why does Evie seem to be trying to get herself killed for part of the last third of the book?

(The Other Place, in general, is narratively unnecessary, and every page set there could have been cut without harming the book.)

I’m generally okay with a book not tying up every loose thread and leaving some questions unanswered, but holy shit, this book is nothing but unanswered questions.  My lack of reading comprehension can probably be blamed for a couple of them, but there’s basic worldbuilding shit here that’s left undone in favor of handwavium and it bugs.  And the ending is weak as hell.  Spoiler, but you know this already anyway: the women come back.  They literally just decide to not be sleepers anymore and then they aren’t.  Or maybe Dooling’s women decide for the whole world?  Why do they specifically get to decide?  Who knows!  But they all have to decide to come back for any of them to come back, which is not as much of an obstacle as it might seem.  Why do they all have to agree?  Reasons!

(Apropos of nothing, in case you’re wondering, the book doesn’t know trans women exist.)

I dunno.  I four-starred this on Goodreads originally, but I’ve dropped it to three while I’ve been writing this.  The book wasn’t bad while I was reading it, but the lack of any real resolution at the end dooms the entire enterprise.

A brief, charming little story

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Sure, why not.

My wife is out of town again, through Friday this time, and as he tends to do when one of us is out of town the boy has requested to sleep in the “big bed.” I put him off last night because for a five-year-old he takes up an astonishing amount of room and is somewhat less receptive than my wife to the occasional nudge if he strays past his side of the bed.

(For the record, I have no idea how receptive I am to such nudges.  I’m sure I do it too.)

My wife is reading IT for about the hojillionth time right now in preparation for the upcoming movie.  We have at least three copies of the book in the house and two of them are on her nightstand– the paperback copy she started reading, and the hardback she ganked from her parents when she realized that reading a thousand pages of the tiny print in the paperback might not be in her eyes’ best interest.

As I’m reading the boy his bedtime stories, he notices the books and asks if tomorrow I can read IT to him instead of, oh, Disney’s 5-Minute Fairy Tales or whatevertheshit.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too scary for you.  You can read it when you’re old enough,” I say to him, reflecting upon the fact that my first Stephen King book was Misery, published in 1987, and therefore first read (I stole my grandmother’s copy on an overnight visit, and I was 2/3 done with it before she realized what I was reading, well past the point where she could have objected) when I was in fifth grade.  I went on a serious King bender after that and so it couldn’t have been much longer before I got to IT.

“Oh, okay,” he says.  “They taught me to read yesterday at school.  I can do that now.  Can I read it to myself?”

I think about this for a second.

“Sure.  You can start tomorrow, though.”

“Okay,” he says, and hands me the fairy tales book, apparently satisfied.

I’m really gonna feel ridiculous if he actually did learn to read yesterday, I imagine.