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


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

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.


“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.

The 8 Non-SF/F Books that Meant the Most to Me

…yeah, I’m stealing from Scalzi again.  What of it?  Thinking about this stuff is fun.  You may remember this post, which focused on science fiction and fantasy books; he’s just redone the premise, except focusing on books that aren’t science fiction and fantasy.  He appends the suffix (as a Writer) to his post; while some of the books I’m going to mention definitely influenced me as a writer, I’ve included some that had no real effect on my writing because of the way they affected the rest of my life.  I’m also only doing eight, not ten, although I reserve the right to go back and add more if I smack my forehead and remember something obvious later.

The timeline I’m working with here, by the way, is “through college.”  Books are in alphabetical order by author.


Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach. This was– drink every time you see this phrase in this post– first given to me by my Uncle David, when I was in middle school, I think, and getting used to the idea that I really wasn’t ever going to be a Christian.  It had a rather profound effect on my psyche and my ideas about how the world worked for several years afterward.  I reread this book this year for the first time in probably a decade or two, and I’ll admit I’ve outgrown it; it seemed awfully silly to my jaded older self and I’ll admit that of all the books on this list this is the one I hesitated the most to include.  But… man, at that time in that place?  I was copying quotes from this book into a notebook.  I’ve never done that before or since with any other printed work, not even the LOTR books, and I’ve got lines from those tattooed on myself.

Unknown-1Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman.  I can pinpoint this one pretty precisely: I read this my senior year in high school.  When I started the book, I was sort of planning on majoring in journalism in high school (see two later entries for more background on this) and planning on Uncovering the Truth for the rest of my life.  By the time I finished it I’d already started becoming the kid who was going to go through four years at Indiana University without so much as setting foot in the journalism building.  Who Wrote the Bible? rewrote my entire future on the spot, taking my preexisting mild interest in religious studies and blowing it up into a full-scale obsession that was going to dictate the course of my studies for the next six years of my life– I ended up triple majoring in Religious Studies, Jewish Studies, and Psychology with dual minors in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and Anthropology, then heading off for a Master’s degree in Hebrew Bible from the University of Chicago before realizing that reading was more fun than research and stopping my program before moving on to the Ph.D.  None of that would have happened if I hadn’t randomly found this book on a shelf in a friend’s house and asked to borrow it.

Hm.  This book is responsible for, like, 2/3 of my student loans.  Never mind.  This book sucks.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.  Unknown-2Two guesses who loaned me this one, and the first one doesn’t count.  Yep!  Uncle David.  This is another book that influenced me both as a person and a writer; not only is Prayer a great story with a fascinating set of twists and turns and a somewhat unexpected supernatural bent to it, but it taught me how to be a newspaper columnist– Owen Meany runs a column called VOICE, written in all caps, throughout most of the book.

I had a column in our school newspaper my junior and senior year.  What was it called?  VOICE, of course, although I didn’t write it in all caps, mostly because no one would let me.  I also never told anyone where I got the name from, and I don’t think anyone ever noticed.  I haven’t reread this book in a while; maybe I should add that to the 2014 rereads list.

Misery, by Stephen King.  imagesOne of my many ongoing reading projects (which didn’t go mentioned in the post the other day) is to reread every Stephen King book, in order.  It didn’t make the post because I don’t really care if I get it done in 2014 or not.  Very, very few of those reads will be new; I read Rage for the first time a couple of months ago but I’m pretty sure I’ve read 95% of King’s actual novels already.

The first one?  Misery.  I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but… well, I wasn’t what was probably considered old enough to be reading Stephen King.  Maybe fifth grade?  Sixth?  Somewhere around there.  I was at my grandmother’s house and rather bored– my brother and I may have been spending the night, actually– and I came across her copy of it and picked it up.  By the time she noticed what I was doing I was already too hooked for there to be any chance of talking me into putting it down or distracting me with something else.  I still have that exact copy; she never got it back.

3144BSXMD8L._SY300_An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, by Thomas O. Lambdin.  What?  You can’t see anything in the image of the cover?  That’s on purpose; Lambdin’s Hebrew grammar features blood-red foil stamped into a dark grey cover, and it is a forewarning of what you are getting into:  you are going to bleed for this book, and it’s letting you know before you even open the cover that it is a bad evil motherfucker and you probably ought to leave it on the shelf like a sensible person.  I had this book with me everywhere I went in college for two years and everywhere I went in grad school for two years after that; it taught me to study in a way that no textbook and really no class ever did or has since.  Now, granted, a loooooot of the credit needs to go to my first Hebrew professor at IU, Bernie Levinson, who was hands down one of the finest educators I’ve ever met in my life, but there was still something about this damn book.  I’ve still got it; if my house burns down I’ll rescue my copy, if only because I don’t actually think it can be destroyed and I would hate to see what the book I referred to as “the Lambdin” for years would do to human civilization if freed from its earthly shell.


One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko, by Mike Royko. This one, I’ll admit, is in some ways a bit of a cheat, as I didn’t get the book itself until well after college, when I found both it and its sequel For The Love of Mike on a shelf in a Barnes and Noble together and bought them both immediately.  I’m including it because Mike Royko was my writing idol in high school; our local newspaper syndicated his column and as far as I was concerned getting to read Mike Royko’s columns was the entire reason my parents were paying for the paper.  The school newspaper, and journalism itself, were a really big deal for me in high school, as you may have already picked up on, and the fact that I wanted to be Mike Royko when I grew up had a lot to do with that.  The guy was brilliant, simple, direct, understated, and wrote like he had scalpels for fingers, a simile that may only make sense to me but still seems beautifully appropriate anyway.  I still pick this up and leaf through it from time to time, although probably not often enough, and I miss the hell out of getting to read Mike’s columns a couple of times a week.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson. Speaking of journalists, and speaking of people I miss the hell out of: this one is absolutely an “as a writer” entry, as I worship at Thompson’s altar and every word I’ve written since I first read this book has had his stamp on it somewhere.  I firmly believe Hunter Thompson to be one of the finest prose writers who ever lived and the finest writer of invective who ever lived; my greatest regret is that George W. Bush outlived him, because that means I’ll never get to read the obituary Hunter Thompson wrote for George W. Bush.

His Nixon obit, of course, is brilliant.

This is yet another Uncle David recommendation, which will surprise no one; half of everything important I’ve read in my life came from him somehow.

Weirdly, I don’t remember when I read this book for the first time– I can’t even pin it down to “high school” or “college” or “before then” or anything like that.  I suspect I was probably in high school, as my parents generally weren’t ever too prone to taking anything I was reading away from me but I can’t imagine they’d have overlooked something as full of drug references as Fear and Loathing.  


The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is beyond a doubt, without a question, no ifs, ands, or buts, the most important book on this list and the most important work of nonfiction I’ve ever read in my life.  I first read this in sixth or seventh grade and the damn thing blew my goddamn mind.  Malcolm is my idol in a lot of ways; there’s a poster of him hanging up in my office that I’ve had in every home (and most of the classrooms) that I’ve lived in for years.  He’s one of my two favorite human beings; the other is Abraham Lincoln.  My son came very close to being named Malcolm Michael; if we have another kid (unlikely) and it’s a boy (hopefully not; if we have two I want a girl) he’s going to be named Malcolm Abraham.  There are not many books that I literally think everyone should read.  Every living human being should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  Period.

I’m going to stop at eight, if only because some of the other choices I thought about feel like cheats for some reason or another.  Let’s call three other books Honorable Mentions:  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig (another Uncle Dave loaner, by the way), Integrity, by Stephen Carter, and, well, the Bible, which I feel weird putting in bold. I feel compelled– unnecessarily, I suspect– to point out that I really don’t mean The Bible Meant A Lot To Me in the way most people would.  I suspect most of you have been reading me for long enough to know what I’m getting at, and if not, well, reread this piece a time or two, because there’s hints.