The Mental Militia Forums

Please login or register.

Login with username, password and session length
Pages: [1]   Go Down

Author Topic: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)  (Read 2259 times)

George Potter

  • Guest
Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« on: October 08, 2005, 11:55:16 pm »


Hearts In Atlantis
Rose Madder
Wolves Of The Calla (Dark Tower V)
The Song Of Susannah (Dark Tower VI)


My most recent reading jag has, as you can see, focused on the later works of Mr. Stephen King. Mr. King is a writer of the ‘good news’/'bad news’ sort for me, so it’s no surprise that this review is of the same type. When he is on, King can write a damn near intoxicating story, with sympathetic and believable characters, excellent realistic dialogue, and plots — while basic — so well constructed and invisible that the reader forgets he is actually reading the story and simply experiences it. When he is off he can be almost painfully self indulgent and obtrusive, and teeth gnashing repetitive.

Hearts In Atlantis is decidedly in the first category. This may well be the very best thing that the man has ever written — harking back to his stunning Different Seasons novellas “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption.” The writing is beautiful, the tone alternately sad, triumphant and consistently deeply emotional. Also like Different Seasons, the four interlinked stories here are almost mainstream. In fact, my only problem with the gorgeous, elegiac first (and longest) section “Low Men In Yellow Coats” is that he does dip into the fantastical. Those who know me understand that I myself was rather shocked to criticize the story on those grounds, since I’m a blatant SF/fantasy snob who heaps the scorn tossed towards my beloved ghetto fiction right back at the literary and mainstream cud chewers who don’t get it. But there it is. I found myself wishing (as with Rose Madder, which I will talk about in a bit), that King had kept this beautiful examination of growing up and coming to terms with the fact that ‘Life ain’t fair’ on the solid ground and out of the multiverse of his Dark Tower mythos. It certainly does not ruin the story by any means, but it felt so unnecessary.

Almost like a confirmation of that thought was the second section, the title story. Without even hinting at the fantastic, King creates one of the most powerful pieces of literature that I have ever read. I feel it’s better than “The Body” which has long held pride of place as my favorite King work. Everything about this little gem feels just right, like Baby Bear’s magically fitting porridge, chair and bed. The story concerns a freshman entering college in 1966, discovering love, pain and the possibility that the fabled ‘grown-ups’ of the world are as clueless and scared as kids on a playground. But what makes the story blast into orbit is the central, brilliantly brought off metaphor: the denizens of the financial aid/scholarship dorm of a Maine campus become painfully obsessed and addicted to a freeform, unending and utterly pointless Hearts tournament that threatens their grades, education and (in the days when flunking out of college meant a draft notice might find its way to your door) their very lives. Yep, King describes the undescribable mess that was Vietnam as a riotous card game that most of the participants have no real idea why they are playing, and he by God makes it work so well that it inspired the reaction I both love and hate: utter fuckin’ jealousy. Something that is so brilliant and obvious that I feel as a personal failing simply because I didn’t think it up. But it’s ok. I got to read it, and in the end, that’s saying a lot.

The rest of the book consists of three shorter works that expand on the first two. I’m going to be terse. “Blind Willy” is brilliant and incredibly well done. “Why We’re In Vietnam” made me cry. And “Heavenly Shades Of Night Are Falling” is simply a coda that throws all the rest into stark relief.

Buy this book.

***

Rose Madder is a different beast, certainly. This tale of an abused wife who finally splits and tries to make a new life, only to be tracked down by her utter monster of a husband has no aspirations to literature and don’t stinkin’ need ‘em. It’s a gloriously well written novel. King has never done as good a job with suspense as here, though Thinner comes close. This book is tense, it keeps you on the edge, and it gives you characters you deeply care about. The central relationship is sweet and utterly believable. The husband is an incredibly well done villain — he’s evil, he’s crazy, he’s relentless, but he’s also fucking brilliant. Libertarians will nod knowingly at the depiction of the police here.

But goddamit, it’s flawed because King dips into fantasy. And it’s not even good fantasy. It’s a minor plot line that eventually only functions as a deus ex machina. A book this good does not need supernatural help, Mr. King. You have a character who grows from a punching bag into a strong self reliant woman. She does not need supernatural protectors. She learned how to protect herself the hard way and it’s an utter cheat to have her reduced to calling on the gods for intervention.

Recommended, but with reservations that border on personal annoyance.

***

I have been a fan of The Dark Tower series since the day my friend Wayne (one of the few genre fans in one of the small towns where I grew up) allowed me to sit in his living room and read the original stories in his bagged and beloved issues of The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction. I was a literary minded teen in love with genre at that time, and King’s slightly pretentious, utterly mysterious and deliciously violent transmogrification of Browning and Leone were just what I was looking for.

When The Drawing Of The Three appeared, I was in heaven. It remains one of the few books I’ve ever bought in original hardcover, and when I finished it I wanted more more more MORE!

I got it. I deeply enjoyed both Waste Lands and Wizard & Glass, first and foremost, they were damn good stories. The long waits between installments were annoying though, so when King announced that all three of the final books would be released after short waits, I was thrilled. I vowed to wait until they were all done and then savor them.

I picked up Wolves Of The Calla with much gusto once all three novels were available at the library. I stayed up all night reading it, so the central desire was well and truly fulfilled: Wolves is a cracking good story, compulsively readable and filled with wonderful in-jokes for Western fans. And I loved the fact that it was the most ‘western’ of all the books, modelled intentionally on The Magnificent Seven. It even led off with one of my favorite quotes in film, from that movie: “We deal in lead.” Oh yeah baby, sing to me.

There were problems though. King (a recovering alcoholic) took one entire section to spout off about the evils of alcoholism and the AA-esque platitudes that will cure you. I let it slide.

At one point a character turns to another and announces with gravity that President Kennedy was ‘a true gunslinger’. Excuse my fucking eyerolling, there must be a log in there or something. I remember thinking a hateful, evil wish that the Baby Boomers would all fucking die off already just so I’d never hear their whining Camelot shit ever again. I instantly rescinded that thought, pissed at myself. Some of the finest people I know happen to be ‘Baby Boomers’. But —

Kennedy was not a fucking gunslinger. Kennedy was a trumped up dandy that Steve McQueen’s character would have slapped down in an instant. He was a fucking power-whore who put on a show and danced a purty dance for the cameras. An elitist aristocratic shitball who got off on control freakery.

I have to explain why this pissed me off so. See, I am a gunslinger. I have eaten the low food, survived the hard life. I’ve made my own law and served out justice by my own stick. I’ve tracked animals over cold snowy nights to feed my family. I’ve protected the weak and the foolish when my only reward would be blood lost. I’ve walked through Chicago gangland with nothing but a smile and a head held high and learned that those nothings are a powerful weapon after all. I’ve sat in jail cells rather than compromise my principles. I’ve never owned a goddam thing I did not work for and earn and I find that fact suits me fine.

I deal in fucking LEAD, that most dense of metals, the most base and most true. Come what may, it’s my only coin.

And until this one tossed off line, King described gunslingers the same way I described them. Fuck, the man helped me define the term and define myself. That tossed off line felt like betrayal.

But I gritted my teeth and let is pass.

At the end, he introduces such a pretentious notion that I slapped it closed and looked at the next book with trepidation.

I was right. Song Of Susannah is an utter piece of shit. It doesn’t work as a novel, it’s fake as a 14 dollar bill, it’s ploddingly constructed and it just plain SUCKS. Most of all it fails as a STORY. It took me damn near a week, forcing myself through it. Then, when I went to the library, I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the last one. I was actually afraid to do so. I’m gonna let it mellow.

Good news, bad news. Same as it ever was.

Next up: ‘The Artificial Kid’ by Bruce Sterling
« Last Edit: October 09, 2005, 12:08:48 am by George Potter »
Logged

Roy J. Tellason

  • Sr. Member
  • ****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 5996
  • Techy Kinda Guy and Serious Bookaholic
    • Roy J. Tellason's Home Page
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #1 on: October 09, 2005, 01:17:56 am »

***

I have been a fan of The Dark Tower series since the day my friend Wayne (one of the few genre fans in one of the small towns where I grew up) allowed me to sit in his living room and read the original stories in his bagged and beloved issues of The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction. I was a literary minded teen in love with genre at that time, and King’s slightly pretentious, utterly mysterious and deliciously violent transmogrification of Browning and Leone were just what I was looking for.

Bagged?  I read 'em in F&SF the first time too,  and still have those magazines.  But King does things that put me off,  particularly when he starts throwing around "science" of any sort,  or "technology",  or whatever you want to call it.  Like in Tommyknockers[/] with all those gorram flashlight batteries...

Quote
When The Drawing Of The Three appeared, I was in heaven. It remains one of the few books I’ve ever bought in original hardcover, and when I finished it I wanted more more more MORE!

I got it. I deeply enjoyed both Waste Lands and Wizard & Glass, first and foremost, they were damn good stories. The long waits between installments were annoying though, so when King announced that all three of the final books would be released after short waits, I was thrilled. I vowed to wait until they were all done and then savor them.

Quote
There were problems though.

Yep.

The one that killed it for me was when three (?) of the characters are walking _north_ along what's supposed to be the _west_ coast but the mountains are on their _left_ and the ocean on their _right_...

I know he hails from the other end of the country,  but jeez...!
Logged
Member of the toughest, meanest, deadliest, most unrelenting -- and ablest -- form of life in this section of space,  a critter that can be killed but can't be tamed.  --Robert A. Heinlein, "The Puppet Masters"
--
Information is more dangerous than cannon to a society ruled by lies. --James M Dakin

George Potter

  • Guest
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #2 on: November 19, 2005, 12:52:10 am »

Quote
Bagged?  I read 'em in F&SF the first time too,  and still have those magazines.

Bagged as in placed in mylar envelopes. :P He was a collector.
Logged

Roy J. Tellason

  • Sr. Member
  • ****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 5996
  • Techy Kinda Guy and Serious Bookaholic
    • Roy J. Tellason's Home Page
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #3 on: November 19, 2005, 02:04:10 am »

Quote
Bagged?  I read 'em in F&SF the first time too,  and still have those magazines.

Bagged as in placed in mylar envelopes. :P He was a collector.

Yeah,  well,  so am I but I have enough trouble with just having enough shelves to put them on,  I'm a little short of that point now and have some in stacks and boxes...
Logged
Member of the toughest, meanest, deadliest, most unrelenting -- and ablest -- form of life in this section of space,  a critter that can be killed but can't be tamed.  --Robert A. Heinlein, "The Puppet Masters"
--
Information is more dangerous than cannon to a society ruled by lies. --James M Dakin

Junker

  • Guest
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #4 on: July 14, 2007, 11:13:11 pm »

Thank you, George. King's good is very good, and it's nice to have such reviews.
Logged

George Potter

  • Guest
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #5 on: July 15, 2007, 12:12:31 am »

Thank you, George. King's good is very good, and it's nice to have such reviews.

You're welcome, and thanks right back. I recently read Lisey's Story by King and enjoyed the hell out of it. I also recently read Cell, which was a great return to his early horror style until a weak and disappointing ending. If I get a chance, I might work up a detailed review soon.

A book I really need to review is James Dickey's To The White Sea. It's a viciously poetic examination of an individual at war and was so powerful and striking that I read it twice back to back. It's a short, intense read, but packed to bursting with meaning and insight.
Logged

Junker

  • Guest
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #6 on: July 15, 2007, 06:10:10 am »

OK. Now to find my plastic and go to amazon.

Oddly, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon struck me.
Logged

George Potter

  • Guest
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #7 on: July 15, 2007, 07:29:28 am »

OK. Now to find my plastic and go to amazon.

Oddly, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon struck me.

I loved that one. Wrote a review of it that I posted in GenD here:

Quote
Just finished:

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon -- Stephen King

It strikes me that King's finest works are also his shortest. The Body, Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption, Hearts In Atlantis -- King the novelist completely overshadows the fact that he is a master of the novella form.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon clocks in at just over 200 pages, and feels to me like a novella that got just a bit out of hand. I mean that as a compliment.

This is the tale of a 9 year old girl who gets lost and figures out how to survive in the woods. She's not an especially adept girl, being a townie through and through, and relies on luck and coincidence as well as bits from stories she's read and things her elders have told her. The story makes this plain, using the device of hope and faith in excellent fashion.

King wears his influences on his sleeve, unselfconciously and with love. In addition to the prototypical fairy tale set up, he references London in the simple cleanliness of his prose style, the matter of fact relating of 'this is what happened'. The possibly supernatural events are handled well, in a decidedly ambiguous manner. He draws on the metaphysical aspects of baseball to instill his tale with a wider context, and the brute truths of survival to give it weight and reality. An odd combination, but one that works beautifully.

A story like this is only as good as its main character and its ending. Trisha is superbly drawn and realized -- never unbelievable, never overachieving or becoming a stereotypical victim.

The finale, when Trisha faces down the God Of The Lost, drawing on her own gods and heroes, on her own modern mythology in a world that has shown it has teeth, is as masterfully evoked as any scene in English literature. It will move you to tears if you are the type who thinks that humans are something more than smarter-than-average monkies. If you believe that in the end, in life or death situations, there comes a time to stand and call upon heaven for strength.

Good game, Trisha. Damn good game, girl.

Logged

Jeffersoniantoo

  • Full Member
  • ***
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 958
  • Green Valley Gulch, MYOBLand
    • Freedom Port: Firefly
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #8 on: July 15, 2007, 07:33:48 am »

OK. Now to find my plastic and go to amazon.

Oddly, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon struck me.

I am a fan of some of the King stuff.  I was completely absorbed with the Dark Tower series and have all of them.  I may start re-reading that if I run out of other reading material.  "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" was quite a surprise.  While Kingish, it wasn't.  And it was a quick read.  Quicker than any other King novel or story I have read.  Just a few hours...

I liked "Insomnia", but haven't had the hanker'n to read it again yet.  Cell was a disappointment, not only for the ending but for the lack of common sense by non-zombie characters in various scenarios.

"The Tommy-Knockers" was interesting, but tedious and lacked some of the character development that King normally put into other Novels.  The movie was terrible.

I prefer Sci-Fi to Fantasy, and King doesn't appear to have much of a grasp on general science or mechanical principles, but has the imagination of 33rd level dungeon master.  That's what makes it fun.

My two coppers...

8)
Logged
"Written laws are like spiders' webs, and will, like them, only entangle and hold the poor and weak, while the rich and powerful easily break through them."

-- Anacharsis - (Scythian philosopher - 600 B.C.)

Junker

  • Guest
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #9 on: July 15, 2007, 03:31:33 pm »

J2,

King's novels:
The Aftermath, Bag of Bones, Black House, Carrie, Cell, Christine, The Colorado Kid, Cujo, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Dark Half, The Dead Zone, Desperation, Dolores Claiborne, Dreamcatcher, Duma Key, The Eyes of the Dragon, Firestarter, From a Buick 8, Gerald's Game, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Green Mile, The House on Value Street, Insomnia, It, Lisey's Story, Misery, Needful Things, Pet Sematary, The Plant, Rose Madder, ’Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Sword in the Darkness, The Talisman, The Tommyknockers, Blaze, The Long Walk, Rage, Regulators, Roadwork, The Running Man, Thinner

Of which I've read:
Bag of Bones, Carrie, Christine, Cujo, Desperation, Dreamcatcher, Gerald's Game, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Green Mile, It, Needful Things, Pet Sematary, Rage, Regulators, Roadwork, The Long Walk, The Running Man, Thinner, The Tommyknockers

>I prefer Sci-Fi to Fantasy, and King doesn't appear to have much of a grasp on general science or mechanical principles, but has the imagination of 33rd level dungeon master.  That's what makes it fun.

Sometimes I'm not sure if the distinction holds well, but as you note, King doesn't do 'hard' SF. Mostly I am attracted to good 'story-tellers'. The ideas, if any, are a bonus, but usually just referenced rather than explained. The follow-up investigation provides more bonus (as Heinlein->Korzybski).

Anyhow, another cent thrown on the pile.


Logged

Junker

  • Guest
Re: Kingly Subjects (Book reviews crossposted from my writing blog)
« Reply #10 on: July 16, 2007, 12:29:49 am »

GR,

>A story like this is only as good as its main character and its ending. Trisha is superbly drawn and realized -- never unbelievable, never overachieving or becoming a stereotypical victim.

>The finale, when Trisha faces down the God Of The Lost, drawing on her own gods and heroes, on her own modern mythology in a world that has shown it has teeth, is as masterfully evoked as any scene in English literature. It will move you to tears if you are the type who thinks that humans are something more than smarter-than-average monkies. If you believe that in the end, in life or death situations, there comes a time to stand and call upon heaven for strength.

>Good game, Trisha. Damn good game, girl.

Yes, yes, and yes. Well said, Gloryroad.

Logged
Pages: [1]   Go Up