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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Martian by Andy Weir


The Martian is one of the most perfect science fiction novels I've ever read. Originally self-published by Andy Weir, this tale of a man stranded on Mars quickly amassed over 1,000 five-star reviews on Amazon and was picked up by a major publisher. I recently had the absolute joy of reading an advance copy of the book, which will be in wide release in February of 2014. If we live in a just universe, The Martian will be a best seller and win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It's that good.

Weir does several hard things very well in this novel. He's obviously done his homework and the Mars mission, NASA, all the science and the sequence of events leading to astronaut Mark Watney's predicament all ring true. More importantly Mark Watney is someone you believe in from page one. He is one of the most human, likable, funny and stubborn people you will ever meet in the pages of a book and you cannot help but root for this guy.

A book like this could easily get bogged down in technical details, overwhelming the reader with details and infodumps, but Weir keeps the tension high throughout the novel. It's tempting to compare Weir's book to the technothrillers of someone like Michael Crichton but I honestly have to say that Weir seems to be a better writer than Crichton.

Science is the star of this book and our hero is ultimately not alone as NASA and the rest of planet earth become aware of Mark Watney's predicament. This is ultimately the story not of a man or a martian, but of humanity and how we as humans survive through intelligence, humor, perseverance and faith in each other.

The Martian is the opposite, perhaps the antidote, to dystopian fiction. It is a reminder that thrilling stories and great adventures exist and we can and must go out and find them.

Go out and find The Martian. It's one of the wonders of the universe.



Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Little Green Men by Peter Cawdron


Little Green Men is a great, page turner of a story. It's a not a long story, more a novella than a novel, detailing the experiences of the crew of space ship Dei Gracia on a frozen, distant world. The writing is brisk and the tension of the story is perfect. Halfway through the book there was a spot where I stopped and said "Holy Crap, I never saw that coming!" It's a great puzzle of a story that in the end fits together with a very elegant and satisfying logic.

Peter Cawdron says that he wrote Little Green Men as a tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick and the classic science fiction stories of the 1950s. He's certainly succeeded, the story manages to mix the pulse-pounding fear of the Alien movies with some of the big questions of perception and existence that one normally associates with authors like Dick, Asimov or Clarke. The interactions of the crew reminded me of the best of the old Star Trek episodes.

I don't want to give away any of the story, this is a book to be read and enjoyed, not explained. The book was free when I downloaded it to my Kindle, but the story is well worth the regular price of 99 cents. Such deals exist to introduce the reader to a new writer. Little Green Men certainly worked on that level for me, I've already downloaded some of Peter Cawdron's other stories.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The novels of Daniel Pinkwater


I heard Daniel Pinkwater before I ever read any of his books. He was a goofy, friendly voice on the radio, talking to Click and Clack about some car problem or discussing children's books with Scott Simon. Sometimes, when NPR had an odd couple of minutes to fill, they'd have Daniel Pinkwater talk about whatever he wanted to talk about that day. And that was enough to get me dig through the children's section of bookstores (or maybe the young adult section, bookstores have a hard time figuring out where to put Pinkwater) and even though I'm not a child anymore (or even a young adult) when I'd find his books, I'd start reading and then, because I liked what I found, I'd buy the book.

Here's the thing about Pinkwater: he tells good stories. His characters are interesting, they're folks you'd probably want to hang out with for the most part. The great thing is that they may be young or old, fat or thin, boys or girls, moose, cat-whiskered girls, space aliens, talking lizards, whatever. They do interesting stuff. The books aren't too dark or scary for children but certainly not too boring for adults (or children for that matter).

You don't have to take my word for this. Go here:

http://www.pinkwater.com/podcast/audioarchive.php

And you can grab, for free, audio versions of his various books. I'm fond of Borgel and Lizard Music but there are a whole bunch of good ones there. Then send him some money or buy some of his real books. They're real good.

I like reading and when I got to looking at my shelves and the contents of my Kindle, I concluded that Daniel Pinkwater is my favorite author. That kind of snuck up on me, but the more I think about it, the more I see that it's true.

You'll learn things reading Pinkwater books. Here's a nice nugget from The Neddiad:

...my father said. "Don't fall in a tar pit." It isn't tar. Everyone calls it tar, but it's really natural asphalt. The Indians used it to waterproof their canoes, and the Spanish settlers used it to seal their roofs. "La Brea" in Spanish means "the tar," so "The La Brea Tar Pits" means "the the tar tar pits."

Pinkwater makes normal things strange and strange things normal in a way that makes you feel that he really knows how things work and that the way things work is really OK. Here are a few bits from Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl:

Here, they are setting out in a boat.

"Oh, hell," I said. "It's a coracle." 

"What's a coracle?" Molly said, looking at it. 

"A coracle," I told Molly, "is the most primitive, and also worst, boat in the world. As you see, it is shaped like a bowl. It's made of branches with skins stretched over it, and it's waterproofed with a coating of tar." 

"Why is it round like that?" Molly asked. 

"As far as I know, it is because the people who invented it were not quite smart enough to figure out that a boat-shaped boat would work a lot better."

There guide leaves them on an island with monsters who want to play cards.

"Wait!" I called to Harold. "Are we safe here?" 

"As long as you don't play for money, you're safe," Harold said, and the coracle disappeared into the darkness. 

"We would never play for money against children," one of the monsters mumbled. "Do you have any money, girls?" 

"Not a cent," Molly said. 

"Me neither," I lied. I had twenty-six dollars pinned to my underwear.

As I noted earlier, Pinkwater is goofy, but as near as I can tell, the world is pretty goofy. I'm old enough to be sure I don't have it all figured out and Mr. Pinkwater would probably tell you he doesn't have it all figured out either. But his novels tell truths worth telling and they're a whole lot of fun.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon



Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, Bleeding Edge, is set in 2001 in New York City. Pynchon is a careful observer, a wizard of wordplay, who is justly revered for crafting paranoid parables. The critics have all been waiting for this, his 9/11 novel, which is also promised to be his take on the early days of this, our internet age.

While 9/11 looms in the background of every reader's mind, the monster we all know is in the closet, Pynchon's people wander and wisecrack their way through a NYC that is not so much doomed as destined to be something that none of us can ever stop or really hope to understand. Pynchon is not telling us a story, he's telling us stories, hundreds of them. Perhaps they're pixels, part of something larger that we'll see when we draw our focus back, or perhaps we're only paranoid minds finding patterns were none exist.

Pynchon's people dwell in doubt and he does interesting things with time in conversations. Phrases trigger recollection and we're taken from a coffee shop to a scene a thousand miles and five years away before we close the paragraph. It is disorienting and enlightening at the same time. And Pynchon packs his books with casual references to obscure facts (both real and fictitious) which he'll delightfully deploy with equal zeal in the making of a key plot points or terrible puns. Even the most nimble of minds is apt to find both delight and befuddlement in pages penned by Pynchon.

Pynchon opens his book with this quote from Donald Westlake:

"New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it." 

Pynchon's heroine, Maxine Tarnow, is a decertified Certified Fraud Examiner, a sort-of-divorced mom with a couple of kids and just enough disconnection from the structures of power to be completely delightful and dangerous. Like the best private eyes, Maxine is less beholden to the law than she is to her own sense of justice. She investigates crimes, both commercial and karmic. Minor infractions are given as much, or often, greater weight, than major felonies.

In an early scene, Maxine's kids are playing with a prototype of a new computer game, a shooter where the targets are not criminals, but the criminally rude on the streets of New York:

“Come on,” sez Otis, “let’s just cruise around.” 

Off they go on a tour of the inexhaustible galleries of New York annoyance, zapping loudmouths on cellular phones, morally self-elevated bicycle riders, moms wheeling twins old enough to walk lounging in twin strollers, “One behind the other, we let them off with a warning, but not this one, look, side by side so nobody can get past? forget it.” 

Pow! Pow! The twins go flying, all smiles, above New York and into the Kiddy Bin. Passersby are largely oblivious to the sudden disappearances except for Christers, who think it’s the Rapture.

“Guys,” Maxine astonished, “I had no idea— Wait, what’s this?” 

She has spotted a line jumper at a bus stop. Nobody paying attention. H&K woman to the rescue! 

“All right, how do I do this?” 

Otis is happy to instruct, and before you can say “Be more considerate,” the pushy bitch has been despatched and her children dragged to safety. 

“Way to go Mom, that’s a thousand points.”

Bleeding Edge takes place in both the virtual and the real world, although the reality and virtuality of each comes into serious question as things progress. Maxine's investigations attract some attention, leading to a questionable conversation with a fellow named Windust.  Some of the key questions Maxine has are "who is this guy?" and "who is he working for?" Even paranoids have enemies.

"Not to mention there’s a couple of Israeli chips, highly sophisticated, which Mossad have been known to install at the same time, without necessarily informing the client. What these chips do is scavenge information even while the computer’s turned off, hold it till the Ofeq satellite comes over, then transmit everything out to it in a single data burst.” 

“Oh, devious, these Jews.” 

“Israel doesn’t spy on us? Remember the Pollard case back in 1985? Even left-wing papers like the New York Times carried that story, Ms. Tarnow.” 

How right-wing, Maxine wonders, does a person have to be to think of the New York Times as a left-wing newspaper?

Maxine also wonders how Windust knows what he knows:

These are all public, the sites I use, nothing illegal, how do you know what I’m researching anyway?” 

“Child’s play,” sez Windust, “we like to think of it as ‘No keystroke left behind.’”

In Pynchon's writing words and ideas snap into focus and his city teams with so many people that despite their odd names and odder proclivities that even the most careful reader will at some points be befuddled. Is Pynchon a genius or just nuts? And why are these folks having sex?

And then there is DeepArcher, a virtual reality that is not a game, but very gamelike, a private beta of something like a digital haven or heaven or something else. It's all very bleeding edge.

When 9/11 happens there is no grand revelation or even great turning of the wheels of the world.

Everybody is still walking around stunned, having spent the previous day sitting or standing in front of television screens, at home, in bars, at work, staring like zombies, unable in any case to process what they were seeing. A viewing population brought back to its default state, dumbstruck, undefended, scared shitless.

Like any good New Yorker, Maxine talks things over with her therapist, a laid back Californian whose mental pressure gauge Maxine suspects may be reading low by a few PSI.

Not when ‘everything changed.’ When everything was revealed. No grand Zen illumination, but a rush of blackness and death. Showing us exactly what we’ve become, what we’ve been all the time.”

“And what we’ve always been is . . . ?”

“Is living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs... planetwide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering. And meantime the only help we get from the media is boo hoo the innocent dead. Boo fuckin hoo. You know what? All the dead are innocent. There’s no uninnocent dead.”

After a while, “You’re not going to explain that, or . . .”

“Course not, it’s a koan.”

Pynchon's description of a post 9/11 New York is both insightful and funny as Maxine's trip to get a Thanksgiving turkey illustrates:

AS THANKSGIVING APPROACHES, the neighborhood, terrorist atrocities or whatever, reverts to its usual insufferable self, reaching a peak the night before Thanksgiving, when the streets and sidewalks are jammed solid with people who have come in to town to view The Blowing Up Of The Balloons for the Macy’s parade. Cops are everywhere, security is heavy. In front of every eatery, there are lines out the door. Places you can usually step inside, order a pizza to go, and wait no more than the time it takes to bake it are running at least an hour behind. Everybody out on the sidewalk is a pedestrian Mercedes, wallowing in entitlement—colliding, snarling, shoving ahead without even the hollow-to-begin-with local euphemism “Excuse me.”

...

A serial line jumper has been making his way forward along the turkey line, a large white alpha male whose social skills, if any, are still in beta, intimidating people one by one out of his way. 

“Excuse me?” Shoving ahead of an elderly lady waiting in line just behind Maxine. 

“Line jumper here,” the lady yells, unslinging her shoulder bag and preparing to deploy it. 

“You must be from out of town,” Maxine addressing the offender, “here in New York, see, the way you’re acting? It’s considered a felony.” 

“I’m in a hurry, bitch, so back off, unless you want to settle this outside?” 

“Aw. After all your hard work getting this far? Tell you what, you go out and wait for me, OK? I won’t be too long, promise.”

Shifting to indignation, “I have a houseful of children to feed—” but he’s interrupted by a voice someplace over by the loading dock hollering, “Hey asshole!” and here cannonballing over the heads of the crowd comes a frozen turkey, hits the bothersome yup square in the head, knocking him flat and bouncing off his head into the hands of Maxine, who stands blinking at it like Bette Davis at some baby with whom she must unexpectedly share the frame. She hands the object to the lady behind her. 

“This is yours, I guess.” 

“What, after it touched him? thanks anyway.” 

“I’ll take it,” sez the guy behind her. 

As the line creeps forward, everybody makes sure to step on, not over, the fallen line jumper. 

“Nice to see the ol’ town gettin back to normal, ain’t it.”

There is much more to this novel than a single review (or even a single reading) can adequately consider, but that is the appeal of Pynchon. He jokes and plays with ideas and one is never sure if he's serious or kidding. If asked, one suspects his answer would be "yes."

For all the technology and intrigue, this novel revolves around family and friendship. Maxine seeks a bit of guidance from her father:

Here in the capital of insomnia, it is hours yet from dawn, and this is what innocent father-daughter conversations can drift into. Beneath these windows they can hear the lawless soundscape of the midnight street, breakage, screaming, vehicle exhaust, New York laughter, too loud, too trivial, brakes applied too late before some gut-wrenching thud. When Maxine was little, she thought of this nightly uproar as trouble too far away to matter, like sirens. Now it’s always too close, part of the deal.

...

“Yep, and your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid.”

“Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? it’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.”

“So this is where I get my paranoia from.”

Pynchon's normal world is paranoid, wise-cracking and wise.  It moves fast and we're not sure what is real and what is virtual, what is coincidence and what is conspiracy. It's funny and frightening and ultimately comforting in an odd way, like an all night diner in the first light of dawn. Pynchon's brewed up something fine here. There may be more than just coffee in that cup. It might be just what you need.



Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Skulk by Rosie Best


Skulk is an urban fantasy set in contemporary London. While a casual bookstore browser might be inclined to dismiss this novel, which features a teen protagonist and a cast of characters who can shape-shift into various creatures, as a bit of Twilight-inspired trash, such a judgement would be very wrong. Skulk is a fine mix of the familiar and the strange.

Skulk opens with Meg Banks sneaking out of her room in the middle of the night. Meg's mother is a Thatcher-esque British politician (Meg is named after Margaret Thatcher) and her father is real estate financier. Meg lives in a big house with servants and goes to a fancy school but she longs for more than shallow friends, conservative politics and always presenting the image of perfection. Meg goes out at night and expresses herself through graffiti.

On this particular night Meg's mission goes awry when she encounters an injured fox who, while dying shapeshifts into a man. The dying man gives Meg a mysterious gemstone and, unbeknownst to her, the ability to shift into the form of a fox.

As the story progresses, Meg learns of her ability to shift and the existence of other shifters, clans known as the Skulk, the Rabble, the Conspiracy, the Horde, and the Cluster. Each shifter group has its own gem and unique creature, so there are shapeshifting ravens, spiders, rats and butterflies as well as foxes. And there is also someone evil trying to merge all the shifting power into one super weapon.

What makes Skulk work as a novel is the character of Meg. She's not super-human or perfect. She's snarky at times, scared at others, and always human even when she happens to be a fox. The other people and creatures she meets in the novel are complicated and much more than props or gimmicks but it's through Meg's eyes that we discover this weird and wonder-filled world.

The book has flavor like that of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, a rich layer underneath the day-to-day that we think of as all that there is. Skulk opens the reader to a richer world.

Ironically, the strongest scenes are the least fantastic ones. Meg at her mother's "Party party", forced to make small talk with horrid boys and trying not to split the seams of her too-tight dress, will be achingly familiar to anyone who has ever been, or can remember, what it's like to be 16 years old and not what your parents want you to be. And while deadly fog and pecking zombie-pigeons are certainly creepy, I found Meg's tyrannical mother and her iron lady expectations to be the scariest of all.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Blood Drama by Christopher Meeks


Christopher Meeks knows how to engage a reader and tell a story. His collection of short stories, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea showcases Meeks' mastery of small moments and was the book that made me a huge fan of his work. The great joy I found in those stories compelled me to buy every other book he's written.

In this book, Blood Drama, tells a longer story. It begins with Ian Nash, a drama school grad student who is having a bad day. After being dropped from his Ph.D. program, Ian stops for coffee and manages to wind up as a hostage in a bank robbery gone wrong. It's a classic case of a bad day gone much worse.

Meeks takes all the cliches of a thriller, the desperate criminal, the wise-cracking cops, the beautiful FBI agent and the hapless every man caught in the middle and takes them mostly in the ways you'd expect. But there are enough "wait, he did what?" moments in the tale to keep you turning the pages and the dialog sparkles and cracks with wit. I found, as I turned the pages, that while I certainly didn't like every character (indeed, I found Ian pretty annoying at times) I cared what happened. I bought into the story and the characters.

Meeks is not afraid to be outrageous and while the book comes dangerously close to collapsing under the "writer's fantasy problem" (Do you think the beautiful FBI agent is going to fall for the annoying, self-absorbed, Mamet-obsessed writer-type? Is said writerly guy going to grow as a person and save the day? Well, what do you think!) Meeks manages to both play by the cliche, poke fun at it and hit a layer of truth underneath it all. When I've described some of the more outrageous scenes to friends they've said "that sounds awful." And you'd think it would be, but somehow under Meeks' watchful eye and wise pen, it's not.

Meeks writes about people trying to solve problem of making it through the day. Blood Drama sees just how bad a day can get. Meeks takes the thriller and gives it a heart. A dopey, exasperating heart, but one that beats true.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead by Joe Hill


I'm a big Joe Hill fan. I've reviewed his three novels (Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, and NOS4A2) here and last month I got to meet Joe at the Seattle Public Library. Joe is a great guy and not that scary in real life. He gave a great reading, answered numerous questions, posed for pictures with fans, and signed books and Kindles.

I was thrilled yesterday to find that a new Joe Hill story was published as a $0.99 Kindle single. I clicked the buy button in a heartbeat and plowed through Twittering from the Circus of the Dead in one sitting.

Joe Hill is a terrific (and terrifying) writer and he proves it here by telling a story entirely in tweets. His bored teenage protagonist thinks she is on the worst vacation ever. When things get more interesting, she finds things much worse than boredom.

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead is a quick read and quite scary. I love Joe's novels and and now I'm loving his short stories. I'm still dipping into his short story collection, 20th Century GhostsTwittering from the Circus of the Dead is well worth the buck I paid for it.

Keep those stories coming, Joe!



Crux by Ramez Naam


In his first novel, Nexus, Ramez Naam burst onto the science fiction stage with a terrific book filled with credible augmented humans set in a fascinating future. Nexus was a thoughtful thrill-ride that came to a very satisfying, action-packed conclusion. In his latest novel, Crux, Naam takes his readers further into a world changed by Nexux, the mind-linking, mind-enhancing technology combining nano-technology, pharmacology and software.

Crux is a thoughtful thriller. While the book is filled with gunfire, assassinations, fist fights, carbon fiber and nano drones, once again it is the very human struggles that propel the story. Crux is fundamentally a story about power, the powers of the government and the powers of the individual.

The events in Crux take place six months after the events that made up the story in Nexus. Naam vividly describes both great good and great evil made possible by Nexus enhancement. Some people are empowered, some are addicted, some are enslaved. Naam is very good at writing conflicted characters, showing how evil can come from good intentions, how good people can fail and how hard choices can be.

Naam never lets philosophy get in the way of a good story. While his characters do battle with their consciences, they are mostly busy trying to stay alive and the story zips right along. Naam does manage to find the time to add small bits of humor to his tale, including a great scene where an enhanced Chinese clone and a grizzled CIA operative compare battle scars. Another great running joke are the repeated scenes where the reader is shown that running Bruce Lee software in your head doesn't make you Bruce Lee.

Crux does the work of great science fiction, it makes the reader look closely and critically at what kind of world we are building here and now. In Crux, Naam doesn't let the reader off with easy answers. Instead he gives them fascinating questions, compelling characters and one hell of a story.

(Note: I was fortunate enough to receive an Advance Reader Copy for this review. Crux will be published later this month.)


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea by Christopher Meeks


Christopher Meeks is a master of capturing moments. The thirteen stories that comprise the collection The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea are all brief but none feel too brief. They feel instead like moments from the lives of real people, people who are interesting, wondering, fearful and trying to get along in this world. I believed and enjoyed each of these tales.

The moments described in these tales are pivot points in the characters lives but Meeks' real talent is in reminding the reader of the wonder contained in even the simplest of situations, the most seemingly mundane circumstances. Some of these moments are dark, others funny, many are wise, all are true. This is the highest work of fiction and Meeks prose makes the telling seem effortless. In the moment, the reader is captured by the story.

If I had to pick favorites from this collection I'd be hard pressed to come up with a list less than thirteen stories long, but the wryly titled story, "The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea", the third tale in this volume, was the one that moved me from being a reader to being that guy who walks up to random strangers and says "Have you read Christopher Meeks? You should.  He's very, very good!" Meeks' story "He's Home" is wonderfully scary while his lesson called "The Fundamentals of Nuclear Dating" is warm, witty and wise. "Engaging Ben" is, well, a very engaging story, one that reminded me of some of the best writing of T.C. Boyle. The story "Nike Had Nothing to Do With It" is one of the saddest little stories I've ever loved.

Meeks has a second collection of stories called Months and Seasons which I was delighted to add to my Kindle. And I'm delighted to find that Mr. Meeks has some novels out in the world as well. The Brightest Moon of the Century, Love at Absolute Zero, and Blood Drama all await me. I'm a lucky man.

The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea is a great set of short stories. I'd never heard of Christopher Meeks until I read this collection and now I'm a huge fan. I'm still going up to people and saying "Have you read Christopher Meeks? You should. He's very, very good!"

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Joyland by Stephen King


Let's cut to the chase, I loved this book. This is not one of those big, sprawling Stephen King tomes with loads of gore and an epic mythos (although SK does an awesome job when he writes those). This is a smaller story, a surprisingly sweet tale of a 21 year old kid with a broken heart & a summer job at a rickety 3rd-tier amusement park called Joyland. It's a wonderful tale filled with characters whose dialog and motivations ring true, a dark mystery at the heart of the park and just enough of a supernatural edge to keep you guessing and turning pages.

This is a book for anyone whose had a first job, a first love, a broken heart and a mind that wonders if all we see in life is all there really is. There is no joy without sorrow, but there is far more joy than sorrow packed into these 283 pages. Stephen King can take you back to 1973 and a place called Joyland. Go to your bookstore and buy a ticket, it's a wonderful ride.


Monday, June 10, 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes


Lauren Beukes is an excellent writer and a very good teller of tales. She writes smart, believable dialog and characters that ring true. Her latest novel, The Shining Girls, is a tightly constructed thriller involving a very bad man named Harper Curtis who travels through time killing young women. Kirby Mazrachi survives Harper's attack and, understandably, becomes obsessed with hunting him down. To that end, she becomes a journalism intern at the Chicago Sun-Times and partners with Dan, a world-weary reporter. The dialog between Dan and Kirby is really quite wonderful. For example, here's a bit from when Kirby and Dan first meet:

“I’m much more interested in crime.” 

He spins slowly in his wheelie chair to face her. 

“Is that so? Well, I got real bad news for you. I cover baseball.” 

“But you used to be on homicide,” the girl insists. 

“Yeah, like I used to be able to smoke and drink and eat bacon and not have a fucking stent in my chest. All a direct result of working the homicide beat. You should forget about it. It’s no place for a nice wannabe hardcore punk girl like you.” 

“They don’t offer internship positions on homicide.” 

“For a very good reason. Can you imagine you kids running around a crime scene? Christ!”

Kirby spends much more of her time trying to find links between murders than covering sports. Dan provides both support and skepticism:

“Drugs. He wasn’t on drugs. Or not any I’m familiar with.” 

“Expert, huh?” 

“Have you met my mom? You would have taken drugs too. Although I was never terribly good at it.” 

“It doesn’t work, what you’re doing, Deflecting with humor. Just tells me that there’s something you need to deflect from.” 

“Years on the homicide beat had made him a keen-eyed observer of humanity, a philosopher of life,” she intones in a movie-trailer voice, two octaves down. 

“Still doing it,” says Dan. His cheeks are hot. She gets to him in a way that’s infuriating.

Beukes seems to have taken the writer's phrase "kill your darlings" to heart because she paints lovely word portraits of each of Harper's victims before he swoops in kills them very violently. This is not a book for the squeamish.

The Shining Girls is brilliantly constructed with chapters flitting though time and shifting in focus from Harper to Kirby or Dan or any of Harper's many victims. The many threads loop and intersect and ultimately tie-back in perfect arcs and bows, wrapping the tale like a perfect gift.

I am a big fan of Lauren Beukes's work. I thought her first novel, Moxyland, was brilliant and I absolutely loved her second novel, Zoo City. But while I loved both the premise of The Shining Girls and find no flaw in the execution of the book, I can't say that I loved the book. It just didn't click with me. Harper was evil and Kirby and Dan were both likable characters, but I got no sense of being engaged in a big struggle that I cared about. It felt more like doing a really clever crossword puzzle.

Not all books connect with all readers and ultimately The Shining Girls didn't shine for me. I felt the story was well worth the price of admission, but this isn't a book that I'll rave about to my friends or remember for years to come.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Lives of Tao by Wes Chu


I'll bet that Wes Chu's life motto isn't YOLO ("You Only Live Once"). In The Lives of Tao, the title character is a very old, somewhat snarky alien who has been stranded on earth for generations. Tao and his fellow aliens crash landed here many years ago and they can only survive in host bodies. When the host dies, they must move on and Tao has moved on many, many times.

The book opens with a bang, literally, as Tao and his host are in a spy-vs-spy caper that goes wrong. Bullets are flying and Edward, Tao's host, makes the ultimate sacrifice in a dive off the John Hancock building. Edward's body doesn't survive, but Tao lives on.

Tao doesn't have time to be too picky in selecting a new host and he settles into the body of Roen, an overweight, not overly ambitious IT technician. Now Roen has a voice in his head and a world of trouble headed his way.

The Lives of Tao is a fun romp. Combining the action of a James Bond movie with a secret history of the world worthy of it's own subdivision of the X-files, Tao and a cast of aliens and humans work to whip Roen into the shape he'll need in his new role as soldier/secret agent/spy. Because, you see, there are two factions of aliens and they're at war.

In a way, The Lives of Tao, is kind of the ultimate self-improvement book. Roen has to get fit or die. There's a lot he has to learn. Tao may live forever, but Roen's survival is always in doubt. In a way Wes Chu might have done too good a job in casting Roen as a hapless every man, I found the other characters, especially Tao, more compelling. But Roen improves as the book goes on and I found myself rooting for him.

The hidden history that gets revealed in The Lives of Tao is clever and sometimes teasingly referenced. The book doesn't get bogged down in heavy details, it blasts along as an adventure, the kind of thing that would make a fun summer movie, the kind that leaves the door open to host of sequels. I have no idea if The Lives of Tao will ever be seen on a movie screen (it should!) but that sequel book is already in the works.

There's no need to YOLO. You can have more fun and action than can fit in one life. The Lives of Tao is a complete story with heroes and villains, life and love and non-stop action. But Wes Chu has more to tell us about The Lives of Tao and that's a good thing.



Monday, May 27, 2013

Nexus by Ramez Naam


Ramez Naam astounded me with Nexus. In this novel Naam has not only extrapolated a very believable, very frightening, future world, he has populated his creation with interesting characters who don't just talk or info-dump to each other. They think, they feel, they doubt. Through these people, Naam tells one hell of a story.

Naam knows how to hook a reader. Consider this opening:

--------------------

1

THE DON JUAN PROTOCOL

Friday 2040.02.17 : 2255 hours

The woman who called herself Samantha Cataranes climbed out of the cab and walked towards the house on 23rd Street.

------------------

The chapter title is definitely intriguing, the timestamp says "yeah, we're in the future here and by the way, we're on military time." And why exactly is this woman "calling herself" Samantha Cataranes?

A good writer tells a tale that draws the reader forward page by page and Ramez Naam is more than a good writer, he's a great writer. That's what surprised me. It's not that the writing is flashy, it's that the story telling is superb.

The story is one of consequence. In the future, people are augmented. Contact lenses are computer displays. Soldiers have genetically enhanced muscles and reflexes. Some people have developed a drug called Nexus that enables a kind of brain to brain techno-telepathic linkage. Nexus is illegal and the next generation of Nexus, Nexus 5, is extremely illegal, very sought after and very powerful. Because Nexus 5 lets the people run software in their heads.

Kaden Lane is a young scientist working on Nexus and the woman who calls herself Samantha Cataranes is working for people very interested in his work. And things get very interesting, very fast.

In describing Nexus as a novel, it's tempting to compare Naam's work to that of other, more established novelists. The book has the pace and technical depth of a Michael Crichton novel but in my opinion Naam does a better job with his characters. Ironically, despite their augmentation, they come off as very human.

The world of Nexus is slick and dark and paranoid, like the worlds described by folks like William Gibson or Cory Doctorow but even paranoids have enemies. Nexus is a very philosophical novel that is also a non-stop thrill ride. Naam manages to write believable gun fights and surprising effective scenes of software debugging and computer hacking. It's a neat trick. He has written an action thriller with a strong mental element and some very heroic Buddhist monks.

Nexus is Naam's first novel, but it reads like something written by a wise, assured master at the top of his game. Perhaps Naam himself has had an upgrade? Or maybe he's just amazingly talented and smart enough to learn from other great writers. In any case, I've got one inexpensive, legal prescription for anyone looking to upgrade their brain with a smart thriller that will make you think: Nexus.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill


I am a big Joe Hill fan. His previous novels, Horns and Heart-Shaped Box, proved that Joe is a masterful writer who creates not just great, pulse-pounding stories, but characters whose lives and deaths are really something the reader cares about. Those first two novels made me put Joe's latest, NOS4A2, on my "deliver to my Kindle the instant it's available" list. This was a very wise move on my part.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time recounting the plot of NOS4A2, there are plenty of summations of the story on Amazon and elsewhere. I will say that I found this tale of terror to be perfectly paced. At over 700 pages, it's a big book but it doesn't feel at all bloated. It's big and powerful and scary as hell, much like an old Rolls Royce Wraith being is driven by dead man.

Like all of Joe's books, it is the characters and pitch perfect dialog that make you buy into the fantastic world where the dead don't stay dead, evil smells like gingerbread and scrabble tiles can give you answers but never proper names. The good folks are flawed and the evil-doers have their own seductive logic to justify their actions and I am so glad I went along for this dark and wonderful ride.

It is a very rare thing that I find a book so good I buy it twice, but NOS4A2 is such a beast. After scarfing through the Kindle version, I saw the hardcover in the bookstore. The end pages and illustrations are both lovely and horrifying. And the final afterword, including a "Note on the Type" not included in the e-book, add an extra level of unease to a very haunting tale.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Mink River by Brian Doyle


I know that there are people who would not love Brian Doyle's novel Mink River. Some might find too much detail in the cataloging of creation, the lists of berries, the inventory of a workshop, the supplies packed for a journey. Some might find a novel filled not just with the thoughts of people, but those of birds and bears as well, to be too fantastic. Some people do not love the flow of words, the shape of them in the mouth, the way the words tumble together to form sentences, ideas, stories and worlds. But if you can love a place painted with words, a town of filled not with characters but with real people, many of whom you'd be proud and happy to count as friends, then let Brian Doyle tell you of this place, a town on along the Mink River, next to the ocean on the Oregon Coast.

The town is Neawanaka, a town built from what comes from the trees and what comes from the sea. Most of the people of the town are either Salish natives or Irish immigrants, two traditions rich in the telling of tales, and the tales and people combine on the banks of the Mink River in ways that are often wonderful and wise. There is the old nun who raises a young crow and teaches him to talk, the old men whose Department of Public Works studies everything including the nature of time. There is the young boy who crashes his bicycle, the family trying to survive via farming and fishing, the man named Cedar pulled mostly dead and then reborn from the river, the artist struggling to create and struggling against the black depression threatening to bury her. There are lives in this town, fascinating, intricate wonderful lives.

It is hard to pull a single passage from this novel to give you a sense of its flavor. The problem is akin to that of describing a river by handing you a single glass of its water. This is perhaps a problem that Worried Man and Cedar from the Neawanaka Department of Public Works could study and solve and I wish that they could help me with this right now. But I will do my best with this small example, this tiny bit where the bear has been summoned to pull Daniel up from the ravine where he has crashed his bicycle:

"The bear is confused and excited and angry. She cradles the boy in her huge dark arms and rumbles uphill right through the bushes. This animal is broken, she thinks. It smells bloody. The blood makes her hungry. She remembers the ground squirrels. The word for ground squirrel in the language of bears is meat in holes. The night is as black as she can ever remember. Daniel’s braids flop and swing. She has never touched a human being before although she has seen and smelled many of them, all different flavors and sizes. In the dark language of bears the word for human being is killer brother."

Mink River is a story of many stories, beautiful, flowing and wise. It is full of the dark language of bears, the wisdom of crows and the wonder of humanity.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill


For a story to succeed the writer has to grab the reader, either by empathy or interest, and lead them through the twists and turns of the tale. In the case of Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill had my interest from the start, but it took him longer to engage my empathy. Judas Coyne, the aging heavy-metal rocker who is the protagonist of this story, is not a character one instantly warms to. Jude collects gruesome artifacts of death and also has a habit of using and discarding a succession of young goth girl friends, girls whose true names are too much of a bother so he calls them by their states of origin. He sent his last girlfriend, Florida, away when she became too troublesome and now she's dead, but even before Florida's train had left the state, Jude had picked up her replacement, a girl he calls Georgia, at a strip club. Hey, life goes on.

But sooner or later, the dead catch up...

I was hooked, like Jude, by the ad on the internet. It read:

I will "sell" my stepfather's ghost to the highest bidder. . . .

The tangible bit is a dead man's suit and what Jude thinks he's buying from a stranger is a joke, another item for his collection of the macabre. But when Jude clicks the "Buy Now" button what he gets is a suit that comes in a black, heart-shaped box and genuine ghost. And the ghost and the package did not come from a stranger.

It took me a while to make it through Heart-Shaped Box because the horror in this novel is truly horrifying. Craddock McDermott, the vengeful ghost, is absolutely scary as hell. The battle between Jude, Georgia, and the dead man becomes an epic road trip and like all good horror, I honestly had no clue as to whether or not anyone would survive. But somewhere along this long dark road, Joe Hill shifted the story into overdrive and I found myself caring not just about the puzzle of the Heart-Shaped Box, but about Jude and Georgia and what had really happened to Florida.

Joe Hill certainly knows horror and he writes it well. But Joe writes the living even better than he does the dead. He makes words into people, people that you root for. And that's not horrible, that's wonderful. And so is Heart-Shaped Box.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky




Roadside Picnic is a post-contact novel, the aliens have come and gone long before the events in this story. It is not a story of aliens, it is the story of humans trying to understand and adapt to the changes brought by alien contact. Roadside Picnic tells a tale of increasing strangeness. The alien bits are very alien and the way in which the humans react as humans rang true to me. We have an ability to accept the strangest things as normal and struggle to use them to our advantage. The main protagonist is a simple man, not heroic, and the whole novel feels like something Philip K. Dick could have written.

I bought this book on a whim, it was a good Kindle deal of the day. If I'd bought it at full price I'd still be very satisfied. This is not a book of action, this is a novel of ideas and humanity confronting that which we may never truly understand.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles



I have been raving about Care of Wooden Floors to Christine and my friends as I was reading it and I stayed up until 1:00 AM finishing it. It is a simple tale of apartment sitting that goes very, very wrong and I found myself drawn into the plight of the nameless narrator as perfection begins to crumble around him.

Care of Wooden Floors is very funny and droll but it is also quite terrifying. Comparisons have been made to Kafka, but Mr. Wiles work reminds me most of a very good T.C. Boyle story, expertly drawn out to novel length.

I would not have thought I would care so much about about some spilled wine and a floor. Wiles manages the tension of the story with great skill but more importantly, he takes the reader somewhere worth going.

While the book can certainly be read and enjoyed as a comic fable and cautionary tale, it also a very true meditation on the nature of friendship and the ways in which we know ourselves and others.

If you need a lot of action or a broad cast of characters, look elsewhere. But if you want a finely crafted  story of order and chaos that will make you very, very careful about where you set your next glass of wine, take a chance on a quirky little novel called Care of Wooden Floors.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dead Letters: Stories of Murder and Mayhem by Chris F. Holm



I took a chance on Dead Letters: Stories of Murder and Mayhem. I'd never read anything by Chris F. Holm but from the description I thought this sounded like what I was in the mood for. I was right.

The mood of these stories is dark, the "Stories of Murder and Mayhem" sub-title should've tipped you off. But not too dark, there's some humor in here but more importantly there's reason. The characters in these tales are certainly not all admirable, but they all seem real. Well, maybe not the elf (more about him) later but the elf story works fine in it's own world.

I didn't find a dud in the bunch of these stories. Here's a quick, spoiler-free synopsis of what you get for your three bucks:

Most of the stories are short. That's OK, they feel like they run exactly long enough to tell the tale.

The first story "The Putdown" packs youth and friendship tightly into a fine tale of consequences.

"Action" is a story with more than a bit of humor, a caper tale of actors taking things perhaps a bit too seriously.

"A Native Problem" feels like a creepy B. Traven tale with a well-played sense of dread to it.

"The Man in the Alligator Shoes" has a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist and a title character who may be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The loud talking Americans in "A Night at the Royale" almost find themselves living in a Tarantino film, at least for a bit. And that's not exactly a good thing.

"The Final Bough" is the best elf-detective Christmas story you'll read this year. I'm confident in saying that. It's a heartwarming tale, but maybe not for the real young kids.

"One Man's Muse" revisits that legendary doublewide in Hermon, Maine where some guy named Stephen King started writing the damnedest stories. I wonder where he got his ideas?

"Green" is a cautionary fable on the dangers of drugs, man. It's kind of a bummer.

The longest story in this collection, "The Hitter" is also the best of a very good bunch. In this story Mr. Holm has a bit more of a story to tell. It's tense and tight all the way through.

Dead Letters a great collection of stories.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Boy's Life by Robert McCammon


The only thing I want to do in this review is convince you to read Boy's Life by Robert McCammon. I want to do this because I love this book, I treasure it the way a twelve year old boy treasures his bicycle. Let's start there.

I will not spoil the plot by telling you too much of the tale, the tale is Cory Mackenson's to tell. Cory is 12 year old in 1964 and lives in the small town of Zephyr, Alabama. Cory loves monster movies and mysteries, having adventures with his friends and telling stories. He tells amazing stories. Wonderful stories. But let's talk about that bike.

Early in the book Cory's bike "dies" and if you don't understand how a bike can die then by gosh you need to read this book. And if you do understand that bikes live and die, then you might not need to read this book but you certainly should because this book is filled with wonders. Wonderful is a great word for this great book, because it is packed full of wonders.

Cory earns his new bike in perhaps the finest way any 12 year old boy has ever done and his heroism is rewarded:

“Young man?” The Lady’s gaze moved to me again. “What would you like?” 

I thought about it. “Anything?” I asked. 

“Within reason,” Mom prodded. 

“Anythin’,” the Lady said. 

I thought some more, but the decision wasn’t very difficult. “A bike. A new bike that’s never belonged to anybody before.” 

“A new bicycle.” She nodded. “One with a lamp on it?” 

“Yes’m.” 

“Want a horn?” 

“That’d be fine,” I said. 

“Want it to be a fast one? Faster’n a cat up a tree?” 

“Yes’m.”

Cory gets his bike:

In later years I would think that no woman’s lips had ever been as red as that bike. No low-slung foreign sports car with wire wheels and purring engine would ever look as powerful or as capable as that bike. No chrome would ever gleam with such purity, like the silver moon on a summer’s night. It had a big round headlight and a horn with a rubber bulb, and its frame looked as strong and solid as the biceps of Hercules. But it looked fast, too; its handlebars sloped forward like an invitation to taste the wind, its black rubber pedals unscuffed by any foot before mine.

...

Like a rocket, the bike sped me through the tree-shaded streets of my hometown, and as we carved the wind together I decided that would be its name. “Rocket,” I said, the word whirling away behind me in the slipstream. “That sound all right to you?” It didn’t throw me off. It didn’t veer for the nearest tree. I took that as a yes.

Rocket, like the rest of Cory's life, contains more than a hint of magic. Cory and the Lady know this:

“Seems to me,” the Lady said, “a boy’s bicycle needs to see where it’s goin’. Needs to see whether there’s a clear road or trouble ahead. Seems to me a boy’s bicycle needs some horse in it, and some deer, and maybe even a touch of rep-tile. For cleverness, don’t you know?” 

“Yes ma’am,” I agreed. She knew Rocket, all right.

There's much more in Zephyr than a boy and bicycle. There are ghosts and monsters, school and summer, friendships and adventures in the woods. There's light and darkness, great joy and sadness.

Boy's Life is a novel I slowed down to savor, one of those rare books I know I'll re-read. At one point in the novel, Cory has this conversation:

“Would you like some advice from an older soul, Cory?” 

I didn’t really want it, but I said, “Yes sir” to be polite. He wore a bemused expression, as if he knew my thoughts. 

“I’ll give it to you anyway. Don’t be in a hurry to grow up. Hold on to being a boy as long as you can, because once you lose that magic, you’re always begging to find it again.”

A man named Ray Bradbury held such magic all of his life and wrote wonderful stories. In the pages of this novel, Cory's father gives him a collection of Bradbury's stories and it is, like the bicycle, a perfect gift. Robert McCammon has given us a similarly perfect gift, full of ghosts and monsters, mystery and love and the wonder of being twelve years old. It is called Boy's Life. It is one of the finest novels I have ever read.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Before the Lights Go Out by Maggie Koerth-Baker



Maggie Koerth-Baker has written a wonderful book. In Before the Lights Go Out she presents a whole lot of very important information about how energy is generated, transmitted and used. In the hands of a lesser writer this subject matter could be mind-numbingly dull, but Ms. Koerth-Baker's enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and ways with words made this a most delightful bit of non-fiction. On my Kindle I found myself highlighting a wide range of little nuggets of info or particularly wonderful turns of phrase.

At one point Maggie (OK, I have to call her Maggie, after reading her book I feel like I've just been on cross country car trip with a really smart friend) quotes Ogi Kavozovic: "You have to give people insights, not data." That's what Maggie does and her book is chock full of insights.

Here's Maggie explaining kilowatts & megawatts:

"This stuff can get confusing. In particular, it's often hard to wrap your head around what the steps between the scales of measurement really mean. Here's one analogy I've found helpful: the difference between kilowatts and megawatts is like the difference in salary between somebody who brings home $40,000 a year and someone who pulls down $40 million. That gives you an idea of what we're talking about, but it doesn't really tell you much about the proposed Holcomb generator. One megawatt of capacity is enough to supply all of the electric needs of 750 average American households during..."

Folksy, chatty & memorable.

And funny. Here she is writing about coal:

"In 1865, England was a coal-powered giant. It was the world's largest economy, and everything it did depended on coal. Coal ran the factories and the trains. It heated homes and cooked food. Little English children probably ate Coalios for breakfast. Yet already, some people were starting to think that England might not have infinite supplies of coal, and they were worried about what might happen if the all-important energy source ran out. The generally accepted solution: improved technology that would make more efficient use of coal."

I've been raving to my friends about this book. Consider this a continuation of that rave. I learned a lot from Maggie's book and I had a great time reading it. I think you will too.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When the Killing's Done by T. C. Boyle



"The best stories don’t come from good vs. bad but from good vs. good." -- Leo Tolstoy

T.C. Boyle does three things very well in When the Killing's Done: he creates interesting characters, he tells a story made up of stories and, as always, he's a master of words. The two main characters, Alma Boyd Takesue and Dave LaJoy, are both passionate and flawed, flawed in the way real humans are. Boyd writes characters who think and his genius is that he lets us see them thinking. Thoughts lead to actions and consequences and therein lies the tale.

And it's a hell of a tale where all the big events are true and the parts he makes up are truer still. A tiny scene, in a kitchen, shows us Alma, her mind & the world:

"A horn sounds out on the freeway, a sudden sharp buzz of irritation and rebuke, and then another answers and another. She pictures the drivers, voluntarily caged, one hand clamped to the wheel, the other to the cell phone. They want. All of them. They want things, space, resources, attention to their immediate needs, but they're getting none of it--or not enough. Never enough. Of course, she's one of them, though her needs are more moderate, or at least she likes to think so."

Dave, Alma's foe, has the time and resources to battle because he's made his money in home electronics -- "his business is high-end, appealing to a need rather than a want, the society closing down day by day, people investing in home entertainment because they're increasingly reluctant even to go out into the backyard, let alone to the movie theater or anyplace else."

Both Alma and Dave love the wild places, the wild things but the conflict is bitter, complex, comic and tragic. Alma at least like to think of herself as moderate, but Dave cannot, will not, moderate his passions. Why the hell should he?

"Save them. Rescue them. Champion them. Nobody else is going to do it, that's for sure, nobody but him and Wilson and Anise, FPA, For the Protection of Animals. All animals, big and small. No exceptions. The wind's in his face, flapping the hood of the sweatshirt round his throat, the dock coming up fast--action, he's taking action while all the rest of them just sit around and whine--and he can feel the giddiness rising in him, the surge of power and triumph that rides up out of nowhere to replace the bafflement and rage and depression Dr. Reiser and his pharmaceuticals can't begin to touch. This is who he is. This."

No man or woman is an island and in this tale of islands and men and women Boyle shows us at our best, our worst and our best-intentioned. This is who T.C. Boyle is. This.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes



William Gibson turned me on to Lauren Beukes and while I enjoyed her first book Moxyland, the magical premise of Zoo City made me a wonder if it would be my kind of thing. Ms. Beukes dispelled all my doubts with the oldest magic in the book, good story telling. She drew me into a strange, wonderful, believable world where I totally cared yet couldn't imagine what would happen next.

Zoo City looks at a world filled with prejudices and multi-layered economies of fame, attention, media, drugs & greed. It's a world that is a more pitch perfect echo of our own than you'll find in most other novels but Zoo City is a very special beast of a book. The "animaled" in this world are humans bonded to a creature because of a past sin and their eventual doom and demise is a certain undertow. But with the creature comes a talent and with Zinzi December's Sloth came a talent for finding lost objects...

The dialog is dark and witty, the action barely pauses to let the reader catch a breath and I found myself clinging, sloth-like to every move Zinzi made through the dark streets, sewers and schemes that form Zoo City.

Monday, February 4, 2013

11/22/63 by Stephen King


I have this friend named Stephen King. OK, I've never actually met the man, but he's told me lots of stories and I'm fond of the guy. I've realized lately that I think of him as a friend, a buddy, a guy I like to hang out with.

Here's the thing about Steve. A lot of people don't like him. "Your friend Steve," they say to me, "He's weird. He thinks about horrible things. He writes about horrible things. And Christ, when they make movies of his stories, they really tend to suck." All those things are true, some times. Maybe most times. My pal Steve has written some stories that are way too gross for me, some stories that just don't work and some things that go on way too long. And some horrible (not just horror, but horrible) movies have been made with his name attached to them. But then there's "The Shining" and "Carrie" and "Misery".

Here's the deal about my buddy Steve: the man can tell a story. He makes me care about the people in it. This doesn't happen every time, with every book of his, but when it does, BAM! he's got me and I'm along for the ride.

With his book 11/22/63, Stephen King got me. I resisted for a while, the book's a monster, damn near 900 pages, but Amazon had it as a deal on the Kindle version. What the hell, it's lighter to carry and that buy button is too freakin easy.

Three days. I slammed through the book in three days. I stayed up late, I got up early. I loved this book.

You can read the blurbs on Amazon or somewhere else. Time travel. A guy goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. You may be thinking, not my kind of thing. Or "I hate Stephen King" stories. I hope you'll think again.

The master stroke in this book is the voice of Jake, the narrator, a 35 year old English teacher. I believed Jake's voice from page one. I cared about what he cared about. I was as incredulous as he was when we first encounter the time portal, but I had to try to figure out how it worked, what could be done. Who cares about Kennedy, can I use this to help my friend?

Page by page, I did care. I had to care. I had to know. I didn't know if Jake could change history, but I knew he had to try. I knew I had to try.

Yes, it's a Stephen King story. There's some gross stuff there. There's a little bit of scary stuff there. But there's a whole lot world there, with people you'd risk everything to save.

11/22/63 is one of the best books I've ever read. It's a long book that doesn't feel long, it rockets along and then it lingers in your mind. It's a magic trick and a time machine. It's a puzzle of a story where big things happen but it's the smallest things that matter.

Try it. Get a few chapters in. If you can stop, if you don't care, walk away. It's not your thing. Nothing wrong with that, not all stories are for all readers. But I think you'll stay.

My buddy Stephen King has written a masterpiece. It's called 11-22-63.