Monday, June 10, 2013

If It Weren't For Those Meddling Kids....

Stephen King
Hard Case Crime

Reviewed by Kemper
3 out of 5 spooky stars.

There’s a ghost that appears in the haunted house ride of an amusement park in the 1970s?  Jinkies!  Is this a Hard Case Crime book or an episode of Scooby-Doo

Actually, it’s a Stephen King novel.  And as we found out the last time Uncle Steve wrote a book for the HCC line, he doesn’t have a problem with blurring the line between crime and supernatural.  Since HCC needs all the help it can get, I’m pretty sure nobody bitched too much when he turned this one in.

Devin Jones is a struggling college kid looking for a summer job in 1973, and he lands a position at Joyland, a third rate amusement part in North Carolina.  Poor Devin gets dumped by his first love shortly after starting work, and he spends a good part of the summer brooding over his broken heart.  But it’s not all bad.  Devin enjoys the atmosphere at Joyland which is populated with colorful carnies who show him the ropes, and he manages to make some friends as well as develop a talent for entertaining kids.  The park has a dark side in its haunted house where a young woman was once murdered, and her killer was never caught.  Some claim to have seen her ghostly form. Zoinks!

As a Stephen King story, this is pretty good.  It’s told from the perspective of older Devin looking back to a summer of his younger days and King has the melancholy tone of faded youth down cold.  Devin’s a likeable character and the ghost in the spook house thing isn’t overdone.  It mostly hangs in the background as Devin tries to get over being dumped and learning the carnie trade.  It’s obvious that the behind-the-scenes stuff at the amusement park is the idea that King really got into and he even goes so far as to create a whole bunch of carnie lingo on top of the actual stuff he used. 

The early ‘70s setting gives the whole thing a bit of vintage charm although there are more than a few seemingly anachronistic tidbits.  Were microwave ovens available and affordable enough then that a kindly landlady would have one?  Were fruit smoothies a regular breakfast beverage back then? Wikipedia tells me that it’s possible, but it really doesn’t feel like they’d be commonplace.  Plus, I really had a hard time believing that the owner is so forward thinking as to ban smoking in his amusement park.

Devoted Hard Case Crime fans might grumble that this isn’t really a crime story.  While Devin is fascinated by the ghost story and has a friend dig up some research on the murder for him, there’s really no active effort by him to try and solve the case.  It’s really more of a bittersweet coming of age story with a little murder and spooky happenings around the edges and providing a wrap-up.

Still, it’s an entertaining tale in an off-beat setting with one of the most famous story tellers of our time.  It’d be a great diversion to read while you’re standing in line to get on a roller-coaster.

Also posted at Goodreads.

No Safe Harbor

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is another excellent psychological crime novel from Tana French. In this case the book features another member of the Dublin Murder Squad, Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who first appeared in a minor role in French's last book, Faithful Place.

Kennedy has the best solve rate on the squad. He's the star, and thus when a particularly brutal homicide occurs, Mick is assigned to the case. He's also teamed with a new young partner, Richie Curran, and, in addition to catching a killer, he's expected to show Richie the ropes and make a real detective out of him.

The case itself is a stomach-turner: a young family has been attacked; the father and two children are dead, and the mother is in intensive care, barely clinging to life. The scene is as desolate as can be imagined: a new seaside housing estate outside of Dublin named Brianstown that was only partially completed when the recession hit Ireland with full force and brought development to a screeching halt.

Mick and Richie arrive on the scene, out in the middle of nowhere, to find a scattered group of luxury houses, half of which sit unfinished and only a few of which are occupied. The victims, the Spain family, had been among the first to move in, enticed by the glossy brochures that promised a beautiful, luxurious lifestyle by the sea.

It didn't quite turn out that way, and the Spains are victims of the economic collapse twice over. They're trapped is this failing housing development and Pat Spain, the husband, father and sole breadwinner in the family, has lost his job in the downturn. Things have been very rough and getting worse for the Spains over the last several months, and the evidence initially suggests that Pat Spain may have gone over the edge, killed his children and attempted to murder his wife before taking his own life.

But it soon becomes apparent that there's a lot more going on here than may have initially appeared, and some very strange, seemingly inexplicable things have been going on recently in the life of this family. It's a very unsettling case, especially for Mick Kennedy, who has his own memories of this setting by the sea.

Back before the developers bought the property and renamed it Brianstown, the place was known as Broken Harbor, and Mick's family spent a couple of weeks there every summer until a tragedy struck the family. The repercussions of that event are still reverberating through Kennedy's life as he tackles this current tragic case, and the combination of the two incidents may be enough to overwhelm even the superstar of the Dublin Murder Squad.

French has created here another cast of unforgettable characters, both among the family members who are the victims of the crime and the detectives who must attempt to solve it. For all his confidence, Mick Kennedy is a deeply troubled man and French will push him to the very limit. Beyond the case itself, this book also vividly conveys the havoc unleashed by the economic collapse and the consequences it produced for so many innocent victims.

One thinks of a harbor as a place of refuge, as a place where you can breathe a deep sigh of relief as you arrive home safely from a long journey. Sadly though, this Broken Harbor is anything but a place of refuge, and the people who find themselves there are anything but safe.

The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #16 Bird Brian

Today's guest is Bird Brian's Ghost.

How did you discover Goodreads?In December 2008, I got an email from a high school friend I hadn’t heard from since1987, inviting me to Facebook. It didn’t take me long to get bored of FB, but I discovered the link to GoodReads there, and found GR much more interesting; I was an active user from December 2008 to April 2013.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?My most memorable GR experience was probably the Celebrity Deathmatch series which Manny started, and which lasted a few months in the autumn and winter of 2011. It’s basically pitting books against each other in reviews, and competing with other reviewers to win more votes for which book you think should win. Obviously it is pretty subjective and not very meaningful to say that, say 1984 should “win” in a confrontation with Macbeth, but it was a lot of fun, and some of the reviews people came up with were very imaginative and entertaining. Another great memory was the long strings of puns that Karen, Eh!, Mariel, Ian Graye and I would into with each other. That was fun too. I remember once I was trying to come up with more puns, when my wife called me to dinner. I sat at the dinner table, absorbed, and she thought there was something serious going on. She asked me, “Hey, what are you thinking about? Is there something going on at work?” and I had to admit “No, I’m just trying really hard to think of a horse-themed pun.” She’s a woman with a lot of patience.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.There are a lot of great reviewers who go unnoticed on the Forbes list. If I had to pick just one, I would name David Kowalski, who is a gifted and insightful writer. He would probably be on the Forbes list, but for the fact he’s deleted his account several times in fits of tortured artistic melodrama. He and Ceridwen were tied for having the most reviews in my reviews “Hall of Fame”. I would also like to mention my friend Ian Graye, who has very in-depth analyses, as well as Eric_W Welch, who has distinguished himself as an extraordinary reviewer of historical nonfiction. The Top Lists on GR are not designed to recognize a talent like that, but that’s their failing; not his.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?Well, obviously I wasn’t happy, since it inspired me to greatly reduce my presence on GoodReads. To me, the acquisition was an unwanted step towards further centralization and oligopoly –both of book sales, as well as of moderated online platforms for discussing books. I really like what you and some friends have put together on Shelfinflicted, by the way.

One thing the Amazon acquisition wasn’t –was a surprise. Coincidentally, I had made a group poll for some friends just a few days before the news came out, asking them what they thought GR would be like 10 years from now. Most respondents thought it would be about the same. I included choices of it being bought out by Facebook or by Amazon, but those didn’t get many votes.

How many books do you own?I would roughly estimate I have between 1000 and 1500 physical books laying around my home, including some which are not easily accessible, since they’re in boxes in my storage space. Then I have another 300-400 on Kindle (yeah, I’ve got an Amazon product- it’s from a time I was less sensitized to Amazon). That seems like a lot of books, when I see it written here. It is doubtful I’ll ever be able to read them all. I’m either very ambitious, or a very impulsive bookbuyer. Actually some of those were gifts. Also, some of them have already been read, so maybe the absolute numbers without further breakdown are a poor indicator of anything.

Who is your favorite author?These “who are your favorite” questions always kill me, because they force unnatural comparisons between genres and styles. How can I compare the incisive historical analysis of Edward Gibbon or Carroll Quigley with the storytelling of Honore Balzac or Charles Dickens? Or the humor of Woody Allen and Joseph Heller, with the imaginative worldbuilding of Tolkien, or with the paranoid musings of Philip K. Dick? I love David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest differently than I love Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you know? I guess I’m being difficult here… sorry about that. I won’t get any points for originality here, but I guess I’d have to name Shakespeare as my favorite fiction author, both for the number of his works that I admire, and the high regard I hold him in. Is that stuck up to say? Philip K. Dick, Joseph Heller, Douglas Adams and James Michener (that's right- haters can kiss my ass) would also be on my list.

Carroll Quigley and Allan Bullock would be my current favorite nonfiction authors.

What is your favorite book of all time?My favorite book of all time? Again, that’s so tough. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I keep coming back to the same few titles: The Brothers Karamazov- F. Dostoyevsky; Tragedy & Hope- Carroll Quigley;Infinite Jest- David Foster Wallace; Lost Illusions- H. Balzac; The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire- E. Gibbon; 1984- George Orwell; and Brave New World- Aldous Huxley. If you made me pick the most favoritest there, it would probably just be arbitrary, and I’d change my mind in 5 minutes.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?Usually I prefer paper and ink over electronic screens, but there is no denying the convenience of travelling with a compact e-reader, instead of lugging around a pile of heavy books. I also prefer reading newspapers and magazines on e-reader, because they don’t clutter up my house and they don’t create a lot of waste. So there is definitely a place for e-readers in my (imagined) “perfect world”. When I was a med student, we had to carry around cumbersome references like The Washington Manual with us on the wards. I would have loved an e-reader for that. I’m sure it has completely changed the experience of rounding on patients.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?I love self-publishing. I love that it empowers authors to bring their product to market without having to pass through publishers who may have a gatekeeping and censoring effect. I also love that it changes the dynamic of what books make it to market. Publishing is a business, so to be profitable, publishers need to print and promote books it thinks will be commercially successful. But if you look through the catalogue of Smashwords or Lulu, it’s clear that many of their titles are labors of love, which would have no hope of commercial success, but whose authors are motivated by other considerations. That isn’t to say all those books are all well-written. Some of them are horrible, but that’s okay; you have to look through more “rough” to find the “diamonds” in self-publishing. The biggest benefit is probably narrow-appeal self-published titles… quirky and bizarre works, like the Smashwords book I found which tries to make a case that Paul McCartney was actually killed in 1966, and the performer we think is McCartney is actually an imposter. Also, of course, self-publishing has fueled a Renaissance in monster porn novella.

Any literary aspirations? I have no literary aspirations at this time.