Saturday, June 22, 2013

Taking a closer look at King's short and sweet side

Master storyteller and bestselling author Stephen King is known for his doorstop length books; in fact, it's something the critics love to lambast him for and King himself has referred to his condition as "literary elephantiasis". All I know is, you could really mess someone up with a few whacks across the head using the hardback edition of IT or the uncut edition of The Stand. Today, I want to take a step back from the epic novels that double as concealed weaponry, and throw a spotlight on King's short but sweet ebook experiments.

Mile 81
Stephen King
Scribner, 2011  

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Many readers have been underwhelmed by this one: too short to be a novella, too long to be considered a short story, King fans have been left feeling he'd written a tepid, and ultimately forgettable, little piece. The reception has been split though, because many other fans enjoyed it immensely. I am lucky enough to fall into the latter category.

Even before picking it up I was predisposed to love it. It's King after all, and it had been a while since I'd been able to indulge in my addiction. You could also say this story acted as the prime motivator for me to finally get myself an eReader, seeing as how Mile 81 was only released as an ebook and I wouldn't get to read it otherwise.

Because a car features prominently in the story, comparisons have been made to Christine and even From a Buick 8. I wasn't really reminded of either of these though. If it felt familiar it was because it got me thinking about King's short story “The Raft” (from Skeleton Crew), which I adore and find myself re-reading every few years. Like the mysterious oil slick in that story, the car in Mile 81 just appears out of nowhere. Where it comes from, how or why it got there, doesn’t matter so much as what happens next.

The story instantly engrossed me as did the cast of characters who all find themselves arriving, for one reason or another, at the deserted Mile 81 rest stop. King makes it look all so easy – the abandoned building is the perfect setting for a malevolent force to set its web and draw in all the victims it can. Almost immediately, we know there is something sinister afoot (it is King after all), but it isn’t immediately obvious from what direction the threat is going to come from. It’s hard to steel yourself when you don’t have that vital piece of information. The subsequent dread this creates is palpable. Then, when you finally know where the danger is coming from, the dread doesn’t cease, but escalates exponentially; by this time we have characters to care about and it becomes that desperate feeling of “watch out! Oh no! Don’t do that!”

Do I think this is the best thing King has written? Of course not. But I do think it’s memorable. It tickled my heebie-jeebies bone and left me wanting more. Whenever I’ve been away from King for a while and I finally get to read something new, it is the best feeling in the world (like slipping into my beat up old Levis or that ancient pink sweater with holes I can’t seem to throw out even though my boyfriend has threatened to burn it). It’s comfort. It’s coming home. It’s sitting down with an old friend. I felt all of those things reading this little gem, and I hope if you do pick it up, you’ll feel some of that too.

In the Tall Grass
Stephen King & Joe Hill
Scribner, 2012

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Well, well, well, what do we have here? A bona fide horror story my friends and Constant Readers, sprouted from the father/son imagination team of Stephen King and Joe Hill. This story is not without its problems (and won't be suited to everyone's tastes). It is ghoulish and a tad gory, and depending on your sensibilities you may be disgusted, even offended. But before it goes there it is a magnificent piece of storytelling steeped in dread and what I like to call, epic creep. One reviewer has likened it to Open Water meets The Ruins and that's not inaccurate. There is a Mile 81 vibe as promised, but I was reminded more of King's earlier classic short stories such as "Children of the Corn" and "The Raft" and if I had to pick a movie, The Blair Witch Project.

Getting lost in tall grass is one of my most primal fears. And I don't mean grass that comes up to your waist (icky enough), but grass that is over your head and obscures the view of what's in front of you. Stuff lives in grass. Entire ecosystems of crawly, stinging biting things. Then there's mud and dew and pollen and mice and snakes and well... you get my point. I don't want to be there. No way.

The first half of this 60 page short story is so very strong in the way it taps into our claustrophobic fear of becoming lost. As humans we are very good at -- not to mention very attached to -- knowing where we are at any given moment in space and time. Our evolutionary sense of well-being depends on it. Strip it away and we quickly lose our shit. Panic, fear, frustration, they all come bubbling to the surface as we projectile rage against the environment that has conspired against us in such an unforgivable betrayal. What is that tree doing there? That wasn't there before. I thought the river was to the east of us. I'm sure the car is just over the next hill there.

As much as we hate it, getting lost is pretty much a universal human experience. It's probably happened to all of us at one time or another, even if it was for a very short period of time in a new city or on a short hike in a national park. King and Hill take that germ of an idea and run with it like mad lunatics in an asylum. This is a supernatural horror story, so if you like realism and stories that "could really happen" this might not be your thing. I wasn't entirely satisfied with the explanation of what is really going on in the tall grass, but enjoyed the first half of the story so much I'm willing to overlook that here. Plus, the story is just so well-written. It's tightly coiled prose with some great phrasing and sentence structure.

Imagine being a fly on the wall for the father/son conversation such a collaboration requires. There are a few things that happen that made me want to scream: "Okay, whose idea was that?! Fess up!" I guess part of the fun is in trying to guess, and perhaps never knowing. These guys work good together though, and I'm looking forward to many more collaborations (fingers crossed).

Will Christopher Baer's Phineas Poe Trilogy.

Two of my more recent posts on Shelf Inflicted have been spotlights thrown on an author's series.  I took a look at a few Duane Swierczynski books and then just two weeks ago, posted my thoughts on Chris F. Holm's Collector books.

I thought this week I'd throw up three books from author Will Christopher Baer.  An incredibly underrated and criminally unknown neo-noir series about an unwilling hero and a deadly woman.  Check it out my thoughts after the jump.

The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #4 Wendy Darling

Today's guest is Wendy Darling.  Wendy also posts at The Midnight Garden.

How did you discover Goodreads?
A friend of mine prodded me to join for ages, and I finally opened an account in late 2009. I didn't start using the site until 2011, however--but now I can't imagine being without it. I use it for cataloging, sorting, as a quick temperature checks at bookstores if I'm considering a book, and of course, it's an invaluable resource for reviews that are relatively free of influence from outside factors.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
That's a loaded question. I've met so many passionate fellow readers on GoodReads, and I've learned about many books I never would have heard about otherwise--and how sad my life would have been without those books in it! Even though I'm a former reviewer for Publishers Weekly, I weigh the opinion of people I've gotten to know much more than I do reviews by mainstream publications.

On the flip side, reviewing books on this site has also shown me incredibly ugly, self-centered behavior that's affected me both personally and on principle. I wish authors and readers alike respected review space that belongs to someone else. I welcome polite discussion, but I will never understand how people can be so vicious and demeaning over a mere difference in opinion. And I wish GoodReads took a stronger, if not more active, stance on abusive behavior.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
I almost never consent to interviews, but this is the question that made me want to respond this one. Seeing the top 25 profiles in Forbes was fun, but there are countless reviewers who will never make that list who write extraordinary reviews. Here are just some of the people whose reviews I always pay special attention to when they pop up in my feed:

I adore Thomas. He writes thoughtful, quietly lovely reviews, mostly for YA, classics, and literary fiction. He's just graduated from high school so I'm hoping we don't lose him completely to his studies (I know, so selfish!), and I like that he also talks about issues he thinks are important on his blog The Quiet Voice.

I am also very fond of both Matthew Hunter and Mark Letcher. I can always count on them for interesting perspectives on quality young adult literature, and we've had some fun discussions over our favorite books, including The Golden Compass.

My cobloggers K and Tonya are my absolute favorite reviewers, however. I've read some of their beautiful reviews literally half a dozen times because I love the way they write and I respect their opinions so much. Kindred spirits, those two.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
I don't think this move came as a surprise to anyone who was been paying attention, so my reaction was resignation. I understand it from a business perspective, but as the site has developed into such a huge marketing tool for authors and publishers, I've become less and less convinced that its members' rights are protected. As a result, I'm less and less invested in the site as well.

Still, I hope that GoodReads is true to its position that there will be no major site changes as far as the way reviews are displayed, voting systems configured, etc. I admit to cynicism about that in the long term, however, since there's already been interesting opacity in the ways reviews are hidden (and who knows what else) anyway.

How many books do you own?
Is this a real question?! Thousands.

Who is your favorite author?
This probably comes as a surprise since I'm known for mostly reviewing YA, but my favorite living author is Sarah Waters. She writes literary fiction with strong feminine themes, many of which are set during the Victorian era. I've been saving one of her books for years, because it's only one I haven't read yet and it'll be awhile before her next one is even announced.

What is your favorite book of all time?
*disapproving stare*

I refuse to answer that question. But I will refer you to my "favorites of all time" shelf if you really need an idea. I also keep shelves of yearly favorites.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
They're fantastic. I think they are marvelous for urgent post-midnight purchases, for travel, and for pleasure reading. But I will never give up physical copies, and if I really love a book I've read electronically, I still need a hard copy for my shelves.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I think it's amazing that we're living in an age when it's so easy for readers to easily access new work without waiting the typical years between acquisition and traditional publication. The problem is, part of that time is usually spent on polishing manuscripts with the input of professionals, and to be honest the majority of the self-published work I've read feels like the raw material for a good book rather than a finished piece. (We won't even talk about the vanity work that should have stayed locked away on would-be writers' hard drives.)

That being said, I've read some really great books that were originally self-published, including And All the Stars, Angelfall, and The Sea of Tranquility. Katja Millay shared her extraordinary publishing story with us recently, by the way--her self-pubbed book was picked up by Simon & Schuster after being live for just three weeks. It's interesting to see how publishing landscape continues to evolve, as a result, the way we readers evolve as consumers, too.