Sunday, September 28, 2014
Patrick S. Lafferty has written a first class novel. Were I to categorize it—and that is not my strong suit—I’d call it a Suspense-Thriller-Murder Mystery, or perhaps an Occult Thriller that skims the fringes of both Historical Fiction and Fantasy. But those are only labels. What matters is that this is an engaging, pulse-quickening read from start to finish.
The only difference between ‘Commuters’ and some of the New York Times best sellers that I’ve read recently is that this imaginative, meticulously crafted story is better.
The plot lines of most novels, including the best sellers, have weaknesses that trigger my very sensitive “BS” alarm—that response in me that says ‘not plausible’ or ‘far too contrived.’ ‘Commuters’ triggered this alarm in only one respect: there were too many coincidences. But in response to this, Lafferty has an ‘out’: things are not all what they seem—supernatural forces are at work here. Regardless, for me stories such as these should not be trying to emulate the messy real world. Rather, they ought to strive to heighten reality, thus practicing the time-honored storyteller's art.
I can easily picture ‘Commuters’ becoming a Hollywood blockbuster. As the theater lights dim and the curtain rises, an opening prologue depicts a scene in a king's court from the year 1106 in the southern Iberian Peninsula. It is a ceremony of human sacrifice in the inner sanctum of the aging swart-skinned Sultan of Morocco, Yusuf ibn Tashfin and presided over by his fair skinned sorceress wife Zainab ben Ishaq al-Nafzawiyya. As Yusuf plunges a dagger into the victim’s heart, Zainab invokes the jinn, and these Islamic spirit-entities made of smokeless fire bestow immortality on the aged monarch—a covenant that must be renewed yearly with further human sacrifice.
As the credits finish rolling, the scene shifts to a deteriorating suburban center-town intersection where affluent Mitchell Treadwell, driving by in his BMW, notices his teenage son standing at the busy corner. They meet nearby at the curb and exchange a few inconsequential words. We hear Davis promising to be home in just a few minutes. The camera pans back as Mitchell drives away, then it follows Davis as he pulls his car keys from his pocket and walks into a dark alley, beyond which is a parking lot. A smaller man approaches. Words are exchanged. The man is soliciting sex. Davis refuses and continues toward his car. There is a scuffle, a blunt instrument slams against Davis’ temple and the screen goes dark.
This is how I imagine a screenplay writer might re-envision the opening of the story for big screen appeal. The written word requires a different tack, and it is not until 1/3 of the way through the book that the occult element begins to surface. Instead the book begins with this simple yet captivating sentence:
“Twenty-eight years ago Mitchell Treadwell witnessed his first murder. In just a few hours he’d witness his last.”
What follows is the well-crafted and suspenseful action that surrounds and interweaves Davis’ abduction with several recent murders and a tension-filled fender-bender at an urban intersection. We are introduced to the players and the stage. Key characters, richly realized by the author, are Mitchell Treadwell, his police-woman sister-in-law Connie Wysczyzewski, Jenkins, her jerk of a partner, two city detectives named Brown and Watts who are working on three dozen cold-case homicides that they suspect may all be related, a ghetto king-pin named Willie Spence, an old African-American community pillar who everyone calls ‘Uncle Max,’ and a peculiar obsessive suburban ‘road warrior’ named Andy Walker, whose prime goal in life seems to be nothing more than to be a flawless driver during his twice daily 50-minute commute to and from a mundane job across town.
During these introductory scenes we are almost left wondering who the central protagonist is going to be. But it soon becomes starkly clear. The affluent and respected businessman, Mitchell Treadwell, has a secret life. Here’s another quote, words spoken to Treadwell by Connie:
“Sometimes you scare me, Mitch. Greek mythology. Serial killers. You know way too much about way too many things. Way too many creepy things.”
What follows is a heart-pumping page turner of the first magnitude as Mitchell seeks to learn the fate of his son—a fate that he may have inadvertently caused. I have not recently read a book that kept my attention more riveted as the deftly crafted plot unfolds and the unexpected entanglements reveal themselves. Highly recommended. Tell your friends.
Friday, September 19, 2014
The Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Stephen King produced a winner here. You certainly didn't need me to confirm that. 'The Stand' is an apocalyptic/post apocalyptic road story--exactly the kind of story I dreamed about writing as a teenager back in the 1960's - just the kind of story I have an insatiable appetite for.
Too bad it was written by an icon of the Horror genre. King has to throw in plenty of those contrived horror-style frightening moments. You know - a character looks at a fluffy white cloud and starts imagining that it's a malevolent ghost or spirit come to haunt him/her, gets heart palpitations, sees eyes looking back and feels some unspeakable sense of terror and foreboding, eventually screams and runs, looking for somewhere to hide - oh, wait, it's just a puff of condensed water vapor.
As you can see, I am no fan of the horror genre. Thankfully, 'The Stand' is not predominantly horror-oriented. I'd call it a dark adventure-fantasy that sometimes verges on a morality play. We pick up the story just hours after the accidental release of a government produced biological warfare virus called super-flu (and various other names). The disease is 99.9% fatal and kills within a few days. The story gels around the experiences of a number of survivors. King introduces a large number of completely disconnected story lines, so the book seems too disjointed at first. In this 'uncut' 1141 page version he also burdens the reader with way too many irrelevant anecdotal background vignettes for many of the characters. For me these became terribly tedious.
Despite King's protestations to the contrary in an introduction written specifically for this expanded version, the added material does not improve the story or make it richer. If anything it does the opposite. This is one good book I can honestly say is NOT a 'page turner', and is anything but 'fast paced'.
The main plot lines develop at a snail's pace. We eventually realize that the story centers on one man and one woman, Stu Redman and Fran Goldsmith and on two opposing quasi-human spiritual beings, the 108-year-old Mother Abigail and the apparently immortal Randall Flagg, representing the good and the evil impulses/guidance that tug at each of us.
The one common experience of all the super-flu survivors is that they are haunted by virtually identical dreams in which the two spiritual antagonists beckon. All the separate story lines converge on these two as the survivors make pilgrimage to their respective centers of power in Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.
The story seems wonderfully poised for a grand confrontation of these two, but it never happens. Stephen King has written elsewhere that he suffered writer's block at this point in the story. I cannot believe he would have written this much without having had a firm conclusion in mind. But apparently he did not.
Yes, the author himself seems to have lost the plot. Or lost his courage to exercise his imagination. The ending is rather disjointed and vacuous. It dissipates much of the potential that I was envisioning. A handful of characters from the 'good' camp travel to the 'evil' camp but accomplish nothing then either die or limp back home to Boulder while the two quasi-human spiritual beings meet their demise separately and without confrontation. What a disappointment.
So, although I give this book five stars, it's really more like 4 1/2. It's an absolutely wonderful story despite the flaws, and I highly recommend it, yet it could have been so much better.
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Friday, September 5, 2014
Galaxies Like Grains of Sand by Brian W. Aldiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A collection of short stories that Aldiss wrote many years ago, recompiled and republished recently. The stories stitch together the future history of mankind from the near future through to the galaxy's demise due to a form of proton decay. It is quaintly anachronistic, referring to 'reels' of holographic 3-D cinematography, intelligent machines communicating their digital information to each other by punch card, and using the term 'island universe' for the Milky Way galaxy--a term that fell out of favor in the first half of the 20th century.
Yet most of the stories themselves remain imaginative and fresh for this new generation audience. Aldiss' distinctive world-view (and the primary mode of human space travel he depicts) incorporates and heavily depends on elements of eastern religious mysticism. This is sure to irk hard sci-fi fans - there is no attempt to extrapolate these imagined 'technologies' from known science concepts. I think this is Aldiss' attempt to foresee what cannot be foreseen, and so I find it a laudable enterprise. I'm not averse to finding spiritual elements in my imagined future worlds, so I enjoyed this, but I would not choose to call this science fiction. For me, it crosses the threshold into fantasy.
A few of the stories suffer from a disease started by Isaac Asimov - I call it 'board-room-itis', a malady whose symptoms are the desire to write about people sitting about facing one another in a board room discussing the action and its futuristic settings rather than boldly venturing out into the rich, colorfully envisioned world itself and showing it to the reader first-hand.
I believe Aldiss may have been the first to explore the demise of the universe as we know it. At a time when most science fiction writers were content with envisioning events of the next few tens of thousands of years, Aldiss was seeking the end-game. For this alone, I believe 'Galaxies like Grains of Sand' is a worthwhile read.
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