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Wednesday, October 12, 2005
The 50 Book Challenge: Can he break 100?
Looking to double up on the 50 Book Challenge for 2005. Here's some thoughts some of the books I've read lately...

93. The Torment of Others by Val McDermid
For me, McDermid's books have been hit or miss--I loved The Distant Echo and A Place of Execution but I found others The Last Temptation to be OK, but not compelling. I went into The Torment of Others not quite sure what to expect because it was a follow-up to the events of Last Tempation. From a character standpoint, this book is great--seeing the characters have to live with the events of The Last Temptation and what it means to them personally and professionally is great.

Even the central mystery is a good one, for a while. It sort of peters out at the end, when it seems as if McDermid had a great idea for a copy-cat serial killer going and wasn't quite sure the best way to wrap it up and still do justice to the story. The ending here works but it came across as a bit too contrived for my liking. And in a mystery story, the last 30 or so pages can be what takes a book from just good to great. Alas, I can only qualify this was as pretty good.

94. Spider-Man: Down These Mean Streets by Ketih R.A. DeCandido
DeCandido has been labeled by Trek fiction fans as the second coming of Peter David, which is an apt description but a bit unfair since it shortchanges the fact that DeCandido is a damn good storyteller. He started out his professional novel publishing career with a Spider-Man novel and he returns to it here with this novel. The storyline follows some of the current comic book continuity with Peter teaching high school science, Mary Jane pursuing an acting career and Aunt May knowing Peter Parker equals Spider-Man. A new gamma-radiation treated version of ectasy is on the market and its killing people left and right--after they "Hulk-out" and Peter realizes that in order to stop the deaths, he'll have to find the source of the drug and put it out of business. DeCandido's great strenght in writing novels set in universes not of his own creation is that he's able to capture the voice and nuances of each character and that strength is on display here. But within that context, DeCandido is able to put his own stamp and interpretation on the characters and, for the most part, that works really well. Make not mistake--this novel is not going to win any awards for best fictional novel published this year, but it's a fun, fast-paced and enjoyable read that any fan of Spider-Man should enjoy.

95. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
96. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Two novels about growing-up and they couldn't be more different. Bradbury's account of the summer of being 12 years old has a bit of fantasy elements mingles with nostalgia. Cormier's novel is considered a classic and why I hadn't read it before now, I'm not quite sure. Cormier's story of a young man who stands up to societal norms and takes the consequences is a good one and I bet if I'd read it at the intended age, it would have been a favorite. As it is, it's still a good book and one that asks hard questions and gives no easy answers. The Chocolate War was the book I read to celebrate Banned Book Week.

97. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
When it comes to science-fiction, there are two extremes. One is that you can have a great, scientifically accurate books that is populated by one-dimensional characters. The other is you have great characters but at the expense of getting the science right. Wilson is one of the few writers out can combine both--the big scientific idea with well-round characters and make it all work. His last two novels have been short-listed for the Hugo and I'd be willing to bet Spin makes it up there for best novel again this year. And the way Wilson writes, it's only a matter of time before he gets over the top and claims the big prize.

But back to Spin. Spin is the story of three-friends, told against the back-drop of the huge event of the stars suddenly vanishing from the sky and finding out what cuased it. Turns out Earth is in a shield that protects it from time passing more rapidly outside the barrier in the rest of the universe. It's an intriguing premise and one that Wilson explores well, but not at the expense of his characters. The story is first-person narrator, Tyler, and chronicles the realtionship our hero has with fraternal twins--a brother and sister, Jason and Diane Lawton. Indeed, there are times when the big idea story takes a back seat to the characters, but then Wilson will tie in the situation and show us how it affects these characters. A great novel and one that firmly cements Wilson as one of the best contemporary science-fiction writers out there today.

98. Top of the Heap by Earl Stanley Gardner
99. Two for the Money by Max Allen Collins

Two long out of print mysteries from the Hard Case Crime series. Hard-boiled detectives, lots of actions and intriguing mystery plots. If you like old school mysteries, these are great reads.

100. Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
My theory that Heinlein wrote better novels and stories early in his career is confirmed by Double Star. The story is one that's pretty familiar to audiences today but might have been a bit fresher back upon original publication--an actor is hired to impersonate a high ranking political official when foul play or circumstances befall the original. The story is first-person told to us by Lorenzo Smythe, a hammy actor who is pressed into service to help insure a treaty between the Martians and an Earth-alliance gets ratified. There are opponents who have kidnapped the president and want to use that to ensure the treaty falls apart. Reading the story, I kept seeing a young William Shatner as the character of Smythe--the hamminess is there as well as the colossal sense of self-assurance. Watching Smythe slowly get sucked into the role and how long he has to play it is interesting. This is one of those books where you get distracted by what's happening to Smythe as a character and lose track of the huge, back-drop of political events Heinlein has going on until late in the story when all things come together. Reading this novel, it's easier to see why Heinlein is so well-regarded as a master of science-fiction writing. Not that it's a perfect book, but it's still enjoyable.

101. The Colorado Kid by Stephen King
I'd argue that most Stephen King stories aren't so much about the horror or fantastic elements in the story so much as they're about how those horrific or fantastic elements affect ordinary people. King's great strength is taking ordinary characters, developing them a bit and then setting them down in some circumstance and watching how they deal with it. For some like Jack Torrence, they go mad. For others, like Roland the Gunslinger, they become a sort of anti-hero. But in all of these stories, the insanity of the worlds King creates are grounded by characters who feel authentic.

For King, it's less about the destination and more about the journey. Let's see how these characters react to things, he seems to say.

Such is the case with his latest novel The Colorado Kid.

Really, to call it a novel is stretching the defintion, especially by the tome sized standard King has set with previous novels. Weighing it at just under 200 pages, this one might be better classified as a novella. Luckily, it's part of the Hard Case Crime series and is published to increase the visiblity of the line (it helped me with as I've read half a dozen of the other books published under this banner). Also, it's offered at a lower price to the consumer. So, if it only takes you a couple of hours to read, you're only out six bucks and not the price of a hard-cover.

Now, I will warn you--those of you looking for a neat, tidy little mystery might want to look elsewhere. King acknowledges this in his afterward saying this novel will be one that fans love or hate with little middle ground. And I can see why. The story is one of a dead body discovered on a beach in Maine and how the investigation into solving that mystery affects his family, the people around him and two newspaper reporters who have kept the story to themselves all these years. The story is told by the two guys to a young female reporter so they can share the secret and keep it going. Again, let me say that this is not a neat, tidy package where thing will all be resolved in the end. King offers up some solutions and bits of answers, but there is no great denouncement or a smoking gun. In short--this ain't an Agatha Christie mystery where the culprit is denounced by the final chapter after a lot of red herrings over the course of the novel.

Instead, what you get is a story of how the mystery affects everyone is comes in contact with. Some are forever changed, some aren't. And King's greatest strength--creating intersting characters, whether it be for two pages or 180 plus--is fully on display here. There is little or no supernatural stuff happening here, but instead an interesting little story that is a pleasant way to spend a few hours with a good book.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 10/12/2005 07:39:00 AM | |
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