Thoughts on Mr. Mercedes

I recently finished listening to Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.

A while back I decided to cancel my Audible.com subscription, because my income was decreasing. I had somewhere around eight credits saved up that I had to use before I could cancel, so I picked up a bunch of random audiobooks. One of them was Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.

I pretty much like anything that Stephen King writes, so it’s no surprise that I liked it. But it was the first time I had ever listened to Stephen King read as an audiobook. (Actually that’s not true, but it was the first time I’d listened to a full-length King novel as an audiobook.)

Mr. Mercedes was very well-read by Will Patton. I greatly prefer it when actors read books instead of when “voiceover artists” read books. They put a lot more feeling behind the words, rather than simply enunciating them clearly.

This book illustrates exactly what I was trying to say in a previous post. Mr. Mercedes had no supernatural elements whatsoever. There’s simply no way it should be classified as “horror,” which is true for quite a lot of Stephen King books. But what is it? Popular fiction? Suspense? Thriller? It certainly wasn’t genre fiction. I suppose I would have to guess “suspense” since it was very … well, suspenseful.

I probably shouldn’t give away anything but it had one of the happiest endings I can ever remember seeing in a Stephen King book.

The Curse of Chalion, Part 2

This book really grew on me. I almost stopped reading it at about 20%, but pressed onward, and I’m glad I did, because I feel like I learned something important about writing from this book. When I got to about 35% I was hooked, and when I got to about 40% I was riveted. I won’t spoil it but if you’ve read the book you probably know the events that caused the riveting. The book has a lot of religious themes after the 40% mark which are really interesting.

I said I learned something important about writing, and that was: People that give advice on how to write aren’t always right. Or perhaps I should say: Successful authors don’t always follow the rules. I knew that before, but this book really exemplified it. Fully the first 1/3 of the book is a prologue or preamble or backstory. The "inciting incident" that propelled the main character past the point of no return didn’t occur until precisely the 37% mark. That is *completely* contrary to the "in-late, out-early" formula drilled into every new writer’s head. By conventional new-writer wisdom, the "inciting incident" should occur at approximately the 0% mark, or possibly even a negative percentage mark and told in flashback, because we are told that you only have a sentence or a paragraph or maybe — if you’re very lucky — a page or two to hook new readers. Bujold threw that advice completely out the window. And the book was published in 2001, so it’s not like it’s an old book from the 60s when people had more attention spans.

(Granted, she had several award-winning and -nominated novels under her belt prior to writing this one, so she already had a fan base that would read no matter what. New writers don’t have that luxery.)

The book felt extremely epic, yet it was written with only one POV, defying the notion that you have to write a dozen different POV characters to write epic fantasy.

Almost no time was spent on traveling, despite the fact that the main character changed settings several times. To me, this was amazing, because I find myself mired in "road trip" chapters all too often. It’s nice to see that you can just skip over a long journey if you need to.

Another thing I found amazing was that *there was no action in this book.* I mean, there were no sword fights, no chases, no dungeons, no wars, no rope-swinging, no fist-fights, no hanging from ledges by a fingernail, no nothing. Well, okay, there was a little bit of sword-fighting toward the end, but it was almost an after-thought. It was 99% medieval court politics and human relationships and religious philosophy, and yet somehow those topics which sound insufferably boring on the surface were made tense and exciting. And it was elegantly written to boot, with a wide variety of interesting grammar and vocabulary.

I feel like describing Curse as a "classy" book, as opposed to something like a Game of Thrones which I might be tempted to call "crass" by comparison. Those aren’t very good words, but hopefully you know what I mean.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

I started reading The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold.

I started reading The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold … and this time, I actually *mean* reading, not listening to the audiobook. (There are people who insist that listening to an audiobook is the same as reading, but IMO they are very different media consumption experiences.) I picked it up because I saw that it was the next book in The Sword and Laser book club, so on impulse I got it. Not because I wanted to participate in The Sword and Laser, but because I’d wanted to read a Bujold book anyway because her name appears somewhat frequently on the Hugo award winner list.

Well, I’m now about 20% into this book, and I’m thinking about stopping. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with the book. It’s well-written and charming in its way, but I’m running into the same problem I have with a lot of books. I don’t know what the main character’s goal is. He doesn’t seem to have a mission. I really have a hard time getting into stories when the characters don’t have some kind of quest or conflict driving them.

Also, I believe this is the first book in a series, and I don’t really want to get into a long series that is just “okay.”

Well, well. I was looking up how many books were in the series and found it’s not really a series at all. It’s sequel is Paladin of Souls, which is a Hugo-award-winning book that I *do* want to read. So perhaps I will discard all of my biases and press onward. It’s a relatively fast read for a fantasy book anyway.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is a pretty good psychological thriller/mystery.

Gone Girl

Someone at work recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, so I got it from Audible with one of my credits. This same person also recommended Hunger Games, so my expectations were not very high. But as it turns out, Gone Girl is a pretty good psychological thriller/mystery.

Overall the book makes some pretty strong feminist statements, as well as having some brutal social commentary about the state of the media and judicial system. It had a pretty big twist about halfway through, which I did not see coming at all, so congratulations to the author for completely fooling me. I can’t elaborate without spoiling it, so if you haven’t read it, you might want to skip the rest of this.

[spoiler]The reader is subtley and not-so-subtley led to believe that one character is an unreliable narrator, but it turns out that the other character is really the unreliable one. It was a great example of surprising-but-inevitable. Once it’s revealed, you think, “Oh, of *course* it’s like that! I should have seen it.”[/spoiler]

The book is presented as two different first-person points of view, which is somewhat unusual. There were no issues figuring which one was which, because each chapter was labeled with the speaker. I believe most of it was in present tense, though I think there was some past tense as well. I’d have to go back and check on that. Present tense seems to be really in vogue these days.

One thing I did not like was that at one point a character broke the fourth wall and more-or-less directly addressed the reader. I found it unnecessary. It only happened for one chapter, which made it especially odd.

Ender’s Game

I just finished the audiobook for Ender’s Game.

I just finished the audiobook for Ender’s Game, which I have never read before. I’ve missed quite a few science fiction classics over the years, so I’m trying to make up for it with my Audible credits. The audiobook, by the way, was very well read.

I don’t know what I would have thought if I’d read this book when I was younger, but now, I found it to be a tragically depressing story. Basically it’s about the military using a child to commit genocide on an alien race.

I think the reason this book has been so well-received over the years is that it’s not a typical science-fiction book. Most SF books tend to be about the science, and the characters and story are pretty secondary. For example, I listened to The Mote in God’s Eye about a year ago – a brilliant, classic SF book – but I couldn’t tell you the name of any of the the characters or anything about their personalities or any of the problems they faced. But I could tell you a fair amount about the Moties and their culture and their evolution, because that was the main focus of the book. The story was just a vehicle to write about an interesting alien species.

But in Ender’s Game, the science takes a back seat. The science is almost non-existent, actually. We are never told exactly *how* Ender interacts with his games, for example. It could be a keyboard, a touch screen, telepathy, switches and levers, or anything in between. It doesn’t really matter. The book is all about Ender the boy and his interactions with other boys and girls. If it had been *just* Ender and his struggles with not wanting to kill people yet being trained to kill people, that would have been pretty dull, because that story has been done to death. But with the addition of his mean older brother and his compassionate older sister, it turned into a kind of touching family story.

As I was reading, I noticed there was very little set description in it. Most of it took place in the proverbial white fog, which is somewhat unusual I think for science fiction. I don’t remember any descriptions of the Battle School, or the Command School. I had no real sense of what any of the "games" looked like. Maybe that is another reason the book made such an impact. It gives me hope because I don’t feel like I’m very good at describing settings.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I started listening to steampunk audiobook Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

I started listening to steampunk audiobook Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, which I have heard from multiple sources is a great series, and the premise intrigued me as it is an alternate history of World War I. Also, later books in the series won awards and stuff.

Unfortunately, nobody told me that this was a young adult series, where the two protagonists are 16-ish. In fact, I would argue that this is not just young adult, but middle grade, because the kids act like middle grade kids and are usually accompanied by adult guides. They aren’t "rebeling" like most of the kids in young adult books.

That by itself wouldn’t bother me – although I probably would not have bought it if I’d known it beforehand, because I generally do not relate at all to the trials and tribulations of middle grade kids and young adults. No, I still might like this book if it weren’t for one thing: The plot seems like a thinly-veiled excuse to explore the worldbuilding.

A great deal of time is spent describing these mechanical contraptions called "walkers" and these genetically-created airbourne creatures that float like balloons. The protagonists just happen to be on a path that comes in contact with these neat worldbuilding things. Alek just happens to be learning to drive a walker, and ends up running from pursuers in a walker, and Dylan just happens to want to join the navy and fly, and just happens to get stuck on a flying leviathan by chance. Even that contrivance wouldn’t bother me if the characters pulled me into their stories. Unfortunately, I find that I don’t care the slightest bit about these two kids. Maybe I am biased against kid protagonists in general, but their problems just don’t interest me. Dylan is a girl dressing up as a boy so she can fly with the others – how many times has *that* plot been done – but so far, her part could have been played by a boy just as well. Alek is the son of the Archduke Ferdinand who was assassinated to start World War I – that could have been interesting, but Prince Alek does not seem to have any emotional depth, and he comes across as a petulent child.

<Time passes.>

I am now about 2/3rd through the audiobook, having listened mostly without paying a lot of attention, and the two main characters finally ran into each other. My internal wannabe editor tells me that this is where the book *should* have started, because the relationship between these two characters from radically different worlds makes the book funny and compelling. Far more compelling than their individual lives.

Latest Audibooks I’ve Listened To

I’ve been on an audiobook kick lately.

I’ve been on an audiobook kick lately. I realize it’s “cheating” to listen to a book instead of read it, but it’s just so darn convenient. You can actually accomplish other things simultaneously while listening to a book (like driving, washing dishes, playing games, paying bills, etc.), whereas if you read a book, it’s pretty much all you can do.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, read by Wil Wheaton. Great nostalgia book, although I could have lived without the cliche “real world is better than the virtual world” moral.

Hunted by Kevin Hearne, read by Luke Daniels. The latest in the Iron Druid Chronicles (#6 I think). Another highly entertaining episode from the life and times of Atticus O’Sullivan, this time covering his run across Europe while being chased by Roman and Greek hunting goddesses Diana and Artemis. This is the only “series” that I religiously keep up with. I like the IDC because Luke Daniels is an incredibly good reader, Hearne is a good story-teller, and the stories go into a lot of interesting mythology without being too cheesy. Also, it’s one of the few Urban Fantasy series that doesn’t focus on vampires and werewolves.

Redshirts by John Scalzi, read by Wil Wheaton. This book is awesome. I listened to the entire ~8 hours on a Saturday. I loved it because it’s the kind of thing I might have written, except I would have considered it way too absurd and silly for anyone but me to find it amusing. I also would have been too obsessed with trying to come up with a logical reason for *why* fictional characters would become sentient – Scalzi made no such attempt – they just are (or else the explanation is so obscure that I missed it). It’s a book that starts out being unabashedly comedic, then gets pretty serious and thought-provoking by the time the three codas come around.

Inferno by Dan Brown, read by Paul Michael. It showed up on the front page on Audible, so I got it with one of my credits. Whatever, so sue me. This book is pretty much exactly the same as every previous Robert Langdon book: He meets a woman and together they run from secret organizations and the government while decrypting puzzles. This time, the lessons are about Dante’s Inferno and excessive global population. Paul Michael is a good reader; it’s a lot more entertaining to listen to Dan Brown than to read it.

Ready Player One – Start!

I’m finally listening to the audiobook of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

I’m finally listening to the audiobook of the much-talked-about Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, read by Internet super-celebrity Wil Wheaton.

Though I’m only a handful of chapters into it, this book is clearly an 80s geek subculture nerdgasm from start to finish. It’s fascinating, hilarious, and depressing – despressing because of how many of the obscure references I understand (like, roughly, all of them).

Now I’m going to take the fanboy hat off and put on the author hat. This book has a lot of exposition. I mean a lot of it. There are what I assume are pages and pages and pages of telling, not showing. I think there was one whole chapter telling Halliday’s life story. He’s basically John Carmack on steroids, which is neat if you know anything about computer gaming history, but it really didn’t do much to serve the story right then.

This book is yet another first-person-sarcastic-narrator book. I’m starting to think of all of these books as extended blog posts. This is not necessarily a good thing, in my opinion. I’m thinking that I will distinguish myself in my writing career by being one of the only authors never to write a first person book. Or perhaps to be the first author to write a first person book from the perspective of someone without a sense of humor. Or, I could write the same first-person book as everyone else and make some money. Probably I’ll do that last thing.

Ready Player One is yet another dystopian future book, this time with an energy crisis that destroys the near-future world. The green movement subtext is not very subtle. My jaw still hurts from being punched in the face with it. Personally, I have a hard time believing that fossil fuels are going to run out in our lifetimes.

Now if I can put on my programmer hat on for a second, there are a number of engineering problems with this Oasis system. I can buy the VR goggles (see Oculus Rift), but the haptic gloves stretch the limit of credibility. Even suspending disbelief enough to assume they work exactly as described and you can reach out and touch objects in the virtual world, how would you make your avatar *move* in Oasis? Wade runs quite a bit when he goes to the Tomb of Horrors. Would you have to dogpaddle your hands in the air? There’s nothing hooked up to your real-world legs. Maybe there are footpedals on the floor that aren’t described. Or maybe a virtual keyboard and mouse appears, or a virtual game controller perhaps, that you operate with your virtual hands and fingers. That’s not even talking about the two sentences of hand-waving magic that somehow allows Oasis to support millions of simultaneous, realistically-rendered users without any lag or processing delay. I don’t even think *that* is possible in our lifetimes.

Anyway, it’s a fun book. I’m not really sure if the story is any good yet, though. Mostly it’s a trip down memory lane.

Sanderson Takes Over

I’ve been trying to get through the Wheel of Time books before A Memory of Light comes out on January 8, and since I am now 20% finished with The Towers of Midnight, I think I can safely say that I am going to make it. Light! What a reading frenzy.

I was keenly interested to see what Brandon Sanderson would do with the series, and so far I’m quite pleased. I can definitely see the change in writing style (mainly in shorter sections and paragraphs and sentences), but I expected that. What I didn’t expect was the emotional impact that Sanderson brought to the series. Sanderson did something that Jordan never managed: He made me actually care about Rand for the first time since the first book. Rand’s been such an insufferable, stubbornly indecipherable butthead of a hero for so long that I frankly hoped the Dark One would win the Last Battle.

A huge increase in drama was achieved simply by actually having the characters interact with each other. When you think about it, so much of the Wheel of Time has been about the characters not interacting, and not explaining themselves, and not being forthright, and not trusting their peers. Everyone, good guys and bad, has had their own independent story going on, where they have their own plan, and they think everyone else is out to get them. That makes for some interesting points of view, conflict, and tension, but when it’s everyone and it goes on for book after book after book with no resolution, it gets a bit tedious. Of course, it might have nothing to do with Sanderson and might have been Jordan’s plan all along. You can see it starting to happen in Knife of Dreams.

Because of all the lack of communication and side plots and exposition, I haven’t really enjoyed Wheel of Time since The Shadow Rising, and the last good plot development I remember was Dumai’s Wells which I believe happened at the end of Lord of Chaos. I’ve merely been enduring the series since then.

At least until Knife of Dreams, Jordan’s last book, which was good. And now I can say that The Gathering Storm, Sanderon’s first book, is good, too. Were I to recommend the series to someone, however, I would say, "Read books 1-4, skim through books 5-6, then just skip to book 11."

The Blade Itself, Part 3

I’m sure you’ve been wondering what I’m reading. After The Cavern of Black Ice I wanted to read something a little less heavy, so I went back to Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Previously I wrote such scintillating endorsements as “it’s not growing on me” and “I got bored.”

Well, the book *did* eventually grow on me. In the second half, I was glad to be reading it. The author did some very interesting things with the narrative voice. Normally, books tend to have a single voice throughout, but Abercrombie was able to change the narrative voice depending on the POV character. For example, the chapters from The Dogman used very down-home, earthy style, like you might hear from a southerner. Whereas the chapters from Jezel, a cultured city-dweller, used more grammatically-correct language. Only the chapters from Glokta had self-dialog, the italicized talking-to-oneself kind of text. I found those things interesting, at least from a behind-the-scenes perspective.

I thought the characters were very well-defined, and they each had amusing personalities, although I found them just a bit comic bookish. That is, sort of larger-than-life or over-the-top, like comic book heroes. I probably should not admit this, but Sand dan Glokta reminded me quite a lot of Soltan Gris from L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth books (yeah, I read it, you wanna fight about it?) – he’s basically a really bad guy with a hilarious sense of humor. Actually, I found myself chuckling quite a lot through the entire book.

It’s a good thing that the characters were interesting, because the plot was *not* compelling. In fact, I’m not sure I can even describe the plot. A Magi inexplicably returns, the north inexplicably declares war on the south, and in the middle of it all there is a fencing tournament. It’s one of those character-driven books where everyone seems to be doing their own thing and “getting ready” to do something epic, like the whole book is one big long prologue.

Readers beware: There is no resolution at the end of the book. You will have to read the next one (I think it’s a trilogy).