7th Son: Descent – book review

7th Son: Descent, the novel by J.C. Hutchins, has a whole backstory and life of its own, most of which I won’t try to document for you. Go to jchutchins.net, ask around the Podiobooks scene, see what his fans are saying, and you’ll get a better version of it than I can give. Basically, as I recall it (ie: without going back and re-reading stories I’ve heard dozens of times in the last couple years), he wrote a book that was too long and which he couldn’t find a publisher for (both are common problems, and not necessarily a measure of quality), and decided to join the few people (at the time) who were podcasting audio versions of their books for free, breaking his book into a trilogy and putting it online. J.C. Hutchins is excellent at marketing and self-promotion and, over several years, built a very large following and used that platform to get a publishing deal with St. Martin’s Press, which has so far put out two of his books, this one and Personal Effects: Dark Art.

In 2008 I tried listening to 7th Son, as read by J.C. Hutchins for Podiobooks.com, and couldn’t even finish the first episode. This was partially because I was trying, for the first time, to listen to podcasts while working at home  – when working at my last day job, I could listen literally all day without trouble; I found in 2008 that my current work mostly doesn’t allow for it. (I’ve recently been changing my working conditions somewhat, and have listened to a podcast audiobook or two while painting, so maybe I’ll get back to all the podcasts & audiobooks I paused in March, 2008.) It was partially because J.C. Hutchins’ voice is difficult for me to listen to. It was partially because the hook (4-year-old psychopath assassinates the president & uses swears!) didn’t hook me (actually, it was almost silly enough I quit in the first few minutes). It was partially because of the writing quality & tone of the next 25 minutes of the first episode. Anyway, I didn’t finish it and never managed to go back to it.

When Personal Effects: Dark Art was about to come out, in summer 2009, buying into the hype and all the rave reviews from the army of adoring fans that J.C. Hutchins was a good writer, not to mention that I’ve been following ARGs since I was a Cloudmaker from day 1 of The Beast, I pre-ordered a copy of PE:DA. I listened to the episodes of the Personal Effects: Sword of Blood prequel podcast story which were available at the time of PE:DA’s release with my wife, then read PE:DA aloud to her and went through the materials and websites with her, then asked J.C. Hutchins whether he would prefer me to avoid writing a 2-star review, since I didn’t want to hurt the sales of a fellow podcast author (or damage my standing in the very clique-ish podcasting community). Then I didn’t write a review.

Based on my experience with PE:DA, I decided not to pay for 7th Son: Descent until/unless I’d read and/or listened to it. So I requested that my library buy a copy, and I checked it out. And I let it sit on my shelf for a couple of months, renewing it without picking it up until someone else in town placed a request for it & I couldn’t renew it any more. It’s due back tomorrow, so, today I read the whole book. As I read it, I updated my progress on Goodreads. (warning: spoilers) Here are my updates:

  • @ page 1/356: Trying to keep my expectations super-low, to avoid nigh-inevitable disappointment & frustration
  • @ page 62/356: Time to stop for breakfast.
  • (on twitter, probably on page 62): Have I mentioned I don’t like thrillers?
  • @ page 106/356: As a fan of Dollhouse, it’s hard to like this, even knowing it came first.
  • (on twitter, page 184/356): @rkalajian Note: It is distracting to see names of people I know, like yours, peppering the book.
  • @ page 216/356: Lunch break.
  • @ page 261/356: I feel like I’ve finally gotten past the prologue & into Act 1. Or into Act 2 of a 5-Act, if you like. Yet almost finished… 🙁
  • @ page 279/356: Literally *just* got the stakes, ie: so far we didn’t know more than “villain is probably planning something.” This is ridiculous.
  • @ page 319/356: Really? A Nazi? Sigh.
  • @ page 356/356: Well, that was something. Most of the writing was better than expected & better than PE:DA, but I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. Continue reading 7th Son: Descent – book review

Under the Dome – book review

I read Stephen King’s Under the Dome over the holiday – its 1074 pages took me 12 days of on-and-off reading between various family activities, but it was not a difficult read. At the start of 2009 I read Neal Stephenson’s 937 page Anathem – the first couple hundred pages of Anathem were significantly more difficult to get through, though I definitely liked the overall experience of Anathem significantly more than I did Under the Dome. Interestingly, I couldn’t give a blanket recommendation for either book; there are some people I couldn’t recommend Anathem to enough, and others who should stay away from it (and who wouldn’t get past the first 100 pages, anyway). Oh, and I probably wouldn’t recommend Under the Dome to anyone. Here’s why:

If you’re the sort of person who would enjoy a book like Under the Dome, you probably already want to read it (or have already read it). You’re either a fan of Stephen King’s writing, or the premise of reading a thousand-page book detailing the devolution of a small town when it is totally cut off from the outside world by an inexplicable “Dome” sounds like fun. Everyone else need not apply. Seriously. If you have any doubts, stay away.

The main character of Under the Dome (and there are dozens of townspeople to keep track of throughout the book) is Big Jim Rennie, and he is undoubtedly the villain of the piece. (The hero isn’t even present for a good chunk of the story, and some of the most important actions taken in the entire book are at the hands of children; I certainly don’t count anyone as more central to the story than Big Jim.) Big Jim is a character that frustrated and upset me in practically every scene he was in, just as real people who behave in similar ways do in life. I simply cannot wrap my head around these sorts of people; he is willfully ignorant, he is manipulative, he is power-hungry, and he generally works from the position that it isn’t important whether a decision is right or good or rational, only that it is his decision.  Often Big Jim made decisions and put plans into motion, knowing that they would injure and/or kill innocent people, waste scarce resources, and otherwise ignore obvious harm (and better solutions for all), simply because he believed it would lead him to have more control, more power, and more respect from the townspeople. Every time he would do such things, I would find myself both uncomprehending -as though up were brown and black were trout- and recognizing the accuracy and truthfulness of Stephen King’s characterization at the same time, since I’m aware that there really are quite a lot of people who operate in this way I can’t seem to grasp.

The premise of the book, aside from the obvious “town cut off from the world by an inexplicable Dome,” is that Big Jim has put himself in a position of power in the town by surrounding himself with stupid, drug-addled, and easily manipulated people, one of whom is a nominally-in-charge rubber stamp, and that he sees The Dome as his chance to become dictator-in-fact rather than manipulative second fiddle.  The entire plot, besides many gruesome interactions with The Dome on the first day and a heavily-foreshadowed catastrophe that really ought to have killed everyone in the end, revolves around Big Jim’s manipulations to put himself totally in control, regardless of the cost. Military attempts to break through The Dome from the outside and the small, poorly-managed effort to see if maybe there’s something that can be done from inside are minor sub-plots; just distractions, to readers and to Big Jim’s machinations alike.

Except for me, it didn’t really work. I don’t like people like Big Jim in life, I didn’t like him on the page, I hated almost everything he did, and he was the book. I hung on throughout the book, but barely, leaping from one rare glimpse at the world beyond Big Jim’s games to the next – I liked things like examinations of what happens to the environment when it gets cut off, what effects extreme outside events had across the barrier, and until the “truth” was revealed, I was really interested in the cause of The Dome. The writing was on-par for Stephen King, sometimes great, sometimes cringe-inducing, and I felt he captured the characters of all the miscreants and evil people (especially Big Jim) far better than I would be able to. If nothing else, it inspired me to want to maybe, someday, be able to write a really good villain. Unfortunately, there was little else.

The environmental effects (ie: pollution building up, temperature going up, et cetera), the civilization-limiting effects (ie: running out of power, running out of fuel, running out of water, food, et cetera), and a meaningful examination of the source, purpose, extent, intentions, et cetera of The Dome – these were all left unfulfilled. The first two because of the much-foreshadowed catastrophe that ends things in a hurry, before the more interesting long-term effects became really relevant, rather than a thought exercise. It almost felt like King had more story to tell, that he would have written on and on, allowing Big Jim to fight for power against the few intelligent people left in town indefinitely, and that his publishers asked him to cut it off somewhere. Like they said “try not to go over 1k pages; that’s the effective maximum length of physical, single-volume books,” and with his opening and his ending already written, he just wrote middle until he hit that length, and stopped. Oh, and if you’re interested at all in the source of The Dome, you’re bound to be disappointed; Stephen King is, as he almost always is, rubbish with explanations. It would have been better, in my opinion, if there had been no explanation at all. “It just is.” –of course, then probably literally everyone dies. Sigh.

So, for me, Under the Dome was a frustrating book, full of frustrating characters, which had a maddening plot and a bad ending.  The ending was both unsatisfying and it was badly written. I’d say the last day’s worth of story’s writing felt unpolished, even rushed, which is unfortunate for such a high-profile release. When I started this review I’d thought I’d give it 3 stars on Goodreads. After writing the review, I think I’ll give it two. I’d maybe consider it two and a half, but they only have whole stars on Goodreads.

Heat Wave – book review

First, let me say I’ve been thinking of doing book reviews for a while. This is coming from a variety of motivations, one of my favorites being that it might get me to start digging into all the hundreds of books I’ve bought over the years, fully intending to read, but have never yet read. Which is a goal related to my increase in checking out books from the library (and not getting around to reading them all, either), and to my increasing need for new bookcases to hold all my (mostly unread) books. Yes, I’m a writer who isn’t also a voracious reader. I have more reasons, most of which I won’t list here, but another of which is that I’ve been working on increasing the volume of my reading, but failing to do all but the most cursory of reviews (simple star-ratings on Goodreads) – I’d like to do a bit more. So here’s a start. I don’t know whether this will keep up, or what I’ll do with the formatting over time, if it does. Your feedback is welcome, though, as always, unexpected.

As if to start off on the absolute wrong foot, I’m going to review a book that isn’t really a book by an author who isn’t even a real person, a meta-book that isn’t even about what it’s about. Sorry.

Heat Wave – by Richard Castle
ISBN: 9781401323820 (Hardback, 199pp)
Borrowed from the Phoenix Library

If you aren’t aware, there exists a television show called Castle, currently in its second season on ABC. The premise of the show is that a famous and successful author of crime/thriller novels has used his connections and charm to  be allowed to “ride along” with New York City homicide detectives as research for a book with a homicide detective main character. The premise of the book (Heat Wave) is that it is the novel that the fictional novelist wrote, based on his experiences in the first season of the show.

I enjoy watching Castle, largely because the main character of the novelist is played by Nathan Fillion, and because he is given plenty of witty things to say and fun situations to play in. I’m not much of a fan of crime/thriller/procedural dramas that take themselves seriously, but as a comedy it’s alright. It’s certainly worth the 20hrs/year, and my wife and my sister also watch it. When we realized that Heat Wave, heavily featured in the 2nd season of the show, was actually a real book one could get and read, my wife requested it from the library. When it came in, Mandy read it, my sister read it, and now -since it’s coming due and there’s a waiting list (so it can’t be renewed) at the library- I read it.

If you are a fan of the series, it may be worth reading. If I were to give it a rating as an episode of the TV show, I would give it four and a half stars, primarily based on the storyline and the comedy. If I were to give it a rating based on its writing, I would give it two stars. It wasn’t so terrible I couldn’t finish it (see P&P&Z) but it was difficult to read – on a sentence by sentence basis, and as a whole. (More so if I were to pretend it was actually a novel by Richard Castle.) Some of this may be that I don’t read crime novels, I don’t like thrillers, and I’m not used to reading the style of book the (actual) author was aiming for.

I’m not going to give you a synopsis of the story, except to say that -aside from the brief sex scene wedged into the middle of the book- it exactly follows the basic structure of the show, and is like reading an extra episode of the show. The only variation from the formula for an episode of the show was Castle going home & having a conversation with his mother/daughter which suddenly gives him an insight that helps break the case. All the characters from the show have been renamed, but it’s literally like someone did a novelization of a teleplay of an unaired episode, then did a find/replace to change the names.

I think this is supposed to be satisfying to fans of the show, since the book delivers more of what the author knows they like, but it made the character of Richard Castle seem like a terrible author. Like he had no imagination and was just writing down whatever he saw and heard with no filter and nothing (but that sex scene) added. Ninety percent of the details in the book seemed to be pulled directly from the screen, and half the dialogue. This led to a lot of awkward sentences and situations, trying to wedge something we’d recognize from the show onto every page and into every conversation. This might have worked better if Castle on the show had been constantly taking notes, but the pseudo-Castle character in the book seemed to take notes more than the Castle character does on TV.

The awkward writing resulted in a reading rate about 50% slower than my average reading rate. I set down last night to read it in one sitting and it actually took over 5 hours to read the 200 pages. There were three short sections of the book that flowed really well and seemed well-polished. One was an action sequence (notable because one of the characters was nude – something they couldn’t have done on network television), which made it seem like the actual author (not the fictional Richard Castle) was more comfortable writing action-packed books than TV comedy/drama. One was the brief sex scene, which -since they gave the page number on an episode of the show- they could expect would be the most-read and most-closely-read few pages of the book, so it just seemed like they’d spent more time re-writing and polishing that scene and made the rest seem even worse. Then there was the end of the book: The resolution to the story also seemed well-written and highly polished; like they were counting on people’s whole impression of the book being based on the last thing they read. I know it’s true for a lot of people, but I wish they’d put as much effort into the rest of the book.

If Richard Castle’s writing was as bad as this, his character loses a lot of his charm and believability. And Beckett (the detective character on the TV show) loses hers, based on her impression of and experience with the book, in the series. They’re both supposed to be intelligent and well-read, but this book … doesn’t fit. Since I’m aware that this is actually just part of a marketing campaign for the show, the throw-away writing pandering to (and ripping off) the show at every turn (rather than being a well-written and imaginative story merely inspired by the fictional events of Castle’s experiences and written with an authorial voice on par with the Castle portrayed on the show), I can accept it. It is what it is. It isn’t what it pretends to be.

Okay. So I’m not very good at reviewing books, yet. I’ll keep reading, hopefully keep reviewing, and perhaps with practice I’ll get better at it. But there you go, some words about Heat Wave.

moviefone.com – a review

I’ve been using moviefone.com for years. I was using them before I ever saw an ad for them on a movie screen. They were an internet service of use to me before they ever had the marketing muscle to get a wacky ad on the screen before every movie I watch.

I watch a lot of movies. I’ve already seen four movies in theatres this weekend, and plan to see one or two more. I spend not less than $60 a month in movie theatres, every month, sometimes more than $100. It is an expensive habit.

And it requires having accurate information about when and where the movies I want to see are playing. Especially considering I watch at least a couple of ‘independent’ and foreign movies a month, which typically play on only one screen at one theatre, if they play at all – knowing which of the dozens of theatres in town to show up at to to see a movie like My Date With Drew or Broken Flowers or Layer Cake, each of which I had to drive to a different theatre to see at the only place it was playing. Moviefone has been very helpful over the years with getting me to the theatre I need at the time I need to see the movie I want to see.

But lately, I’ve noticed more and more problems with the information Moviefone has, not only on the website, but over the phone at well.

Moviefone knew there was a midnight showing of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Cine Capri, but didn’t know it had sold out half a day in advance, and didn’t know about the midnight show at Arizona Mills across town with virtually unlimited seating. When Fantastic Four opened, Moviefone did not list it among the movies playing at my local cineplex, so I went to a movie theatre twenty minutes away. The following day I was watching another movie that WAS listed at my local theatre, and found that Fantastic Four hadbeen playing locally, but that Moviefone didn’t know about it.

I’ve had at least five incidents in the last two months where I myself or someone I was with had looked up showtimes on moviefone.com, sometimes more than once before going to the theatre, and arrived to find we were fifteen or twenty minutes late, sometimes while thinking we were the same amount early. Needless to say, that causes some anxiety and often ruins the afternoon/evening’s plans entirely.

Oh, and then this weekend a few things: Four Brothers is not listed as playing at my local cineplex, but I know it’s the widest-opening movie this weekend, so I called them – they were well aware that moviefone was listing Broken Flowers as playing there at the times they were actually playing Four Brothers, and that the only theatre in town playing Broken Flowers is the Camelview, almost half an hour away, depending on traffic. When I went to see Four Brothers there tonight I stood in line behind two people who had come to see Broken Flowers and had to go home for the evening, since the Camelview showing was starting as they stood there trying to understand the mixup. Another film, Last Days, an ‘independent’ film by Gus Van Sant, I know is playing at the Centerpoint in Tempe, but moviefone doesn’t even acknowledge that there exists a movie called Last Days. I knew it was playing because Harkins emails me the showtimes of all the ‘independent’ and foreign films playing at Harkins theatres every week, and then to be sure, I called the box office at the Centerpoint (yes, I know the direct numbers for the Centerpoint and my local theatre by heart, so what of it?) to verify that it was playing, and at what times. My email was right, and moviefone didn’t have a clue.

Oh, and then today when I was out, my plan had been to watch four movies at three theatres. I had the showtimes and theatres written down, but somewhere after the first movie I lost the list and couldn’t recall how much time I had left to get across town. I tried calling moviefone as I drove in that direction, and … there were problems.

First, it said all the circuits were busy. Then I got through on the other moviefone number (did you know we have two in town?) and it seemed dead at first. After several calls and attempts to gather information about showtimes, it seemed to me that their servers were probably overloaded, crashing, or hacked altogether. There was a multi-second lag between prompts, even between the greeting and the ad and the ad and the menu, and between pressing a button and getting a response, and then there seemed to be no data available. It didn’t recognize ANY theatre express codes, it wouldn’t accept a zip code to search by area, it wouldn’t accept input of letters to search by movie title; nothing beyond basic navigation was working.

I stopped for gas and managed to find my list of movies and showtimes in time to discover that because I hadn’t remembered to be in a hurry to get to the theatre (I had taken surface streets and, obviously, stopped for gas) I had missed the movie. That wasn’t exactly moviefone’s fault, but I was on the phone before I even got to my car, and with even a reasonably-paced automated system to give me the information would have told me what I needed to know before I got out of the parking lot or, or to the first street that connects with a freeway, at the latest, and I might have made it on time.

Many web errors, information missing, incorrect movie names (I remember when House of Wax came out, they were listing the new House of Wax as playing at some theatres and the Vincent Price House of Wax in 3D as playing in others, though they all showed the same film.), incorrect show times, and now a total lack of service over the phone.

I think I’ll start cross-checking all my movie listings against google for a while, see how that works out. I recommend that you do the same, or risk disappointment and frustration.