Tom Starks has not been the same since his wife, Renee, was brutally murdered with a baseball bat in a parking lot. He’s been struggling for the last three years to raise her daughter, who he adopted when he married Renee. When Renee’s killer is released after a retrial finds insufficient evidence to hold him, Tom becomes obsessed with dealing out justice himself.
I was so excited that two of my 2014 accepted review copies fit into the RIP IX reading challenge! This book’s title jumped out at me immediately when it was submitted, and I had been saving it up specifically to read in the fall. I’m glad to say that this thriller does not disappoint, although it goes in a bit of a different direction than I originally anticipated. And that’s a good thing.
The main character is not who you usually see from a thriller with a person seeking violent justice. He’s bookish. Rather weak and simpering. Afraid of his own brother-in-law, who used to be a boxer. But he was madly in love with Renee, and so when her supposed killer is released, he becomes obsessed with making him dead. The catch is, Tom quickly figures out that maybe he’s not cut out to do the killing himself, and that’s where the book gets unique and interesting. I was expecting from the title and description to see a typical bad-ass main character chase down a killer around the country (or the world) and ultimately get his revenge. That is not at all the story we get, and yet, it is still thrilling. There is still violence and chase scenes, it’s just they aren’t the ones you usually see in a book like this. And that helps it. That helps keep the thrill level up, since it’s so much harder to predict what’s going to come next. Tom, with his weakness and inability to parent well, is almost an anti-hero, and yet we keep rooting for him because his grief for his wife is so powerful and relatable. It’s strong characterization and plotting mixed into one.
The scenes where Tom is seen teaching The Count of Monte Cristo at the community college where he works slow the thrill down. They feel a bit too aware of themselves, with comparison between The Count of Monte Cristo and the plot in this book. Plus scenes of classroom literary analysis simply slow the thrilling plot of the book down. The one scene where it really works is one scene in which Tom is freaking out about his own life so much that he fails at teaching well. This establishes that Tom’s life is starting to get out of control. Overall, though, there are just too many scenes of him teaching for a thriller.
The setting of Baltimore is interesting, and I was glad to see that it wasn’t set in the more stereotypical Washington D.C. Aymar writes Baltimore beautifully. I’ve never been there, but I truly felt as if I was there, seeing both the run-down aspects, as well as the beauty. I often end up skimming over setting descriptions, but Aymar’s drew me in.
The plot has just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, but not so many that the reader feels jerked around. Also, the plot twists stay rooted in reality. I could truly see this happening in the real world, and that makes a thriller more thrilling.
Overall, this is a unique thriller, with its choice to cast the opposite of a bad-ass in the role of the main character. This grounds the typical revenge plot into reality, lends itself to more interesting, unique plot twists, and has the interesting aspect of a flawed, nearly anti-hero main character that the reader still roots for. Recommended to thriller fans looking for something different and those interested in first dipping their toe into the thriller genre.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Danny Torrance didn’t die in the Overlook Hotel but what happened there haunts him to this day. Not as much as the shining does though. His special mental powers that allow him to see the supernatural and read thoughts lead to him seeing some pretty nasty things, even after escaping the Overlook. He soon turns to drinking to escape the terror. But drinking solves nothing and just makes things worse. When he sees his childhood imaginary friend, Tony, in a small New Hampshire town, he turns to AA to try to turn his life around and learn to live with the shining.
Abra is a middle school girl nearby in New Hampshire with a powerful shine. She sees the murder of a little boy by a band of folks calling themselves the True Knot. They travel in campers and mobile homes, seeking out those who have the shine to kill them for it and inhale it. They call it steam. They’re not human. And they’re coming after Abra. Abra calls out to the only person she knows with a shine too, the man she’s talked to before by writing on his blackboard. Dan.
A sequel that takes the original entry’s theme on overcoming your family origin and ramps it up a notch, Doctor Sleep eloquently explores how our family origin, genetics, and past make us who we are today. All set against a gradually ramping up race against the clock to save a little girl from a band of murdering travelers.
The book begins with a brief visit to Danny as a kid who learns that the supernatural creatures exist in places other than the Overlook, and they are attracted to the shine. This lets the reader first get reacquainted with Danny as a child and also establishes that the supernatural are a potential problem everywhere. The book then jumps aggressively forward to Danny as a 20-something with a bad drinking problem. It’s an incredibly gritty series of scenes, and it works perfectly to make Dan a well-rounded character, instead of a perfect hero of the shine. It also reestablishes the theme from The Shining that someone isn’t a bad person just because they have flaws–whether nature or nurture-based. That theme would have been undone if Dan had turned out to be an ideal adult. It would be much easier to demonize his father and grandfather in that case, but with the way King has written Dan, it’s impossible to do that.
The way Dan overcomes both his drinking and his temper, as well as how he learns to deal with his shine, is he joins Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In contrast to his father who tried to quit drinking on his own, Dan attempts it in a group with accountability. This then shows how much easier it is to overcome a mental illness with community support. I appreciated seeing this. I will say, however, that some of the AA talk in the book can get a bit heavy-handed. Some chapter beginnings include quotes from the book of AA, and Dan can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with it when he relates almost everything to something he learned or heard there. AA definitely plays a vital role in many people’s recovery from addiction, and it’s wonderful to see that in a work of fiction. However, it would have been better for the reader to see the role of AA more than to hear quotes from AA so often.
The big bad in this book is a band of supernatural creatures who were once human and still look human. But they change somehow by taking steam and go on to live almost indefinitely. They can die from stupid accidents and sometimes randomly drop dead. The steam is acquired by torturing children who have the shine. The shine comes out of their bodies as steam when they are in pain. They call themselves The True Knot. This troop is a cartoonish group of evil people who try to look like a troop of retirees and some of their family traveling in a camper caravan. The leader of this group is Rose the Hat–a redheaded woman who wears a top hat at an impossibly jaunty angle. I was pleased to see Rose written quite clearly as a bisexual. Her sexuality is just an aspect of who she is, just like her red hair. Seeing a bi person as the big bad was a delight. Her bisexuality isn’t demonized. Her actions as a child killer and eater of steam are. She is a monster because of her choices, not because of who she is. I alternated between finding The True Knot frightening and too ridiculously cartoonish to be scary. I do think that was partially the point, though. You can’t discredit people who seem ridiculous as being harmless.
How Abra is found by The True Knot, and how she in turn finds Dan, makes sense within the world King has created. It doesn’t come until later in the book, though. There is quite a bit of backstory and build-up to get through first. The buildup is honestly so entertaining that it really didn’t hit me until after I finished the book how long it actually took to get to the main conflict. So it definitely works. Abra is a well-written middle school girl. King clearly did his research into what it’s like to be a middle schooler in today’s world. Additionally, the fact that Abra is so much older than Danny was in The Shining means it’s much easier for the reader to understand how the shine works and see a child, who understands at least a bit what it is, grapple with it. This made Abra, although she is a child with a shine, a different experience for the reader who already met one child with a shine in the previous book. Abra is also a well-rounded character with just the right amount of flaws and talent.
There is one reveal later in the book in relation to Abra that made me cringe a bit, since it felt a bit cliche. It takes a bit of a leap of faith to believe, and I must admit it made me roll my eyes a bit. However, it is minor enough in the context of the overall story that it didn’t ruin my experience with the book. I just wish a less cliche choice had been made.
The audiobook narrator, Will Patton, does a phenomenal job. It was truly the best audiobook narration I’ve heard yet. Every single character in a very large cast has a completely different voice and style. I never once got lost in who was speaking or what was going on. More importantly to me, as a New England girl born and raised, is that he perfectly executes the wide range of New England accents present in the book. Particularly when he narrates the character, Billy, I thought I was hearing one of my older neighbors speak. I could listen to Will Patton read a grocery list and be entertained. Absolutely get the audiobook if you can.
Overall, this sequel to The Shining successfully explores both what happened to Danny Torrance when he grew up and a different set of frightening supernatural circumstances for a new child with the shine. This time a girl. The themes of nature, nurture, your past, and overcoming them are all eloquently explored. There is a surprising amount of content about AA in the book. It could either inspire or annoy the reader, depending on their mind-set. Any GLBTQ readers looking for a bi big bad should definitely pick it up, as Rose the Hat is all that and more. Recommended to fans of Stephen King and those that enjoy a fantastical thriller drenched in Americana.
4 out of 5 stars
In an alternate 2010, the world is slowly falling into disarray, partially due to terrorism, but mostly due to a new deadly illness. SLP makes the sufferer an insomniac, unable to sleep for years, until they fall into a state of insanity known as the suffering. The sleepless, as those with the illness are known, change the structure of society. Movie theaters are now open 24/7, there’s an increase in sales of odd and illicit things, as the sleepless get bored. Most importantly, the sleepless have moved much of their energy into online MMORPGs. Some spending countless hours gold farming there, making a good buck with all their hours of alertness.
Park, an old-fashioned cop, is determined to save the structure of society, one bust at a time. He’s committed to his work, in spite of his wife being sleepless and being increasingly unable to care for their infant daughter. So when his boss asks him to go undercover to look for people illegally selling the one drug that can ease the pain of the sleepless–dreamer–he agrees.
Jasper is an elderly ex-military private investigator without much of an eye for sticking to the rule of the law who is asked by a client to hunt down and return to her a thumb drive that was stolen. He slowly discovers that that thumb drive ended up in the middle of much more than some art thieves and finds himself sucked into the world of illicit dreamer.
My partner and I both enjoy a good noir story, so when we saw this summary on Audible, we thought it would make an entertaining listen for our 12 hour holiday road trip. The story was so bad, we could only take it for about an hour at a time and eventually just turned it off so I could read out loud to him from a different book. I eventually soldiered on, though, because I honestly just had to finish it so I could review it. In what should be a fast-paced noir, there is instead an overwrought amount of description of unimportant things that slow what could have been an interesting plot down to a crawl.
Noir as a genre is a thriller that generally features a hard-boiled detective (sometimes a hard-boiled criminal). It’s fast-paced and usually short featuring a lot of grit and mean streets. One thing Huston does that puts an interesting twist on the noir is he incorporates both a cop who is being forced to turn detective and a criminal-style private investigator. He features both sorts of main character. This intrigued me from the beginning. However, the writing includes far too much description of unimportant things for a crime thriller. For instance, there is an at least 5 minutes long description of a computer keyboard. I could literally space out for a few minutes and come back to the audiobook that was playing the entire time and miss literally nothing. It would still be describing the same chair. This really slows the plot down.
On top of the overly descriptive writing, the narration is overwrought, like a stage actor trying too hard. The best explanation I can make for the narration is, if you have ever seen Futurama, the narration switches back and forth between being Calculon and being Hedonbot. Now, I admit, the audiobook narrators played these parts perfectly. In fact, I had to check to see if they’re the same voice actors as Calculon and Hedonbot (they’re not). I really think the audiobook narrators are what saved the story enough to keep me reading. I kept laughing at the visual of Calculon and Hedonbot doing this overwrought noir. But that is clearly not what makes for a good noir. The tone and writing style were all wrong for the plot.
In addition to the writing style, there’s the plot. In this world that Huston has imagined, gamers have become all-important. When people go sleepless, they become intense gamers. If they don’t do this then they become zombie-like criminals. I don’t think this is a realistic imagining of what would actually happen if a huge portion of the population became permanent insomniacs. Not everyone is a gamer or a criminal. There’s a lot more options in the world than that. Additionally, in this alternate 2010, the art world now revolves around MMORPGs as well. The art work that is now sold is thumb drives of the characters that people make in the games. There is a long speech in the book about how making a character in an MMORPG is art. Yes, somepeople might think that. But it is incredibly doubtful that the entire world would suddenly overnight start viewing character building in an MMORPG as an art form. I won’t explain how, because it’s a spoiler, but the gamers also come into play in the seedy underworld of illegal drugs. At the expense of a plot that follows the logic of the world the author has created, gamers are made to be inexplicably all-important.
I also must point out that the science in this book is really shaky. SLP was originally a genetic disease that suddenly becomes communicable. That’s not how diseases work. Communicable and genetic diseases are different, they don’t suddenly morph into one or the other. Additionally, in the real world, there’s no way an illness would be given a scientific name that is an abbreviation for the common name (SLP for sleepless). Think about swine flu. The common name is swine flu, the scientific name is H1N1. Similarly, the drug to treat SLP’s official name is DR33M3R, which is just the street name, dreamer, in leetspeak. This isn’t fiction based in true science.
One thing I did appreciate in the book is that the semi-criminal private investigator, Jasper, is gay. He’s extremely macho, ex-military, and he bangs his also macho helicopter pilot. I like the stereotype-breaking characterization of Jasper. It’s nice to see a gay man given such a strong role in a thriller.
Overall, this alternate 2010 noir gets too caught up in overly long descriptions of mundane things and an overwrought narrative style to keep the plot moving at a thriller pace. The plot features an unrealistic level of importance for MMORPGs and the gamers who play, as well as unsound “science.” One of the hardboiled main characters is a stereotype-breaking gay man, however, which is nice to see. Recommended to those who enjoy an overly descriptive, overacting narration style with gamers featured unrealistically at center stage who don’t mind some shaky science in the plot.
2 out of 5 stars
A newly formed company’s owners decide that what the small group of employees need is a bonding camping trip. Bear isn’t a fan of camping, but he agrees to go along anyway. When the site is more rural than he was anticipating, he starts to question his decision. When they wake up the first morning and find one member of the party missing, he’s sure he made a mistake coming camping. On each successive morning, another camper is gone. Who is taking them and why?
I picked this up, along with seven other books, during Smashwords’ 2012 Summer/Winter Sale. I’ve always enjoyed the classic horror trope of we-all-go-to-the-woods-and-shit-gets-real, so I was intrigued to see what Alaspa did with it. There’s enough different in the plot to keep you reading, in spite of some awkward sentence-level writing.
People disappearing from their tents and leaving their clothes behind, one per night, is a nice subtle change to what one generally sees in the everyone in the woods story. Usually people get eaten by zombies or axe murdered or something obvious. A simple disappearance was different enough that I was genuinely curious as to what was causing these odd disappearances. Added into this are the methods used by whoever is doing the abducting to keep the campers in their campsite. They try to paddle away but the currents mysteriously change. They try to walk away through the woods but the trees attack them, etc… These methods worked within the context of the supernatural seeming disappearances. I also liked that their supernatural experimenters make it impossible for them to get hurt, so they are forced to wait their turn. It all felt a bit like a subtly done allegory for animals in a slaughterhouse, and it kept me reading and engaged.
The only element of the plot that didn’t work for me is that the first person to disappear from the group is also the only person of color in the group. Having the Latino guy be the first one to disappear is so stereotypical and B-movie that I actually cringed. Let poor Carlos be at least the second one to disappear. Or, heck, make him be one of the last ones standing. Getting to play with the regular tropes of whatever genre you write in is one of the benefits of indie writing, so use that to your advantage.
Unfortunately, some of the writing style on the sentence level isn’t up to the same level as the intricate plot. There is quite a bit of telling instead of showing. Not enough trusting the reader to get it. There are some awkward and puzzling sentences in the book as well:
The ground was wet and my hands were damp when I put my hands on it. (loc 616)
The hand turned into fingers and slammed the lids of my eyes closed. (loc 2809)
Additionally, I started counting the number of errors that were clearly not typos, and I got over 30. I fully expect some errors to get through, they tend to even in traditionally published works, but I find anything over 5 to 10 to be excessive and feel more like a first draft than a fully done, ready to publish work.
On the other hand, there are portions of the sentence-level writing that are eloquent and beautiful to read. Particularly, any instance where characters are having sex is quite well-written, and I would be interested to read work from Alaspa focused more on romance or erotica.
When she touched the part of me that was hard and eager I nearly exploded. (loc 1828)
Overall, this book contains a strong horror/thriller plot that will keep the reader engaged in spite of some awkward sentence-level writing and a few too many textual errors. I recommend it to horror readers who are intrigued by the plot and don’t mind these short-comings.
3 out of 5 stars
Jack Torrance, a writer and schoolteacher, almost let his temper and alcoholism destroy himself and his family. But he’s joined AA and is determined to get his life, family, and career back on track. When he hears through a friend about a hotel in rural Colorado need of a winter caretaker, it seems like the perfect solution. Spend time in seclusion working on his new play and provide for his family simultaneously. But what Jack doesn’t know is that The Overlook Hotel has a sinister past, and his son, Danny, has a shine. Psychic abilities that make him very attractive to the sinister forces of the hotel.
The new release of Doctor Sleep, the surprise sequel to The Shining, at the end of this September made me realize that while I had seen the movie (review), I had never gotten around to reading to the book. October seemed like the ideal time to immerse myself into an audiobook version of a Stephen King story, and since I knew I loved the movie, I figured I was bound to enjoy the book. Surprisingly, this is a rare instance where I enjoyed the movie version better than the book. While the book version is definitely an enjoyable thrill-ride, it never quite reaches the highest heights of terror.
The characterization is the strongest here that I’ve seen in the King books I’ve read so far. All the characters are three-dimensional, but the Torrance family in particular are well-explored. Jack and Wendy (his wife) read so much like real people, because while both make some horrible mistakes, neither are truly bad. Neither had a good childhood or much help to overcome it, and both want so badly to have a good family and a good life but no clear idea on how to do so. Danny, a five-year-old, is handled well as well. He speaks appropriately for his age, not too advanced or childish. The use of a third person narrator helps the reader get to know Danny and his psychic abilities at a deeper level than his five-year-old vocabulary would otherwise allow for. This level of character development is true to a certain extent for the rest of the characters as well and is handled with true finesse.
The plot starts out strong and frightening on a true-to-life visceral level. The Torrance home life is not good, and that’s putting it lightly. Wendy feels she has nowhere to be but with her husband, due to her only relative being her abusive mother. Jack is terrified of turning into his father, who abused his wife and children, and yet he has broken Danny’s arm while drunk. And in the midst of this is Danny, a child with special needs. This was where I was the most engrossed in the story. Before the hotel is even a real factor.
The Overlook is the supernatural element of the story that is supposed to kick it up a notch into horror territory. It is never made entirely clear exactly what is up with the hotel but we do know: 1) there is a sinister force at work here 2) that sinister force is out to have people kill others or commit suicide and join their haunting party 3) for some reason, people with a shine are more attractive to this sinister force as someone to have on board 4) the sinister force extorts whatever weaknesses are present in the people in the hotel to get what it wants. So the sinister force very much wants Danny to be dead, as well as his father and mother, although they are sort of more like side dishes to the whole thing. The sinister force figures out the family dynamics and extorts them by kicking Jack’s anger and Wendy’s mistrust up a notch. It also gets Danny to wander off where he’s not supposed to go. But things don’t really get going until the sinister force possesses Jack. I get why this might freak some people out. The sinister force gets the people to do something they normally would never do. However, personally I found the parts where Jack’s own real shortcomings cause him to do something sinister, like breaking Danny’s arm, to be so much more frightening. Jack’s regret over his actions and fear of himself are much more frightening because what if you did something like that? Whereas a sinister force is easier to distance oneself from mentally. It’s gory and thrilling but it’s not terror-inducing evil. Perhaps if the things Jack does at the hotel were just things inside himself that the hotel allows to come out, it would still be truly terrorizing. But it is clearly established in the book that the sinister things Jack does in the hotel are due to his being possessed by the hotel. They are not him. This removes a certain amount of the terror from the book.
The audiobook narrator, Campbell Scott, did a good job bringing a unique voice to each character. His pacing and reading of the book was spot-on. However, the production quality of the reading didn’t match his acting. The entire recording was too quiet. I had to crank my headphones up all the way, and I still had trouble hearing the book when walking around the city, which is not normally a problem for me. In contrast, whenever Jack yells, it blew out my eardrums. Some better sound balance was definitely needed.
Overall, this is a thrilling read that begins with a terrifying focus on overcoming flaws and bad dynamics from the family you were raised in then switches to a less frightening focus on a sinister force within a hotel. It thus ends up being a thrilling read but not a terror-inducing one. Those seeking a thrilling tale with well-rounded main characters being threatened by the supernatural in the form of ghosts and/or possession will certainly enjoy it. Those who are less frightened by the supernatural might enjoy it less. I recommend picking up the print or ebook over the audiobook, due to sound quality.
4 out of 5 stars
Will Henry states that this is a story that Dr. Warthrop did not want told…and proceeds to tell it anyway. When a British man shows up with a package being delivered under duress, Dr. Warthrop is ecstatic to realize it is the nest of the Magnificum–the holy grail of monstrumology. Dr. Warthrop decides to leave Will Henry in New York while he pursues this beast. But when his monstrumologist companion returns claiming that Warthrop is dead, Will Henry and two fellow monstrumologists travel to Europe to track him–or his body–down.
Not as engaging or thought-provoking as the first two books in the series, I can only hope that this third entry is suffering from the common penultimate book malady where the book which must set everything up for the finale of the series can sometimes drag.
There are two problems in this entry that make it fail to be as engaging or thrilling as the first two books. First, Will Henry is left behind in New York for a significant portion of the novel. We are thus left with a whiny teenager bemoaning Warthrop’s choice to be responsible for once and keep him out of danger. We also are left with very little action for far too large a portion of the book. The second issue is perhaps a bit of a spoiler but suffice to say that the monster is disappointing and its disappointment is easily predicted. If we had a lot of action with a disappointing monster, that’s still engaging. If we had less excitement with a surprising, phenomenal monster, that’s still thrilling. The combination of the two, though, prevents this thriller from being as thrilling and engaging as it should be.
Of course there are other elements that still worked, which is why I kept reading it. Yancey’s writing is, as ever, beautiful to read (or listen to) and contains much depth.
“So many times we express our fear as anger…, and now I think I wasn’t angry at all, but afraid. Terribly, terribly afraid.”
The settings are unique, and the characters are strong and leap off of the pages. Will Henry becomes more fully fleshed-out in this entry as we start to see his descent into a love affair with monstrumology. We also get to see Warthrop at what he himself perceives of as his lowest point. It’s a dark bit of characterization but it works very well for the story Yancey is telling.
Overall, I was a bit disappointed, purely because the first two entries in the series were so phenomenal. The third book is still a very good book. Fans might be a bit disappointed, depending on how attached they are to the unique thriller aspect of the series, but the characters and writing still make this well worth the time. Fans will remain in eager anticipation of the final entry in the series.
4 out of 5 stars