“Why I hate Goodreads”

No, not me, but this guy: a YouTuber who goes by the moniker “the Bald Book Geek.”

(And no, the Bald Book Geek and I are not related, just because we’re both bald and pale!)

There’s a lot to unpack in the video.

He complains that Goodreads, a US site, is US-centric. Well, most websites based in France tend to be Franco-centric, most Chinese sites are Sino-centric, and so on. But okay, I get it…Yankee imperialism, and all that. 

I agree with him about a few things: The website is YA-centric, and there is a tendency toward a mob mindset. (The Bald Book Geek mentions the mindless mob attacks on The Black Witch of a few years ago.)

On the other side, there have indeed been cases of authors harassing reviewers who  pan books. 

In short, Goodreads is a social media site, and it is therefore prone to all the normal problems associated with social media. (As many of you will know, I am no fan of social media in general. Don’t even get me started about Twitter….)

I wouldn’t say that I hate Goodreads, but I don’t exactly love it, either. And perhaps that’s for the best. The general consensus is that authors aren’t really welcome there, which is fine with me.

Goodreads is a site for readers, and review culture. That vibe would obviously change if authors were constantly posting “buy my book!” messages, and sparring with reviewers who failed to leave 4- and 5-star reviews. 

What I’m reading: ‘Judgement’ by Joseph Finder

I love Joseph Finder’s corporate and legal conspiracy thrillers.

Some of you have asked me which authors I enjoy reading, which ones I look up to artistically.

Well, Joseph Finder is definitely on my A-list. His books have been a major influence behind several of my corporate conspiracy thrillers, including The Eavesdropper.

Finder doesn’t have quite the name recognition of a Clive Cussler or a David Baldacci, let alone James Patterson.

Finder’s books are categorized as thrillers, for bookstore shelving purposes, but what they really are is suspense.

That means fewer car chases and shootouts than you’ll find in something written by Patterson or Cussler. His books are highly entertaining, but they aren’t pure escapism. They are very lifelike. Patterson has said that he doesn’t do realism. Joseph Finder does do realism, and he does it quite well.

The typical Joseph Finder novel involves a lawyer or a corporate professional in an unusual situation, with lots of conflict and menace, but–I repeat–not the over-the-top action you’ll find in most thrillers.

Judgement is about a married female judge who is presiding over a sensitive, high-stakes case. One night while she’s out of town on business, she sleeps with a handsome stranger on a whim.

But that stranger is not who he appears to be. (Handsome and beautiful strangers in novels almost never are.)

***

Another thing about Finder’s books: They often involve intersections of crime, sex, and business.

Good stuff, all the way. I’m reading Judgement on my exercise bike each morning. Great entertainment for those 5:00 a.m. rides in the basement!

Family ties, external threats, compelling fiction

I am reading Greg Iles’s kidnap-for-ransom novel, 24 Hours (2000), for the second time. 

I first read the book in 2009. I usually wait at least ten years before I reread any title. (I only subject my favorite books to rereads; there is simply too much new stuff to devour.) The first time I read 24 Hours, I gobbled up the 415-page novel over the course of a weekend. This time, it will take me a full three days.

24 Hours is that good. I won’t explain the whole plot here. (Amazon and Wikipedia have already covered that ground.) But you already know, more or less, based on my description above: kidnap-for-ransom.

Here are a few more details: Will and Karen Jennings are an affluent Mississippi couple. (He’s an anesthesiologist.) A gang of three criminals—two men and one woman—kidnap the Jennings’s diabetic daughter, Abby, for ransom. If the gang doesn’t get what they want, they will murder the Jennings’s young daughter.

24 Hours is a superbly written, page-turning book; but no one would call its premise original. You’ve seen and read multiple interpretations of the kidnap-for-ransom plot, probably including the 1996 Mel Gibson film, Ransom. The movie Ransom came out four years before 24 Hours was published, so Ransom may have influenced 24 Hours. That wouldn’t surprise me. 

Story concepts can’t be copyrighted, of course—for good reason. We certainly haven’t seen our last interpretation of the kidnap-for-ransom story, also for good reason. If these plots are executed with any reasonable level of skill, they make compelling film and fiction. A kidnap-for-ransom plot involves family, an external threat, and a series of best-worst choices. There are the makings of a good story, right in front of you. 

The flat-footedness of officialdom is also a fixture of the kidnap-for-ransom plot. In all of these stories, the authorities are unable to satisfactorily resolve the situation, regardless of whether or not they are informed or involved. Someone from within the family (usually a parent) therefore has to do what the authorities cannot or will not do.

In this regard, the kidnap-for-ransom tale is also delightfully reactionary. Hillary Clinton once told us, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This earned her cooing praise from the left, and eye-rolling disdain from the right. 

The kidnap-for-ransom story is telling you that you can’t ultimately depend on the village, the village elders, or the village police. The kidnap-for-ransom plot is telling you that it takes a committed parent—and not a consensus-driven village—to save a child’s life when all the chips are down. 

Don’t trust the authorities, in other words. Don’t trust “society”. Rely on your own wits, and do what you must in order to save your child. 

View 24 Hours by Greg Iles on Amazon.

Why you should read Stephen King’s short story collection, Night Shift

I discovered Stephen King in 1984, when I serendipitously picked up a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot in my high school’s library.

I was immediately hooked. I set out to read everything King had published to that time–which was considerable, even in 1984.

My initial instinct was to focus on King’s novels. I read The Dead Zone and Cujo, The Shining, and (of course) The Stand.

Oh, yes, and Carrie. I liked Carrie a lot.

I was methodically working my way through the King oeuvre. I mostly did this by going through the books on the library shelves. (There was no Wikipedia, no Internet, in 1984, you’ll remember.) After I’d read all of the Stephen King novels I could find, I came across this other book: Night Shift.

Night Shift, I immediately discovered, was not another novel, but a collection of short stories.

I was a bit skeptical–as much as I already loved Stephen King. My experience with short stories thus far had been limited to assigned readings in my high school English class.

I had a teacher that year who was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway. He particularly loved “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. This is a story in which an old man has a drink in a cafe, and two waiters talk about him. Another Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, consists of an oblique conversation about how an unmarried couple will handle an unwanted pregnancy.

Hemingway’s short stories bored me to tears. I couldn’t relate to the old man in the cafe in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. I was fifteen, after all. And at that age I hadn’t even had sex for the first time yet, so the roundabout conversation between the man and the woman in “Hills Like White Elephants” left me cold, too.

I’m a bit older now, and I’ve acquired some appreciation for the short stories of Hemingway. (Hemingway really isn’t the best choice for younger readers.) But at that time, my readings of literary short fiction had convinced me that short stories were little more than pretentious vignettes in which nothing much happens.

Nevertheless, I took a chance on Night Shift. I was glad I did.

Night Shift was–and still is–filled with short stories that grab you from the get-go. Stephen King’s forte, I had already discovered, was to transform the ordinary into something dark and magical. The stories in Night Shift accomplished this just as adroitly as King’s novels.

Take, for example, the story “I Know What You Need”. This is a story about a popular young woman named Elizabeth Rogan, who finds herself inexplicably attracted to a social misfit named Ed Hamner, Jr. As the title implies, Ed always seems to know what Elizabeth needs.

 




 

But there is a dark secret behind Ed Hamner’s intuition. What is it? I’m certainly not going to ruin “I Know What You Need” by telling you here.

The events in “I Know What You Need” take a supernatural turn, but the initial setup is something that everyone can relate to. You meet a stranger who simultaneously attracts you and arouses your suspicion. Who hasn’t been in that situation?

And then there is “Quitters, Inc.” This tale concerns an agency that uses highly unusual methods to help people stop smoking. There are no ghosts in this one; but King does present a unique spin on bad habits…and how difficult it is for us to give them up.

“Quitters, Inc.”, just like “I Know What You Need”, is immediately accessible. Everyone has struggled with a bad habit of some kind. That might not be smoking, in your case: Maybe it’s gambling, or overspending, or overeating, or watching Internet porn. Unless you’re a very unusual person, you have at least one bad habit. What would it take to get you to quit yours?

One of the best stories in this book is “Jerusalem’s Lot”, which is written in the same fictional universe as King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. Like the novel of a similar name, “Jerusalem’s Lot” has vampires. But these aren’t sissified, teenage girl heartthrob vampires, like you’ll find in Stephanie Meyer’s crime against vampire fiction, Twilight. These are real vampires: dark, evil, and very, very scary.

Some of the stories in Night Shift have been made into movies. I am here to tell you that the movies haven’t been nearly as good as Stephen King’s stories.

To cite just one example: Maximum Overdrive, which hit the theaters in 1986. The only good thing to come out of Maximum Overdrive was the AC/DC song, “Who Made Who”. The film adaptation of “Sometimes They Come Back”, made in 1991, is a little better. But not by much.

Read the stories. Ignore the Hollywood cash-grab film versions.

All of these stories involve matters of life and death (as all great fiction does); but not all of them contain elements of the macabre or the highly unusual. Two stories in particular, “The Woman in the Room”, and “The Last Rung on the Ladder” are stories that “could happen” without violating any of the rules of what we call “the real world”. Nevertheless, these stories involve real elements of suspense; and they both conclude with an emotional gut-punch.

 




 

I am a longtime Stephen King fan, but I am not an uncritical one. I haven’t hesitated to pan some of his clunkers. Cell, Lisey’s Story, and that horrid doorstop, Under the Dome, stand out among Stephen King’s turkeys. (Hey, the guy has been professionally writing since Richard Nixon was president; not all of his stuff can be brilliant.)

Even King himself admits that The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher leave much to be desired. I personally prefer the “old”(pre-1986, pre-It) Stephen King books to the newer ones. The Outsider (2018) has been on my bedside reading table for months now. The Outsider is a book worth reading, but not one that keeps me compulsively turning the pages.

But Night Shift is that good. These stories were all written when Stephen King was a relatively unknown writer, before he had become a “brand”. King wrote most of them for publication in men’s magazines. To put the matter crudely, these stories had to vie for male attention with photos of nude and scantily clad young women. They therefore had to hook readers from the very first paragraph.

And since they were originally written for magazine publication, not a word could be wasted. Every story in Night Shift is taut and economically written. There is no hint in Night Shift of the bloated literary style that would eventually emerge in the 850-page, indulgently overwritten 11/23/63.

I envy you, in a way, if you are new to Night Shift. I have read these stories so many times, that I now take the events in them for granted. I will always admire these tales, but I can no longer read them with virgin eyes.

But perhaps you can. If you haven’t read Night Shift, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book.

James Clavell’s novels ranked

Which James Clavell novels are the “best”? And which ones should you read first?

James Clavell (1921 -1994) was an author of adventure/suspense novels set in Asia. His Asian Saga consists of a group of six novels. These books feature overlapping characters, and a fictional trading company, Noble House:

King Rat (1962)
Tai-Pan (1966)
Shōgun (1975)
Noble House (1981)
Whirlwind (1986)
Gai-Jin (1993)

What are these books about?

Good question. Here is a (very) brief explanation of each:

King Rat

Set in Changi Prison (in Singapore) during WWII, this is Clavell’s first novel. At around 400 pages, it is also Clavell’s shortest novel.

King Rat is semi-autobiographical. Clavell himself was a POW of the Japanese during WWII, and was interned in Changi Prison.

Tai-Pan

This is the story of Dirk Struan, the founder of the Noble House trading company. This story takes place during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.

Shōgun

Shōgun is the tale of a British navigator who crashes on Japanese shores around the year 1600. He becomes involved in the unification of feudal Japan.

Clavell borrows heavily from Japanese history in Shōgun. This isn’t exactly a historical novel, though, as Clavell modifies names and dates to suit his story. 

The real history involved here is the biography of Anjin Miura (William Adams), a British navigator who really did shipwreck on Japanese shores during a typhoon. Another real historical inspiration for Shōgun is the story of Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1600s.

But once again…Shōgun is fiction inspired by history, not a historical novel. There is a big difference!

Noble House 

In Hong Kong in the early 1960s, Ian Dunross is the CEO—or tai-pan—of Dirk Struan’s Noble House (which, in the mid-20th century, has become a multinational trading firm).

Noble House is a huge novel, weighing in at about 1,300 pages. The book is filled with gangsters, bold business executives, and seductive women.

I enjoyed reading Noble House. I also enjoyed watching the 1988 NBC miniseries adaptation, starring Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin.

Whirlwind

Easily the darkest of Clavell’s novels, Whirlwind is set in Iran in 1979, at the height of the Islamic Revolution.

Clavell is sometimes criticized for his “orientalism”: All of his books to some extent pander to Western fantasies about Asia. In Clavell’s novels, every Chinese merchant is an ultra-savvy trader who simultaneously plays a dozen different angles. Asian women are all sloe-eyed embodiments of submissive femininity.

In his books about China and Japan, however, Clavell openly admires the cultures he depicts, even if some of his depictions seem simplistic or politically incorrect to “progressive” twenty-first century readers. If Clavell stereotypes the cultures of Japan and China, he does so with the intent to praise, not belittle.

Clavell clearly does not admire Iranian culture, or the culture of Islam, however. While not all of the Iranian characters in Whirlwind are scoundrels and fanatics, many of them are. 

Make of that what you will. But there is no denying that Whirlwind has a different tone than Clavell’s other books. 

Gai-Jin

This was the last novel Clavell completed before his death in 1994. Gai-Jin takes place in Japan in 1862, as the country is struggling with new forces of westernization.

Do you have to read them in order?

No. The novels of the Asian Saga do not have to be read sequentially. Each one is a more or less self-contained story. You can read them in any order you choose without missing much.

So…which one is the “best” then?…And which one should you read first?

Tai-pan and Shōgun are generally regarded to be the “best” books of the Asian Saga. 

In this case, I have to agree with the general consensus (a relatively rare occurrence for me). BothTai-pan and Shōgun are readily accessible to the first-time reader, long enough to be satisfying, but still page-turners.

You might start with either of these.

King Rat is a good novel, but it’s also a small story set in a very narrow environment. 

Oh—and no female characters to speak of. If you aren’t interested in an all-male story set in a WWII prison camp, you might not like this one as much as Clavell’s bigger novels. 

King Rat is, as I mentioned, semi-autobiographical. This was obviously a story that Clavell wanted to tell, needed to tell—and he tells it superbly. But it is a narrowly set story. 

One of the themes of King Rat is the necessity of adapting your ideals to the realities of an often cruel and unforgiving world. I read this book when I was nineteen going on twenty, just making the transition from late adolescence to full adulthood. Many of the book’s insights were useful to me at that time, and they are still with me today.

I would recommend that you do read King Rat; but I strongly recommend that you read it after you read Tai-Pan and Shōgun, and you have a full appreciation for Clavell’s work.

Noble House, Whirlwind, and Gai-jin are good books, but for James Clavell “completists” only.

(I’m a James Clavell completist, so I read all three.)

Each of these books is over 1,000 pages. I mean—come on! If a book is over 1,000 pages, it had better be awesome, right? 

These books are good, but they aren’t “awesome”. Noble House is the best of the three. Both Whirlwind and Gai-jin have a tendency to drag in the middle. Whirlwind in particular has too many characters, too many subplots. 

I came to these three novels after reading Tai-pan, Shōgun, and King Rat. Had I started with Gai-jin, for example, I don’t think I would have been motivated to continue with Clavell’s fiction.

Anyway, such is my assessment of the Asian Saga.

I think you’ll love this series—especially if you like the idea of historical suspense set in Asia. But do yourself a favor, and start with either Tai-pan or Shogun.

My guiltiest book pleasure

And no, it isn’t pornography.

I don’t ordinarily go in for “chick lit”; but I have to admit that Emily Giffin sure tells a good story, even if her books don’t contain any car chases or shootouts.

I am presently enjoying her latest novel, All We Ever Wanted.

I’ll gladly give you this recommendation. Just don’t tell any of my male friends about this, okay? And certainly not the guys at the gym…

 


The dark side of the American Revolution

I have been enjoying Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock.

While by no means disrespectful to the American tradition, this book fills in an often overlooked side of the American Revolution: It was a violent event, with atrocities committed on all sides.