Book break: ‘To the Last Man’, by Jeff Shaara

I am enjoying Jeff Shaara’s novel of World War I, To the Last Man.

This novel features famous characters, like General “Blackjack” Pershing, and Manfred von Richthofen (otherwise known as “the Red Baron”). There are also some lesser known characters who participated in the Great War.

This is perhaps the third or fourth Jeff Shaara novel I’ve read. His novels are so detailed, so meticulously researched, that they are somewhat akin to docudramas (especially the chapters written from the POV of the historical figures).

The result is that his books are bit dense, compared to the latest potboiler from James Patterson, or the most recent legal thriller from John Grisham. Shaara clearly writes to inform as well as to entertain.

To the Last Man is not a quick read, but it’s a rewarding one. If you like historical fiction and military themes, this is one you shouldn’t miss.


Book break: ‘Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead’



I like historical fiction, especially if there’s some action in it. I was therefore drawn to S. Thomas Russell’s Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead (2015)

The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, when Jacobins and royalists were fighting for the future soul of France, and “republican” referred to those who were in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution.

As the novel opens, Royal Navy Captain Charles Hayden is sailing the HMS Themis into the Caribbean–waters filled with hostile Frenchmen, Spaniards, and slavers.

Not long after the story opens, the crew of the Themis picks up two Spanish castaways. They seem to be harboring a secret. This secret becomes the basis for much of the story that follows.

Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead is part of a series, but I had little difficulty jumping in late in the game.

On the positive side, I liked the character of Charles Hayden. I also enjoyed the mystery embedded in the tale.

On the minus side, there was a lot of time spent on repetitive sea maneuvers and counter-maneuvers that didn’t seem to advance the plot much. I could have used more human action, less naval action. (But this novel seems to be written with maritime enthusiasts in mind.)

‘The Reckoning’ by John Grisham: Ed’s review



I recently finished reading this latest novel by John Grisham. This is a very good book, although it is a little different from John Grisham’s previous offerings.

The standard John Grisham novel goes something like this: An attorney has happened upon a scandal of some sort, usually involving a big pot of money. (The money may or may not be held in a numbered account in the Cayman Islands.)

The attorney faces some moral quandary. Maybe someone approaches the attorney looking for assistance. Perhaps the attorney is threatened himself. The perpetrators of the scandal are invariably mafiosos or the corrupt managers of some Big Evil Corporation.

In the end, the attorney makes the right decision, solves the problem, and saves the day.

I’m not knocking the standard John Grisham Formula, mind you. (On the contrary, John Grisham is one of my favorite authors.)  But The Reckoning substantially deviates from that formula.

The Reckoning opens in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, in 1946. Forty-three year-old Pete Banning, a successful farmer, respected local citizen, and decorated World War II POW, is about to commit an inexplicable homicide.

Banning drives into town, where he shoots the pastor of his Methodist church, Dexter Bell.

Banning is arrested and charged with murder. Of course.  When questioned by the sheriff, he refuses to say why he did what he did.

Pete Banning’s young adult children plead with him, as does his older sister. But Banning simply won’t say why he murdered Dexter Bell.

It is also revealed that while Banning was away fighting the war (and presumed dead) Dexter Bell spent a lot of time with Pete’s wife, Liza. When the story opens, though, Liza has been sequestered away in a mental institution.

Suffice it to say (mild spoiler alert) that the outcome for Pete Banning is not a pleasant one. After Banning meets his fate, the story jumps back in time, to cover Pete’s exploits during the war, as a POW, and later a guerrilla fighter, in the embattled Philippines.

In the final section of the book, we finally learn why Pete Banning killed Dexter Bell.

No, I am not going to reveal the reason. I would, however, caution you against assuming the most obvious answer.

Although I liked this book quite a bit, many readers did not agree with me.  The book seemed to upset many readers who were expecting the Grisham Formula. Here’s a 1-star review from Amazon:

Crappy, pointless mess:

If I were a writer and knew that I would have to give up money if I didn’t have a “book” on my publisher’s desk by a date certain, and time was up, this is the kind of load of crap I would dish up. What passes for a plot is meaningless: the whole book is fleshed out with WW II history that needn’t be narrated as fiction, and arcane minutiae of criminal and civil procedure that couldn’t be more boring and, moreover, is woefully inaccurate. I actually felt that I’d been tricked into reading this steamer by being bamboozled by Grisham’s reputation, on which I can’t comment. BORING!!!!!!

The Reckoning is not “boring”. But you do need something beyond the attention span of an eight year-old to enjoy it. In many ways, The Reckoning is more like something that Stephen Hunter or W.E.B. Griffin would have written.

To be fair to the readers who didn’t like this book: John Grisham has now been publishing novels for about thirty years. To put a personal spin on this, when Grisham published his very first book, the initially overlooked A Time to Kill (1989), your humble correspondent was a bright-eyed twenty-one year-old.

I am now a not-so-bright-eyed, world-weary fifty year-old. My concerns and preferences are not what they were thirty years ago. I am a different person. So are you…if you were even alive in 1989.

Why then, should we expect that John Grisham is the same writer that he was when George H.W. Bush was president? The Reckoning is not The Firm, Grisham’s breakout success of 1991.

Why should it be, though? The Firm was a long time ago.

Longtime writers almost always evolve. Sometimes readers like the changes, sometimes they don’t. I used to read Stephen King’s early novels over the course of two or three days. But starting with It (1986), King adopted a meandering, bloated style that is a sharp departure from the taut, economical storytelling of the novels he wrote in the 1970s, and the first half of the 1980s. I now struggle to get through a Stephen King novel. I’ve been working on The Outsider for several months now, reading it in bits and pieces, while I’m reading other books.

(But that’s just me: Some readers prefer the new Stephen King.)

If The Reckoning is any indication, Grisham is moving away from the legal potboiler, in the direction of the literary thriller. This pleases me…But it clearly doesn’t please everyone.

To recap: The Reckoning is a very good novel, but you should not begin it with an expectation that you are about to get another helping of the Grisham Formula. Be prepared for something new, and different.

And if you’re not open to something new and different from John Grisham, then you might want to skip this one, and reread The Firm or  The Pelican Brief instead. They’re still very good books, too.

Rereading ‘Salem’s Lot’ after 35 years

The original hardcover, published in 1975

I recently decided to reread Stephen King’s vampire novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. This seemed reasonable enough, as I had first read the book in 1984. (After thirty-five years, just about any novel or film will seem fresh again.)

I have a lot of nostalgia associated with this novel, as I tend to have a lot of nostalgia associated with a lot of things. This was the book that birthed my adult interest in reading and writing.

In February of 1984, I was a sophomore in high school. During my free period, I worked behind the counter of the school library. That’s right: I was a librarian.

But I wasn’t a big reader. Not at that time, at least. I had been a very avid reader during my childhood years, devouring series like John Dennis Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.

Once I hit puberty, though, I developed other interests: football and rock music, specifically.

I did play high school football for a while—if you can dignify what I did with that description. (I was a third-string right tackle, or something like that.) And I messed around with a few garage bands. I can still play the basic chords on a guitar. (But I was always much more interested in lyrics than in music.)

One day, when things were slow in the school library, I picked up a dogeared paperback copy of ‘Salem’s Lot on a whim, and started reading it.

I was immediately hooked. I checked the book out, and read the entire thing in less than a week.

After that, I read the rest of Stephen King’s oeuvre, as it existed in 1984. Stephen King fans tend to divide themselves between those who prefer his newer style—long, rambling books like Duma Key and 11/22/63, and those who prefer the tightly plotted, shorter novels of his earlier years. Put me solidly in the latter camp. The Stephen King books I most love: The Stand, Pet Sematary, Christine, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Cujo, and ’Salem’s Lot were already available in 1984. (’Salem’s Lot, in fact, had already been out for a decade in 1984, and had already been adapted into a made-for-TV movie, starring David Soul as Ben Mears.)

 

There is much about ‘Salem’s Lot to love. Let’s start with the way Stephen King pulls you into the small-town New England setting. I have spent most of my life in Ohio, and I’ve never been within a hundred miles of Maine. But when I read ‘Salem’s Lot, I had a deep, palpable feeling of small-town Maine life in the mid-1970s, when the story takes place.

The horror element of the story builds slowly, and is an organic part of the setting. The horror is embedded in the history of the town, and Ben Mears’s terrifying childhood experience in the Marsten House. When the supernatural phenomena begin to occur, they are believable precisely because Stephen King has already made you believe in this world of ‘Salem’s Lot, a small town in rural Maine.

It starts with the very prosaic, quite mundane details, as seen through the eyes of Ben Mears. It begins as Mears, still haunted by the death of his wife, is driving into the town where he had spent a few happy summers of his childhood:

…and he could see Schoolyard Hill through the slash in the trees where the Central Maine Power pylons ran on a northwest to southeast line. The Griffen farm was still there, although the barn had been enlarged. He wondered if they still bottled and sold their own milk. The logo had been a smiling cow under the name brand: “Sunshine Milk from Griffen Farms!” He smiled. He had splashed a lot of that milk on his cornflakes at Aunt Cindy’s house.

That, you see, is how a master horror writer like Stephen King suspends your disbelief. He begins by investing you in the characters and the settings. Then he introduces the paranormal—the scary stuff.

 

The vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot are old-school vampires. They are spiritually foul, evil creatures who pose a threat to your immortal soul. The best horror fiction involves the threat of death—either spiritual death or physical death. ‘Salem’s Lot involves both.

I will confess a love of the old-school vampires, done in the Bram Stoker mode. I moderately enjoyed Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, but it was a lightweight vampire novel compared to ’Salem’s Lot. A virus-created vampire is not a proper vampire. A proper vampire must be a supernatural, reanimated being. It must recoil from crucifixes, and be burned by holy water. A vampire is not a scientific accident, or a misunderstood antihero (more on that abomination shortly).

 

Stephen King maintains a pretty tight pace throughout ‘Salem’s Lot. Like I said, I read it the first time in less than a week; and I read it the second time at a similarly brisk pace.

Nevertheless, the book was originally published in 1975. Since then, much as changed. The reading public has become accustomed to 200+ channels on cable television, Jame Patterson-style minimalist thrillers, and…of course, the Internet, cell phones, and all the distractions of digital life. Attention spans are much short than they were in 1975, or even 1984.

I would like to declare that I haven’t been personally influenced by any of this, but I know better. As much as I admire Stephen King’s “world-building” in ‘Salem’s Lot, there were a few passages in which he spends a bit too many words going in-depth about the foibles and petty hypocrisies of small-town life.

Also, I was fifteen when I read the book for the first time. I was fifty when I reread it. In the intervening years, I have read many novels, and consumed countless television dramas, movies, etc. Perhaps my standards are more exacting than they were in 1984.

 

There is a feeling of pathos that the reader gets from ‘Salem’s Lot, and I believe that this is one of the book’s under-appreciated aspects. Much of the best horror fiction does leave us slightly sad and reflective. After reading a good horror novel, you should be like the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “a sadder and a wiser man” (or woman).

Ben Mears comes to ‘Salem’s Lot in order to recover from an existential tragedy, the death of his wife, Miranda, in an accident. What he encounters there, however, is yet another tragedy—this one even more profound and disturbing.

On a personal level, he briefly finds love again, in his budding relationship with Susan Norton. But that (spoiler alert) is not to last. His loss of Susan, moreover, will be closely tied to the vampire outbreak, culminating in a scene that is reminiscent of a scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

 

I love ‘Salem’s Lot, as this post probably makes clear. My own personal attachment to the book aside, I sincerely believe that it is a great novel, and probably the best novel of the vampire genre yet written.

I despise what Stephanie Meyer and her many imitators have done to the vampire genre. The vampire should be dark and terrifying. Twilight—and the many Twilight knock-offs—have transformed the vampire into a teenage girl’s romantic fantasy. (Search for “vampire novel” on Amazon, and most of the results will be YA romance novels. Gag me.)

But we still have ‘Salem’s Lot. If you like the idea of a real vampire novel, then you should definitely read this one, if you haven’t done so already.

Reading notes for November 2018: ‘Year One’, by Nora Roberts

A quick book recommendation for you, based on my current and recent  reading….

I decided to take a chance on Nora Roberts’ recent novel, The One.

I say, “take a chance,” because while I’ve been aware of Nora Roberts for years (she’s been publishing since the 1970s), I’ve always considered her to be something of a romance author.

Straight men and romance fiction. You know how that goes. Oil and water.

The One certainly has more romance content than this reviewer would like. But this isn’t a Danielle Steele novel. From the perspective of a male reader who generally prefers writers like Michael Connelly and the late Michael Crichton, The One isn’t half bad.

 

This is the set-up: A plague (a particularly virulent version of the avian flu that so terrified everyone a decade ago) sweeps the earth and kills most of the population.

Some people are immune, of course. (Otherwise, there is no story.)  Those who are immune have dormant magical powers, that are awakened in the aftermath of the catastrophe.

The One, then, is part post-apocalyptic, part urban fantasy, and (yes) part romance fiction.

On the whole: not bad.

Did this novel convert me into a raving Nora Roberts fan?

No. But then again, I’m not in Nora Roberts’s target audience, am I?

After The One, might I read another Nora Roberts title in the future?

Perhaps. It would probably depend on how intrigued I am with the description and opening chapters.