One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 9

Prefacing this, as I did with the others, that my book choices are a bit limited because I only “read” books on CD.

MITES Cov smll

The Man in the Empty Suit
By Sean Ferrell (2013)

Although time-travel stories usually have many of the same components, I’m still usually a sucker for them because those components:

the risk of changing the future for better or worse
changing the past for better or worse
reliving great or horrible moments from the past
the risk of getting stuck in the past or future

Those components are part of the glorious fun.  This one, however, had something different.  The nameless character has become so bored with time travel that he orchestrates an annual birthday party for himself.  However, because of his traveling, there is a new incarnation – along with all the old versions – of himself at the party.  Yeah, so about forty or fifty “selves” are running around an abandoned hotel in celebration of all of them.  Some are identified as Screwdriver, because he’s carrying one, and 70, because he’s about that age.  All interesting.

Before I go on, don’t look for space-time continuum issues because I’m sure they exist, but finding them will be worthless.  Yes, it can be argued that Ferrell’s premise is actually backwards from what he proposes or there can’t be more versions of himself or younger versions far into the future.  Just keep in mind that it doesn’t matter and attempting to do that would just distract from any fun contained in the story.

A nameless character – let’s just call him Guy – has grown bored with time travel (whaaaa?) and decides to visit the same hotel annually for the same party in which he already knows everything that’s going to happen, including the self who kicks over a pile of plates, who spills a drink, who gets falling-down drunk, who cuts himself, etc.  However, this year something different happens.  His 40-year-old self is found murdered.  His current self is 39, which leaves him one year to find the murderer or he will be murdered and thus break some kind of space-time continuum that I said not to think about.

Aside from a poorly described time-travel device and a not-at-all described time-travel method, both of which are essential for me, it’s got the ingredients of an above-average story. Unfortunately, just having the ingredients does not a brownie make.  Empty Suit was probably influenced greatly by the film 12 Monkeys.  For one, there’s a woman involved, and she appears right at the time of the murder and is then a strong key to everything that happens again in the subsequent year on course back around to the murder again.

Included are moments when Guy 39 knows the things that will happen in the future because he has already seen what happened that caused the death of Guy 40.  We get to see the small elements that we know might add up to the big elements of the murder.  We get to see, in the beginning, thinks that seem like trivial details until Guy 39 hangs around long enough that he’s very close to being Guy 40 and we have to wonder, “Why doesn’t he stop doing that because we all know that’s essential to his own death?  Why doesn’t he do something different?  Did he forget about why he’s even here and that he’s trying to save his own life?”

After wondering those things, and after watching Guy make all the wrong choices and just bring himself closer to his own death instead of trying to stop his own death – well, I probably shouldn’t tell you because that’s the whole point of reading the book.  However, even after reading the whole book, I just didn’t give a rip whether he died or not.  As Guy makes one wrong decision after another – especially when we know he can just walk away and take himself out of the situation completely – it make me look at him less like a potential murder victim and more like an idiot.  By “one wrong decision after another,” I mean that we’ve already seen the things that lead to his own demise.  Towards the climax, we see them all happening again but now at his own hand as he does nothing to divert himself.  

I was convinced he was going to die, and I kind of wanted him to die just to get it over with.  Part of the problem, a big part, was the woman.  We know and Guy knows she’s instrumental.  She also gets killed the first time, when Guy 39 gets killed, and part of what Guy 39-almost-40 is doing is an attempt to save her life, all the while bringing her closer to her own death simply because his involvement with her keeps her on track for that death.  It seems simple to us that if he just parts ways with her, he will save her life.  But he doesn’t, and that makes me question his intelligence.  How could someone intelligent enough to build a time machine not be intelligent enough to see the course before him, especially when he has a second go at it?  That cost credibility points for me, regardless of the outcome – which I don’t think I’ve given away.

If you’re going to write a time-travel story, I want you to do a little extra work and create a good physical device, a good theoretical force that causes the time travel, both preferably but at least one definitely.  This book has neither.  Don’t waste your time.


The Man in the Black Suit: 4 Dark Tales
By Stephen King (1994)

“The Man in the Black Suit”
“All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”
“That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French”
“The Death of Jack Hamilton”

When I started reading this short story collection, I kept thinking there was something strangely familiar about it.  The first story, which bears the name of the collections title, had me feeling as if I knew what was coming just before it happened from start to finish.  It’s about a boy who goes fishing at a watering hole his father warned him to avoid.  It’s a nice exercise is putting someone like Opie from The Andy Griffith Show into words and adding an evil stranger who literally wants to eat his bones and muscles.

The second story, about a man considering suicide, also had elements that rang like déjà vu and also reminded me of Brooks, the old guy in The Shawshank Redemption, who committed suicide after being released from prison because he just couldn’t cope with life so many years after his conviction.  Considering that King wrote that too, it’s entirely plausible there’s a literary connection.  Unfortunately, there was no emotional connection as I’m actually having to push myself to even remember how the story ended.  With that being necessary, it tells me the story was at fault and just not every memorable.

Story #3, about a woman having strange and devastating premonitions en route a tropical vacation, did not ring a bell at all.  I mean that in two ways:  1. I didn’t remember it and 2. It wasn’t very good.  While she and her husband are driving, she has visions of what’s up ahead.  A church, a car dealership on the left, an old woman on the right.  They turn the corner and sometimes see something close but not exactly, like the car dealership on the right instead of left or an old man instead of an old woman.  Sometimes the visions are pretty much exact to what they see, and on and on.  Something seems like it could be a devastating car accident, and I guess the idea is supposed to make us think, “Well, if the other visions were close to real or sometimes real, then is the accident close to real or actually real?”  Don’t remember.  Don’t care.

The last story is about old-time gangsters, John Dillinger and his pals, fleeing a robbery in Minnesota.  They take a few bullets, escape the cops, but one member of the gang is hit bad and dying.  I could say more about it, but it doesn’t really matter.  This one deserved to be last, as do all of them.

The reason I mentioned a little bit of déjà vu is because I’m 99% positive I already read this collection.  Assuming I’m correct, that means these stories are even less than bad because there was nothing strong enough about them for me to have remembered reading them.  That’s sad.


By Neil Gaiman (2008)

Tristran Thorn (yeah, not pronounced easily) falls in love with Victoria Forester in the village of Wall back in the late 1800’s.  She rejects him when he asks for a kiss, but she gives him hope when a star falls in the distance.  She says she’ll give him his heart’s desire if he can find the fallen star and bring it back to her.

The village of Wall is surrounded by a wall that separates them from a land called Faerie.  What neither Victoria nor Tristran knows is that stars in Faerie are not stars but living creatures very similar to faeries.  Thus the man in love begins an adventure for something about which he knows nothing in order to give it to a woman from whom he wants everything.

It’s a lovely premise made difficult by too many characters who are too similar to each other.  Throughout Tristran’s trek through Faerie, I never felt as if it was getting anywhere or that a real goal was in sight.  I know that seems unlikely based on what I described as the beginning, but the floaty and flamboyant language combined with an overabundance of characters left me with a landscape too far and wide and too many people running in all directions for me to clearly follow what was happening.

There were a few occasions in which part of the adventure was summarized with just a sentence when expanding it into a couple of chapters might have added to the story.  For example, it wasn’t very interesting for the narration to tell me how Tristran defeated some eagles.  To actually read the whole account would have probably been a lot of fun.

I was really hoping to enjoy it, but I just stopped caring.  Honorable mention to the sex scene that was well described and the terrific book cover as pictures above.


20,000 Leagues under the Sea
By Jules Verne (1868)

A mysterious creature is seen in various seas around the world.  It has glowing eyes and swims just below the surface of the water, preventing anyone from clearly identifying what it might be.  After it punctures the side of a sailing vessel, the prevailing theory is that the mystery creature is a giant narwhal.  That’s when the government commissions a few sea-faring experts, puts them aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, and sends them out to find out just what the hell is going on out there.

When this USO (unidentified submersible object) strikes the Lincoln, several characters are knocked into the sea and saved by Captain Nemo.  However, once he brings them aboard the Nautilus, they seem to be trapped there.  While one character refers to their time on the Nautilus as slavery and being imprisoned, it is never perfectly clear that they’ve ever asked Nemo to let them off the ship.  The men just constantly wonder if the rest of their lives will be underwater without allowing us to hear them actually ask Nemo about leaving.

While they go on many adventures throughout the seven seas, we’re always wondering when they might be able to disembark.  The climax of the story is about their escape attempt.  However, the narrator is conveniently knocked unconscious during the escape.  The story is told past tense by the narrator who admits he has no idea what happened.  That’s a rip-off.

To be fair, I’m sure I would have enjoyed this if I were to have read it about a hundred or so years ago.  However, the language with which it was written is not easy to trudge through.  Sometimes simple descriptions became a whole page while things that should have been whole page were summed up in a simple sentence.  Examples of the overblown language include referring to the sun as “The orb of the day.”  Yeesh.  Can’t tell you how many times I heard the word “ironical” instead of ironic.

Whatever illustrations you’ve seen have been from artists with enough creative license to make up whatever they wanted because I searched specifically for a real visage of the famed Nautilus, but there was almost nothing to be found.  What I find startling as the Wikipedia entry that proclaims “The description of Nemo’s ship, the Nautilus, was considered ahead of its time, as it accurately describes features on submarines, which at the time were very primitive vessels.”  Baffling, because there were times when the characters were inside the vessel, talking about leaving the vessel to go somewhere on the outside, and then they were just suddenly on the outside without enough of an explanation as to how they got there.  The most significant description of anything was that the ship was powered entirely by electricity somehow extracted from the mineral composition of sea water.

Despite not enjoying this book, I will still recommend any classic because all readers and writers should be aware of the most significant books – even if they stink – from centuries past.


Paper Towns
By John Green (2008)

Before I even get to the story, let me give a good bit of credit for something regarding this book.  I normally do NOT like present tense.  Though this was in present tense, I didn’t even notice until about 90% through the book.  Either the author switched up tenses about then, or it was compelling enough that I just wasn’t aware.  Hats off to Green for that.

Quentin (“Q” to his friends) and Margo are not great but good friends from about the age of 10 up through high school.  Margo’s penchant for adventure always seemed to contrast Q’s clean cut, composed persona.  Margo’s parents pay far less attention to her than Q’s parents, which causes Margo to be one of those kids who occasionally runs away for the attention but eventually comes home again – except once, and it only takes once.

Margo, unlike Q, is fairly popular for her outgoing personality and appearance.  She’s got a lot of friends, but some of them have crossed her.  She needs to cross them back and enlists Q’s help for a ninja night, in which they sabotage, vandalize, trespass, and wreak havoc on an otherwise boring suburb of Orlando, Florida.  The next day, while a handful of people are recovering from events that stretch from a senior prank to breaking and entering, Margo runs away again.  This time, it seems that she really means it.

Margo loves puzzles, literature, and music.  Before running away, she left a trail of puzzle-like clues that involve literature and music.  Q, along with friends “Radar,” Ben, and Lacey, spend the last month of their senior year trying to follow the clues to see where Margo might be found.  So far, there’s a lot here to like, but i’m going to make a list of a few things I didn’t like throughout the book.

1.  You can’t see Disneyworld at night from the SunTrust Building in Orlando.
2.  You can’t identify your home, 10-miles away at night, from the SunTrust Building.
3.  You can’t break into SeaWorld by simply swimming one moat and climbing one fence.
4.  You can’t fit 212 beers (35 six packs) in one cooler in the back of a minivan.
5.  Poorly used adverbs including:

…he said distractedly
…he smiled goofily
…he said dispassionately
…she said conspiratorially
…I said dismissively

6.  Exterior residential motion sensors set off lights, not alarms.
7.  A two-pound catfish thrown by hand will probably not break a window.
8.  Removing hinge pins doesn’t remove the hinge plate from a door jamb.
9.  High school kids don’t use terms like “sleeping with the fishes.”

There’s probably more and perhaps I’m being picky, but that’s enough.  

Just as I like time-travel stories, I also like coming-of-age stories.  I like stories about boys or girls in pursuit of girls or boys and realistic high school kids, but I can’t say for sure that’s what you get in Paper Towns.  Every writer has their own significant high school experiences.  Every writer believes his or hers will make a great book.  Every writer thinks they can write the consummate teenagers about which readers will say, “Yes!  That’s what high school was like for me too!”  Most of those writers are wrong because their high school characters always seem to do things well above the abilities of real high school kids.  Sure, there’s a few geniuses out there, but few are ever capable of what we usually find in books or movies.

As previously mentioned, Margo runs away and leaves scattered clues on where she can be found and sets off a group of friends who genuinely fear for her safety and want to find her.  That’s the part I like. 

The part I don’t like is the ending, which is completely anti-climactic.  After Q and his crew correctly decipher excellent but unrealistic clues to find Margo, skip graduation, stock up on supplies, take a road trip from Florida to New York, run off the road to avoid hitting cows, and piss in bottles to avoid stopping, they find her.  Then she acts like a total jerk, tells them she never left any clues (a lie) and pretty much tells them to get lost.  She tells Q to go with her because she’s going to New York City.  Q says, “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Then they head back to Florida, and that’s the end.

After all they do to find her, you’d kind of hope the ending would hold a lot more punch to it, but it fizzled out into nothing at all significant.  That’s a shame.

In the next book review installment, we’ll have two more by Stephen King, including the short stories “Ur” and “In the Tall Grass,” a joint effort with is son, Joe Hill.

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