Thursday, June 30, 2016

Book Review #4 - Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes

Book – Mr. Mercedes

Author – Stephen King

Published – June 3, 2014

Pages (Hardcover) – 436



I should start by mentioning how much of a fanboy I am of Stephen King. I’m totally okay with using the word “fanboy” because I couldn’t care less what others might think! Admittedly, I haven’t read half of what King has written, but I fell in love after reading The Tommyknockers during my senior year in high school, and then fell madly in love after reading the Dark Tower novels *massive heart throb* King is the sort of fellow you read and think “Well got dang, that fella’s a real tootin’ sort of writer!”

He calls himself the Big Mac and fries of literature, but that doesn’t do him justice. Sure, I guess you can say he’s pulpy at times, but he’s still a fanfuckingtastic writer. Like… a really, really good writer. I don’t understand the critics. I think either 1) they want to compare him and his writing to people like, oh I dunno, literary giants like Dostoevsky or Edgar Allan Poe or Jane Austen – who would be like the filet mignons of literature, amirite? – or 2) they’re just straight up jealous. I am envious, but never jealous. I think jealous people are bitter people. So either way, the comparisons aren’t fair. Stephen King doesn’t write literary fiction and Stephen King can’t help it if you’re jealous of his skillz.

King is addicting. Try eating a single gummy worm and then stopping. Pretty difficult, right? You don’t want a single gummy worm. Who does that shit? You want TWO gummy worms, then THREE, then FOUR… You get the picture. Pick up a King book and, if it’s something you dig, you won’t want to put it down. Chances are, in fact, that you won’t. I know I never do.

*PHEW* Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…

Brief Synopsis

Mr. Mercedes is the first in a trilogy of books (dubbed the Bill Hodges Trilogy), a detective/mystery novel set in modern day America. Bill Hodges is a recent retiree from the police force. His detective skills now laid to rest, he succumbs to the boredom and banality that retirement often grants. Hodges retired from the force with countless commendations and more respect than a man knows what to do with. However, it turns out that what Hodges doesn’t know what to do with is the retirement itself.

Nagging his brain, too, is a case that went unsolved. Success is fantastic but it’s often the failures we remember the most, especially when the uncaught criminal sends you a letter gloating and teasing about it.

Hodges receives a letter from a person who calls themselves Mr. Mercedes, claiming to be responsible for the mass killing via Mercedes Benz that killed 8 people and injured more. A crime that was never solved, the crime that was never solved.

After coming to the conclusion that this self-named Mr. Mercedes is the real killer, a retired detective dons his skills once more to stop the man from killing anyone else. It just so happens that a high school senior and a mentally unstable middle-aged woman get wrapped up in it all – directly and indirectly in their own ways – and become his quasi partners-in-crime. All the while, Hodges must keep his personal vendetta a secret from the police, including his ex-partner Pete Huntley and his new partner in the process.

Review (With Possible Minor Spoilers?)

King, as always, dazzles with his writing. Also as always, his characters shine over plot. I became a fantasy writer because of Steven Erikson and playing The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, but I became a writer to begin with because of Stephen King. His focus on believable characters and superb dialogue is exactly what I feel is most important in writing and movies and really any media (my humble opinion, of course; if you prefer plot over character/dialogue, that’s cool too!). He doesn’t fail with Mr. Mercedes.

The plot itself is fine, although there are some things I had to just ignore and stop fussing about. For example, I understand the personal vendetta – and I understand it even more as the story progress and certain horrible things take place – but if this were a real-life scenario Bill Hodges would have been thrown in jail despite getting the bad guy in the end. He enlisted the help of a high school senior (Jerome) and a mentally unstable woman (Holly); let’s get that out there in the open. He risked both of their lives, especially the boy, on multiple occasions. He even GIVES THE BOY A GUN, AND I WON’T EVEN MENTION THAT THE BOY DOESN’T HAVE ANY GUN TRAINING, NOR WILL I MENTION THAT WHY WOULD YOU GIVE A BOY A GUN TO BEGIN WITH. Hodges often thinks to himself “I really shouldn’t be involving these two,” but does he keep doing it anyway? Of course! Not only that, but he also withholds numerous pieces of evidence from the police department. And not only that, but he also uses his badge to gain information despite already being retired (in case you didn’t know, that is a big no-no). So… yeah… really, Hodges would be in jail right now.

But this isn’t real life, so whatever.

You ignore these nagging details because they aren’t overly important. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t get them out of my head – a lot of “OH MY GOD WHY ARE YOU STILL DOING THIS” but oh well. I read King because his characterization is top-notch and, most importantly, he is by far the best damn storyteller I’ve ever read. There’s a lot to be said about someone who is just really, really good at telling a story. This is where King excels in all of his novels. Even the ones that make little to no sense, you don’t give a damn because he’s that great of a storyteller.

What I give King two thumbs up toward the most is the antagonist. Brady Hartfield is the most sadistic, revolting, vile Bad Guy I’ve ever read in a King novel, and mind you I’ve read the Dark Tower books. Speaking of The Dark Tower, doesn’t Brady remind you of one Randall Flagg? Yeah, he does, doesn’t he? He totes does. As much as you hate Brady, you love reading his parts in the novel. Especially that opening letter to Hodges. MAN what a scene! What a psychotic son of a bitch.

I’m going to stop now because really I could gush about King until I take my final breath. So what I’ll say is read this story and have as much fun with it as I did. Don’t take the detective aspect of it too seriously because that’s missing the point. The detective part of it is the setup – the background, if you will – but the book is just phenomenal storytelling all around.

Score: Highly Recommended!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Author Interview #1 - Daniel Swensen

I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Daniel Swensen (that's an e at the end, people!). Daniel is definitely one of the Good Guys, and a fanfuckingtastic writer to boot, which kinda helps. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did! 

J.F. – Good evening. It's good to finally get this interview off the ground. Thank you for agreeing to it. I promise not to ask too many Game of Thrones questions.

D.S. – Thanks for having me! You're welcome to ask about Game of Thrones if you want!

J.F. – *duly noted* I was going to dance around the subject before getting to it, but I'm too damn excited to do that, so... How goes Etheric? (for those who do not know: Daniel’s the author of the *fantastic* fantasy novel Orison; if you have not read it I definitely suggest you change that as soon as possible)

D.S – I finished the first draft of Etheric a couple months ago and sent it out to beta readers and my editor, Anna Meade at Nine Muse Press. She and I had a long conversation about its highs and lows, and about what we thought needed changing to make it the best book possible. I also got some feedback from beta readers, and of course most of them disagreed with each other. So now I'm weighing all the advice and feedback and deciding what alterations to make before diving into the final draft.

We are hoping to have it in the hands of readers before 2016 is out.

J.F. – Walk me through that entire beta reading process. As someone who's never written a full-fledged novel, I don't know what it's like. Obviously there are good and bad aspects to it. How do you balance it all without going insane?

D.S. – In the case of Etheric, I'm lucky to have a good-sized stable of fans who enjoyed the first book. Handing it over to them means I can see what they like and dislike. In a lot of cases, they'll spot plot holes or discrepancies in character motivation I didn't catch. Because every reader is different, they all have their favorite characters and least favorite characters, and everyone wants to see more or less of somebody or something. I just try to weigh it all against what I feel is best for the story, and either change things or not. It's flatly impossible to fulfill every beta reader's wish, so I don't try.

All I can do is try to please both myself and as many readers as possible.

J.F – Right. At the end of the day, we're writing for ourselves. If we can lasso in some Dear Readers along the way then all the merrier.

D.S. – Exactly.

J.F. – After the completion of Orison, what was your immediate thought? As soon as you thought to yourself The End, what were your initial emotions? Expectations? Concerns? Wishes?

D.S – Relief, exhaustion, and terror. The first draft of Orion in no way resembles the final product. The original had four factions fighting each other for the jewel that is the main plot device. There were about four times as many sword fights. The main character was a guy. The setting was entirely different. I uprooted a few core concepts and basically wrote a new book from scratch. So the rewrite was mentally exhausting. 

I also wasn't sure anyone would like it, or that it would be released to silence and indifference. Knowing how much encouragement and support I get from both readers and other writers, that seems kind of ridiculous on the outside, but impostor syndrome isn't very rational.

J.F. – It's funny how different the first draft is compared to the final copy, and this goes for short fiction and long fiction alike. I've taken to calling it the Neville Longbottom Effect.

D.S – I understood that reference! Even though, I'm a bit reluctant to admit this, I'm only familiar with the Harry Potter movies.

J.F. – *fingers cease typing* ... *deep breath* ... Well, it's all right. I forgive you.

I can understand the terror that no one will enjoy your writing. You've spent months, years, toiling over the damn thing, but what if it's published and no one cares? Thankfully for you that isn't the case, but man... what a nightmare scenario. Did you do anything in particular to fight through that particular demon during the writing phase?

D.S. – This might sound simplistic, but I just considered my options. The alternative to facing that fear was to never publish and stop writing. I knew that would make me desperately unhappy, so I forged ahead. When I dug down to the bottom of it, there was really no other choice.

J.F. – Sometimes -- often, I've found it -- the simplest route is the smartest route. We humans have a knack for overthinking everything, and in the process we do nothing but sabotage ourselves.

D.S. – Writers in particular are huge overthinkers, at least most of the writers I've ever met. It's sometimes a useful skill to have when trying to flush out plot holes... other times, not so much.

J.F. – So I must ask the obligatory question you've answered hundreds of times: what were your inspirations writing Orison? We've talked about this before and I know Steven Erikson's Malazan books had an effect, but what else? What drove you to write Orison and why?

D.S. – Malazan was a late influence, but I hadn't read those when I started writing the book. Glen Cook's Black Company and Dread Empire series are both big influences on me. I love the dryness of his voice, the way he effortlessly zooms in and out in his stories. One paragraph you're reading a tense scene between two reluctant enemies, the next, a dozen years pass and they're at war. 

I also took a lot of influences from Robert E. Howard, film noir, and heist movies like Ocean's Eleven. Not all of that made it into the final book, but they were very visible in the first draft.

In the original draft, there were no dragons, but instead masters of the city who were also creepy Lovecraftian gods. There was some influence of Fritz Leiber in there, I think.

J.F. – I'd like to shift over to a subject I've been yearnin' to talk about. Authorial intent. Some writers, Stephen King for example, wade through it like a giant through the sea, but for me it's difficult. I understand that there are nasty people in the world, but that doesn't mean it's easy to write them in a story even if it is fake. For example, violence and sex (in particular, rape) and racial undertones. Where does one draw the line between necessary and gratuitous?

I think the biggest mistake a reader can make is reading a book and assuming the thoughts of all the characters are the opinions of the author. I think it is highly important that the reader be able to separate the piece of work from the author; for me they are two separate entities.

D.S. – Assuming the author endorses the idea put forth by their fiction is a problem for all writers. I think King himself touched on that subject in both Danse Macabre and On Writing. Put a racist epithet in your book, people assume you're a racist -- that sort of thing.

It's a thorny issue, and frequently messy. When I say things like "I don't put sexual violence in my fiction" or say I don't like reading about it, some people -- especially writers -- get really agitated, like someone's going to come take the fiction with sexual assault away from them. I don't really understand that, because Game of Thrones is one of the most successful fantasy franchises of all time and there seem to be multiple rape scenes per season. It's pretty ubiquitous in the genre and I doubt it's going anywhere.

People will always assign motive to you or judge your character based on what you write. Some of it may be valid, some may not. But you can't get anything done if you try to avoid being judged or try to appease some imaginary critic. It's impossible and you'll just end up losing the will to write.

That said, however, the same way writers are free to write whatever they want (in general), the marketplace is also free to read whatever they want, and reject whatever they want. A couple years back, I read the first two books of a sci-fi trilogy I really liked. In the third book, one of my favorite characters was brutally raped and then killed. It felt cheap and exploitive. I finished the book, but I'll never buy anything by that author again.

I will say one more thing. My short story, Burn, has a brief element of sexual assault in it. At the time, I felt it was necessary to the story, but sometimes I have my doubts. There was some of that content in Orison, but I took it out, and the book is no poorer for it. In that case, it was gratuitous, and had no reason to be there.

J.F. – And it's funny mentioning Game of Thrones, because I feel that's the Big Thing that has made it okay to write graphic sex and violence and have it be mainstream, especially the former. And it's so... like... toeing the line, so to speak. Obviously we aren't trying to argue that rape is okay, but I think the biggest thing is that if it fits the book and if it serves a purpose -- if it isn't exploitive or done merely for shock value -- than it has a place in the book. Sure, those things are dark and horrible, but the world is often dark and horrible. Art imitates life, and that is simply a part of it. Authors should do well to treat those things with the respect they deserve, but yes, an author shouldn't be burned at the stake because they happen to have rape in their book. And really, it's an author by author thing. Some authors do it well, and some just do it for the shock value. It's the latter I tend to disrespect very much.

D.S. – Yeah -- to be honest, I don't personally put a lot of stock in "well I added rape to my fiction because there's rape in real life." I don't come to fiction for real life, and I think if we can envision a world with dragons and faeries and magic, we can envision a world where rape isn't inexorable. Which is not to say that rape should be eradicated from fiction; I don't think that and never have. But the argument that we are somehow obligated to depict sexual violence, or that we're worldly or virtuous because we choose to do so... that argument just doesn't hold a lot of water with me.

Important stories can be told about sexual violence, but in the fantasy genre, it's most often used as a cheap way to raise the stakes, as you say -- and it's often just that: cheap.

J.F. – I would like to get to the craft of writing real before ending the interview with one final question. You've been writing for years, you've been reading for years. You can see what works and what doesn't. What sort of advice can you give that maybe someone hasn't heard before? I'm quite fond of King's Tool Box analogy from On Writing. I'm a sucker for analogies in general, really.

D.S. – Are we almost done already? I'm just warming up!

J.F. – Well, hey, one day let's write an entire book about our conversations and thoughts pertaining to writing and whatnot. I actually wouldn't mind that at all!

D.S. – My main piece of advice, which is not terribly original: if you're struggling with the question of whether you're a Real Writer, get paid for your work as soon as possible. Whether it's a crappy blog post or some assignment from Textbroker that pays absolute peanuts. Get money in exchange for your words. When you have a deadline and there's money on the line and the client has no reason to care about your angst, your attitude will adjust. I landed my first freelance writing job in 2006, and it was the best thing that ever happened to my productivity overall.

My other piece of advice is to never depend on inspiration, and learn to understand struggle as feedback. Some days, your writing will flow free and easy and you can't believe how good it all is. Other times, you'll hate every sentence like fire and think about giving up. Often, it's the latter stuff that ends up being the best -- when you're writing from pain and conflict. Push through when it's hard. Keep going. Don't judge your whole sense of being on a day's crappy writing, no matter how much you'll want to.

J.F. – One last question, one that only a few will get but oh well: would Story and Crokus be BFFs or WHAT?

[for those not aware: Crokus us a character from Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon and Story is a protagonist in Swensen’s Orison, both being characters of the thief type; both badass and both insanely awesome to read]

D.S. – Crokus from Malazan? Yeah, I think they'd get along. I like to think Crokus would make a clumsy pass at Story and she'd be having none of it. Eventually they'd reach a place of mutual respect and do some killer heists together. It's funny you should mention that, because I think Story and Apsalar / Sorry do have some elements in common. That wasn't deliberate, but it's just how it panned out.

J.F. – Thank you for your time, Daniel. As always, it's a pleasure and a blast speaking to you. I'm more than pleased to hear that Orison's sequel, Etheric, is to hopefully be published this year; just another thing I can add to my list of Stuff I Cannot Wait For To Happen. Thanks, Daniel!

D.S. – Thanks, Jeff! It was my pleasure.