Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Reviews-Barnes &Due, N.K. Jemisin and Stephen King

Underwood, Due and Barnes at NAACP Image Awards

In the Night of the Heat by Barnes and Due with Underwood
This book was written by Steven Barnes and his wife Tananarive Due with creative inspiration and some input by the actor Blair Underwood.
It's the second in a series but it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone. It's partly a retelling of the O.J. Simpson story combined with civil rights era mysteries. It features the writers' fallen hero, Tennyson Hardwick, one time ladies man, struggling actor, and informal private investigator/martial arts enthusiast. Hardwick turns down the request of an old girlfriend to help protect her cousin, the recently acquitted football star T.D. Jackson, from murder threats. Shortly afterwards T.D. Jackson is found dead from apparent suicide. Hardwick gets drawn into the case, much to the displeasure of the LAPD, and other more sinister parties.
Barnes lives in California and also works in the entertainment industry. Barnes has said that he thought O.J. was guilty as hell and that if he did have any hearsay inside information or ideas about how O.J. would have committed the crime and gotten away with it, a mystery novel certainly would be the place he'd put it...

So that part was fun. It was also fun trying to pick out the book sections that were written by Barnes and the ones written by Due. Both writers have pretty distinctive tones but do a good job at making the shifts in the book close to seamless. There's a lot of backstory about how Hollywood really works from the POV of disposable actors or writers. 
Thinly veiled versions of Farrah Fawcett and Bruce Willis have cameos. YMMV on that stuff.
Barnes & Due do a good job of making the violence work as part of the story. My only quibble was that I think that for this book Barnes & Due may have slightly underestimated their readers' intelligence. There's a few "Scooby Doo" moments where some antagonists seem possessed to explain everything that took place so a particularly dim reader won't miss anything. That was unusual coming from these two but this is clearly their attempt to write for a more commercial market and appears to have paid off. That aside, this was fun reading.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
This is the first in a trilogy. Yeine Darr, a woman who is the daughter of an exiled Arameri (think Northern Europe) princess and a Darr (think pre-Colombian Meso-American) nobleman is summoned to her mother's home city after her mother has died suspiciously.
A new heir to her grandfather's throne must be chosen and somehow she must play a part. Some of her relatives want to kill her on sight; others are more sympathetic. But no one is telling her what's really going on or why her mother, the original Heir, fled in the first place.

The Arameri-her mother's people- are great wizards who have conquered the world (All 100,000 kingdoms) via the use of enslaved gods. The gods are thoroughly amoral with regards to humans. The Arameri live in a city that literally floats in the sky. The most powerful god –who is NOT enslaved- is Black.
The author has chosen to use first person narrative throughout.  In general, Mickey Spillane aside, I’m not a fan of first person narrative. Nothing ever happens unless the narrator is there.  In addition the author is a feminist who very much wants to play with and throw out traditional genre assumptions.  

There‘s nothing wrong with that of course but the book really wasn't quite entertaining enough to me.  I did perhaps learn to appreciate a little of my own male bias by having to attempt to look at everything through a woman's eyes.  
It was a challenging read which is more than I can say for some authors these days. It wasn't exactly what I was looking for but considering the simpleminded group think dreck that infects most sci-fi/fantasy sections,  it was good to see someone strike out on her own, even if I wasn't sure I liked the ending.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
The Old Man's still got it. Recently released in hardcover this is a collection of four short stories, really novellas, that all center around secrets and revenge. It is very grim so be forewarned.The first story, 1922 concerns a dispute between a Nebraska farmer and his wife over what to do with some inherited land. The next, Big Driver details the risks to writers who take last minute speaking engagements. The third, Fair Extension updates the Needful Things motif, and the last one, A Good marriage will likely be especially enjoyed (perhaps "understood" is a better word) by those people who have been married for decades and are still alternately happy and disturbed that there are things about their spouse that they don't know. 

As an aside 1922 has a HUGE helping of regret, so much so that I could not help but be reminded of what I think of as King's greatest short story, The Last Rung on the Ladder. How appropriate then (and I didn't pickup on this until it was pointed out to me) that 1922 is set in the same town as The Last Rung on the Ladder.  
In the afterword King takes a few shots at unnamed writers who write for money as well as literary snobs. A bit off putting perhaps but he deserves his indulgences I guess. As he writes he takes what he does very seriously indeed and has no patience with those who don't. All of these stories are worthwhile. Get the book.
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