Saturday, August 27, 2016

Book Reviews: Almost Infamous, Finders Keepers

Almost Infamous
by Matt Carter
I thought that this book was very funny. It put me in mind of similar work which I reviewed before here.  It's not quite as deep or as biting as the Dr. Brain.. book was but it pushes many of the same buttons. The title is apparently a pun and reference to the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous , which was about a feuding rock band on the way up. This makes sense not only as a joke but because the lead character in Almost Infamous and his friends experience life as would be rock stars. They're motivated by the same dreams of fame, fortune and women (or men depending on which friend is doing the dreaming). They have the normal rock star problems of greedy business types, internal team rivalries, career burnout and substance abuse. And like many would be rock stars they must decide if their success is worth doing what many people might see as selling out for the almighty dollar. The book is told in first person, which I'm usually not a fan of but having completed the story I don't see how it could have been told in any other way. This was a relatively short novel, but there weren't any wasted words. There is no skimming this book. Every sentence or seeming sub theme has a purpose. The reader doesn't need to be a comic book fan to enjoy this story. The humor is broad enough so that even someone who avoids comics or claims not to understand parody and satire will probably get almost all of the humor contained within. Although I think you will rather quickly pick up on where the plot is going the joy is in getting there. Like the Dr. Brain.. book Almost Infamous imagines a world in which superpowers, mutant or otherwise are real and have been for quite some time. Not only are superheroes and supervillains a reality but so are the lost continents of Lemuria and Atlantis, both of which have exchange student programs with the greatly expanded United States.

Aidan Salt is a bored high school student who could probably be described as lazy, if he cared to do enough work to reach that status. No, Aidan has only a sub average life waiting for himself. He's not stupid but no one would call him smart either. Aidan's primary interest is in getting the pretty girls in his high school to notice him and help him shed his unwanted virginity. So far neither of those things has happened, much to Aidan's irritation. But as Aidan's father once said, Aidan is something of a late bloomer.  Although superpowers usually manifest at puberty, at eighteen, Aidan suddenly develops superpowers of telekinesis. And these powers seem to be all the stronger for having been delayed. Like the John Lee Hooker song states, "It's in him and it's got to come out!".

Although anyone with these powers is immediately required to turn themselves over to the government for training and monitoring, Aidan decides that he has a much better chance of getting fame, fortune and  of course women by becoming a supervillain. All the previous supervillains have been captured and imprisoned by the various superhero groups, most notably The Protectors. Reasoning that the novelty of being a new supervillain should soon have him rolling in money, Aidan rechristens himself Apex Strike and starts a life of crime. Things don't go as planned. A lesser hero interrupts Aidan's heist. Not knowing his own telekinetic strength, Aidan kills the man. Soon afterwards some of the deceased hero's comrades capture Aidan. They don't kill him, something which surprises the less than courageous Aidan. The heroes offer a deal to Aidan and several other would be villains. Since the heroes won the recent War on Villainy and locked up all the real bad guys the heroes aren't getting the sort of acclaim and groupies they're used to getting. In fact some governments are cutting back or altogether eliminating funding for superhero groups. After all without villains, who needs heroes. The heroes want to remind everyone of how important they are. The heroes will train Aidan and others to be supervillains. The new supervillain team will commit a number of crimes and "battle" the heroes. But for the most part no one will get hurt and only a few of the villains will ever go to the soul crushing prison known only as The Tower. Heck, the heroes will even let the villains win a few times, just to keep up interest and stoke fear among the rubes. 

Aidan accepts the offer, in part because he's intrigued by fame and fortune, but mostly because the heroes make it crystal clear that saying no means immediate death (they've inserted control, detonator and monitoring devices inside Aidan and the other "recruits") or worse, going to The Tower. Over time Aidan starts to wonder if he made the right choice and who is really the hero.

This book relentlessly satirizes reality television (the new supervillains have to compete on Death Island to win a spot on the New Offenders team), pro wrestling (every "fight" is tightly choreographed right down to the villains' looks, costumes and catch phrases), the music industry (the rotating sacrificial villain who gets sent to The Tower is called the drummer from the belief that rock band drummers are interchangeable) and of course comic books. Every other chapter or so the author drops an origin story about a villain or hero and what can be learned from their mistakes. These little asides are among the funniest parts of the book. I was also put in mind of the no capes scene from The Incredibles. There's more than one spot where I laughed out loud. I thought the book was dead on accurate about exactly what motivates an eighteen year old man. Almost Infamous is also surprisingly sweet in that it gently explores what makes us like or love each other, in both an erotic and platonic fashion. Aidan is of course initially interested in the erotic but may discover that the platonic is just as important. Aidan can't do what he does without his friends. If you like to laugh then you will enjoy this book. Read it. 

Finders Keepers
by Stephen King
This was book two of what's now referred to as the Bill Hodges trilogy. Since I already read the concluding book, I knew ahead of time that certain characters would survive. It was a good thing then that King didn't spend much time on characters I already knew. I thought that this book was less about the bad guy du jour (he's both pathetic and very dangerous) and more about how fictional stories change us and give us new perspectives on life. As he did in his previous work Misery, King also examines how different ideas about who owns fictional work can cause no end of grief between author and reader. At some level, obviously, it is ridiculous and even childish for anyone to get overly upset with whatever an author chooses to do with his characters. It's not real. But on the other hand the very best authors, and King certainly is among them, are able to invest their creations with such verisimilitude that readers almost can't help but respond as if the characters are actually living. Anyone who felt some sort of way reading or watching The Red Wedding knows of which I write. Still, even though most authors would likely be satisfied to know that their work can evince strong reactions from readers, they would also presumably insist that the author, not the reader, gets to decide what happens next. 

After all if you don't like someone else's story you are free to create your own. In 1978, this is a problem for one Morris Bellamy, a small time criminal with an English professor mother and delusions of grandeur. Morris, via his mother, has inherited and nurtured a love of reading that sets him aside from the normal hoodlum. Morris' favorite author of all time is John Rothstein, a reclusive literary giant (I thought ot Salinger or Phillip Roth) who ended his trilogy on what Morris considered a downbeat and nonsensical conclusion. This ending angers Morris so much that he decides to organize a home invasion of Rothstein's residence. He tells his co-conspirators that's there's money in Rothstein's home. 
There is cash but what really excites Morris is the chance to confront Rothstein face to face. Morris wants to make Rothstein confess his sins against literature before being punished. And the real treasure Morris is after is a collection of notebooks. Rothstein has long been rumored to have continued writing new but unpublished books in the trilogy. The home invasion doesn't end well for anyone except Morris. He hides his treasure in what he thinks of as a safe spot. Unfortunately for Morris he ends up committing another serious crime and is convicted and sent away to prison. The slightly built Morris finds prison an extremely hostile environment for all of the reasons that immediately came to your mind. The only thing that keeps him going is the hope that if he is ever released he has the unpublished Rothstein books waiting for him. He didn't get to read them. In the present day Tom Saubers is disabled by Brady Hartsfield's actions in the first novel. He and his wife undergo tremendous stress in their marriage. This is aggravated by the couple's lack of money. However they manage to stay together. Some angel has been sending them money over the years-enough to keep the lights on one month-enough to pay for Tom's rehab the next. What Tom and his wife don't know is that their son Pete has found the treasure Morris buried. He's been giving his parents the money anonymously. By the time the money has run out the imminent threat of divorce has passed. Pete is also a huge Rothstein fan. 

Unfortunately for Pete though, Morris is finally paroled. He's pushing sixty but just because you're old doesn't mean you're not capable of being menacing. Morris thinks of himself as an old wolf who can still bite. His prison experiences have not changed him for the better. Morris wants the books. Pete, now in high school, doesn't recognize that he might be in over his head. But Pete's little sister does. And she's friends with Jerome's little sister. And Jerome is of course friends with Bill Hodges.

This was a good read. If you are super sensitive to violence you might want to pass on this one. King's occasionally twisted sense of humor is on full display. YMMV on this but King can make me laugh at things that most people wouldn't consider to be very funny. Pete is a very strongly realized character. Books really can be life changing, something that both Pete and Morris recognize. Morris is in many ways, an older Pete, gone tragically wrong. The scary part, at least from Pete's perspective, is how much he and Morris understand each other.
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