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Randall Reads: John Dies at the End, but the Story Dies Much Earlier Than That

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

And, really, I’m not sure John does die at the end!

The first few days I was reading this, it seemed destined to land in the rare air of 4- or 5-stars. Using Goodreads’ tags for star ratings, those numbers are reserved for “really liked it” and “it was amazing,” respectively. I don’t say either of those things about books (or movies, or songs, or much of anything for that matter) lightly. Hence, when we’re talking about a work that is tagged as being “genre fiction, it was really shaping up to be quite the coup.

Unfortunately, the novel is split into two connected books, with “Book II: Korrock” not holding up to the promise and pacing that makes “Book I: They China Food!”

I first came across David Wong’s (a.k.a. Jason Pargin) novel through a list of “The 25 Best Horror Novels of the New Millennium.”  My relationship to horror writing is somewhat responsible for my love of reading, in general, as Stephen King was the man who motivated me to pick up a book and read it of my own volition (WAY back in the early 1980’s when I was actually young.

THIS cover!

I realize fully this is far from a unique story.

30 years and a degree in English Language and Literature did little to keep me closely connected to my first literary love. The list was serving to remind me that I once preferred horror novels to all others.

Hopefully, nobody has walked away already thinking I’ve ever thought of horror (or fiction of any genre, for that matter) as less worthy of readership than anything else. I don’t think that in the slightest.

I DO think, however, that the style of writing in much of what falls into some genres could simply be better. It turns out that, while I love a good, fun story, my enjoyment of it is exponentially increased when the use of language to tell it is considered.

I also tend to want deeper character development than I often see, but that’s not as important to me in these situations.

So…where was I? Yes, the list.

Who doesn’t love a list? Even when you get mad at the injustice of your favorite potential list member being excluded, you still love the list. This seemed like a good resource for finding a book to help me reconnect with a somewhat-lost love.

“John Dies at the End” was the first book in the list at #25. Between the quirky title and cover photo, I was already pretty much sold. Hence, my chuckling at the inclusion of terms like “penis doorknobs” and “demonic wiggers” in the description was just so much drawing a design into the frothy milk atop the latte: nice, but not necessary.

You’ll get immediately that this story is told in a humorous voice. I mean, did you miss the mention of “penis doorknobs.” In a sense, the voice makes this a bit less a horror novel than what I’m used to, which is as good an illustration as to the completely daft nature of trying to slap a label on everything in the first place.

Then again, what scared me when I was 10-years-old is unlikely to scare me now, eh?

It would be a mistake to dismiss the book due to a bit of immature humor, however. While it’s there, I wouldn’t say it’s too pervasive other than in a few moments. Without giving too much away, when John (of the title) essentially attacks captors with the feces being sprayed from a dog’s rear end, it doesn’t seem slapstick-y; it actually works in context.

The problem here is more one of structure.

“They China Food!” moves at a great pace, heavily seasoned with action scenes and comedic moments. When it ended, I was completely satisfied with pretty much everything about it. The author did a great job of developing a mythology around his two protagonists—John and David (the purported author of the book)—while setting things in motion at a quick clip with several memorable scenes that will undoubtedly be excellent scenes in the upcoming film of the same name.

Unfortunately, you don’t get too far into “Korrock” before realizing that the author had a great, fun story to tell, but then needed to scramble the characters into another scenario to get to novel length.

The book’s afterword, in which Pargin tells the story of how the novel was hatched as a part-time online venture that caught fire via word-of-mouth recommendations, would seem to indicate that converting the online product to a novel necessarily created unique challenges. As tight and fast-paced as the first part of the book is, the second part is at least equally as sprawling and dragging. My overall impression of the book on the whole likely suffers from the comedown from the first part, which is vastly superior, in my opinion.

See?

That being said, I look forward to the recently released sequel: This Book is Full of Spiders, because even with the structural issues I had with John Dies at the End the final accounting leaves you with a fun, new voice working the under-served confluence area of horror, comedy, and science-fiction. The adventures of John and David are unlikely to appeal to all comers, but for the right audience, this novel hits a lot of the right notes.

Plus, Wong knows a little something about covers and titles, yeah?

Randall Reads: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

When considering what to discuss when reviewing my reading experience with Chuck Wendig’s “Blackbirds,” I start with some basics (i.e. basic plot, characterization, genre, publisher with good track record) and quickly find dozens of ways to drill down into each (i.e. rise of paranormal romance/urban fantasy, readers demanding sense of ‘reality’ even in genre fiction, DRM wars, Department of Justice lawsuits, self-publishing phenomenon, social media marketing…).

I’ll start where the story starts.

Not where Miriam Black’s story starts. I mean, the actual book coming moving from being out there in the wide world into my “to be read” pile and emerging into “actually reading it!”

The quick genesis is that some twitter feed I follow (Tor?) posted something at some point that led to me reading a preview of the book. Contained within that preview were two crucial items.

1) “Miriam Black knows when you will die…when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name.”

I don’t pretend to be able to explain exactly what draws my attention when it comes to plot in books, but this is a pretty good example from which to draw. Had my attention immediately. Maybe it’s a touch of darkness mixed with some paranormal elements. There’s also the sense of urgency implied here. I don’t think I’m necessarily attracted to what some call “page turners,” but it is also not a turn-off by any stretch.

2) The cover:

Simply put, the cover is excellent, assuming that what it’s meant to do is help the book find certain readers. That particular achievement has been unlocked.

In fact, I’ve directed a few friends to the book (The Missus) included, and every one of them, upon looking up the book, exclaimed, “Nice cover!” The artist deserves an award. The best I can offer it to mention him here, so, kudos to Dale Halvorsen a.k.a “Joey Hi-Fi.” Bravo!

Of course, there’s more to the story. Getting into my “to be read” pile is not exactly difficult. It’s not quite in the acceptability range of, say, the offer of a free beer, but you don’t have to work much harder than that for me to add your title to my unwieldy list that will largely go unread. It’s a fairly coarse filter.

Considering the book appears to have been published only on April 24, Wendig may turn out to have set a record for getting a book from completely unknown to me to DONE! in record time; other than when China Mieville or Colson Whitehead publish something new, I don’t rush right out and get something fresh off the presses.

When I read about books I find interesting, I hit a few places on the internet right away. Generally, I’ll do a quick check with Paperbackswap to see whether I can cash in a credit to get the book sent to me with no more effort to me than a click or two. As that’s most often futile, I will move to put the title on my Goodreads “to-read” list before heading over to the website of the Seattle Public Library to see whether I can borrow the e-book from them or, failing that, adding my name to the wait list for either the e-book or a hard copy. Depending on how urgent the book seems and how long the wait list is, I will then check a few online retailers, but usually to confirm there is no way I’m going to pay $13 to $14 for an e-book.

The wait for “Blackbirds” was really short, though, so I ended my search with the SPL.

Then came the email on a rainy Friday while at work:

“The following items are being held for you at the library…’Blackbirds…'”

I was excited. Not only was it Friday, but I had just finished another book that very morning and was in the market for the next victim. Perfect.

Excepting that “rainy” bit.

I like to put books on hold at the downtown branch of the Seattle library system because it’s a nice walk from the office. Nicer when it’s not raining.

And, to be clear, most of the time it’s raining here in Seattle, it’s not what I grew up thinking of as rain back in Michigan. Usually, it’s this hazy drizzle where you’d be hard pressed to identity anything looking like an actual rain drop.

Not the case last Friday, however. This was what I have come to refer to as a “proper rain.”

Hence, I was challenged to match my frugality against my desire to not get drenched on my way home (also taking into consideration I’d been sick not too long before that).

A quick peek at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble revealed the e-book to be offered at a very reasonable price. I don’t remember specifically, but I think somewhere in the $5 to$6 range. Not bad, but…is saving the walk worth even that price?

Somehow my eye caught the fact this was an Angry Robot title. Having already a generally positive opinion of their work, I navigated to their site where I learned that all e-books purchased from them are DRM-free and, in celebration of that fact, they were having a sale of 50% off all their titles.

Unlike Miriam, I don’t put a lot of of stock into fate, but this seemed like as close an instance of “it’s meant to be” as you’re likely to find.

Cancel hold at SPL; spend $3.10 to have my own copy of the book, avoid the walk in the rain, and throw money behind a writer, his publisher, and the concept that properly priced e-books are too good a value to pass up.

Finally, THE BOOK!

As far as I’m concerned, the edited sentence from the Tor.com preview is really all the plot you need to know before reading it. I can’t think of much to add that should say you toward or away from the book. It sounds like something you would enjoy right away, or it would be a disservice to try to sell you on it.

Mingling with the supernatural element of Miriam’s ability, is a fairly strong character moving along a story line that moves pretty quickly. There is not a lot of wasted prose contained within the (according to Amazon) 384 pages.

Before starting, I read a few of the negative reviews of the book on Goodreads. I remember reading three pretty specific criticisms: 1) it reads like a screenplay 2) Miriam clearly was written by a man and not a woman, and 3) it feels like the author forced two separate stories together into one.

The first item is interesting to me. First, I completely get it; the book does have a very visual feel to it as you read it. You can easily see it  being adapted to a screen. Whether this is intentional on the part of the author and should be a mark against the book, however, I’m not sure.

The funny thing about this, though, is that there is, attached to the end of the ebook, an interview of Wendig conducted by another Angry Robot author, Adam Christopher. Within this interview, Wendig reveals that he won a year-long ‘mentorship’ with a screenwriter, during which he took the opportunity to take his raw story, turn it into a script, and then work it back into a novel. Why I find this funny is that, while it certainly is reasonable for someone to have read the novel and not that interview and yet have come to an opinion that it reads too much like a screenplay for their own satisfaction. I shall hope that is the case rather than the persons who listed that among their objections read this and decided it would sound really prescient of them to have come up with that insight all on their own.

I only sort of hope that. I actually think the latter more likely. I guess that makes me a cynic?

As for the second item…well, I’d assume “Chuck” is a dude. Turns out that was a safe assumption. Seems an all-too easy criticism to level.

But, alas, it’s somewhat true.

For some reason, nothing irritates me more than when someone dislikes about a work of fiction that they found some part of it to be “unbelievable.” I need to be more open-minded about how others approach their reading, I am sure, but it mostly makes me want to whack them in the nose with the spine of “American Gods.” My approach is along the lines that you’re looking into someone else’s perceptions of what is, was, or could be/have been, not someone’s attempt to put those ideas into words that make sense in your world. Once you accept that, it’s pretty easy to let things slide in a book you might not accept as an excuse from, say, a co-worker as to why their bit of work isn’t completed or up to snuff.

Hence, I want to accept Wendig’s version of a young woman living on the road with unsettling visions of other people’s deaths, but, honestly, she talks like a douche-y frat boy at times, spouting lingo that inspires some version of a rolling of the eyes and grows tiresome quickly. I think the worst offense among these is the scene where she says, “It’s time to rock out with your cock out. It’s time to jam out with your clam out.” It was just the next of a succession of things Miriam said which made me wonder, “Who talks like that?” This one, however, gave me an answer: ‘Frat Douche.’

For my money (albeit, a whopping $3 and change of which I would not dream of asking a return), the dialogue might be the weakest point of the novel. It rings false more often than not. Maybe chalk it up to a bit of campiness and…maybe, but not for me entirely.

The third item among the complaints cited (two stories merged into one) sends me back to that interview with Christopher, wherein Wendig also said that he’d written Miriam in one place and the pair of Frankie and Harriet in another, bringing them together in the novel.

And this is where I’m truly cynical because, even knowing this to be the case, I don’t think it reads as such at all in the book. Leaving a little room for my want to believe the good in people, maybe the weaving of those three existing characters into a shared story is not a seamless as it seems to me. I’m happy to admit I’m not the most-careful reader in West Seattle, much less among all who have the internet, but I still think I smell a rat; I don’t give it much weight as a genuine criticism of “Blackbirds.” It rings nearly as false as some of Miriam’s strings of patented catch-phrasing.

Overall, the pacing of the story and the intriguing premise are more than enough to outweigh the tinny dialogue for me. Without getting bogged down in discussions about genres, the story treads at least lightly into the “urban fantasy” and horror realms. There’s some “romance,” heavy on the quotation marks and even a bit of the mystery/thriller thing.

All of which does send one into the bog of just how useful pigeon-holing titles into genres really is…but let’s not start, eh?

“Blackbirds” is a fairly breezy read, with a likable (I like her) protagonist with interesting abilities mired in a bit of a situation, and the pacing to keep you reading past your bed-time. Once you accept that Miriam’s personality might just be some dark bit of a male author’s subconscious and will talk as such, you can get down to the business of the ride and taking in the grim scenery.

Definitely recommendable.