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Terrible Reviews: Sleeping Beauties


Here’s a novel that’s the literary equivalent of a totally rebuilt, souped-up, cherry red vintage Mustang that stays locked up in the garage, never to be driven. This is Cameron Frye’s dad’s car, slaved over, worshipped, revered, and eventually driven backwards through a plate glass window. It’s Thelma and Louise leading the entire police squad on a mad chase right up to the edge of the ravine, then stomping on the brakes, turning around, and going home — and the cops let them go.

I loved this book and hated it. To clarify, I wanted to hate this book, but couldn’t stop loving it; I wanted to love this book, but I couldn’t stop hating it.

Feck. Let’s get to it.

As with all Terrible Reviews, spoilers ahead.

SK

Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King, is the story of a parallel reality in which women start falling asleep. Once asleep, they become cocooned and unresponsive, and if awakened, they become (to quote the book’s excellent inside flap) feral and spectacularly violent. While they sleep, the women travel to another world unsullied by men.

Sounds freakin’ awesome, right? Social commentary! Gender issues! Horror!

So, as more and more of the world’s female population falls asleep, an otherworldly woman — who sleeps and wakes as usual but who has a habit of levitating above her mattress — appears in a small town in rural Appalachia. She (her name is Eve, *wink wink nudge nudge*) kills some meth-heads and allows herself to be taken into custody, and as word of her ability spreads, tension spreads and before long, a battle for the future of womankind breaks out.

Holy sharknado! I can’t wait to read this book!

That’s the setup. And it’s bloody fantastic. But then, once the pieces are all strategically positioned across the board, everybody — and I do mean everybody, from the characters themselves to the authors behind them — loses their nerve. The men, fighting each other with literal rocket launchers, stop short of their goal of killing Eve. The women, faced with the prospect of an idyllic world free of the strife that men bring (translation: ALL of the strife) decide nope, actually, we’ll go back to the world we had. And the god (demigod? Trickster spirit? Psychic rando?) sent to witness the whole thing gives up her quest and goes home with her tail between her legs.

Did I mention it’s 700 pages. Which is about 400 pages more than it needs to be.

*gesticulates wildly*

*attempts to tear hair out*

*has no hair*

*gibbers and dances into the yard*

The Good

The concept. It’s drool-worthy; just reading the inside flap was enough to get me to leave off the other book I was reading (and enjoying!) to pick this one up. And the book itself doesn’t disappoint — there’s great characters from start to finish. Thrilling action sequences. Stomach-turning gore (this is King, after all). Despite all my frustrations with the novel, I couldn’t stop reading it; I churned through all 700 pages of it in just two weeks. Unheard of for me lately. I was reaching for the novel while cooking, during commercial breaks in This is Us, staying up way past bedtime to read just a few more pages.

The characters are deep and well-developed and flawed and rich. They fight for the things that matter to them, they have agency, and they drive the plot. (They just drive it at forty miles per hour when they should be at interstate speeds.)

In short, the writing is spectacular. (Again, this is King.) The prose is lovely and crisp, and the tension has this inevitable build that’s hard to do well. (The problem is what it’s building to, which is a giant pile of meh. Which brings us to…)

The Bad

I can’t say that what I would want for any reader of any book I might write is for that reader to reach the end of said book, close the cover, and think, well, that was a waste of time. But I can’t help feeling exactly that about Sleeping Beauties. To wit: the novel ends basically the way it began. There is no great change in the world, no great revelations on the part of the characters, no great payoff to the supernatural plot that’s driving the whole story. The only difference between the world at the start of the story and the end of the story is that there are a lot of buildings on fire and a whole bunch of dead people. And some of the men have vowed to be nicer to their wives. (But the book is sure to undercut even that, pointing out how abusers make these promises all the time, go to therapy for a few months, and then go back to their old ways.)

The problem with the ending is not only that it’s anticlimactic (though it’s most assuredly that. Which is fine. The real world is most often anticlimactic, but one would argue, if you’re reading a Stephen King novel, you’re not reading it for a bath in the soothing waters of the real world). The problem is I don’t buy it. (Here, again, your spoiler warning. Bridge is out ahead.) The Kings spend a lot of words setting up what feels like an inevitable conflict at the end of the novel — this book is 700 pages, to reiterate — and in the last fifty pages, all that conflict just melts away like a sad Atlanta snowflake:

  • The men, who have just mowed down handfuls of people in a shootout at a prison trying to get to the (supposed) progenitor of the curse, come face-to-face with said progenitor. They literally have her at the point of a rifle, undefended. And they lose their nerve when she puts on a display of her supernatural power. Which is great, except that they already thought she was supernatural, given that she caused the curse. But they throw down their guns and let her walk.
  • The women, who, having fallen asleep in the real world, wake up in an alternate universe without men, are faced with a choice immortalized by The Clash: should we stay or should we go? Catch is, their decision must be unanimous. (Why must they be unanimous? Because go Fargo yourself for asking, the authors seem to say say — but more on that in a minute.) Their new world is near perfect. They learn quickly that babies can be born there just fine (though one wonders, if a baby is born in the alternate universe, is it also born in the real world? Women who die in the real world vanish from the alternate world, but the book is mum on this), so there’s no problem with living there forever. They miss their husbands and fathers and sons, but they almost all agree that the new place is better in practically every way. So when they have to make their choice, of course they vote to stay. Except they don’t. Somehow they unanimously agree to go back to the crapsack world they knew, with the justification that “she missed her husband too much” or “the new world was too good to be true” or “a sense of duty.” And, yeah, okay, fine. I can see that for some. Maybe even most. One theory the novel posits, after all, is that women are the glue that keeps this ramshackle world from going to pieces to begin with. But for every single woman? Not a chance. Nope, sorry, not buying it, especially when the authors go out of their way to craft characters who Definitely Do Not Need Men In Their Lives. But no, they give up actual paradise for a world that’s literally on fire.
  • Eve’s entire arc isn’t a bad thing, per se, but rather a confusing thing. We’ll come back to her…

But really, the root of the problem is that the book is 700 pages long, and it should really be half that, if that. There are too many characters to keep track of. (When the book actually has a list of the characters in the front pages to help you keep them straight — and that list is longer than a single page — there are too many characters. When you have the thought, while reading: “maybe I should take notes,” there are too many characters. When you’re introducing brand-new, never-previously-spoken-of characters on page 530 of a 700 page book, there are too many characters.) And because there are too many characters, entirely too many of the book’s too-many-to-begin-with pages are given over to backstory for those characters. I just don’t have the time!*

The WTF

A lot could be said here, so rather than deep dives, I’m gonna scattershot it.

First of all, Eve:

  • What is she, even? She’s clearly supernatural. She wanders around naked and speaks in riddles and nonsense and occasionally sprouts vines and leaves or turns green. Other characters call her “goddess” and “witch” but she never identifies herself.
  • What is she doing? She claims to be a “witness” and claims to have been “sent” to Dooling. But sent by whom? We never get even a whiff of a hint. And for a “witness,” she does a lot of interfering. Is she responsible for the strange events? We never find out.

Then, the “disease” itself. The cocoons are awesome, but what is their source? Is it a sickness? A mass-hysteria event? A parasite or insect infestation? Again, the answer to these questions seems to be “Fargo you for asking,” because we never know, and never get close to knowing. The cocoons burn with an odd spherical flame that, when it goes out, becomes moths but the farthest we go down that rabbit hole is a plastic surgeon saying “well, that’s obviously supernatural,” and never speaking of it again.

These weird moths hang around a lot, and Eve uses them as eyes or something, but that particular point is never fleshed out beyond being weird and slightly creepy.

And, not to go all lit teacher, but … what’s the theme of this thing? Empowerment of women, maybe? Yeah, there are great female characters here, but the most powerful one of all — Eve — just flounces around and then FedExes herself back to heaven or whatever when things don’t go her way. And yeah, the women found their own Utopian society, but then they give it up under a pretty dubious pretense. That men are pigs? There are all sorts of jerko men running around doing jerko things, but for a novel called Sleeping Beauties to be focused on the men (And I’m just gonna ballpark it and say that no less than half of the book is about men rather than women) feels like a bait-and-switch. That the human race is doomed to mundanity even in the face of truly miraculous events? Well, maybe, but then, also, why a story this long and involved to boil down to such a cynical premise?

The Verdict

I just don’t know what to make of Sleeping Beauties.*

The characters are great, but there are too many of them.

The concept is out of this world, but it fizzles out like a dud firecracker.

The writing is lovely, but again, there’s 700 pages of it, which is kind of like eating nothing but whipped cream for weeks.

To compare it to another King work, it’s very like The Stand: strange disease wipes out most of the people on earth, survivors have to rebuild society and war with each other as they do so. Less nuclear threat and religious overtones here, but the same general concept. The Stand is even longer, but it’s also significantly better, and I don’t really know how to square that except to guess that maybe Owen King isn’t quite the writer his father is, and he’s muddying the waters here.

All that said, here’s the footnote:

*Despite this, I devoured the book like a starving man in a cake factory.

Could I recommend it? That’s a tough one.

Looking back from the end, it’s far from the best thing I’ve read, or even the best thing I’ve read in recent history. If you want a post-apocalyptic story like this, King has better works on offer. On the other hand, while I was in it, I couldn’t put the story down, despite my mounting frustrations with it. And that, that unputdownableness, has to go for something, and a pretty significant something at that.

I just keep waffling.

So for all that waffling, I guess I have to give this one two and a half out of five overcooked waffles drowning in syrup.

Actually, make that a full three. Because it’s good to be King.

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Terrible Reviews: End of Watch


I’ve just finished Stephen King’s End of Watch, the final installment of his Mr. Mercedes series. And I want to say I enjoyed it. Well — I did enjoy it, but I’m also really, really confused and kinda disappointed by it.

Spoilers below, but the novel is like two years old, so… you know …

The entire premise of the novel is a head-scratcher — Brady Hartsfield, the psycho killer from the first novel, has woken up from his coma with psychic abilities thanks to experimental drugs administered by a fame-chasing doctor. (That’s the One Big Lie — if you can swallow that, the book is fine!) Now, he’s reaching out through mind-control to induce suicide on a massive scale.

Which … okay. It’s a fascinating idea. And a horrific one. It’s a great idea for a Stephen King novel, in fact. Problem is — there hasn’t been a speck of the supernatural at work in either of the first two novels in the series. And all of a sudden, the big bad can do incredible things with his mind and a little game boy device and — everybody in the story just buys it. They just do!

It’s just a bizarre turn in a series that didn’t need a woo-woo bent. What was King thinking?

And the end is an absolute bummer. Hodges, the lovable grouch, succumbs — not to the attacks leveled by Brady, but to the cruel whim of cancer. And not moments after securing the dispatch of the big bad, but several months later. With no fanfare. He dies “off camera”, as it were, with King showing us an upbeat Hodges at his birthday party in the treatment center, upbeat and fighting, and then cutting to almost a year later at his funeral.

Again — wtf?

It may be true-to-life, and maybe that’s the point — but crikey. We read detective novels not to live in the real world of mundane (if horrible) cancer deaths, but to live vicariously by the seat of our pants. I’d have been happier if Hodges and Hartsfield managed to off each other in the end, or even if Hodges succumbed a few days or weeks later. But months? He finishes the baddie and looks ready to give cancer a run — but nope, surprise, he’s dead anyway?

Mr. Mercedes is a detective story — the finding of clues, the glimpses into the mind of a psycho, the inevitable pursuit and capture. King is great at those things, and all three novels tell a great detective story. But this final chapter is just laden with so much else.

Again, it’s not a problem with the content. I don’t mind the story of an aging protagonist struggling with cancer. I don’t mind the concept of a murderer using mind control to commit his crimes. In fact, that’s kind of awesome! But you can’t shoehorn those things into an established story world just for sharknados and giggles.

I whole-heartedly recommend Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the series. As for the later installations?

What was he thinking?

Verdict: Two and a half out of five daisies pushing through the fresh-tilled earth.

This terrible review is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Baby Elephant Walk, or Juxtaposition Makes the World Go ‘Round


 

I haven’t been doing a ton of reading lately, but I have been working my way through a Stephen King novel that I picked up off the bargain rack: Cell.

It’s not the sort of earth-shattering powerhouse that The Stand was, but it’s in a similar vein: post-apocalyptic survivalist us-vs-them quest to save the world.

I’m not going to write a full review or anything, but I just wanted to share something. In the novel, much of humanity is turned into, essentially, zombies by a mysterious transmission on their cell phones (get it? Cell? Social commentary, whee!). But as part of the mysterious transmission, the affected zombies develop this sort of hive-mind shared consciousness and begin to swarm and flock and generally do all kinds of freaky, unsettling stuff.

But one motif that sort of threads through the whole thing — and serves to defuse the abject terror of the situation — is that the phone-crazies huddle together at night to rest, reboot, and listen to some truly terrible music. One such piece of music is Baby Elephant Walk, by Henry Mancini. And, well, I just took it as granted that it was a ridiculous bit of fluff — with a name like Baby Elephant Walk how could it be anything but ponderous, playful, and harmless?

But I got to the end of the novel and it came up again, and I realized I needed to know what exactly the Baby Elephant Walk was all about. So I googled it, and now I know that I knew what it was all along.

Yeah. That’s basically the zombies’ theme in this post-apocalyptic horror-show novel. Fargoing fantastic.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: It Even Snows in Atlanta


The world is not equitable. The playing field is not even.

Sure, most of us start with more or less the same genetic code, and people are generally people wherever you go, but there’s no telling who’s going to be naturally gifted at this thing or that thing. Some great writers languish, undiscovered, for their entire lifetimes, while the Stephanie Meyers and the E.L. Jameses of the world spread their cancerous tripe like a brush fire. Some of the best athletes the world will ever know have never set foot on a proper field or court.

All of which makes it pretty darn reasonable to throw in the towel. Getting discovered is a mug’s gameIt’s who, not what, you knowProbably, you’re too old anyway to take up anything new. Old dogs and all. Right?

And that’s the problem with our culture. We think that we’ll never get to the top, so we give up on our dreams before we even take the first step. I’m never going to lose the thirty pounds I’d like to, so let me chomp down on this pile of cheeseburgers and watch reruns of House all day. This or that measure won’t solve every single problem with gun violence, so let’s not even bother disrupting the status quo.

We have such a distorted view of success that we’re afraid to reach even for the hem of its garment. We might not be perfect, so let’s not even try to be decent.

But that’s bullshit. Kids know it.

Give my kids a couple of crayons, and they will gladly launch into a whirlwind of artistic expression. They’ll branch out from doodling on paper to scrawling on the walls to decorating the family cats, then bring their work to you with a face-splitting smile saying “look what I did!” They take pride in their work, even though it’s crap, because they have no conception of what good work is. They have no idea — and are therefore not concerned — that there could possibly be somebody else out there doing anything better than what they are doing right here, right now, at this moment.

And that’s where this insecurity stems from, isn’t it? The constant comparison, the inescapable knowledge that while I’m sitting here tying myself in knots to bang out a few more words on my novel, Stephen King is somewhere in a mahogany study probably twenty pages deep into today’s copy. Every word better than mine, and by dint of that betterness, more valuable, and once we start talking about value, well. Steve’s words have value and mine don’t. It is as unlikely as a blizzard dumping two feet of snow in Atlanta that my words will ever be as valuable as Stephen King’s.

So why bother?

When we focus on the prizes that the things we could do bring — publication, wealth, an adoring audience … or a slimmer waistline, or a smaller number on the scale, or a promotion at work, or a new car in the driveway, or a medal or a trophy — we take our eyes off the road at our feet. Now, having a goal in mind is great. You have to dream big and aim high or you really won’t have a shot. But the prizes we’re aiming at — or the prizes we’re told we should aim at — aren’t the only prizes out there.

You can run for the serenity of it rather than to be the fastest. You can play pickup basketball for the distraction and the exercise and never have to worry about getting picked for a team. You can write for the sheer joy of it, or for the rush of playing god with the lives of the tiny beings you’ve created, or because it relaxes you, or simply because you have a story to tell.

I may never get published, or never reach the audience I hope to, or never make a dime off my writing. But I think I’d be okay with that. (I mean, it’d be a bummer, but I like to think I’d be okay with it.) I’m having a damned good time telling stories, even if it’s just to myself. Even if I’m never even a patch on Stephen King.

Then again, every now and then, it even snows in Atlanta…

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This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Achievement Unlocked: First Edit Complete!


There’s a great moment in Hook, that early 90’s Peter Pan reboot, where Tinkerbell suddenly grows to human size and her house explodes around her as she embraces her true feelings for Peter Pan, confessing her undying and eternal pixie love for him.

Actually, that moment was a little bit weird. Creepy, even, somehow. But that’s off the topic. She unleashes a blast of magic she didn’t know she had, and with a demure little gasp of surprise, she yelps, “I did it!” Just as much in shock as Peter.

Well, that’s me right now.

Because I did it.

I bound up the sprained ankle I mentioned in my last post — you know, the one where I stepped in a literary pothole — and heaved myself bodily across the finish line. And that’s it. It’s over.

Well, not over over. But the first edit is over. Like really, legitimately, no-more-bullsharknado over. The only thing left now is one final pass for formatting, and then I can put the last nail in the coffin and decide who I’m going to burden with the first reading of this coalesced glob of proto-babble I’m tentatively calling a book. And for that step, I’m allowing myself no more than a week. One week — seven days — and then it’s time to figure out who I trust enough to tear my crazily crafted tapestry to shreds.

But here’s a dirty secret. I didn’t want to be finished. No, that’s not right. I was dying to be finished. No…

Truth be told, I was 50-50 split on whether I wanted to be finished with the whole thing or whether I was going to undertake another massive rewrite. It would have been easy to take the rewrite and stretch the process out for another month or more. So easy. I could still do it, in fact.

The fact is, I just slapped a band-aid on the problem of the disappearing character. She had disappeared without a trace, and I just wrote a magical exit from the narrative for her. (There’s magic in my story; I can totally do that.) Solving the problem she presented for me consisted of writing a single paragraph and changing a few sentences in the chapter at hand. That’s all.

But while I was writing the easy fix, a bigger fix crept into my head. A divergent fork in the road. The road overgrown with weeds and bramble and teeming with dark critters and glowing eyes floating in the mist. And this time… this time… I decided to let the harder road be.

You can bet dollars to doughnuts, though, that I wrote down the idea for the rewrite in case I need it later.

So, that’s that. The first edit is concluded. Or so nearly concluded as makes no difference. Concluded in every practical sense. Pat it on the head, send it on its way.

So what does that mean? It means it’s time to stop thinking of this novel as a pet project and get serious about the business of turning it into an actual book that you, reading this, can actually hold in your actual hands. Or, you know, into a collection of ones and zeroes that your handheld computer can belch up at you without the need for all that clumsy processed tree getting in the way. Either way.

And then…

And then, I guess, it’ll be time to don the greasy garb of the pit fighter to begin once again the dirty work of drafting something new. Because momentum matters, and just because the first edit is done is no reason to consider the work finished.

I was reading some notes by Stephen King about how he prepares to work on a story, and he wrote rather anti-eloquently that he gets the idea in mind and then just goes about his life until the muse — and I’m paraphrasing here, but the operative words are definitely his — shits on his head. Maybe I should start carrying a roll of toilet paper around in my man-satchel.

You know, just in case.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


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