Tony’s Review: Doctor Sleep, Stephen King

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4/5

Dan Torrance, the child protagonist of King’s The Shining, is now an alcoholic drifter, chased by the ghosts of his childhood and trying to drown them in drink. When he gets off a bus to nowhere in New Hampshire, his life begins to change…

Including The Talisman – Black House books King wrote with Peter Straub and his Dark Tower series, King is actually an old hand at sequels. This one doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of warmth and humour and characteristic King touches and style.

About a quarter of the way through, I realised the plot is more of a Dean Koontz feel: Troubled man helps protect precocious tele-everything teen from very real psychic vampires, learning the redemptive power of family on the way. Not that’s a criticism at all, I just thought it was interesting.

Dan attends Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the twelve steps is apologise to those you’ve hurt…and it seems like King wants to apologise to Dan Torrance for running him through the hell of The Shining. He wants to know that Dan’s life turned out all right in the end. It’s very much a story of redemption and returning sanity, a counterpoint to the damnation and slide into insanity that was The Shining.

And King’s own demons mirror the book: As a recovering alcoholic and substance abuser, he’s been at the bottom where Dan starts off. As a result Dan feels like a very intimate and personal portrait, a thin veil of King’s own fall and recovery.

As much as Dan realises he can’t escape the virtual demons in his head, so Abra – his teenage counterpart – can’t escape the real demons chasing after her: Wherever you go, there you are, they realise.

The climax felt a little rushed, but then as a book about redemption and healing, it was never really about who was going to win in the end. And, to be honest, it was pretty obvious from the start.

It’s been a while since King wrote anything as simple as splatter and gore, and the horror and the terror in this book are restrained and off-screen. No one loses a foot or does the Mashed Potato all over a giant eyeball for instance.

With such a strong young adult protagonist, it’s also a great young-adult book.

I haven’t read The Shining in a few years, and it didn’t feel as if I needed a refresher to read this. There would have been a few paragraphs that wouldn’t have made much sense, that was all.

If you haven’t read any King, this is a good place to start.

Tony’s Halloween: Late Home

It’s starting to gather down to dusk, the world smudging and blurring like a finger brushed charcoal painting. And still there’s no footsteps coming along the path and no key turning in the door. Where is he?

I try his phone again; still it goes to his insane
(Hey, hey, hey! Try again later!)
voicemail, and I leave another message. Ten seconds after I hang up, I’m at the window. When I open it, the chilled night air rushes to me like a cloying relative at a funeral, eager to console me with its coldness.

I slam the window closed. Pace back and forward, an animal
(wolf)
in a cage. Hating about what I’m doing, I’m about to dial the police when I hear footsteps outside, the crunch of gravel. I drop the phone and beat Gerry to the door, throwing it open and my arms around him before he’s more than a shape before me, almost screaming into his ear about much I was worried, where was he, what’s going on, what’s happened.

But his arms aren’t going around me in return, only hanging limp at his sides, and he’s not answering me. I take a step back and look at him, my husband of three months standing on the doorstep of our home as though he’s a stranger.

“Gerry?”

A thousand yard stare, no recognition. His new coat is torn and there’s something
(blood?)
on his shirt, smudged. His tie is gone.

“Gerry, honey, you’re scaring me. What’s happened, baby?”

I take his hand and pull him inside, trying to tell myself that the sticky wetness on his hand is not blood, no it’s not, not at all, no way, and that’s not the metallic coppery smelltaste of it making my nostrils flare.

Gerry moves forward enough so I can close the door behind him, and I slam a hand on the hall light, showering him with brightness.

He’s covered in it. Drying to burgundy and maroon, on his coat, his hands, his
(mouth!)
face and neck.

Still the stare doesn’t see me, even when I start to strip the clothes from his body, tearing the coat away, then the shirt, my hands growing sticky as I fumble across his muscles. No injuries; the blood isn’t his, anyway.

I’m not sure this is a good thing, but he still doesn’t answer me when I ask him what’s happened. Dear God, Gerry, have you
(killed someone?)
done something?

He’s down to his boxers when he finally moves, responding to the intimacy of my fingers if nothing else. He grabs my hands tight, finally breaks eye contact with the horizon and stares at me.

“Lou?”

My hand caresses his cheek, trying not to see the blood on his
(teeth)
face.

“Yes, it’s me. Talk to me, Gerry. What’s happened?”

He shakes his head, looking down at himself. “I did…something. I need…”

“Need what, baby? Come on. Let’s get you showered, okay? Cleaned up, get that
(evidence)
mess off you.”

“No. I need.” He inhales. “I need to see the news.”

I blink. It can’t be… “What? The news can wait, let’s -”

He squeezes my hands a little tighter, then releases them and turns towards the den. “No. The news. Right now.”

He shuffles out of his pants, kicking them away, putting a hand on the wall to balance, leaving a bright burgundy handprint on the cream wall.
(We painted that wall together, argued over the color, that was the only thing we argued over, the color, now look what he’s done)
But Gerry isn’t done leaving drying bloodstains over everything. He stumbles into the den and reaches across the white sofa, leaving a scream of red on the arm as he picks up his tablet. No doubt I’ll get the job of cleaning all this up before
(the police come with forensics)
the night is out.

Gerry falls into the sofa, scrolling with a stained finger, smearing it over the cream of the tablet in his hands. I open my mouth to ask what he’s looking for, but he raises his finger for quiet.

I settle for sitting next to him and watching him scroll. Zookeepers are puzzled about an apparent wolf attack on a bear yesterday – But he skims and reads past the story and several similar ones, dated about a month apart, stretching back three months or so. I realise he’s filtered the stories down to wolf and attack.

He shakes his head and drops the tablet on the end table. “Nothing. Nothing at all. Must be too early. Maybe they haven’t found him yet.”

“Found who?”

“I can’t…can’t…”

My slap on his cheek startles him back to some sort of sense. “Listen, Gerry, if you screwed up tonight, I need to know. Right now. Where’s the car?” I squeeze his shoulder tight enough for him to want to wriggle away, but I only tighten the grip. I’ve dealt with bigger
(animals)
men than Gerry.

“Chambers Park. That’s where it happened.”

What happened?” I need to hear him say it, then we can move forward. Maybe. I’ll come to what happens if we can’t get past this when I have to.

When Gerry hesitates, I slap him again, leaving a red welt on his cheek. He raises a hand to rub it, but I have his complete attention. He begins to speak.

“I was cutting across the park after work to get to the car. Such a beautiful sunset…I stood there to watch it settle in the ocean for a minute. People walking past, some of them watching the sunset with me. But then…then a man walked by. Nothing different about him…but…but. Oh, God, the smell. I can’t…can’t describe it. Most amazing thing…it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever felt. I wanted to chase after him and smell him more. Taste him. Lick the smell from his skin. God, it made…made me so horny. I’ve never felt so turned on in my life.”

I can see the memory stirring him through his boxers as he speaks, and I give him an intimate squeeze of encouragement. “Go on.”

“I started to follow him. It wasn’t hard…he was like…like a bright light in a dark room. Everyone else was grey, and he was bright yellow. And his smell just kept getting stronger and stronger. I had…I had to have him.”

He shudders in pleasure. My fingers haven’t left his boxers, and they continue their slow massage.

He closes his eyes and continues. “He turned into a secluded pathway. I knew where he was going, could trace his route…I dove into the bushes, onto all fours, snuffling along. It wasn’t like the movies…I mean, I didn’t turn into a wolf or anything…”

There’s the word I’m looking for. I lean over him and take the tablet while he talks. “Go on,” I prompt again, returning my fingers to his boxers.

“…I got ahead of him on the path. Oh, the smell of him, that aroma…” He stiffens as his desire increases. “I…jumped out…started to tear…to rip…oh, God, the smell of his blood drove me into a…a…frenzy. My mouth was on his throat. His throat, the pulse of him just under the surface, and…and I bit. I bit and I tore and he went down and I drank him down, drank the sweet blood, ripped open his ribcage with my fingers and ate…oh, Jesus, Louise, what are you doing?”

His recital has excited me and my hand has been moving faster. Unwillingly, I pull it back, needing to stay focused. I turn my attention back to the tablet and move away an inch. “I’m…I’m sorry, Gerry. I should have told you earlier.”

“Told me what?”

I bite my lip. “When we got married, the first night, our honeymoon. I…I bit you.”

“You…bit…me? You mean you’re a…?”

I show him the news story he skipped. Zookeepers are puzzled about a wolf attack on a bear yesterday. The wolf appears to have scaled a fifteen feet wall and to have torn out the throat of the bear, then escaped the same way.

“That was you?”

I nod. “I’m sorry. And the attack the month before. I try to attack wild animals. Zoo ones if I’m really…stuck. They are endangered, after all, most of them. The police don’t get as suspicious with wild animals.”

Things start to click together for him. “So every month, when you say you have that knitting circle, you’re…?”

I nod.

“When…when were you planning on telling me this?”

“Well, I didn’t think the stories about biting were true, you see. I did wait until we were married. It was either that or tear your throat out the first time I…smelled…you. The first time we were together…I nearly killed you while you slept.”

“I don’t…I don’t know what to say…”

I try to still my rising desire, the urge to bite and claw. But the scent of that drying blood is driving me wild, the thought of licking it from his body…

I snuggle closer to him and breathe into his ear, returning my hand to between his thighs. “That sensation you had as you…bit and…tore. Sweetie…you should try it when I’m beside you. Or beneath you. God, you smell so good right now.”

I should really be fetching the car and scrubbing the blood from the walls, but Gerry’s breathing accelerates and his voice slows, his eyes close and his head rolls back. “Oh, yeah…tell me more about that…ripping…and tearing…”

I decide that fetching the car can wait a while, after all.

Tony’s Rambles: Double Edges

There was a man who lived alone on my street – let’s call him Paul. Paul died recently…he was a nice guy, quiet, looked after his mother when she was terminally ill and looked after another old lady who lived across the road (We live on a street where most of our neighbours are retired and elderly. It’s one of the reasons I love it – no parties until 3am where we live).

Anyway, another neighbour told me that Paul was slowly drinking himself to death; and, as I said, he recently succeeded.

Being a writer is mostly a great time. You get to make up worlds and people who don’t exist and play with them, run them through the mill and see what they’re made of. But it’s a double-edged sword, like with our quiet neighbour Paul.

I can see him, sitting alone in his kitchen every night, staring at a bottle and the silent, silent walls and rooms around him. I can see him reaching for that bottle to try to drown out that silence, then having to do it more often. The absolute loneliness of his life, the spaces he couldn’t fill.

I could be wrong about Paul, of course; he could – and most likely did – have his own reasons for drinking until it killed him. But still the writer in me sees him sitting there, alone, every night and sees the empty tragedy of his life.

Here’s another example: My wife and I had a good friend who died in a light aircraft crash quite a few years ago. (Those things crash all the time, have you noticed?). As a writer, it’s all too easy to imagine her gripping the hand of the person beside her as the pilot loses control and the plane starts to shudder. And to see the rushing trees coming towards her through her eyes, see those last thoughts flash through her head.

And as easy as it to imagine how beautiful a starlight beach is at midnight, the sand rubbing your toes, the infinity of stars above you, that smell of open water and the mist from the surf prickling your skin, so it’s as easy to imagine how it feels to be trapped in a plane that’s being flown towards an already burning building, the Manhattan skyline unrolling beneath you at three hundred miles per hour.

I don’t get to pick and choose what Muse throws at me, and when she does, I feel the responsibility to share that empathy to lonely people like Paul…to tell the stories the way my imagination and experience of life sees them, both the happy stories and the sad: The beautiful beach and the burning building. Both edges of the sword, and both of them cut as deeply when I write.

I’m not complaining about that responsibility at all; in fact I enjoy it. I’ll always try and do the best job I can with the stories I write, because that’s the way I was raised – if a job’s worth doing, then do it well – and I take my writing very seriously, even when it’s just fun and games.

It wouldn’t be right otherwise.

Tony’s Review: Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

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3/5

In the disintegrating world of 2044, Wade Watts, a hermit teenager, dedicates his life to discovering the online clues that could win him the ultimate prize…

The OASIS is the only place to be in the future. The world has fallen apart, and almost every aspect of humanity is pushed onto a massive online, virtual reality. Even schools and public services are in there – there’s a planet with nothing but schools, for instance. Interaction is through avatars. They can be ‘killed’ (more like a restart), but nobody really gets hurt in there. Not physically, anyway.

The man who designed this became the richest man on the planet, and when he dies, his fortune is left up for grabs for whoever can solve the puzzles he left behind, puzzles rooted in very, very obscure 1980s pop culture and gaming references.

I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not particularly skilled at computer or arcade games, so the (80s) subculture that the author immerses us in is mostly lost on me. But luckily, he explains every reference as he goes along.

In fact, he seems just to drop references in just to explain them…they don’t really advance the plot much. There’s an example where Wade travels somewhere in a Back to the Future DeLorean with a Knight Rider and Ghostbusters add-ons. It’s never used again and not mentioned, so why do it?

In the movie “Signs” a character says: “…this stuff is just about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend their whole lives. They make up secret codes and analyze Greek mythology and make secret societies where other guys who never had girlfriends can join in.”

That’s what the 80s subtext of the novel mostly felt like to me; obscure references that very few people would understand (or even care if they weren’t there). They’re just secret handshakes for the society the author moves in.

Fortunately, the main character is likable enough to keep you reading – you want this little underdog to win, especially against the corporate bullies who are willing to kill him and his friends. You want him to come out with the girl and the prize and some good friends. There are no real surprises when he does all three.

I have some grievances against the pop culture references. Where was Madonna? Where was Spielberg? Where was Tron? And one the author missed that I caught: Wade references Fantastic Voyage (1966)…why not Innerspace (1987)?

Also, since the references seemed to stretch back and forward decades a little, where was Potter World?

Wade calls his diary for keeping track of all the clues his Grail Diary, a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a nice metaphor, and it carries nicely through the book; as Jones discovers that the search for the Grail is the search for what’s important rather than an artefact, so does Wade discover that what’s important to him isn’t inside a computer, but back in the world of the real.

Tony’s Review: Insurgent, Veronica Roth

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3/5

Tris has to come to terms with killing a friend, and losing her parents, while trying to form and keep new alliances with The Factions (and Factionless). But nothing is black and white anymore…

I checked back, and it’s been two years since I read Divergent – high time I read Book Two, I thought, and I had some summer time reading space and went for it.

Despite the gap between the stories, I didn’t feel lost as to what was going on in this book. It’s almost self-contained, with enough back-story reminders to keep you on track. There’s a nice sequel hook at the end so you come back for Book Three to see how it all works out.

Roth sketches her world in rough outlines, with shades of grey and rain the predominant colours and weather, but despite that, you get a solid sense of place and are very grounded in this world and its characters.

I commented in the first book there didn’t seem to be much chemistry between Tris and her instructor, Tobias (now her lover). This time it seems more developed and the relationship more concrete. There seems to be more of a need for each other now.

Roth doesn’t hang about in this book. Her pacing is relentless; there aren’t many pages where the characters aren’t moving forwards to the next event. Tris is shifting locations constantly in this book, from Amity orchards to Candor confusing corridors. The pacing is almost too fast, and sometimes the action blurs into one.

Tris also changes alliances as her whims take her. I’m not sure I would Tris with my back in a fire-fight: She might decide the people we were supposed to be fighting have a better deal for her. It does make her character and the dynamics of her relationships more interesting though. Tris is a woman in conflict, with everyone around her and herself.

I will be coming back for Book Three…maybe in another two years.

Tony’s Review: The Tipping Point by Walter Danley

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No rating – didn’t finish it.

(This was a read-for-review sent by Mr Danley)

I got to 25% of the Kindle copy of “Tipping Point”, a corporate thriller set in the world of real estate before I stopped. It was fine for the most part before the 25%. For the most part…the rest of the time, it read like a first draft: There were tense changes, POV switches midway through paragraphs and numerous typos. A character on a ski slope inhales the “fridge mountain air”; a major characters name is mis-spelled; There were sentences without a subject that made no sense.

A bigger problem was the telling and not showing, particularly of the love interest, who we were told was beautiful four times without being shown it once – having someone stare at her as she walked by, for instance.

The notes at the end made this clear that this was a revision of a book already published…and that it had been proofread by a few people before it saw the light of Kindle-dom. These were mistakes that should have been caught by that net and weren’t. Also in the addendum was an extract from Part Two of the series, where a character “…barley escaped with their life.” Ouch.

What started out as the main plot – the murder mystery of a character killed by a hired assassin – just fell apart at the 25% mark into recondite and very…very…dull real estate jargon. It wasn’t moving the plot along, so I skimmed it to the end of the chapter, where another real estate board meeting was taking place, filled with more boardroom jargon. I skimmed that as well, then decided it wasn’t going to get any better and dropped it.

Sorry, Mr Danley. You pretty much lost my interest when you spent a chapter talking about how the assassin came to name his cat.

Tony’s Review: Emma, Jane Austen

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3/5

Emma Woodhouse is an early 19th century matchmaker. She’s also very rich (I saw a modern comparison put her wealth at $3 million or so in 21st century value), very bored and a snob – and a spoilt brat with a sense of superiority and inflated ego.

In the 19th century, the only way a woman could make her mark on the world was to marry; it was the only way she could secure her future and the future of her children. Marriage to the right man was all that mattered. And when I mean the right man, I mean a richer one. Everyone in 1815, it seems, was a social climber.

It’s background like this that you need to have before you go into this book, or Emma’s attempts at matchmaking and her refusal to marry won’t mean a thing. Once you get that idea of the social set, you’re on your way.

I had a hard time getting into this book. No fault of Austen; I was reading thirty minute snippets at lunchtime in a very noisy and distracting environment at work, and not much seemed to be happening – endless dinner parties or arrangements for dances or visits, mixed in with Emma’s hopeless attempts at matchmaking and discerning human behaviour.

I didn’t feel I was being fair to the book, so I started reading where it was quiet. Suddenly, something about Austen seemed to click. I practically heard it. Everything she was doing with the characters and situation started to make sense.

And let me tell you something: Austen is a bloody brilliant writer. Her characters are warm, witty, full of life and idiosyncrasies and funny. They are human and jump right off the page. Her small cast of characters and her observations of humanity are spot on.

Here’s an example. Mrs Bates: That woman. Will. Not. Shut. Up! And then Emma calls her on it, and realises how much it has hurt Mrs Bates. As a reader, I thought, I’m just as bad as Emma. I’m just as rude for not listening to her, or at least tolerating her. Brilliant.

Emma and her life herself take some dissection. Her social set consists of about ten people in one village, and she has no means of travel for long periods away from home. Her father worries a lot about everything, convinced some disease will strike her down if she does, and Emma respects that.

Her life is boredom, essentially. She matchmakes the people around her to stretch her strait-jacketed life and to alleviate the tedium – a tedium I felt as keenly as her as she arranged yet another trip to Randalls, or discussed the best place to hold a ball.

The only thing about Emma’s matchmaking…she’s not very good at it. No; she’s useless at it, completely misunderstanding everything that’s going through other people’s heads and hearts. Her ego and self-assurance won’t admit to any fault on her part though. She’s convinced she can’t be wrong.

She also refuses to mix with people below her, or those she considers ‘inferior’, like Jane Fairfax. She’s not an easy person to like. But despite that, you stick with her because you glimpse the good in her – in her respect for her father, her heeding advice for Mr Knightley, she shows the good woman she could be. And she does get better. A whole lot better, by the end of the book – she’s a woman transformed.

I enjoyed this a whole lot more than Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps now I’ve got the hang of Austen – she’s a writer having a blast and a whole lot of fun – I might go back and give it another try.

I certainly have a lot more time for her now.