Book Review: ‘Jubal Sackett’ a Solid, if Unspectacular, Tale ♦ ♦ ♦ ◊ ◊

The fourth volume in Louis L’Amour’s Sackett series.

My march through Sackett history continues with the fourth volume in the series, this one featuring the title character, who’s one of the sons of Sackett patriarch Barnabas, and the first to head into the wild, unexplored American West.

This book will likely be of interest to anyone curious about the Sackett saga, and though I didn’t find it to be ultra exciting, it’s nonetheless solid—sort of like the Sacketts themselves. This book is longer than most of L’Amour’s, making it of average novel length, and doesn’t contain much, if any, of the excessive description characteristic of many bestselling novelists. L’Amour simply tells you a story—one containing a healthy amount of adventure—and lets the reader’s imagination fill in a lot of the details. At this point in the series, the stories still aren’t what I would call “westerns”—they’re more like wilderness adventures—but the series is heading in that direction.

Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ◊ ◊

Book Review: Finding Fear in ‘Salem’s Lot ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

'Salem's Lot

‘Salem’s Lot: another small Maine town with a big secret, courtesy of Stephen King. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the ninth Stephen King book I’ve read (after The Shining, Cujo, On Writing, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Blaze, Rose Madder, Under the Dome, and The Eyes of the Dragon), and I rank it as the best piece of fiction in that group (On Writing is nonfiction, and is the best book about writing I’ve ever read).

To be fair, it’s been probably 15 years since I read Cujo and The Shining, and that was before I realized how good a writer King is, before I became a big fan of his work, so I should probably go back and read those two again. Nonetheless, ‘Salem’s Lot is a wonderfully suspenseful piece of writing, a novel about vampires before such a thing was in vogue—written 40 years ago, but way better than Twilight.

I won’t say much about the plot, since you can easily find synopses elsewhere, except to say that King expounds on some themes common to his work—small Maine towns hiding big secrets (but not for long)—while tackling a modern rendition of a literary classic (Dracula). He does so with great success, beginning the book with a scene from near the end of the story to jack up the intrigue level, then going back and artfully setting the scene—characters, places, and a healthy number of well-placed hints at the bad stuff that’s going down (or about to go down).

The pacing in this book is great—it slows a bit after the beginning vignette, but not too much, then King ramps up the action at the right pace, letting out just enough rope at each turn to keep you satisfied while pulling you deeper into the story.

There’s a bit of gore, but it’s necessary, and not overdone. And be warned: King has no problem killing off key characters. Speaking of characters, King’s development of them is spot-on; being a small-town native myself, I’m familiar with rural life, and King’s portraits of small-town people and places are right on the money, not to mention that the personalities he creates here are engaging.

A friend of mine kept looking over his shoulder as he read this book–at night, with all the lights out–and though I didn’t experience that same level of fright, the story held me in its suspenseful grip throughout. If you like a good scare, take a trip to that quaint little Maine town of ‘Salem’s Lot.

Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The ‘Eyes’ Have It For Stephen King’s ‘Dragon’ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ◊

Cover of "The Eyes of the Dragon"

A different cover from the edition I read, but close enough.

It’s been nearly two months since I announced that I had started reading Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, his first published attempt at fantasy writing and the place where he introduced a couple of key characters from his Dark Tower series. I don’t want you to think, however, that this is a poor reflection on the quality of this story. I usually have a bit of a literary hangover after finishing a novel; I get used to its characters and setting, usually quite enjoying them, so I tend to start slowly on the next novel as I get used to new characters and settings (unless it’s an absolute smash, such as any of the Harry Potter books).

To summarize, The Eyes of the Dragon focuses on the two sons of Roland, king of Delain, and Roland’s magician, Flagg, who has malevolent plans for Roland, his sons, and all of Delain. The Eyes of the Dragon doesn’t rank up there with the Potter series, but it’s quite good. Although I start slowly, I do think the beginning of this book drags a bit as it introduces the main players and sets the stage for the central thrust of the story, but once it gets going, it really takes off.

King, as usual, executes his plot with crisp, clean prose, including virtually no unnecessary detail, unlike many bestselling authors. I often find, even though I love this genre, that sword-and-sorcery writers are trying too hard, and in love with the wrong things, constantly hammering the reader with silly, distracting details—as though readers need to be continually reminded that the characters are wearing “leather half-boots” or “cloaks fastened with a brooch at the neck” and that the story takes place in a fictitious world (see: David Eddings and Christopher Paolini). Virtually everyone knows what the characters of this genre wear; they usually don’t need to be told once, and they certainly don’t need to be reminded every other chapter. King does a particularly good job of avoiding this trap.

King, however, goes even further than simply leaving out tedious, story-stopping details; he writes in such a way that even though you know you’re reading about a made-up fantasy world, the immediacy of the characters’ situations shines through and the reader knows that the types of scenarios portrayed are anything but fantasy—they are (cloaks and castles notwithstanding) the same kinds of moral dilemmas and real-life challenges we encounter. And as with those of us here in this world, the people of Delain often face a hard road to personal freedom.

All the story’s characters are fleshed out well, eliciting what I believe are the author’s desired responses: Flagg is easy to despise, Prince Peter is easy to root for, and Prince Thomas, much like his father, is easy to pity. I saw no plot holes, gaping or otherwise. I love the traditional fantasy setting—a castle and surrounding villages—and was especially fond of the scenes that took place in winter because they reminded me of all the good things about that season that I experienced during my time in Maine. I also appreciated that this book had no cussing, and though the story starts off feeling just a bit cartoonish, that wears off rather quickly in favor of gritty realism.

Overall, I give The Eyes of the Dragon four diamonds out of five, and a strong recommendation (particularly so for lovers of sword-and-sorcery fantasy).

Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Closer Look at the ‘John Carter’ Creator

The original publication of Under the Moons of...

The original appearance of Under the Moons of Mars, in pulp magazine The All-Story. ... Image via Wikipedia

Edgar Rice Burroughs

(Photo credit: Cherry Crimson)

Disney movie John Carter recently hit theaters, so I thought I’d highlight the man whose mind John Carter sprang from: Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Burroughs’ entry into writing came a bit late, when he was in his 30s, but he exploded onto the scene with Under the Moons of Mars, a serialized novel that was later renamed A Princess of Mars, the first in the John Carter Series. Not long after that he introduced the world-famous Tarzan, and he went on to great fame and fortune. What many don’t know about Burroughs, however, is that his rise took place a full century ago—the first installment of Under the Moons of Mars, in pulp magazine The All-Story, came in February 1912.

There’s an excellent column on Burroughs and his writing on BarnesAndNobleReview.com, from which I got this information—I may sound like a Burroughs enthusiast, but the truth is I’ve never read any of his work; I’ve often considered getting into it, particularly the Tarzan series, so perhaps now is a great time to do that. I just found the column to be an interesting read, and the subject matter timely. I hope you enjoy it.

Looking Into Stephen King’s ‘Eyes of the Dragon’

Title page from the original 1984 Philtrum Pre...

Cover image of the original version. ... Image via Wikipedia

The next book on my docket is an oldie but (hopefully) a goodie: Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, a sword-and-sorcery fantasy first published in 1984 as a limited-edition hardcover by Philtrum Press, then in a mass-market version by Viking in 1987.

King is known as a master of horror, and rightfully so, but I sometimes feel that this label doesn’t do him literary justice. King is, first and foremost, a really good writer. Period. Getting more specific, he’s really good at horror, but he’s really good at other things as well, including fantasy. He’s well-known for his Dark Tower series, but The Eyes of the Dragon was his first published stab at the genre. I’m only about 25 pages in, but so far it’s what I would expect of a classic fantasy—kings and queens, dragons and magic—and what I would expect from King—well-written prose. Though I heard of this title long ago, it wasn’t until recently that I learned it was a classic fantasy tale. I have high hopes for it, and I’ll keep you posted.

‘The Hunger Games’ is (Mostly) a Winner ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ◊

This photo is from the Time 100 Gala - click h...

Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins. ... Image via Wikipedia

I consider myself a tough literary critic. Examples?

  • Most of the authors you see on the list of popular novelists are, in my opinion, not that good, being long-winded, unoriginal, and way too caught up on unnecessary details that bog down the stories they write.
  • I love epic fantasy but still haven’t found anything even remotely close to The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia (and don’t say David Eddings, Stephen R. Donaldson or Stephen R. Lawhead; those guys can’t get out of their own way).
  • I have nothing against long novels in and of themselves, but I think that 99% of novels could easily be 50-100 pages shorter … at least.

I also, however, don’t want to be too harsh, as I’m wont to do, so to sum up how I feel about The Hunger Games, which I finally completed this weekend, I’ll say this: it’s no Harry Potter, but it’s pretty darn good.

If you read my earlier posts on The Hunger Games, you’ll know already that I loved the story’s fast-moving, quick-to-the-point beginning but was mostly unimpressed with the part about the journey to the Capitol and the training period that Katniss Everdeen, the main character, went through. Once the Games began, however, the story kept up a reasonably good, though not insatiable, pace, and Katniss’ struggles—physical, mental, and emotional—are well-described. In fact, the writing is solid throughout the book: no awkward sentence structure; few, if any, unnecessary details; and nothing to negatively distract me outside of a few missing commas. In that respect, author Suzanne Collins rivals Harry Potter‘s J.K. Rowling.

Where this book falls short of Potter, in my opinion, is in its lack of a central mystery that continually tugs at the reader, pulling him through to the saga’s end. For Potter, it was the puzzle of who his parents were, who Voldemort was, and why and how they were all connected. For Games, the central question is whether Katniss survives the Games and, if so, what happens to her after that. Well, it’s pretty safe to assume, from the beginning, that she’s going to survive, because we know that there are more books following, and though I am curious to see if and how she successfully rebels against the tyrannical Capitol, those questions just don’t have the same weight of intrigue, for me, that Potter did.

Of course, I must also admit to some bias: Harry Potter’s experience takes place mostly in a medieval castle in England—two settings I absolutely love—whereas Katniss lives in a world that’s futuristic and somewhat-apocalyptic—two traits I traditionally cannot stand. So maybe that’s factoring into my opinion.

All that said, The Hunger Games is well-written, mostly maintains a good pace, and is engaging, with a healthy amount of action. I give it four diamonds out of a possible five, and will give strong consideration to reading its sequel, Catching Fire.

King’s ‘On Writing’ is On Target

English: Stephen King signature.

Not the book's cover, which isn't available on this system. =( ... Image via Wikipedia

Stephen King’s On Writing is more than a decade old, but it remains the best book about writing I’ve ever read. Part memoir, part writing manual, it shows that King is more than just a fiction writer, and that he really knows his stuff.

The first half of the book is memoir, in which King recounts many childhood experiences that shaped him as a person and as a writer, and also gives a fascinating look into the beginning of one of the most storied literary careers. The second half is more directly about the craft of writing—and it is indeed a craft, requiring much care and practice, as King points out—and he proves himself particularly adept at teaching his craft; he offers up instruction in such a way that I never felt bored, like I was reading a textbook or sitting in a stuffy lecture hall. He gives great illustrations of what he’s saying, and he makes writing accessible, breaking it down into its simple components so that it’s not at all the daunting thing that many of us so often make it out to be.

It’s been several years since I read it, but I recently loaned it to a co-worker, and I’m looking at taking it for another walk, starting today, which is what prompted me to write this post. I haven’t read every book about writing (not even close; there are way too many with which to keep up), but On Writing is hands-down the best I’ve ever consumed, and I consider it a must-read for any working or aspiring writer.

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