Catching up on Bookses

It’s hard to write about books when most that you read are published by the company that employs you. But even then I’m way behind in writing about all the books I’ve read since summer. So I’ll get to work catching up. Here we go!

Joyland, by Stephen King. Published by Hard Case Crime.

Joyland, by Stephen King. Published by Hard Case Crime.

To get started, I read my first Stephen King novel last summer, Joyland. As ubiquitous an author as Stephen King is, I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but I was very happy with what I found.

Devin Jones is a college student whose girlfriend has just dumped him. Like a lot of guys that find themselves in Devin’s shoes, he is in complete denial about the breakup and hopes that he’ll reunite with his girlfriend amid clouds and unicorns. But sensing that reality won’t be so kind, Devin takes a job in North Carolina working at a seasonal amusement park called Joyland. While working there, Devin learns of a murder that happened on the haunted house ride years prior and that the ghost of the young woman who was killed haunts the ride. Throughout the course of his summer at Joyland, Devin makes new friends, saves lives (a couple of times), and also meets a mysterious and seemingly cold-hearted single mother and her sickly son. Yet Devin continues to dwell on the murder that happened in the haunted house and tries to figure out who the perpetrator was. However, Devin is just a naive young man, and the harsh reality of the murder and the demands of the real world could be too much for him to handle.

Simply put, Joyland is one of the best books I read last year. Devin is an extremely likable protagonist and narrator whose struggles to grow into adulthood are as real as they are sincere, and his distinctive voice reads with the freshness of some of the best YA novels out there. It also became clear to me that Stephen King is such a ubiquitous author for a reason; the dude can write an engrossing page-turner while not neglecting the little details. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen characters develop believably with such ease. Those little details and the fantastic characters were the cherry on top of a fantastic whodunnit.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. Published by Scribner.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. Published by Scribner.

I don’t know that there is much that I can add to what has already been said about this book, or Hemingway in general. His novels, and other writings are Modernist classics, and widely read by scholars and recreational readers everywhere. My own Hemingway readership is sadly lacking. Though I enjoy what I’ve read very much, I can only take so much of Hemingway’s terse writing style at a time. So far, I’ve read a pretty significant amount of his short stories, A Farewell to Arms (so amazing!), and now For Whom the Bell Tolls. In this novel, Hemingway again takes us to war-torn Europe where another good fight is being fought; the Spanish Civil War in this case.

Robert Jordan is a pro-Communist American, and a university Spanish instructor who leaves the U.S. to go fight for his cause in Spain where he serves as a demolitions specialist in the International Brigades. At the start of the novel, Jordan is dispatched into the mountains where he is to rendezvous with a small guerrilla outfit and demolish a crucial bridge that will prevent the forces of Francisco Franco from resupplying their army for a major, decisive engagement that is being planned. When he arrives at the guerrilla camp, he finds a colorful cast of characters from the cowardly leader of the band, Pablo, and his no-nonsense wife, Pilar, to the loyal and brave Anselmo, and, finally, the beautiful, young Maria. It’s up to Robert Jordan to get this ragtag band organized and ready to assist in his task of demolishing the bridge. He faces many complications in the few days during which the novel takes place, and none more distracting than his budding relationship with Maria. Like other Hemingway stories I’ve read, Robert Jordan and Maria crash into each other with the force of a tsunami breaking on high cliffs. Fast, hard, and passionate. But Robert Jordan has a duty to perform and a cause that is greater than himself, and war is no place to fall in love.

While I don’t think it reaches the devastating masterpiece that is A Farewell to Arms, I did find For Whom the Bell Tools composed of the same hard thematic material as its counterpart, such as the love/war dichotomy I’ve already mentioned. Hemingway does a great job of bringing these themes to the reader’s mind through the ruminations of the various characters and the stories of their lives. And while the ending doesn’t pack the same punch as A Farewell to Arms, Robert Jordan’s fate is no less compelling.

The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime.

The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime.

Another one from Hard Case Crime! As the cover clearly states, The Cocktail Waitress is the recently discovered final novel of James M. Cain, one of hard-boiled pulps’ biggest names. It had some decent media coverage, and was released in hardcover back in the latter part of 2012, and it piqued my interest. I received the book while I was reading Joyland, but, while Joyland was one of the best books I read in 2013, unfortunately The Cocktail Waitress was one of the worst.

Joan Medford is a recently widowed mother whose husband died under questionable circumstances in a car accident. The police suspect that Joan somehow had something to do with it since her marriage was on the rocks. Unfortunately for Joan, now that she is husband-less, jobless, broke, and under suspicion for (at worst) foul play, she is no longer able to take care of her young son by herself, and so she sends him off to live with some crazy extended family while she tries to find a job, and, more importantly, a new husband so that she can once again care for her son. She gets a job as a titular cocktail waitress where she has the pleasure of meeting two potential husband candidates, one older but wealthy, and the other handsome, ambitious and scheming. A love triangle ensues, and Joan finds herself in many odd situations with her two new squeezes, but she can only have one husband, and Death has yet to be satiated.

Regardless of the fact James M. Cain died before completing the novel, The Cocktail Waitress was a big disappointment. Whether or not Joan is to blame for any of the deaths that happen in the novel is never definitively established, and readers are left to decide for themselves. But the circumstances are so coincidental that it seems hard to believe that she didn’t have at least some hand in them. Leaving it to the readers to decide would have been a nice touch if it weren’t for the fact that Joan is not a compelling or interesting narrator. This coupled with the flatness of the rest of the characters and the mundane and boring plot lead to a sloppy read that begins and ends nowhere.

A Blind Goddess: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery, by James R. Benn. Published by Soho Press.

A Blind Goddess: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery, by James R. Benn. Published by Soho Press.

I received James R. Benn’s A Blind Goddess at BEA this year from the fine folks at Soho Press. A good mystery is always welcome on my shelf and I was interested in seeing what Soho has to offer. I was particularly interested in two of the books they had (I’ll get to the other one in my next post). While interning at a small mystery publisher, I learned of the historical mystery sub-genre, and what better place to set a mystery than the time period that defined the world as we know it: World War II. A Blind Goddess is the eighth in Benn’s Billy Boyle World War II series, and it’s easy to see why the series has had such longevity.

Newly promoted Captain Billy Boyle hails from Boston and is the cop-kid of a member of Boston’s finest. Billy himself currently works as a detective for the U.S. Army helping the British solve criminal cases that involve U.S. troops in some way. Just prior to his going on a well-deserved leave, Billy is contacted by an estranged childhood friend, a Black soldier serving in the 617th Tank Destroyers unit, Sergeant Eugene “Tree” Jackson. Tree asks for Billy’s help when a member of the 617th is charged with kidnapping a young English girl. And to make matters worse, an accountant has been murdered in the same village and the U.S. Army may be somehow involved in the murder. Billy doesn’t lament the loss of his vacation, and dives straight into both cases hoping to bring resolution to the involved parties as well as mend bridges with his old friend, Tree. His time is short, however, and it’s only a matter of time before Tree’s pal is punished for his supposed involvement in the kidnapping, and before the murderer strikes again.

It’s always a little disorienting jumping into an established series and trying to get to know characters that have developed over the course of many previous books, but Benn does a great job of setting up the backstory and characters for new readers and I was able to jump right into A Blind Goddess without any trouble. The characters were well written and developed nicely throughout the book, and the mysteries Billy faces kept me guessing until the reveal. The book also tackles a big, shameful issue from America’s past: racial segregation, and the relations between whites and blacks during wartime. Benn’s writing doesn’t tackle the issue in a deep, or complex manner, but Benn does a good job presenting it for what it was as well as the hatred that racial segregation created and exacerbated. A Blind Goddess is a solid mystery even if it wears its themes on its sleeve. I can’t say that I’ll ever seek out another Billy Boyle book, but if another were to come my way I would happily read it.

That’s all for now! I’m about six months behind in my book entries, so I do have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll write about four more books I’ve read in the next post. Until then!

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