Saturday, February 20, 2010

What I've been reading

I've read two good books within the last week--something of a record for me. I read a lot, but pronounce very little of it good enough to tell people about. To find two in such a short period of time is unusual. Very often one good book ruins it for the next one in line. There's just no way to measure up to the prior experience. Not so this time.

Earlier this week I finished Under the Dome by Stephen King and found it to be a solid read all the way around. I am an extraordinarily fast reader--print translates to image very quickly for me so it is pretty typical for me to make my way through a book in less than a day (or a night, depending how hard it is to put it down). Under the Dome took a week and, believe me, I didn't want to put it down. It is a huge book.

In brief, Under the Dome is about a typical small town that is suddenly, violently, separated from the outside world by a clear forcefield that is resistant to all attempts to permeate it. Inside the dome, humans behave like humans. Some are noble, some are cowardly, some possess supernatural abilities, many are simply power hungry and bent on controlling everything and everyone. Like all of Stephen King's children, the kids and youth in this book are terrific, as are the dogs. The villains are properly villainous--creepy, self-serving, and totally devoted to eliminating the opposition. The good guys are out gunned, but smarter and more resourceful. The cast of characters is huge. I had no trouble following it, but I've heard some readers complain about it being cumbersome.

One of my complaints with Stephen King (many writers really) is that his final climaxes are often composed of outlandish, over-the-top scenes that cause me to question the reality he's created, instead of staying immersed in what should be the most important moment in the book. I adored Duma Key (some of King's strongest writing ever)--except for the giant cartoonish frogs that chased the main characters. The Shining was one of the scariest books I've ever read--except for the topiaries that came to life (I've long wondered why he felt the need to animate shrubbery when the ghosts on the inside were plenty terrifying enough). I was braced for this book to do the same thing. But he did a better job of holding it together this time.

This book comes with a warning to the squeamish. The first fifty pages are harsh, so much so that I opted to stop reading it out loud to Gary simply because it was easier to skim the parts I didn't like if it became too much. It lets up a little later on, but you still get to wade through some fairly unpleasant material along the way. Frankly, at least one of those scenes seemed to be more gratuitous than necessary. However, if you're a seasoned SK reader, you go into it knowing that this can happen and prepare for it.

All in all, it was a gripping tale that provided plenty of reasons to turn the pages and I'd recommend it to anyone that is already a fan of his stories.

After I finished Under the Dome I was ready for a palate cleanser. So I went to the local library in search of a change of pace. I spent at least an hour wandering through the shelves, randomly pulling books out, reading their jackets and replacing them. Generally I start at the shelves where they display the newest books, then move to the Sci-fi section, and on to the poetry, then to the non-fiction, how-to books. This time I didn't quite know what I was looking for until I found it.

The boys had already picked their books out and were restlessly wandering around the front of the library; Gary was reading a newspaper and muttering about lunch time and I was just about to simply settle for just the non-fiction book I'd already found on Homesteading (getting back to your roots type stuff about gardening, bee keeping, small stock, etc) when I pulled one more book off the shelf at random and found it.

John Twelve Hawks' book, "The Traveler" is the first book in the "Fourth Realm" trilogy. It is a well-written contemporary fantasy/thriller that proposes that just maybe we aren't as free as we think we are. That maybe our government is just part of a Vast Machine whose goal to keep us afraid and let us believe that it's the only thing standing between us and danger. It uses the media to scare us, cameras to "keep us safe", and the internet to guide us and gather information about us (think Big Brother--only with more malice). It prefers that we not search for spiritual truths because those truths contain the secret the Machine most wants to control--that there are other worlds beyond our own and if we figure out a way to step outside this one we can see what they're really up to and gain powerful insights into ourselves and the universe. Travelers are those who can go back and forth between these worlds--they are the visionaries and prophets. Harlequins are a group of warriors whose only purpose for hundreds of years has been to protect the Travelers. Harlequins live "off the grid", passing under the radar by way of assumed identities. The Machine is governed by a group known as the Tabula who wants them destroyed. The Harlequin must be one step ahead of the Tabula.

Check out this excerpt to see what I mean.

Hawks does an admirable job drawing you into his world, artfully weaving fact, fiction, spirituality, and technology together into a thought provoking tapestry. When you finish this book, you cannot help but wonder if he knows something the rest of us don't. In my opinion, this is exactly what good writing does. It makes you question what's real and what's fiction.

John Twelve Hawks has also done a really good job of turning himself into an enigma, defying the popular belief that authors must go to book signings, and appear on televisions shows in order to be popular. No one knows what he (she?) looks like or where he lives, what he really believes to be true, whether he's a she, married, gay, a monk, or an atheist, tall, short, dark or light. If he's having an affair with some public figure, we'll never know. I can't think of a better way to be famous.

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