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Book Review: One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett (Series, #1)

June 26, 2014 7 comments

Man in a hat standing next to a Europeanish buildingSummary:
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous.  Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them.  He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire.  When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.

Review:
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list).  I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA.  The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.

Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective.  He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious.  It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire.  Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist.  Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series.  It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.

Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world.  The characters are multiple races and classes.  Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace.  Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at.  Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together.  They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.

I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself.  The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group.  I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it.  I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.  Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did.  I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA.  Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.

The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises.  There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict.  The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading.  Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!

Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series.  Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary.  Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Will Patton)

February 13, 2014 3 comments

Red-tinged image of a face with the author's name and title in smoke-like white letters over the top.Summary:
Danny Torrance didn’t die in the Overlook Hotel but what happened there haunts him to this day.  Not as much as the shining does though.  His special mental powers that allow him to see the supernatural and read thoughts lead to him seeing some pretty nasty things, even after escaping the Overlook.  He soon turns to drinking to escape the terror.  But drinking solves nothing and just makes things worse.  When he sees his childhood imaginary friend, Tony, in a small New Hampshire town, he turns to AA to try to turn his life around and learn to live with the shining.

Abra is a middle school girl nearby in New Hampshire with a powerful shine.  She sees the murder of a little boy by a band of folks calling themselves the True Knot.  They travel in campers and mobile homes, seeking out those who have the shine to kill them for it and inhale it.  They call it steam.  They’re not human. And they’re coming after Abra.  Abra calls out to the only person she knows with a shine too, the man she’s talked to before by writing on his blackboard.  Dan.

Review:
A sequel that takes the original entry’s theme on overcoming your family origin and ramps it up a notch, Doctor Sleep eloquently explores how our family origin, genetics, and past make us who we are today.  All set against a gradually ramping up race against the clock to save a little girl from a band of murdering travelers.

The book begins with a brief visit to Danny as a kid who learns that the supernatural creatures exist in places other than the Overlook, and they are attracted to the shine.  This lets the reader first get reacquainted with Danny as a child and also establishes that the supernatural are a potential problem everywhere.  The book then jumps aggressively forward to Danny as a 20-something with a bad drinking problem.  It’s an incredibly gritty series of scenes, and it works perfectly to make Dan a well-rounded character, instead of a perfect hero of the shine.  It also reestablishes the theme from The Shining that someone isn’t a bad person just because they have flaws–whether nature or nurture-based.  That theme would have been undone if Dan had turned out to be an ideal adult.  It would be much easier to demonize his father and grandfather in that case, but with the way King has written Dan, it’s impossible to do that.

The way Dan overcomes both his drinking and his temper, as well as how he learns to deal with his shine, is he joins Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  In contrast to his father who tried to quit drinking on his own, Dan attempts it in a group with accountability.  This then shows how much easier it is to overcome a mental illness with community support.  I appreciated seeing this.  I will say, however, that some of the AA talk in the book can get a bit heavy-handed.  Some chapter beginnings include quotes from the book of AA, and Dan can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with it when he relates almost everything to something he learned or heard there.  AA definitely plays a vital role in many people’s recovery from addiction, and it’s wonderful to see that in a work of fiction.  However, it would have been better for the reader to see the role of AA more than to hear quotes from AA so often.

The big bad in this book is a band of supernatural creatures who were once human and still look human.  But they change somehow by taking steam and go on to live almost indefinitely.  They can die from stupid accidents and sometimes randomly drop dead.  The steam is acquired by torturing children who have the shine.  The shine comes out of their bodies as steam when they are in pain.  They call themselves The True Knot.  This troop is a cartoonish group of evil people who try to look like a troop of retirees and some of their family traveling in a camper caravan.  The leader of this group is Rose the Hat–a redheaded woman who wears a top hat at an impossibly jaunty angle.  I was pleased to see Rose written quite clearly as a bisexual.  Her sexuality is just an aspect of who she is, just like her red hair.  Seeing a bi person as the big bad was a delight.  Her bisexuality isn’t demonized. Her actions as a child killer and eater of steam are.  She is a monster because of her choices, not because of who she is.   I alternated between finding The True Knot frightening and too ridiculously cartoonish to be scary.  I do think that was partially the point, though.  You can’t discredit people who seem ridiculous as being harmless.

How Abra is found by The True Knot, and how she in turn finds Dan, makes sense within the world King has created.  It doesn’t come until later in the book, though.  There is quite a bit of backstory and build-up to get through first.  The buildup is honestly so entertaining that it really didn’t hit me until after I finished the book how long it actually took to get to the main conflict.  So it definitely works.  Abra is a well-written middle school girl.  King clearly did his research into what it’s like to be a middle schooler in today’s world.  Additionally, the fact that Abra is so much older than Danny was in The Shining means it’s much easier for the reader to understand how the shine works and see a child, who understands at least a bit what it is, grapple with it.  This made Abra, although she is a child with a shine, a different experience for the reader who already met one child with a shine in the previous book.  Abra is also a well-rounded character with just the right amount of flaws and talent.

There is one reveal later in the book in relation to Abra that made me cringe a bit, since it felt a bit cliche.  It takes a bit of a leap of faith to believe, and I must admit it made me roll my eyes a bit.  However, it is minor enough in the context of the overall story that it didn’t ruin my experience with the book.  I just wish a less cliche choice had been made.

The audiobook narrator, Will Patton, does a phenomenal job.  It was truly the best audiobook narration I’ve heard yet.  Every single character in a very large cast has a completely different voice and style.  I never once got lost in who was speaking or what was going on.  More importantly to me, as a New England girl born and raised, is that he perfectly executes the wide range of New England accents present in the book.  Particularly when he narrates the character, Billy, I thought I was hearing one of my older neighbors speak.  I could listen to Will Patton read a grocery list and be entertained.  Absolutely get the audiobook if you can.

Overall, this sequel to The Shining successfully explores both what happened to Danny Torrance when he grew up and a different set of frightening supernatural circumstances for a new child with the shine.  This time a girl.  The themes of nature, nurture, your past, and overcoming them are all eloquently explored.  There is a surprising amount of content about AA in the book.  It could either inspire or annoy the reader, depending on their mind-set.  Any GLBTQ readers looking for a bi big bad should definitely pick it up, as Rose the Hat is all that and more.  Recommended to fans of Stephen King and those that enjoy a fantastical thriller drenched in Americana.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
The Shining, review

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