A link to my review of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction novel, The Children of Time, posted on my Virtual Reality Afterlife blog:
A Review of “The Listener” by Robert McCammon
I just finished reading The Listener by Robert McCammon. Though I enjoyed it, I wish there had been more to the plot and more shading given to his characters.
This was unexpected. I have read sixteen McCammon novels. Whether involving the supernatural, an alien invasion or the exotic criminal world navigated by 18th Century New York detective Matthew Corbett, The Listener, like all Robert McCammon novels, offers detailed settings and lots of characters in a good story.
The Listener takes us to the Deep South of the 1930’s.
A charming grifter, John Pearly, a bible salesman with the face of a choirboy and the soul of a snake intends to fleece a widow and her children. But the steely-eyed widow knows a liar when she sees one and sends him on his way.
In a rage, John kills a litter of puppies belonging to the widow’s children. No redemption there. And time to move on. Destiny calls when John stumbles in to a “sex education” course in another county.
A voluptuous woman named Ginger is doing illustrations on a blackboard, information much appreciated by a crowd of horny farmers, who give her their rapt attention. Ginger’s waiting for the seriously intoxicated “doctor” to show up and continue the “lesson” when she spots John, a kindred soul of the grifter persuasion.
When it comes to evil, meanness and all related concepts, Ginger was at the front of the line when the Devil passed them out.
So of course, John is somewhat smitten, though he knows that she is like a black widow spider, and wouldn’t hesitate to enjoy him as a tasty meal after sampling his smarmy charms. In all his evil deeds, John has never murdered anyone other than puppies. With breathtaking efficiency, Ginger completes John’s bad guy training. The doctor’s last appointment is with the business end of a gun. John is officially a murderer. What could go wrong?
Soon after the doctor’s demise, Ginger ditches John. Outraged, he tracks her to New Orleans and a new identity. Ginger is impressed enough to clue John in on a get-really-rich-quick project.
There’s a wealthy businessman with two children. What if someone kidnapped those rich brats? Their rich father would pay a lot to get them back. If John helps her, he can go to Mexico and live like a king.
Okay then. We’re introduced to Curtis, a sweet natured nineteen-year-old black kid who works as a red cap for the Union Railroad, helping passengers with their bags.
Curtis is a “Listener,”
a term he learned when he was a small child. His mother took her strange little boy to a local shaman (or is it shay-woman—the shaman was a she). Regardless, Curtis kept talking to people in his head and his mother feared he was hallucinating. We learn that Curtis is telepathic. Throughout his life, Curtis has linked minds with other telepaths. Occasionally, when encountering someone less than hinged, he would leave his telepath receiver off the hook.
When he links minds with Nilla, an eleven-year old girl, he knows he has a friend.
His mother, a widow in her thirties, has become a childlike hypochondriac who demands too much of his attention. When a girl breaks Curtis’s heart, it is Nilla who comforts him.
And it is Nilla and her little brother Jack who are the rich man’s children, soon to be kidnapped by Ginger and John Pearly.
I’ll leave the spoilers there.
If this were any other writer, I would end by saying that The Listener was a pleasant read,
a perfect way to spend the weekend on the couch. But it’s Robert McCammon and there’s something missing for me. There’s very little depth to any of it.
Curtis lets nothing deter him in his efforts to rescue Nilla. In the process, he endures a savage beating, a byproduct of the racism of the 1930’s South. And he still keeps going. Curtis is angelic, self-sacrificing and a perfect hero. He does finally set his mother straight, telling her she’s not sick and that she should get a life. Other than that,
Curtis’ unrelenting goodness puts me off.
John Pearly resembles a character from McCammon’s alien war story, The Border. Pearly’s character reminded me of the preacher who becomes a sex slave to an alien whose cartoon sexuality reminds me of Ginger’s hyper-nasty but seductive black widow venom. And like The Border characters, they engage in ritualistic twisted sex.
Although Pearly is given an abusive childhood that explains his character, I never did get a sense of what drove Ginger’s hate.
If you’re looking for something good to put on your kindle, a straightforward story of good and evil, consider The Listener, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea: A review of ARARAT, a novel by Christopher Golden
I have read three novels by Christopher Golden. Ararat is by far was the strongest in terms of story and characters. I didn’t find the supernatural premise credible. Still, in terms of the creep factor, ARARAT was very effective.
Two bloggers, Adam and Meryam, travel the world and document their adventures.
Adam is American and Jewish. Meryam is English and a lapsed Muslim. Adam wants Meryam to marry him, but senses that Meryam is delaying her decision. Meryam insists that they travel to Turkey and climb Mount Ararat. She’s found evidence; Noah’s Ark has been located. Meryam is determined to lay claim to it by getting there first.
The lovebirds are experienced mountain climbers and they intend to call in some favors. Along the way, Meryam butts heads with the sexism of the local mountain climbers, fellow Muslims who disapprove of her uppity ways. They are skeptical of her conclusions about the Ark. Meryam wastes no time swatting down their macho attitudes. Her grudging guides agree to help her and Adam climb the mountain. In the meantime, others are trying to reach the Ark before she and Adam do.
So far, I’m buying the whole thing.
Meryam and Co gets to the site first. Soon after, her competitors arrive as well, including scientists and a priest, bringing their equipment and expertise.
There it is, Noah’s Ark. But there’s something strange about these ruins. Among the cages and ship cubbyholes, the artifacts and petrified wood, they discover a mummy.
Not your garden-variety, wrapped, foot dragging former Egyptian/Incan/Viking warrior, this one’s pretty strange, with its pointed head and menacing wrapping covered with ancient writing of undetermined origin.
It’s a dried-out devil.
Apparently those forty days and forty nights on Noah’s floating menagerie were action-packed. What was left of humanity was forced to outsmart an evil stowaway.
At that point, the premise of a devil tormenting Noah and family as they waited for the floodwaters to subside made my long-ago Catechism lessons float to the front of my brain. I didn’t buy the idea of a devil stowaway on Noah’s Ark. Couldn’t the devil have hidden on some other guy’s ark? Someone saw what Noah was up to as the clouds gathered and put two and two together as the animals, two by two, boarded the Ark.
Let the devil hitch a ride with the other guy.
Regardless, in this novel, the devil was on Noah’s Ark. The plot continues with “the devil made me do it.”
Who’s got the devil in him and who’s the next victim and where’s the devil now?
I did like the ending.
It was a surprise and yet tied everything together. The characters had some depth. I wish I knew more about them. Adam’s childhood reflections helped define him. Meryam was unlikeable, but I did develop an understanding and sympathy for her.
Like the other two novels by Christopher Golden that I’ve read, the action sequences of ARARAT were written well and were suspenseful. However, like the other two (SNOWBLIND and DEAD RINGERS), the supernatural underpinnings were so flimsy that they threatened my suspension of disbelief. Reading these was like enjoying a tasty meal that gives you heartburn.
Anyway, I recommend ARARAT. It’s a satisfying read.
If you enjoy novels that deliver a good scare with well-drawn characters, check out books by Christopher Golden. But keep the Tums handy.
If ET Returns Your Call, Pretend You’re not Home: The Cloud by Ray Hammond
As I read The Cloud by Ray Hammond, what has stayed with me is the premise.
Set in the near future, in The Cloud, a radio signal anomaly becomes the first alien contact. What disappointed me was the lackluster prose and that his characters lacked depth. They were flatter than the skinniest of crepes.
When a young researcher, part of a research facility on the Moon, discovers the Cloud as a small anomaly in a collection of radio signals emanating from another galaxy, he recognizes a pattern..
Others have already reviewed and dismissed this anomaly. Further study verifies this new interpretation and soon every scientist and his brother, sister and distant cousin are beaming a “Welcome E.T.” to “Iso,” the planet in the distant galaxy, where the signal originates. It will take about fifteen years for our signal to reach our new BFF.
Thirty years later, we find ourselves in trouble. In response to our invitation, there’s a galactic cloud of hurt coming our way. When it gets to our neighborhood, it will destroy all life on Earth. Oh dear. Before it gets to us, it takes an off-road trip to Mars and there goes the colony. There’s no one left.
Along with off-world settlements, we now have designer androids, human like and tailor-made for every “need.” One scientist sends his android girlfriend, “Melissa” on a space mission. She and several other androids leave for Iso’s galactic neighborhood. It will take four hundred and twenty-five years to get there and no pesky human thing like dying of old age will slow them down.
When an anti-android group kills all the new baby androids in a current factory batch, the group leader is forced to help the military with their new get-rid-of-the cloud-monster project. The group leader, “Bill” is a super duper computer scientist and there’s a new super-duper quantum computer named Jerome who wants to meet him. Jerome’s avatar looks like a frat boy.
When Bill discovers that our radio signals are beckoning the cloud, efforts are underway to turn them all off.
Of course, there’s always someone who thinks he’s knows better. In this case, it’s a science fiction writer crackpot with a cult following. So there’s that and then Jerome, who now looks like a Special Ops Marine decides to clone himself and run what’s left of the world after the cloud visit.
Hammond’s novel warns us of the danger of a super-intelligent computer, an AI that might decide it’s better off on its own. No more spoilers. I’ll leave it there.
As I said earlier, I really liked the question posed by this novel. Is it really a good idea to seek contact with another intelligent species? We risk a lot if it doesn’t go well.
I’ve read other writers whose prose and storytelling style is similar to Mr. Hammond’s.
Many are very successful, but after reading one or two for their works, I lost interest. The emphasis of this writing style is keeping the action and the plot moving, something I can’t argue with. But along the way, I have to care. His characters are roughly sketched in terms of physical characteristics, background and intent. There’s nothing underneath, no surprises.
It’s subjective, a matter of opinion.
For example, I just finished reading VanderMeer’s The Southern Trilogy, three related science fiction novels that offer incredibly rich prose. The intricate plot was challenging. All three novels were dreamlike and the characters enigmatic and complex, posing more questions than giving answers. I devoured them. Other readers weren’t as taken with them and reviews of The Southern Trilogy range from one star to five. Count me as a five.
And I’m positive that many readers will greatly enjoy The Cloud’s fast paced story based on a cautionary premise.
I think they’ll find their time on The Cloud well spent.