Can you hear me now? A Review of “The Listener” a novel by Robert McCammon

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 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.

***Some Spoilers***

McCammon's The Listener

Robert McCammon’s novel “The Listener”

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: ARARAT, a novel by Christopher Golden

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The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea: A review of ARARAT, a novel by Christopher Golden

***Some Spoilers***

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.
Cover of the novel, Ararat by Christopher Golden

Cover image of Christopher Golden’s novel, Ararat
from google images

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.

Say what?

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

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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.

***SPOILERS***

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..

The Cloud cover

The cover of Ray Hammond/s The Cloud (from fantasticfiction.com

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.

The Girl with All the Gifts: The ABZ’s of Zombies

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The Girl with All the Gifts: The ABZ’s of ZombiesA review

Currently on Amazon Prime, The Girl with All the Gifts is a 2016 film directed by Colm McCarthy (Peaky Blinders). Starring newcomer Sennia Nanua as Melanie, the cast includes Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton (Hansel and Gretel) and Paddy Considine (The Bourne Ultimatum).

Cover for The Girl With All the Gifts

The Girl With the Gifts (IMDB)The Girl with All the Gifts  is a zombie movie.

Unlike most zombie movies, The Girl with All the Gifts concerns a fiercely intelligent little girl who happens to be a zombie. Written by Mike Carey (Peaky  Blinders, The Boy on the Bridge), from his book with the same title, like 28 Days, it is set in England.

 What sets this movie apart from others in this genre is its point of view.

Rather than a story focused on the struggle of survivors to find safety, it is about an awakening and self-acceptance, a story about letting go and the willingness to change. As Melanie, Sennia Nanua is a standout. Her performance alone is a reason to see this film.

  In a barricaded research facility, nine-year old Melanie’s room is a jail cell.

Each morning, before the soldiers come, she hides her only possession, a picture on a greeting card from the world before the “hungries” came. As she waits in her wheelchair, she places her hands where they can bind them. Before the soldiers wheel her to school, she greets each one with a cheery “hello.” They ignore her efforts to connect.

School is a room within the compound. Melanie joins a class of twenty-five or so. Like Melanie, each student is restrained.

 All the children sit quietly as Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) begins the lesson. A bright student, Melanie loves Miss Justineau who is fond of her. When Miss Justineau touches Melanie’s shoulder, Sergeant Parks scolds her. Touching any of these children it is a dangerous move. To make his point, Parks approaches another student and bares his arm. The student clicks his teeth together rapidly, triggering the same reaction in all the children, except Melanie, who stops herself.

By seeing the clicking teeth reaction to the sergeant’s bared arm, Melanie understands why the soldiers fear her and her classmates. The children are dangerous.

 She knows that hungries roam outside the compound. She knows that classmates who enter Dr. Caldwell’s lab never leave it.

Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) is convinced she’s close to a cure.

Soon, she’ll find something to fight a fungus that destroys memories, turning its victim into a killer. Searching for answers, Caldwell dissects the brains of her subjects. Despite Miss Justineau’s protests, Melanie is her next subject.

Unlike other hungries, these children can think and experience emotions.

But, they are still killers and Caldwell prepares while Melanie is strapped to an exam table. When Miss Justineau tries to rescue Melanie, marauders, intent on stealing food and supplies, drive outside hungries into the compound. When the men break into the lab, Dr. Caldwell is injured.

Melanie saves Miss Justineau by killing the man attacking her.

Sinking her teeth into him, she has her first honest-to-goodness zombie meal. Compared to her daily bowl of writhing worms, the man tastes like the chef’s special in a five star restaurant.

Determined to protect her teacher and knowing that her zombie tummy is full, Melanie guides Miss Justineau to safety.

Still determined to dissect Melanie, a limping Dr. Caldwell follows them. As Sergeant Parks and few other soldiers are leaving, they stop the truck to pick up Justineau and Caldwell. Melanie wears a muzzle and rides on the truck’s roof.

Soon, Melanie wins the trust of Parks by outwitting the hungries and finding ways around them.

Using walkie-talkies, Melanie and Parks scout for safe passages. In the city, the group finds that many hungries are changing. The fungus inside them has now broken out of their bodies resulting in huge stalks and pods.

Dr. Caldwell warns: if the pods break open, the human race is finished.

Soon, they find a movable research lab, a place that offers safety but no food. Although she is dying, when  Dr. Caldwell sees all the equipment, she breathes a sigh of relief. She wonders what size head clamp Melanie wears.

In the meantime, as she noshes on the occasional feral cat, Melanie looks for supplies.

When the last soldier dies, leaving only Parks to protect Miss Justineau, Melanie makes a discovery. The hungries that killed and ate the last soldier are children. And like Melanie, they can think. Unlike Melanie, they are feral.  Waiting for Melanie’s return, Dr. Caldwell has taken steps to prevent Miss Justineau from interfering while she plots Melanie’s dissection.

After confronting and neutralizing Dr. Caldwell, Melanie makes a decision.

When that decision leads to the unintended death of Parks, she grieves. Can she protect Miss Justineau?

The story ends when Melanie turns a corner in this new world where teachers are valued.

If I were a teaching, I’d love to have a student like Melanie, but first I’d hide my cats.