Later, Stephen King (Hard Case Crime, 2021)
What if I told you this story was about a young boy who sees dead people and lives alone with his loving mother who gradually comes to believe him? Been there, done that, right? Well, that’s a good thumbnail summary of this story. Stephen King recognizes that at first blush people are going think of the movie The Sixth Sense and he assures us that this story is different. Yes, there are differences, of course there are, but the differences aren’t that meaningful or profound.
Later is a coming of age “Sixth Sense” type of story. If you ever wondered what might have happened to 9-year-old Cole from the
the movie, Later spins out a possible answer. The story begins with young Jamie Conklin seeing dead people, and it follows him as he grows up and deals with his unique talent, while coping with his protective, fiercely loving mother. Along the way, Jamie loses his innocence, as we all do, but his experience is much more horrifying than ours. Jamie’s ghostly skills get him caught up in gruesome deaths and terrifying situations, and to make matters worse, he must confront a supremely evil something or other from another dimension that wants to possess him.
The story is a quick read. It felt like a novella stretched out into a short novel. The tale is fairly linear and the conflicts rather simple. At a number of points in the story, Jamie tells us that this is a horror story. It is in the sense that there are a lot of gross, horrible spectacles running around: vividly described shootings, brains, blood, cocaine addicts with no nasal septum, etc., etc. But blood and gore alone do not true horror make. If you are looking for real horror, the kind that makes you double check the locks on your doors before you go to bed at night, this book is a rather modest offering.
Having said all of the above, Later is an engaging read. As older Jamie narrates his history, you become ensnared by the story and it is hard to put down. I wouldn’t say there’s much mystery to the tale, but I did want to know how Jamie was going to navigate through all the ghostly crap he had to deal with in his young life. In short, it was a page turner.
In the hands of a lesser writer, I’m not sure there’s enough oomph to this story to get too far off the ground, but Stephen King isn’t a lesser writer. He’s a great writer, and his craft is on full display here. If you’re a big Stephen King fan, then you will want to read Later and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re not a big Stephen King fan...well, this story isn’t going to turn you into one.
Note on the cover: The cover art for the book is great. I give it an A+. So a big shout out to Paul Mann. Well done, sir.
Sooley, John Grisham (Doubleday, 2021)
Sooley is a basketball story. South Sudanese teenager, Sam, lives in the Sudan bush with his parents and siblings. He is a diamond-in-the-rough basketball player who is discovered and brought to the US to play in a tournament for a Sudan national team. During the trip, civil war escalates in Sudan and Sam’s family is attacked with his mother and brothers winding up in a refugee camp. Sam chooses to remain in the US and attend a small college on a basketball scholarship. In short order, Sam becomes a college basketball superstar in a mere 20 games. He opts to enter the NBA draft, cash in on his status, and find a way to bring his family to the US. Alas, the distractions of
women, fame, drugs, and money knock Sam off his stride, triggering tragic results.
The story focuses mostly on Sam but sprinkled throughout are chapters about his family’s life in a refugee camp. Sam’s story revolves almost exclusively around his basketball career. I found the parts of the book devoted to his family and their struggles in the refugee camp to be the most engaging elements of the story. Sam’s ascension to the NCAA basketball pantheon was a bit predictable, wildly implausible, not all that interesting, and something of a heavy-handed morality lesson.
The most positive aspect of the book for me was going behind the scenes of college basketball coaching, recruiting, and March madness. I found the overall story to be only so-so, and it was based, it seemed clear to me, on a famous real life incident that shall remain nameless lest I give away spoilers. A story like this should have stirred up powerful emotions as we traverse the hills and valleys of Sam’s college life, but the writing left me strangely detached and only mildly affected. The book reads more like narrative history than fiction.
Who should read this? People who are serious college basketball fans will probably enjoy this story the most, followed by die hard John Grisham fans. The rest of us? You’re not missing much if you pass on this one.
The Rose Code, Kate Quinn (2021)
The Rose Code is historical fiction at its very best. Even though I generally don’t read historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it. Why did I pick this up in the first place? Because it’s about Bletchley Park during World War II. Anyone with even a passing interest in the codebreakers at “BP” or in WWII in the UK generally won’t want to miss this story.
The Rose Code is about three women who come together to work at BP at the start of the war and become fast friends. Each comes from a very different background in British society at the time: we have the wealthy aristocrat, the hard-
-as-nails working class girl, and the small village girl who discovers that she has this amazing talent for cracking enigma codes. The characters are richly drawn and the historical setting is impeccably recreated. We have Dilly Knox (of Dilly’s girls fame), Alan Turing, and Prince Phillip, who is the love interest for a time of one of the characters. We even have Winston Churchill pop in for a visit. It’s all great fun and provides a vivid exposure to WWII Britain.
The BP three bond over their mutual codebreaking work, and we follow them through the ups and downs of their lives during the war. Alas, their friendship splinters as tragedy strikes, but they pull back together when they learn that there is a traitor at BP and only they three can break the Rose Code and bring down the evil, treasonous bastard.
The plot sucked me in right off and the book was hard to put down. Special praise to the author for her writing. It was excellent. She is a grandmaster of the craft. The pacing, dialogue, and voice are all first rate. Really, anyone who appreciates great fiction writing should enjoy this story.
I don’t have much to quibble about. Most of the last part of the story is devoted to finding out who the BP traitor is, cracking the so-called Rose Code that proves his treasonous behavior, and then bringing down the dirty rat. The author chose not to spend much time on solving the mystery of the traitor’s identity; she tells us who it is fairly quickly and without much need for us to speculate. Instead, she chooses to focus on the task of bringing the person’s crimes to light and seeing that justice is done. It might have worked better to make the revelation of the traitor’s identity the focus and spend more time on that. It’s a minor point though.
So, if you’re looking for a great beach read this summer, put The Rose Code on your list.
Aetherbound, A.K. Johnson (2021)
This is a YA science fiction story about a teenage girl traveling on a spaceship and living on a space station. This checks the right boxes for me, so I gave it a read.
The story centers on a girl named Pendt, who grows up on a spaceship and is treated poorly by her family, who thinks she’s worthless. This kind of reminded me of Cinderella and her step family. When Pendt learns of the horrible future her family has planned for her, she escapes when the ship stops at a space station. There, she falls in with two teenage brothers who run the place and together they find a way to solve each of their problems. It turns out that Pendt has special magical powers
that make her extremely valuable. The story climaxes with a showdown between Pendt and her family.
The world building is ambitious. There are empires, hegemonies, rebellions, long space journeys, and more, but there's not much meat to these bones. They're more like scaffolding. The overall plot is decent, and the writer leaves room at the end for a possible sequel or two.
Although the characters are modestly engaging, I hesitate to give the book a firm recommendation. My overall reaction is that the story is a little on the bland side, and it felt a bit underdeveloped too. The story is relatively short and a quick read. This is one case where longer might have been better. More time developing the characters and their relationships would have helped. For example, the author strives to include a solid romantic element, but the romance is tepid at best; not enough time is spent on it. Lastly, I didn’t think that the author found the right balance between narrative, dialogue, and action. The story is heavy on narrative, light on action, and even lighter on dialogue. There are several spots where I grew impatient and wanted to yell at the author to shut up and let the characters give us the story.
In sum, if there is a sequel, I’m on the fence whether I’ll read it or not. I do note that the book does seem to be garnering decent reviews early on.