Blake Crouch’s Pines

This review is SPOILER FREE.Pines by Blake Crouch

I recently read Pines by Blake Crouch after it was  recommended to me. I’d characterise it loosely as an x-files-type mystery.

Secret service agent Ethan Burke arrives in Wayward Pines, Idaho, with a clear mission: locate and recover two federal agents who went missing in the bucolic town one month earlier. But within minutes of his arrival, Ethan is involved in a violent accident. He comes to in a hospital, with no ID, no cell phone, and no briefcase. The medical staff seems friendly enough, but something feels…off. As the days pass, Ethan’s investigation into the disappearance of his colleagues turns up more questions than answers. Why can’t he get any phone calls through to his wife and son in the outside world? Why doesn’t anyone believe he is who he says he is? And what is the purpose of the electrified fences surrounding the town? Are they meant to keep the residents in? Or something else out? Each step closer to the truth takes Ethan further from the world he thought he knew, from the man he thought he was, until he must face a horrifying fact—he may never get out of Wayward Pines alive.

(Before I begin with my review, let me just say I love the cover art. The upside-down nature of it starts telling you things aren’t as they seem, and that the character is disoriented).

Crouch did an excellent job of planting a mystery in the opening pages and dragging me through to the last page. I read the book in a weekend which is a reflection of its addictive nature. I was shocked to discover its 80,000 words: it feels short, such is the pace that it maintains. Had I posted a review as soon as I’d finished, here’s where it would have ended, short and sweet. In the past week though, I’ve reflected on it more from an author’s perspective, growing to appreciate it even more.

Character

The mystery is compounded and made even more intriguing by the fact that the main character ‘comes to’ after a car crash, without their memory. This confusion in the point-of-view character translates through to the reader. As an unreliable witness (amnesia) the reader is unsure if they should believe events through the eyes of the character.

The character in some respects is extra-ordinary: an ex-military pilot and a Secret Service agent. I’d normally consider this character to be ‘too strong’ and likely to overshadow any challenge before him. However his skills and expertise are significantly moderated by the car crash and past trauma he has suffered. Far from being a Rambo or Chuck Norris character, he only just manages to overcome the obstacles, and thus becomes a common man, surviving heroically. (If you can overlook the list of injuries and their likely effect on the human body, which I could.)

There were a few instances where the reasoning was a bit thin or the structure slightly problematic for me, but this is only with hindsight. This teaches an important lesson for aspiring authors – it doesn’t need to be perfect as long as your reader is engaged in the story. Unless it’s a HUGE blunder, they simply won’t notice. Plus, of course, perfection is subjective and a mighty hard goal to attain.

The one aspect I noticed immediately was the ending ‘hook’, or lack there-of. At the end of the novel is a sneak peek from the next book in the series. Naturally you’d want to grab the reader and, under the influence of extreme curiosity or excitement, have them insta-buy. I personally didn’t feel that compulsion. I wasn’t sure how the main character felt about his ending circumstances. This lack of clarity meant that there was no mystery, adventure or crisis I knew he’d be solving.

(That’s not to say I won’t read it in the future, only that I don’t immediately have to). It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it for what it was.


Help over the fenceDear Reader if you’re an aspiring author, chances are you know how hard it is to get feedback on your writing. I’ve been helped in my development process by other beta readers and now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. Each month I’ll read a chapter of someone’s story and comment on it. To be eligible, just comment on one of my posts with “*Review*” in the comment and you’re in the running. The odds are good, I don’t get many comments 🙂

The Eye of the World Review (7)

This is the seventh installment of my review of the late Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, book 1 of the Wheel of Time series. See a list of previous posts and important caveats.

When I look at my ongoing review of The Eye of the World sometimes I feel like chastising myself for tackling such a large task. Who, in their right mind, reviews chapter-by-chapter such as large book? And then I start to read the next chapter, sitting and considering the master craftsmanship of Jordan. Before long I am enchanted, drawn into not just the story but the elegance of construction.

Pressure and Intrigue

Looking at the seventh installment of my review I examine chapter 6 ‘The Westwood’ and how Jordan builds up the pressure and intrigue.

A quick recap on recent events: Rand and his father Tam have just been attacked at their farm by creatures Rand thought, until tonight, belonged only in a work of fiction (pun intentional). Now, hunted by the fierce Trollocs and their Fade commander, Rand is desperately trying to get his wounded father to the safety of the distant village.Up until this point in the story Rand has never been alone. Even when he saw the Fade (without knowing what it was), he had Tam with him. Now he is alone, not just worried for his own safety but also for Tam’s. Though Tam’s wound is small it packs a mighty punch.

A scalding fever like that could kill, or leave a man a husk of what he had once been.

This of course, suggests poison of some kind or magic making the wound worse. It’s not just the enemy Rand must avoid, but he must also beat the clock on Tam’s illness. To make matters worse Tam is deliriously muttering, which could attract the sharp-of-hearing enemy.

The setting is scary (the dark wood), the situation is scary (hunted, with a critically ill father) and Rand’s thoughts and actions match the situation. Jordan tells us the boy is scared and also shows us:

Abruptly he realized he was holding the untied ends of the bandage in motionless hands. Frozen like a rabbit that’s seen a hawk’s shadow, he thought scornfully. …

And his daydream adventures had never included his teeth chattering, or running for his life through the night, or his father at the point of death.

Strong emotions should be matched by physical manifestations. We are complex beings and our minds and bodies are seldom (if ever) fully compartmentalized.

We read about the physical difficulty and cost to Rand taking this journey.

Uncertainty made him peer into the darkness until his eyes burned, listen as he had never listened before. Every scrape of branch against branch, every rustle of pine needles, brought him to a halt, ears straining, hardly daring to breathe for fear he might not hear some warning sound, for fear he might hear that sound. Only when he was sure it was just the wind would he go on.

Who hasn’t lain in bed alone at night and wondered what that sound was? Held their breath, and cautiously looked around, body instantly hot.

A good writer takes what he knows to be true and places it in his fiction. Doing so helps the reader to relate to the character and deepens the reader’s experience through glimmers of truth.

His father had always seemed indestructible. Nothing could harm him; nothing could stop him, or even slow him down. For him to be in this condition almost robbed Rand of what courage he had managed to gather.

Anyone who is old enough to have witnessed the deleterious nature of aging can instantly understand the emotion that Rand is going through. To have it occur so quickly through tragedy, would make it even more shocking and confronting.

And then the intrigue ratchet up again with mysteries told in Tam’s deliriums:

“They came over the Dragonwall like a flood,” Tam said suddenly, in a strong, angry voice, “and washed the land with blood. How many died for Laman’s sin?”

“The fools said they could be swept aside like rubbish. How many battles lost, how many cities burned, before they faced the truth? Before the nations stood together against them?”

How does Tam, a simple farmer know of such things? What does it all mean?

What Jordan is doing here is giving us a sprinkling of world building, of back story. But because it is delivered by Tam in delirium it is better than a straight out conversation. He’s able to provide a snippet, without the otherwise inevitable detail or curious “tell me more…” from another character. And because all of this is a surprise to Rand we know it is not something that Tam would normally choose to share. The fever is giving an insight that would otherwise be hidden.

The expected event occurs, with the Trollocs and Fade hunting perilously close.

Rand sagged, gulping air and scrubbing cold sweat off his face with his sleeve.

Rand is back into his journey and the immediate threat has passed. His mind starts to wander, and Tam’s murmuring again becomes audible. It’s all still back story, even though the importance of the words are lost on the first time reader.

The tension in Rand and the reader has lessened, almost to the point of boredom, before bang Tam’s muttering suddenly becomes more personal, more relevant, more important.

“… battles are always hot, even in the snow. Sweat heat. Blood heat. Only death is cool. Slope of the mountain … only place didn’t stink of death. Had to get away from smell of it … sight of it…. heard a baby cry. Their women fight alongside the men, sometimes, but why they had let her come, I don’t … gave birth there alone, before she died of her wounds…. covered the child with her cloak, but the wind … blown the cloak away…. child, blue with the cold. Should have been dead, too…. crying there. Crying in the snow. I couldn’t just leave a child…. no children of our own…. always knew you wanted children. I knew you’d take it to your heart, Kari. Yes, lass. Rand is a good name. A good name.”

Rand, adopted? His whole world shifts for a third time in the single night. One: mythical creatures are real and they’re attacking; Two: your father who has always been a bastion of strength is now mortally ill. Three: and now, by the way, maybe he’s not even your father?

Suddenly Rand’s legs lost the little strength they had. Stumbling, he fell to his knees.

Rand’s world has changed, his position in the world and now his entire identity is under attack. All through this chapter Jordan does a wonderful job of showing emotion through action, finishing the chapter very strongly.

Ageless Nation

Recently I’ve been skim-reading Ageless Nation: The Quest for Superlongevity and Physical Perfection written by futurist Michael G Zey, PH.D. The basic premise of the book is that in the not-too-distant future humans will be able to have lifespans of ~400 years due to nanotechnology, genetic engineering and alike. Not only would we live longer, we would live in a state of youthful health.

(Again: full disclosure, I skim read). In the book, Zey briefly addresses the concern that such technology will be a widening between the rich and poor. He thinks otherwise; he points to the fact that once we thought automobiles and computers were playthings of the ultra-rich. That’s not the case now he says, and age-extending tech will likewise be available to all.

Personally I’d love to live for 400 years – especially if that was in a relatively good state of health. Life is short, and there are so many things I would love to do that I know I’ll never have the time for. I’d love to study a plethora of subjects and have the potential to write thousands of books over an extended lifetime.

But there is something disturbing about the premise. Perhaps that is why he calls the book Ageless Nation instead of Ageless World. The reality is that there are places in the world where the vast majority of people don’t have cars or computers. Or even safe drinking water.

The concept of living 400 years is good, but I’m not sure I could do it knowing that in some places in the world life expectancy is just 50 years (today). Regardless of technological advances, there will be a vast number of people in the world who would miss out.

Honestly, I’m not sure what the answer is. In today’s world the disparity between rich and poor is already disturbing. Even using the word disturbing, I suspect is an attempt to make something palatable, to hold back the true nature, to pretend and attempt to remain in blind ignorance. If I considered it deeply, the disturbance would likely seep into my consciousness – and, I suspect – change a great many things. Already it is too much; I can’t fathom a world where that gap would be increased so massively as to grant some hundreds of years and others so few; life itself a commodity.

Mind Blowing

Developing a Writing Tool

A quick blog post to announce what I’ve been working on. Some might call it procrastination and not writing, but I prefer to think of it as tool development for myself and for you.

I’m working up an Excel workbook which can be used to keep statistics, plot information and whatever else I think of adding to aid in the writing process. I’m actually pretty close to finishing v1.0, but I really should do some writing so I will try to shelve it for today.

As a taster, here is the Character Point-Of-View chart which can be used to visually display how often a character is getting a turn. This chart is automatically generated based off information entered into a table. Using the drop-down list next to “Select Character” you can highlight an individual character. (This is an evolutionary improvement on my earlier visualisation).

Character POV chart

Mind Blowing Reading

I’ve been reading through Weird Life by David Toomey. Here are two quotes that describe how cells work (page 86 and 87 respectively).

To take one example, when a cell somewhere in your body needs insulin, certain proteins inside the cell pull apart a section of the DNA molecule pairs, exposing the particular sequence of base pairs that signifies one of the many amino acids needed to make an insulin molecule. Other proteins read the sequence and make an ad hoc and temporary copy called messenger RNA. Then, still other proteins work over the messenger RNA, slicing and splicing until they’ve fashioned the amino acid needed. Finally, the molecules of protein and DNA called ribosomes (the structure that, you may recall, may set the lower size limit of a cell) pull the newly formed amino acid together with others made the same way by other proteins, and coordinate with other ribosomes, all now pulling and pushing their own amino acids to assemble a molecule of insulin.

And then

As complex as chores necessary to maintaining a metabolism are, they are in some ways mere prelude and preparations for the main event: reproduction. Familiar life can reproduce, of course, because cells divide. For cells with nuclei, it all begins inside the nucleus, when proteins don’t pull apart merely a section of the DNA molecule; they unwind and unzip the entire molecule along one strand, make a copy, correct and repair proofreading errors, and, from material in the surrounding cytoplasm, fashion a matching strand that winds together with the copy, base locking neatly to a base. Then the parent DNA, its own strands zipped up and rewound, is pulled to one side of the nucleus, the child DNA is pulled to the other, and the nucleus itself is squeezed in the middle until it splits into halves. Shortly thereafter the cell does likewise, with each half holding a nucleus. Where there was one cell, now there are two.

I don’t know about you but to me, that is absolutely mind-blowing.

The irony is, even with talk of having nanobots in the future, all they will be doing is replicating (and improving on) to what our body already does.

Personally I think it takes more faith to believe in creation big-bang style than it does to believe that God’s hand and mind were at work.

The Eye of the World Review (6)

This is the sixth installment of my review of the late Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, book 1 of the Wheel of Time series. I’d like to draw your attention to the important caveats I made in part one discussing my perspective, bias and limitations and also my respect for the author.

Catch up on the previous installments: the prologue (part 1), looked at the hook, characters and world-building (part 2), describing characters and authentic in-world dialogue (part 3,), an addendum, character perspectives and how to teach reader’s about the fantasy-world (part 4) and the role and character of Thom Merrilin (part 5).

In this sixth installment we look at the Origin Story of the main character Rand, as it unfolds in chapter 5.

Continue reading

The Eye of the World Review (5)

This is the fifth installment of my review of the late Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, book 1 of the Wheel of Time series. I’d like to draw your attention to the important caveats I made in part one discussing my perspective, bias and limitations and also my respect for the author.

If you’re late to the party you can read where I discussed the prologue (part 1), looked at the hook, characters and world-building (part 2, chapter 1), describing characters and authentic in-world dialogue (part 3, chapter 2), an addendum, character perspectives and how to teach reader’s about the fantasy-world. When you look at it that way, we’ve already covered a lot.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this series. (Crikey, early January – I didn’t realise it was that long!) Mostly it’s because I’ve been busy revising Vengeance Will Come. Partially because I was mulling over the fourth chapter, looking for an angle. I want to highlight different elements of Jordan’s writing each time, if possible.

So in chapter four, where we first meet him, I want to examine the role and character of Thom Merrilin.

Continue reading

Please Power-up my e-Reader

Dear Google, Kindle, Kobo…

I’m a relatively new fan of eReaders, but now I’m sold on them.

No doubt I will still have times when I want to “unplug”, but I don’t miss carrying around cumbersome books. There are some books on my shelf I’ve been wanting to read but haven’t because I’d need a Sherpa to get it around (Brother Fish or Dune 3-in-1 edition). Convenience is King which is why I’ve even bought a few e-books whose physical manifestations gather dust on the shelf.

I’ve read some traditional publishers recently saying that e-books are declining in sales. With no proof whatsoever I declare Fiddlesticks! I don’t believe it, and the only way I can believe it is if you are stacking the deck and describing dodgy numbers. Why? Because convenience is King, and people are getting more tech savvy, not less.

The truth is though, eBooks should be doing much better. There are of course questions of quality and price, but I want to look at functionality. I have Kindle and Google Books on my phone. Both applications provide roughly the same functionality:

  • Table of contents
  • Search
  • Mark (highlight)
  • (Limited) copy
  • Bookmarks
  • (Kindle also shows me which bits other people like… thanks, I think).

Which I have to say, is a bit ho-hum. I mean, Google… come on, YOU can do so much better. (If I have to resort to mockery to get better software, I will). There is so much potential to do amazing things; to deliver a knock-out blow to physical books. There is huge scope for innovation.

For example:

  1. Why isn’t there more artwork in e-books?
  2. Why isn’t there internal “dictionaries” and other reference materials e.g. Family trees more often? I’m not suggesting for a minute these should be in-text but rather accessible through a simple menu system.
  3. What about interactive maps that show you the location of all your characters at any time?
  4. What about the ability to seamlessly alert the author to typos, or deliver your verdict on a passage with a thumbs-up-or-down.
    As an author I crave interaction with my readers. I want to hear their thoughts (but will settle for reading them until we evolve telepathy). A good platform that helps me connect is golden.
  5. What about blog-follow and twitter-links for the authors?
  6. Remember those choose-your-own adventure books? How long until we get ROLE-PLAYING-NOVELS. Yes, that deserves capitals (and no I don’t play role playing games, but the idea is so awesome it could break your eyes just reading it). Where is the software that incrementally reveals text based on my decisions or “in-story belongings or attributes”? WORLD-BREAKING; and you read it first here, folks.

There is so much more that e-readers could be delivering to both the authors and the readers. Get a move on with it, I say.