Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summers

Billy Summers is one of the best in his business. However, that business is killer for hire, where Billy puts his military sharpshooter training to good use. Billy justifies his chosen profession by telling himself he only takes jobs where he’s eliminating “bad guys.”

Realizing that he’s only got a certain number of “bad guys” he can take out, Billy decides to take one last, extremely lucrative job and retire.

But what he didn’t count on was that while getting in place for the kill, that he’d start to immerse himself in the community around him, connecting with his neighbors under his assumed identity, and even starting an itch to put down some roots or establish a few human connections. Of course, Billy then has to complete the job, leaving those who met him, knew him, and grew to love him, scratching their heads at how this nice guy who played Monopoly with the kids could be a cold-blooded killer.

One thing you can say about Stephen King is he never writes the same book twice. He may revisit some of the same themes in his work — especially when it comes to exploring the process and the implications of writing — but he doesn’t repeat himself when it comes to characters and situations. And while he’s primarily classified as a horror writer, I’d argue that in the last decade or so, he’s moved away from just writing about the supernatural. Continue reading

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Review: Dream Girl by Laura Lippman

Dream Girl

I was probably one of the few who didn’t love Laura Lippman’s last book Lady in the Lake last year. It wasn’t that it was an unpleasant reading experience, but it just wasn’t up to my usual lofty expectations for Laura Lippman.

So, when I heard there was a lot of buzz surrounding her new book Dream Girl, I have to admit I was wary. Could it live up to the hype?

I knew the answer within reading the first ten or so pages of this one — I was hooked. In fact, I will (spoiler alert) go so far as to say this is one of Ms. Lippman’s best books. It’s something different for her — a thriller that isn’t necessarily plot-driven but is instead a character exploration. In her afterward, Lippman says that she wrote this response to Stephen King’s Misery and that connection is easy to see.

Gerry is a best-selling writer whose seemingly done it all. His first novel won critical and popular acclaim and while he’s published several books since none has burned quite as brightly. Along the way, Gerry has left quite a wake behind him in his personal life, including multiple ex-wives, various affairs, and an ex-girlfriend who has been squatting at the apartment he sold in New York when he moved to Baltimore to care for his dying mother. Gerry is opinionated, arrogant, and deeply flawed. In other words, he’s a human being who happens to be a best-selling author. Continue reading

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Review: Much Ado About Barbecue by Sally Kilpatrick

Much Ado about Barbecue

Sally Kilpatrick’s latest novel, Much Ado About Barbecue should come with a warning label that you’re going to crave some good barbecue. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing — unless you don’t have access to good barbecue, that is.

Emma Sutton and Ben Cates have been rivals all their lives. It started in kindergarten when Ben pulled the chair out from under Emma and continued throughout their educational history, including Emma’s underpants winding up on the school flag pole. So, when Emma returns to town after a series of disappointments in her life, she quickly finds the rivalry resuming thanks to Ellery’s barbecue competition. Both families own barbecue joints in town, each praised and respected for differing ways of cooking the meat. Ben has reluctantly embraced using a smoker, while Emma’s family still does whole-hog pit barbecue.

There is a bit more to the rivalry between Ben and Emma than the competition for who has the best barbecue and juvenile pranks. Emma has repressed large portions of junior high school due and she holds a deep secret about possibly raining on Ben’s dream of playing baseball at the next level. Needless to say, these two are probably the last two people you’d imagine ending up together.

And like the main dish of the book’s title, the potential romantic entanglement is one that roasts slowly, marinating in its own rub of family secrets, long-held resentments, and misunderstandings. Along the way, we meet a colorful cast of characters from Jeremiah, the long-time pitmaster as Emma’s family barbecue joint (and a character I’d love to see get his own novel) to Ben’s sister, Shero.

Between family secrets, the slow-simmering enemies-to-lovers story, and a colorful cast of characters (including several familiar faces from previous Ellery novels), Much Ado About Barbecue proves to be another winner from Kilpatrick. Filled with the types of characters you’d expect to me in a quirky small town, Much Ado works much like the barbecue does — as a satisfying, enjoayble meal that left me fully satisfied and yet somehow wishing I had just a bit more room for another bite or two.

Taking a page from Shakespeare (maybe you’ve heard of him), Kilpatrick gives us her spin on Much Ado About Nothing in her quirky creation of Ellery. As with her other novels, Much Ado About Barbecue is a delightful gem and most likely destined to end up on my list of favorite books I read this year.

Add this one to your to-be-read pile, folks. Just don’t do it on an empty stomach.

Highly recommended.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. No bribing of barbecue was done or needed….

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Robert Holmes Doctor Who Rewatch: “The Time Warrior”

imagesDoctor Who was originally intended as an education program for families — one that would see the TARDIS crew traveling backward to various eras and imparting a bit of knowledge about history to the viewing audience of the day.

But by the time the series celebrated its first decade on the air, journeys to historical settings had become a thing of the past. That is until producer Berry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks decided to bring back the historical story for the show’s eleventh season debut. Dicks jokingly says that he dragged Robert Holmes “kicking and screaming” into the Middle Ages with the debut story of Jon Pertwee’s final season, “The Time Warrior.”

“The Time Warrior” is a story of a lot of firsts. First appearance of the Sontarans, first appearance of Sarah Jane Smith, the debut of the diamond logo and new opening credits (I can’t tell you how much this surprised on my first viewing of season eleven), and the first time Gallifrey was used as the name for the Time Lord’s home world. Given all these firsts, it feels like a no-brainer that Letts and Dicks would go to Holmes for the story. Continue reading

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Audiobook Review: Prelude to Foundation by Issac Asimov

preludePrequels are difficult. Just ask George Lucas or Brannon Braga.

While there is a great opportunity to fill in the backstory for characters and do a bit of worldbuilding, it feels like the risks often outweigh the rewards. A prequel series can also be limiting in how many surprises or revelations an author or creative team can throw the fans way before fandom starts crying foul or screaming that this detail or that one has violated continuity or a long-held character belief.

But long before Star Trek and Star Wars were looking to their past, author Issac Asimov was taking the opportunity to fill in a few gaps in his Foundation novels. Asimov’s output of the ’80s seemed to be almost obsessed with finding ways to connect various threads across his novels and short stories. And so it was that we come to Prelude to Foundation, a prequel to his popular, award-winning series that explored the early days of Hari Seldon and some of the steps in the creation of psychohistory.

Less sweeping in scope than the other Foundation entries, Prelude to Foundation focuses on an early adventure of Seldon in the days after presented a paper on psychohistory. As the Galactic Empire begins to crumble, multiple parties see Seldon’s psychohistory as their opportunity to gain, keep, or consolidate power. Most of the original Foundation trilogy puts Seldon on a pedestal and gives us the image of a wise figure forecasting the fall of an Empire and doing his best to shorten humanity’s coming Dark Age. Continue reading

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Review: Together We Will Go by J. Michael Straczynski

Together We Will Go

Over my course of following the creative output of J. Michael Straczynski, one of his strengths has been the creation of diverse characters who form a connection with his audience. So, the highest compliment I can pay his latest offering Together We Will Go is that it continues that trend in the best possible way.

After suffering the latest in a long string of rejections, writer Mark has landed on his next project — an epistolary tale of a dozen strangers who have decided for one reason or another to end their lives. Renting a bus, Mark places an online ad to find people to join him on his final journey across the United States, planning to culminate the trip by everyone driving off a cliff near San Francisco. Riders earn their spot by agreeing to upload journal entries to a central server and occasionally having the audio transcript of dramatic moments archived and uploaded.

What Mark doesn’t count on is the diverse group of people who will join his cross-country trek and the ways various personalities connect and clash. He also didn’t count on the authorities in some of the states he’s crossing having an issue with a group of people on their way to commit suicide. Continue reading

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Big Finish Thoughts: Ravagers

Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures - Ravagers

Big Finish made headlines when they finally convinced Christopher Eccleston that returning to his role as the ninth Doctor was something that could and should happen. The result is a couple of box-sets of stories with Eccleston in the role — which is probably as close to him playing the Doctor again as we’ll ever get.

The first box-set is out now and I finally got around to listening to it. I reviewed each installment after listening. So, if you notice some kind of horrible error or oversight in my thoughts on part one or two, please know I had no idea what was coming….

1. Sphere of Freedom
Christopher Eccleston effortlessly steps back into his role as the ninth Doctor in this introduction to the series. The first installment is all about setting up things for what’s to come, including establishing a new character called Nova, who serves as a de-facto companion. Give the drama a bit of credit for having Nova call out the Doctor for issuing forth technobabble for his own sake and not because she understands a word of it. Continue reading

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Audiobook Review: Foundation by Issac Asimov

Foundation (Foundation, #1)

One of my reading goals for 2021 was to re-read or experience anew the classic sci-fi series getting pop-culture adaptations — Foundation and Dune.

Halfway though 2021, and I’ve made good on part of that with my listening to Issac Asimov’s Foundation. I have to admit that listening to the novel was a different way of experiencing one of the giants of the science-fiction genre and one of the pillars (notice I didn’t say foundation) that all of science-fiction is built upon.

The good news is that Foundation still holds up. It’s a rich, episodic novel that is less concerned with space battles and space opera and more on having characters debate big ideas and moments. The Galatic Empire is failing and historian Hari Seldon says there is nothing that can be done to stop it’s fall. However, the length of the coming Dark Ages can be shortened if all of humanity’s knowledge is collected together on a single planet in a single resource.

Early on, humanity looks to Seldon to guide them through various crises, before realizing that Seldon has pulled a bait-and-switch. There is no intention of publishing an encyclopedia with all of humanity’s knowledge included. Instead, Seldon has created a group to be a beacon of light in the dark times and to possibly consolidate and wield power. And so, over the course of several thousand years, Asimov details the men who will come to power and the crises that will face civilization continuing.

It’s a fascinating series of stories — ones that never fail to intrigue me or hook me. I will go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think Foundation is quite as solid as Asimov’s robot novels, but that’s probably because I read the Robot novels first. The first entry holds up well, though it does concern me how this might be adapted for the screen since most of (OK, all of) the huge dramatic action tends to take place off-screen and we’re treated to various characters talking about what happened and the ramifications of those actions.

I’ll still be tuned in for the upcoming series, though based on the previews, it looks like they’re adapting the first two books for season one. But after listening to this one again, I don’t hold out much hope that the series can and will be as good or as impactful as the book.

Now, time to keep that resolution and start the second installment….

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Comic Book Friday: Symbiote Spider-Man

Symbiote Spider-ManI’m guessing this limited series hit shelves when Spider-Man: Far From Home was hitting theaters to tie-in to Mysterio featuring in that movie.

Set during the time when I was really into Spider-Man comic books and written by one of my favorite authors, Peter David, Symbiote Spider-Man should be right up my alley. And yet, I can’t help but come away from it feeling that it was good, but not necessarily great.

Set in the time before Spidey knew his alien costume was a symbiote looking to bond with him for life, this five-part storyline has Spidey squaring off with Mysterio and the Kingpin. Mysterio is determined to find out as much as he can about Spidey’s alien costume and to be seen as a bigger foe of our web-slinger than maybe many (including the reader) believe he actually is.

It’s a decent enough little story arc, slipped into the main storyline of the time. I will admit that the part that intrigued me the most was Felicia Hardy and Aunt May meeting and discussing Peter at the cemetery with Uncle Ben is buried. David makes these scenes alone worth the price of admission.

But the rest with Mysterio blackmailing Black Cat to get a sample of the suit and becoming symbiote Mysterio — I could take or leave. It was intriguing but you know it’s not going to all go anywhere in the long run.

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More Reading Outside My Comfort Zone

People We Meet on VacationPeople We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

During a recent Twitter DM thread with an old friend and published romance author, I asked if the fact that I not only read but enjoyed both of Emily Henry’s “romance” novels meant that I had to turn in my “guy card.” She assured me that it was OK to enjoy any writer and genre I wanted.

Reassured, I’m here to report that I really enjoyed Emily Henry’s latest novel People You Meet on Vacation. Poppy and Alex became accidental best friends following their freshman year of college. Carpooling back to their small town in Ohio, the two bonded over various shared interests and some interesting disconnects. A year or so later, the two made a pact to take a summer vacation together each year.

And so, things went well for the first decade or so as Alex pursued his master’s degree and then began to share his love of literature with unsuspecting English students and Poppy pursued her dream of traveling the world and getting paid to share her experience and advice. Then, there was the infamous summer in Croatia and the two haven’t spoken much for two years. Continue reading

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