I've got a hat-trick this time: three short reviews of books I've read recently that I think are worthy of discussion - one recent release and two that have been around for a while.
My daughter and I were both pretty excited to see this in print. We're both big fans of Black Widow, and we both reel with indignation that Marvel Studios won't agree to give Black Widow her own movie despite an outpouring of fan support. Just check the twitter hashtag #BlackWidowMovie if you don't believe me.
So when this book hit the stands, we figured that this would be the story that Marvel could base their Black Widow movie on. Although the action takes place in the present (i.e. with Natasha Romanova working with SHIELD), a lot of the story has its roots in her Red Room origins and her original mentor, Ivan Somodorov.
The action in the novel follows Ana Orlova, a Brooklyn teenager who is just trying to fit in. However, Ana's past is anything but typical. The daughter of a brilliant Russian quantum physicist, she was subjected to brutal experiments as a young child by Ivan Somodorov before being rescued by Natasha Romanov and placed under SHIELD protection. In the present day, she has escaped SHIELD custody and is living out on the streets, perpetually haunted by persistent dreams of a young man with an hourglass tattoo.
Natasha learns through SHIELD that children are now going missing all over Eastern Europe, and discovers that her (believed dead) former mentor and torturer is actually alive and up to his old tricks again. And Ana is the key to stopping him. Natasha finally catches up to Ana at a fencing tournament where Ana has just bumped into the boy of her dreams - Alex Cross, the kid with that hourglass tattoo I mentioned in the previous paragraph and you already forgot about. Somewhat predictably, both of them turn out to be harboring latent super-powers similar to the Black Widow's, because super-hero reasons (does it really matter? Really?). There is an awkward teen romance between Ana and Alex, of course. After a short cameo with Tony Stark, the final half of the novel can be summed up as follows: They hunt down Somodorov and confront him in classic Black Widow fashion.
The book is well written and enjoyable to read. However, it's a little too focused on Ana and Alex to serve as the screenplay for the Black Widow movie. Still, if you dig Black Widow, you won't be disappointed in this book. Fair warning - you are likely to find this book shelved under YA Fiction or Teen Fiction, as that was clearly the intended audience for the novel. Though it's a perfectly enjoyable read for grown-ups, the romantic teen storyline may feel a little cringe-worthy to an adult reader.
I have some pretty huge gaps in my reading history, and Stephen King is one of them. Sure, I've read The Shining and Christine and Misery and half a dozen other horror titles of his that became movies. But I've only read the first book of The Dark Tower series, and I have never read The Stand (until now). These, according to Stephen King buffs, are his truly great works.
The Stand takes place in America, in the immediate aftermath of an apocalyptic super-virus. The virus is highly contagious and quickly fatal to everyone except a tiny fraction of the population who are mysteriously immune. The first half of the book chronicles the lives of some of these isolated survivors as they watch everyone around them die, and slowly draws them together through mysterious dreams that lead them toward the messiah-like figure of Mother Abigail; an ancient black woman living out in the prairies of Kansas. We also get to know other characters. People with darker natures. Their dreams lead them toward Las Vegas where Randall Flagg aka The Walkin' Dude is busy working to establish his own new world order.
Eventually, you end up with two very clear camps. It would be too simplistic to refer to them as good and evil, because there are a lot of subtleties involved, but it makes for a convenient shorthand. The group of civic minded do-gooders winds up in Boulder trying to create a livable community and a fresh start on the world guided by the gentle wisdom of Mother Abigail. The group of win-at-all-costs survivalists ends up in Las Vegas under the dictatorial rule of Randall Flagg. Once both groups start to get their act together, Las Vegas declares war on Boulder. However, the war is metaphysical as much as real.
I don't want to spoil some of the key events that happen later in the story, so we'll leave it at that. Let's just say that the ending is jaw-droppingly awesome. I think King hits on some really deep themes in this book - the nature of good and evil, the paradoxes of humanity itself, and at the core, why Utopian societies always fail. The book is quite long, weighing in at around 1300 pages. But King is a master of his craft and at no point is the reader left feeling bored or irritated by the length of the book or its languorous pacing. Not only is it a great story, but it will give you a lot to think about when you are done reading it.
If you're getting tired of the same old recycled tropes and storylines in your reading, you might want to try American Gods. I guarantee that it's not like anything you've read before. Although the greater plot is loosely structured around the classic Hero's Journey, it has more in common with a magic mushroom trip at Burning Man than The Lord of The Rings.
Our reluctant hero is Shadow Moon, recently released from prison and alone in the world due to the recent death of his wife, Laura. He quickly finds employment serving as the bodyguard of a con-man called Mr. Wednesday and soon realizes that his employer is an incarnation of Odin, the all-father. Their travels around the country introduce Shadow to a host of other old gods and magical creatures - Mr. Nancy (Anansi), Czernobog, and Mad Sweeney - a leprechaun who gives Shadow a magic coin which ends up playing a key role in turning Shadow's dead wife into an intelligent zombie. In this mythology, the old gods are only as powerful as the belief that people have in them, and in this new-fangled modern age the old gods feel their power waning as the new gods of technology and media take over our thoughts.
But Mr. Wednesday has a plan! He is trying to rally the old gods to fight a war against the new. Shadow is abducted by the new gods, but is rescued by zombie-Laura, and Wednesday places him in hiding. First with a trio of Egyptian gods (Anubis, Thoth, and Bast) in the guise of two small-town undertakers and their housecat. And later in the strange town of Lakeside, Minnesota where a resident Kobold (Hinzelmann) has blessed the town but sometimes abducts and kills children from the community.
Again, I don't want to spoil the ending. Let's just say that certain sacrifices have to be made. One of the satisfying things about this story is that after the climax of the main action, there is a nice epilogue where all of the open plot threads get tied up and laid to rest. Overall, I'd say this is a masterful work of storytelling. However, it is not an easy read. Gaiman's prose is thick and chewy, his pacing can be uneven, and there are some rather psychedelic sequences that will challenge many readers raised on the bland oatmeal of conventional popular writing.