Book Talk: Gwendy’s Button Box (Stephen King/Richard Chizmar, 2017)

SKGW-1This is a book that I’m honestly struggling to write anything about, possibly because I reached the end and thought “Is that it?”. Yes, it was one of those sorts of books with an anti-climactic conclusion and no clear answer as to what the whole point was. It’s also very short and can easily be finished in a single sitting thanks to the brief chapters and ‘easy reading’ style . Gwendy’s Button Box is a straight-to-the-point novella that doesn’t labour on exhaustive detail or in-depth character exploration.

So far you will certainly be forgiven for getting the impression that I didn’t like this book but that’s not entirely fair. Gwendy’s Button Box was enjoyable and had the familiar, welcoming King ‘feel’ that I – as somebody who has read almost everything by the author – immediately appreciated. It just felt bare-bones and more like a short story from one of his many compilations rather than something that warranted a standalone book. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that many short stories by Stephen King are arguably more rewarding to read than Gwendy’s Button Box.

But let me try to explain.

Gwendy Peterson is an average, unremarkable twelve year-old girl. She wears glasses and is teased at school for her chubbiness so she spends the summer of 1974 running up Castle Rock’s “Suicide Stairs”, a set of rusted, zig-zagging steps that lead up the cliffside to Castle View park, in order to lose some pounds in readiness for life at middle school. One day she meets the mysterious Richard Farris, a suited man with an eerie MIB vibe who gives her a “button box”. Against all instincts, she accepts the box. This box dispenses small chocolates which suppress her appetite and help her lose weight whilst also seemingly improving life around her in general. It also dispenses mint, uncirculated silver dollars.

The box also has different coloured buttons on the top. Farris informs Gwendy that these buttons have immense power and represent the different continents of the world. Pushing them, it is implied, could destroy entire continents in an instant. The red button however is different.

“Whatever you want and you will want it, the owner of the box always does. It’s normal. Wanting to know things and do things is what the human race is all about. Exploration, Gwendy! Both the disease and the cure!”

Then there is the black button, described by Farris as “Everything”. We assume that this final button is a way to annihilate all of existence. Eagle-eyed or long-time readers of King’s books will recognise the “R.F.” initials of Farris’ name and link him to Randall Flagg, a recurring, name-changing entity of evil from the Stephen King “universe” so it’s obvious that the box is probably bad news in some capacity.

From there on, the book follows Gwendy through her teenage years and into her early twenties. Eating the chocolates appears to improve her life no end. She loses weight and blossoms into a beauty, gains popularity at school, earns high grades and experiences all manner of success. her life turns out to be perfect. Well, mostly.

Gwendy becomes extremely protective and obsessive with the box and keeping it secreted from her parents, ditto for the growing mound of extremely valuable Morgan silver dollars which would doubtlessly raise questions given their rarity and market price. Gwendy also becomes acutely aware of the massive responsibility that owning a box with such power brings. The responsibility to ensure that nobody else finds it, presses a button and wipes out an entire segment of the earth for example. Gwendy also becomes a stranger to her old friends once newfound popularity gives her new ones, gaining a sense of selfish entitlement along the way that sees her forgetting where she came from before the box’s magical gifts.

It’s a great premise for a story but it doesn’t ever become much more than that. The book speeds through the years, only stopping to linger on important, noteworthy events. It almost feels like a full-fat novel with everything bar the main plot points cut out and thrown away. Gwendy is a likeable character but nobody else in her life gets any real development and exist purely as unexplored support acts. The book also finishes on a flat note with a conclusion that is unexpected but only because it is so tame and lacking in an anticipated plot twist or explanation.

Farris, it seems, lives to give the box to random people and see what they do with the power. He tells Gwendy that the bad things that happened while it was in her possession weren’t really her fault and that many, many bad things have actually been averted by somebody else (with less morals and self-control) not having it in their grasp. But that’s it. There’s a distinct lack of overall payoff and the book feels as if it is a basic outline ripe for expansion or even a mere preview of something bigger. It’s almost like watching a strip-tease video and having the video cut out before the underwear is discarded.

What there is here is good – make no mistake about it – but if you have consumed all of Stephen King’s previous works then you may well find yourself frustrated and disappointed that Gwendy’s Button Box couldn’t have been more fleshed-out and gripping. Certainly, you couldn’t be blamed for deciding that it should have been part of the next short story compilation. This book left me wanting once I’d finished it and I’m still not really sure what to think about it. If you’re a King fan then I’d still recommend it but I’d also have to recommend restrained expectations.

Book Talk: Fire And Blood (George R.R. Martin, 2018)

F&B-1If you’re a huge fan of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (more universally known as just ‘A Game of Thrones’ these days thanks to the runaway success of the TV series which uses the title of the first book in the series) as I am then you will probably be resigned to the fact that Martin is probably never going to finish the series. Has he lost control of the plot and characters or is it a simple creative block of sorts? It’s a debate for a different time but what I do know is that I can’t have been the only one who saw the mammoth 700-page Fire And Blood on store shelves and thought “so he hasn’t finished The Winds of Winter but he had time to bash this out?”

Sadly, it’s easier to sum up a reaction with a meme these days so here’s one for the internet generation that more or less reflects my reaction to the release of Fire And Blood:

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I haven’t read any reviews or taken a look at other people’s opinions on this book but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a general feeling of deflation amongst the Ice and Fire devout; downright fury, even (though, as a card-carrying bookish nerd, I feel obligated to point out that we are – fortunately – probably not able to turn that fury into a credible form of anger).  I reckon there are even those who see Fire And Blood as an elaborate form of trolling…

Martin: “Guess what, loyal fans? New book releasing soon!”

Fans: “Ohmygod! It’s The Winds of Winter!” *throws panties at the stage etc.*

Martin: “Actually…no. It’s a partial – PARTIAL – history of Westeros. Suckers!”

Anyway, enough of the memes and silliness. This is me reviewing the book as an Ice and Fire fan and without any prior knowledge of what other people are saying. And you know what? I think it’s great.

Fire And Blood is a richly-detailed recounting of Westeros’ history beginning with the reign of Aegon the Conqueror and concluding with the regency of Aegon III. That might not sound like a lot but five other Targaryen kings sat the Iron Throne in between the first and third Aegons plus a Queen and a few short-lived pretenders. That’s a lot of history to get through.

Obviously – this being a factual (of sorts) retelling of a hundred and thirty-something year’s worth of events – it doesn’t read the same way as a typical ‘thrones book. There’s no character perspectives for example and therefore no way of knowing the innermost thoughts and motivations of the characters. Instead, the book is presented more like a history lesson and you are guided through the years of politics, intrigue, wars and betrayals in exhaustive detail. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the book must be boring in that case though because it really isn’t. As I said, it doesn’t read like one of the regular books but the same level of detail and explicit information is still correct and present. It’s unmistakably a George R.R. Martin work and returning to the land of Westeros with its familiar houses, regions and customs is like coming home after a long, shitty day at work and snuggling up on the sofa with your significant other.

It’s also nice to be ‘in the moment’ and discover the history of these ancient Kings and legendary characters that were only previously mentioned as long-deceased artifacts of the past in the main books and the ‘present’ timeline. Now we can find out about their personalities and motivations.

The best part of reading this book was that despite the shift in style, it didn’t take long to become a page-turner. It’s a historical text but given that this is the first real in-depth exploration of Westeros and it’s Targaryen years, you still don’t know exactly how everything moves from point A to point B. In other words, Fire And Blood still has the ability to shock albeit not with quite the same savagery as the main books. Characters that you have been reading about for many chapters can suddenly get killed off via treacherous murder, illness or random accidents just as in the main books. The trade-off is of course the fact that you don’t get quite as invested in the characters (especially knowing that they will ALL die at some point given that this is history) but even so, I still found myself with a few favourites that I really didn’t want to lose to villainy.

The book also features many excellent, high-quality illustrations by Doug Wheatley. I’m not sure if these have been printed elsewhere in other Ice and Fire spin-offs but in any case, it was nice to finally see a visual interpretation of these Targaryen lords and ladies. As an added bonus, there are dragons too and who doesn’t like those?

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Aegon the Conqueror with the legendary Balerion, The Black Dread.

In conclusion, I genuinely believe that Fire And Blood should only be a disappointment to casual followers of the Ice and Fire saga. Major fans will understandably be disappointed that they are still waiting for The Winds of Winter but they should definitely put aside their disgruntlement at having to see yet another stop-gap book hit the shelves rather than the next ‘proper’ installment. All the rich detail that you’d expect is here and I can honestly say that I couldn’t put the book down once I’d read a few pages. The superb presentation is a welcome bonus and I would definitely welcome the second volume which should take us from Aegon III up to Aerys II.

Just…try and make Volume II one of the stop-gaps AFTER The Winds of Winter please, George?

Book Talk: The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck (Mark Manson, 2016)

tsa-1I’m somebody who isn’t really that happy with their life and so – this admission out of the way – I’ve read a lot of self-help material and watched countless motivation and self-improvement videos on Youtube. Thing is, a good chunk of this stuff is, as it turns out, complete bullshit that doesn’t sink in at all. Even worse, a lot of it could be detrimental to our quests to improve. All of this advice that instructs you to be forcibly positive and happy 24/7 for example…it’s actually the opposite of what you should be doing.

Well, according to Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck that is. Avoiding the negativity in your life and plastering over it with forced affirmations and fake-it-until-you-make-it positivity is no good. Refusing to acknowledge problems means that you will never solve them and if you furiously focus on positives then all you are really doing is reinforcing the existence of the negatives. This is just a taste of the kind of insight this book offers.

In reality, Mark Manson’s advice is all stuff that we should already be aware of but we seem to have lost our way. Taking personal responsibility for everything in your life, the importance of being able to say “no” and how to decript the (potentially shitty) values that you are living by are just some of the over-arching themes that make up this book of real talk. It’s eye-opening stuff that seems so obvious and simple yet our consumer-driven culture obsessed with the ego, financial wealth and materialism has warped our sense of reality over time.

I’m not saying “buy this book and your life will be fixed” but all I CAN say is that this is the first self-improvement book that I burned through at a great pace then read again immediately. And you know what? I think I might even read it a third time. There are many lessons and pointers that you can take from the book and implement in your own life straight away but The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck has resonated with me so much that I feel like ramming it into my mind.

I’ve learned that I probably complain too much and that I also blame others and past events for my problems. I’ve learned that I need to take personal responsibility for 100% of my life. I’ve taken away new ways of thinking and looking at life.

As I said, all seemingly obvious stuff but until reading this book, I wasn’t fully aware of how much I was doing wrong in life. I’m not here to make such cliched statements as “It changed my life” but I do feel as if I have been given a kick up the arse and a bit of a jump-start. I cannot say the same for 99% of other books or videos that I have tried.

The book is very easy to read too as it comes across as more casual and direct-talking versus other alternatives which can sometimes be a bit too stuffy and loaded with psychology-speak. I would even go as far as to say that it is an enjoyable read in general regardless of whether or not you are looking to get anything out of the experience. If you are like me though and want to improve yourself and figure out where you might be going wrong then I would heartily recommend putting the other stuff on hold and giving The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck a shot.

Book Talk: Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Stephen Hawking, 2018)

sh-1When it comes to books and reading, one of the mini goals I set myself last year was to introduce more variety into my consumption of the published word. I read a lot of fiction (but not from a very varied variety of authors it must be said) and a few magazines and that’s it. A factual, science-related book that I could actually learn a few things from was top of the list so when I saw this book by Stephen Hawking (one of his final projects before he passed away), I picked it up on impulse. It did after all mention black holes on the back and I have always been fascinated by these and the theories behind their existence.

The main selling point of Brief Answers to the Big Questions is that Hawking tackles various subjects and presents his thoughts in a way that even non-science types such as myself can understand. Of course, I still got a little lost when the likes of Quantum Mechanics and various other advanced theories were discussed but on the whole, this was a book that was quite easy to pick up and could easily serve as an entry point into more complex material should I wish to delve deeper.

Of greatest interest to me were the chapters entitled “Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?” and “Will we survive on earth?”. I’ve always been a big subscriber to the possibility that mankind will be eliminated by events that most of us laugh off as sci-fi movie rubbish right now so to read Stephen Hawking’s logical and well-presented thoughts on these matters was very interesting. He reiterates that he is an optimist and has hope for the future of the human race but at the same time, the ease of how we could be rendered extinct by our own doing is quite worrying and Hawking makes it sound so simple and straightforward.

Discussing these subjects with facts at hand and as little speculation, personal opinion or agendas as possible was refreshing for me. It was a reminder of how often we are fed ‘science’ news that is actually tainted with bias, scaremongering or political agendas. Here it is different and if Hawking says that X could kill us all because of Y and Z then you will tend to believe him because he is referencing facts and futures that seem entirely reasonable.

He also has a good sense of humour too which I have to admit, I didn’t expect.

In conclusion, this is a great book that discusses answers to the big questions that many of us have forgotten how to ask, let alone contemplate. Perfect for anybody into science who is already familiar with the work of Stephen Hawking; perfect for people such as myself who require these often complex subjects to be presented in more layman terms.