The Ruins by Scott Smith: Death by Mayan’s

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I first heard of this book “through the backdoor” as it were. I’d seen the film first. I can somewhat hazily remember liking it. It wasn’t anything to write home about, as far as I can remember, but the film did strike a chord with me. I discovered that it had been made from Scott Smith’s (no relation) book of the same name.

I discovered the book whilst perusing the many available books on Amazon. My eye caught a blurb by the horror Meister himself Stephen King. He gave what I thought was a glowing recommendation of the book. That to me was a seal of approval and I then ordered a hardcopy of the book.

It was only after getting said book that I realised that the glowing recommendation was for his first book, A Simple Plan. Upon learning this disturbing and misleading fact, I raised my clenched fists to the sky and cried, “Damn you Amazon!”

Not really. I did, though, mutter a slight curse at my obvious gullibility and no, I do not want to buy prime real estate in the swamplands of Florida… Or do I?

I haven’t read Mr Smith’s first novel, but I am going to since I trust Stevie King implicitly. But for now, I’ll just focus on the book I have read.

The Ruins is set in Mexico (obviously since the Mayan’s don’t come from any other part of the globe) and it follows the deathly journey made by a group of young people who are just starting out in the world. Jeff and Amy are medical students. Stacy and Eric are happy-go-lucky kids who have drifted together. Eric has been hired as an English  teacher and Stacy has no idea what she is going to do.

This group of four have been joined by Heinrich and Mathias, two German men who happen to be in Mexico on holiday and three Greeks who, since no one can speak the language are referred to as Don Quixote, Pablo and Juan. When Heinrich runs off to some Mayan ruins in pursuit of a female student who is working at the site and then seemingly vanishes, Mathias decides to find him.

Jeff, Amy, Eric, Stacy and Pablo decide to accompany him on what appears, on the face of it, to be a lark and an adventure. Unfortunately for this small band of “explorers” when they eventually find Heinrich they also find something deadly amongst the ruins. After being trapped on the archeological site by neighbouring villagers, the group must try to survive until help arrives.

Jeff, the Eagle Boy Scout, is the leader and he must struggle to keep them alive as well as try to find a way out of their deadly predicament.

This was a great read. I honestly cannot remember if the film adapted from the book was a faithful representation of the story. I’ve down-loaded the film and I’ll watch it soon so I can make an accurate comparison.

Smith does a good job of fleshing out all his characters and paints a great picture of the young people who don’t let language barriers stop them from connecting with other people.  Unfortunately this lack of language skills is what helps to trap the happy-go-lucky group in the ruins.

The only drawback to the book was some of the actual characters themselves. I bonded with Jeff and with the “spacey” Stacy but none of the others had traits that made them personable enough to connect with. And the “foreigners” like Mathias and especially Pablo, did not have enough development either because of the language barrier (Pablo) or lack of character information due to personality (Mathias).

Despite my “disconnection” with some of the main players, I did feel a lot of empathy for the group and their fight for survival. Smith has also introduced a “Big Bad” that was properly creepy and downright scary! And this big bad was nasty and cruel. I can’t tell you what it is, you’ll have to read the book to get that. But it not something you’ll forget about after you’ve read it.

A real 5 star book with just a couple of 3 or 4 star moments. Keep an eye out for Mr Scott Smith, both his books thus far have made a bit of a wave in the literary community. While I try to chase down a copy of his first foray into the horror/suspense/thriller genre, I’ll be looking for any new books he may release.

Author Scott Smith (no relation)
Author Scott Smith (no relation)

ARBOREATUM by Evans Light: The Apple of His Eye

UnknownARBOREATUM by Evans Light is a novella length story about  two settler families who have branched off from their main wagon train because of the religious rantings of their self-appointed leader, Lemuel. He  claims to have had a revelation about finding the Garden of Eden in the middle of the prairie that they are attempting to cross.

After the two families get lost and are starving, they find a valley that looks like Lemuel might just have been right. Unfortunately their way is blocked by a non-welcoming party of four indians. This doesn’t stop Lemuel though, he immediately blows one of the “warriors” head off and his friend and follower Sam Jenkins follows suit.

After all four of the indians have been murdered, the families take possession of this apparent paradise, things go wrong very quickly and it looks like they’d have been better off listening to the “locals.”

At 75 pages this just taps into “novella” territory, but the story moves at a good pace and I do have to say that I was impressed by the storyline and the twist. I certainly did not see that coming. So in terms of plot and plot devices, I was very pleased surprised. Something that does not happen too often these days.

My only complaint was the dialogue and some of the sentence phrasing. It had too much of a twentieth century feel to it.

At the beginning of the story, young Micah Jenkins (son of Sam, and yes I only just caught that) is thinking about how the two families got stranded in the middle of the prairie. When he reveals that the reason they became separated from the main group is because of Lemuel “going all messianic;”  the phrase is way too “modern.” The time period when the story is set would not have featured such a turn of phrase.

Another part of the story has Micah recalling how he caught Lemuel’s oldest daughter Anna in the act of “fondling” her private parts; but, Micah uses a very modern term to describe the part of her nether region that she was touching. Both of these sentences had the effect of taking me out of the story. I am reasonably sure that the slang term Micah uses in the story was not in vogue just yet. So like the previous phrase, both of these instances (these were the most obvious) took away from Evans’ tale.

But, the overall story and the action almost made up for it. As I said it was a brilliant idea and one that certainly impressed me. Just for the plot alone, I’ve given the book a 3 out of 5 stars. In terms of originality, I personally think it rates much higher, but, again the dialogue did not ring true for me. So the modern phrasing of the characters knocked the final rating down.

I’ll definitely be reading some more from Mr Light. If the rest of his works are as original, I don’t think I’ll be too disappointed.

Evans Light. Photo courtesy of Goodreads.com
Evans Light. Photo courtesy of Goodreads.com

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)

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Life of Pi was finally published in 2001 by the Canadian Publishing House Knopf Canada. Finally, because it had been turned down by no less than five London Publishing Houses before Knopf stepped in. (Wikipedia)

I had never heard of the book and only became aware of its existence when I saw a trailer for Ang Lee’s film version. I would not have noticed it then, but for the fact that English actor Rafe Spall was in the trailer and as I am a big fan, I paid close attention to it.

My daughter told me that the Ang Lee tim was based on a book and it was put on my “to read” list immediately.

Like all other things that suddenly appear in our everyday peripheral vision, the book as well as the film, quickly faded into obscurity; overshadowed by other events that were forefront in my mind. The film was brought back to my attention when Ang Lee won the Best Director Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards.

After that, I kept my eye out for a copy of the book, either in the Library or to purchase. I found the book on Amazon Kindle for the obscenely low price of 20 pence (that’s about 50 cents in American currency). I could not turn down such an offer and I downloaded it and read it in one day.

At 326 pages the book is not overly long and the pace and writing style is brisk enough that it can be read very quickly. Of course the content of the book also guarantees that the reader is loath to put the book down for even the briefest of moments. Suffice to say, that Yann Martel had me on the first sentence of his Authors Note of the book.

Life of Pi follows the life of the writer (Martel, but only as the narrator and chronicler of the main character’s story) and Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel. Pi starts his life in India and his father runs the local zoo. Pi is a curious young man who, in his quest to learn about God, practices three separate religions at once. It causes a small amount of friction amongst the holy men of his town, Pondicherry, but his lessons from each theological belief stands him in good stead later on.

Due to financial difficulties, his father decides to sell the zoo and the animals. He also decides that he and his family will accompany the animals on their sea journey to Canada. After the ship sets sail, it sinks with no warning and only Pi is left alive. He takes refuge on one of the ships lifeboats which he shares with a hyena, a Zebra, and orangutan and a Bengal Royal Tiger named Richard Parker.

We accompany Pi on his journey and witness the oddities and hardships that he faces while adrift in the sea. He has a “fantastic” voyage and we are privy to all of it.

This “fantasy/adventure” story, that was almost never published, is one of the most fascinating and entertaining books I’ve read in a long time, not by a favourite author. Like most avid readers, I have my “stable” of authors that I will return to again and again. Not just because I like their stories, but I like their writing style and their little touches that make a tale come to life.

Yann Martel has now found a place on my favourite author list, quite high up actually. His way of moving a story forward and letting us into Pi’s world and his beliefs are almost poetic in nature. For the entire length and breadth of the book, I felt that Pi and his adventures were real, just waiting to be revealed as some outlandish truth that could be verified via the internet or some dusty old tome in a library. Such was the power of his writing.

I will, of course, now have to see the film. I can only hope that Ang Lee has managed to capture the scope and the fantastic element of this brilliant tale. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Martel’s wonderful book, I’d recommend taking advantage of the 20 pence (or the monetary equivalent where you live) bargain price and read it.

I know that this is a book that I will read again and again.

5 stars.

Photo courtesy of wandafulworldofbooks.blogspot.com
Author Yann Martel. Photo courtesy of wandafulworldofbooks.blogspot.com

Sock Puppets…Trolls With a Hand Up Their Butt?

Photo courtesy of Read it again, Mom at blogspot.com

While I was writing my latest book review, Fair Game by Stephen Leather I was cruising the net for images to put on my article. I came across a picture of Stephen that stated that he liked sock puppets. I glanced at the image and chuckled. I then found an image I liked and moved on.

I then moved off the Google page of images and the engine coughed up an article about the practise of Sock Puppetry. I was curious about this “new” thing that was going on in the world of literature.

Essentially, sock puppets is another term for trolling. Okay, the article did not call it that, nor did the other multitude of  articles dealing with this practise. The explanation of sock puppetry is as follows:

” pseudonymous handles to post positive Amazon reviews of [sic] an author’s own books and one-star reviews of others.” *courtesy of the LA Times* Basically, “certain” authors are giving their published works 5 star reviews on Amazon (and presumably sites like Goodreads) and slating the competition.

It certainly sounds like trolling to me. Slating something someone else has done (usually on YouTube) and hiding behind a fake identity. The main difference of course is it that the sock puppet version of trolling is being done by someone with a vested interest is “cutting back” the competition.

Whether we like it or not, writing is a business. One that has become increasingly reliant on author participation directly related to sales. New authors (and even “established” ones) are having to resort to touting their wares beyond the “old-fashioned” route of book signings and interviews on  local and national media stations.

New authors are having to go the ‘self publishing’ route or are striving to make a name for themselves in the ever-increasing tide of eBooks that are the “bread and butter” of the kindle world. The old-fashioned publishing world exists, of course it does, with its huge slush pile of rejected manuscripts and agents on the look out for a “new” published author.

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...
Cover via Amazon

As the eBook industry  is gearing up, book reviews in newspapers and magazines are getting sparse. You can still find them of course, Reader’s Digest still has a monthly one, but, these are mostly for established writers well-known to the reading public. New authors do get a mention, sometimes.

So you are a writer and you’ve finished your book and , dammit, it’s good. You’ve got a ton of reject slips telling you so, it’s just that it’s not what the publisher needs right now. So you go the eBook route and self publish. It’s done more than you would think.

Now your book is published and out there for the world to read. It is unfortunately under-priced and the revenue coming in isn’t enough to buy a pint of bitter down the local pub. It needs some attention and a lot more positive notices so that readers want to try it out.

Now the under-pricing is impacting the sales of books in that they are driving the value of books down. As a consumer I applaud this, as a writer I am appalled. How can you make a living out of selling books that go for 99 pence a copy? I might have to work at MacDonald’s while I write in my spare time for the rest of my life.

But price matters aside (we won’t mention the “free” books) how do you drive readers to your works apart from relying on the medium that is selling your book?

Reviews.

Amazon has a section for reviews and has had for a long time. This system, set up for readers to say what they thought of their reading experience has always been open to “fake” reviews. It is part and parcel of a business that relies on “written word of mouth” to sell your stories.

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 ...
The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 공공 보도 부문 상인 금메달 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Buchanan wrote in one of her autobiographical books that when she worked on a small newspaper in Florida she and a co-worker wrote “fake” inflammatory letters to the editor to get a reaction and drive their readership up. On a lesser note, editors use to also write to their own Playboy magazine with “sexual exploit” letters for a similar reason.

So  could we accuse the award-winning Ms Buchanan of early sock puppetry? I don’t think so. Because no matter how we go about it, business is business. Sure it’s not the same as the old saying, ” In love and war…” There are laws and apart from a lot of authors all squealing because they got a poor review on Amazon from a fictitious fan, trolling is not illegal.

Unethical? Probably. Maybe.

Either way, it is the way business is being done in an environment that requires so much more author input into the sales of their books.

On a final note, who really pays attention to book reviews? I read them (always have) but most are written by book critics who have their own agendas. Just like internet sites like IGN  and  G4 are thinly disguised marketing tools, so are book critics. I do pay a bit of attention to fan reviews but they are opinion based and not a hard and fast picture of how good a book really is.

I can sympathise with the aggrieved authors who feel (quite rightly, I suppose) that they are being unfairly picked on, but…

I know that at least one author who has clawed his way up through electronic publishing to become a successful “traditionally” published writer has bucket loads of talent and writes one helluva good book. I think that if you are on the other side of the fence and are trying to become successful in your field you will do whatever you have to.

Success isn’t just a state of mind, it’s having the dedication to take advantage of any legal doors open to you.  This war is going to go on for sometime to come. Just because a few authors have been caught with their fingers caught in the proverbial cookie jar doesn’t mean that the practise will stop.

Oops.