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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 9, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Thriller, Windows 10, Gamache, Adults

I don''t usually pick up books that are labeled as ""thrillers."" I wish I could say that this is because I''m not easily thrilled, but the opposite is the case. If the writing is reasonably good, I start to care way too much about the characters until I get way too tense and upset by the jeopardy they''re in.

I''m not one of those guys who can go to a horror movie and laugh at the absurdity of it all. Even when I know I''m being jerked around ---- dread that comes only from the oogly-boogly music, monsters or bad guys that pop up from out of frame ---- I care way too much.

Then I hate myself afterward, because when I''m not actually caught up in the moment, I can see all the stupidity and manipulation. For instance, Stephen King''s most powerful book, Misery, which I really admired, still had that really offensively dumb gag at the end where the dead villain''s body isn''t where the hero left it ...

Oooooooh. I mean, come on.

And even the best thriller writers often resort to spatter scenes and torture scenes to up the fear quotient or to make the book or movie stand out in memory.

Only ... I already have some pretty icky things in my memory, thanks. Don''t need somebody else junking it up with more of man''s inhumanity to man. Especially not spectacular cruelty that somebody sat around and thought up as entertainment.

And yet ... without people doing evil things, there would be little storytelling. As a fiction writer myself, I''m keenly aware that I have written things that made other readers annoyed and upset. When I do that, it''s because this is the story that felt important and truthful to me as I was writing it; I have to give other writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that even the most manipulative-seeming nonsense is there because the writer believed in and cared about the story.

I just don''t have to be in the audience for that story, or recommend it to my friends.

All of this is my way of telling you that when I do recommend a book labeled as a thriller, it''s because it''s something special ---- in my opinion, anyway.

Those Who Wish Me Dead, by Michael Koryta, begins with a teenage boy, Jace Wilson, who is trying to conquer his fear of heights by diving off ever-higher ledges at an old water-filled quarry. Things start to go wrong when he discovers a murdered man whose body was recently sunk in the water. And then the murderers come back, kill another victim, dump him ... and then discover Jace''s clothes.

These killers really don''t like to leave witnesses.

The rest of the novel focuses on the effort to keep Jace alive. We get to know a handful of characters, and Koryta does a good job of making them interesting and believable.

Ethan Serbin and his wife, Allison, put on summer survival camps for troubled teenage boys in the mountains of Montana near Yellowstone. Very much against Allison''s judgment, Ethan agrees to include a boy whose life is in danger and whose parents don''t want him in the witness-protection system because the victims whose murders he witnessed were in witness protection themselves. But the Serbins are not told which of the boys is the one in danger.

Of course we know that the murderers will find out where he is and end up pursuing him in the mountain country, so whatever Jace learns about wilderness survival will be vital to him in trying to stay alive.

We also get to know Hannah Faber, who used to be part of an elite group of fire fighters. After losing most of her team, she has returned to the much safer job of watching for smoke from a fire tower. When Jace flees from the killers, he turns to her for help; who else is out there in the forest?

Koryta plots a story that plays no tricks and works no miracles; that is, everybody does things that you can believe real people might do. Some pretty awful things happen, because the murderers are ruthless and cruel ---- a pair of brothers who have a weirdly fascinating way of talking only to each other in front of the people they''re about to torture and kill.

Koryta does not indulge in extreme scenes of cruelty, though everybody has different standards of what constitutes ""extreme."" If you have a lively imagination you''ll fill in some unpleasant details that Koryta does not supply; let''s just say that he does not seem to savor or dwell on the details of torture and murder, the way some thriller writers do.

The Blackwell brothers are memorable, not because of the way they kill people, but because of the way they talk and act.

They also have a way of anticipating any moves the heroes might make in their own defense, so that their plans to get away or overpower them don''t usually work out well. We start to count on a lightning storm or a forest fire ---- both of which are going on at the climax ---- to save the people we care about.

But nature isn''t that much help, either. Not everybody we like gets out alive. And yet it''s a completely satisfying and believable ending.

And for me, a reader who identifies so closely with well-drawn characters that gruesome thrillers make me way too upset to stay to the end, Koryta shows enough restraint that, while terrible things do happen to people and the bad guys are disturbingly evil, I was never driven out of the book.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is such a good novel that I''m going to read another thriller by Koryta and see if this was a fluke or if he delivers this well every time. Meanwhile, I recommend this book highly ---- especially as narrated by Robert Petkoff in the audiobook.


Microsoft tried getting away from sequential numbering after the disaster that was Windows 4. Remember that? Windows 3.11 users heard the bad news and waited to upgrade until the release of Windows 5 ---- which was not numbered, but was instead called Windows XP.

Then Windows 6 was released, still with a name: Vista. It was the operating system that made it clear that Microsoft thinks it owns our computers. We hated it. We ignored it.

Vista was so bad they went back to numbering with Windows 7. Those of us who upgraded directly from XP to 7 found it a decent upgrade path, as long as you didn''t try to network XP machines with 7 machines. That did not go well.

Then came Windows 8. Once again, Microsoft''s even-numbered iteration was an absurd disaster, as if, once again, everyone at Microsoft forgot that most of us don''t have any desire to completely change the way we use our computers. What were these weird solid-color ugly blocks doing on our screen? Was this Tetris or an operating system?

Turns out that Microsoft thought that their captive Windows audience would start buying Windows Phone if their regular computer had the same look-and-feel. Wrong again. Instead, we decided to reject Windows 8 exactly the way most of us had rejected Windows Phone.

Now comes Windows 9 ---- you know, the user-friendly odd-numbered version that follows the disaster of an arrogant, screw-the-user even-numbered version. But once again they''re changing the naming system.

Now, instead of calling it Windows 9, they''re going to call it: Windows 10.

Yeah, that''s the ticket! Since Microsoft has decided that in the world of Stupid they wish to be King, they are treating this as the last-ever version of Windows (likely to be true no matter what they decide) and they wanted it to have a more permanent-sounding name.

Never mind that all their even-numbered releases have been disasters. The name of 9 is 10, that''s their decision, and as with the various naming ventures of The Artist Formerly Known As ""The Artist Formerly Known As ''Prince,''"" the rest of us will just have to play along.

In a preview piece about Windows 10 on ZDNet, Mary Jo Foley wrote: ""Windows 7 users are among those Microsoft knows are key in winning over to Windows 10. Belfiore said Microsoft's goal is to make Windows 7 users feel as though they are upgrading from a Prius to a Tesla with Windows 10 without having to relearn how to drive.""

{ You can read her whole article at http://www.zdnet.com/microsofts-windows-10-whats-new-and-how-to-get-the-preview-bits-7000034210/?s_cid=e539&ttag=e539&ftag=TRE17cfd61 }

What a great idea. Let the upgrade path from 7 to 9 (AKA 10) be smooth and easy.

So the question is: Why didn''t this brilliant notion occur to anybody at Microsoft when they jerked us around with Windows 8? Why should the upgrade from 7 to 9 be comfortable, but from 7 to 8 be brutal?

I think the dictatorial, user-hating ""upgrades"" to 4, 6 (Vista), and 8 show Microsoft as it really is: The users will do whatever we decide, so screw ''em.

They never seem to remember that Windows is not MS-DOS. That prevailed because it was the workalike to PC-DOS, which the IBM clones all had to run in order to operate IBM-compatible software.

We switched to Windows 3.X because it was better ---- more Apple-like, able to keep several programs running at the same time, and yet customizable as Apple refuses to be.

For a long time, Windows was so popular that whatever Microsoft did, everyone had to obey.

But now we''re getting choices. So moves like Windows 8 suggest that Microsoft wants very, very badly to be out of the operating system business. They want everybody to be running Android or Chrome machines, or some yet-to-be-named Windows replacement.

Thus the decision that Windows 10 will be the ""final"" version of Windows is probably true. Microsoft''s corporate culture is obviously so defective, so cut off from the real world of computer users, that they are no longer fit to compete with companies that still remember that unhappy customers will leap to a competitor as soon as a reasonable alternative comes along.


In this odd era of literature, we''ve fragmented the audience in some pretty absurd ways. The academic-literary establishment is convinced that only novels designed to be decoded according to their formulas count as ""literature,"" though of course anything that is written down to be read later is literature.

For those of us who rarely find Li-Fi (literary fiction) to be readable or even interesting, the literary marketplace is fragmented into departments, with semi-permeable borders. Sci-Fi and Fantasy overlap too much to be separated, as do Romance and Erotica (i.e., women''s porn).

Young Adult briefly became the All-Vampire-and-Werewolf section of the bookstore, and is now separated into almost as many subgenres as adult fiction.

Chick Lit tries to fudge the boundary between Li-Fi and Romance, but the best of them are written in past tense and are therefore meant to be read by volunteers. Still, it isn''t separated out of the mass of ""fiction and literature"" at the bookstore.

Historical Fiction is not separated out, so you have to search by known authors (Bernard Cornwell, for instance). Oddly, though, most Historical Fiction now shows up in a surprising place: Mystery/Thriller. Detective series now exist that are set in ancient Rome, Medieval England, and every period of American history.

There are also ""counterfactual"" historical novels in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section ---- they are set in a certain period of the past, but with a significant difference. You know, the cowboys-and-aliens kind of thing; but some, notably the work of Harry Turtledove, is deeply researched, so that you really do get the immersive historical fiction experience even though things are flamboyantly ""wrong.""

Still, I think it''s significant that as Li-Fi has laid claim to the ""literature"" title, some of our best writers have moved into the Mystery or Detective genre in order to have the freedom to write clear, coherent fiction designed to tell a story ---- even if they also want to do a different kind of literature.

One of the best novels I''ve read in recent years is Louise Penny''s A Rule Against Murder, the most recent in her Chief Inspector Gamache series. I have read none of the previous installments ... but I will now.

Armand Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, go to a resort in the wilderness of Quebec to celebrate their anniversary. The Manoir Bellechasse looks rustic on the outside, but it aspires to four-star cuisine and service, with a chef and a maitre d'' who run a tight operation.

But the owner also operates the place as a haven for young wanderers who get summer jobs there and learn the discipline of being part of a team devoted to providing perfect service. Only a few choose to stay on for more than one summer; but while they''re there, it''s a haven and place to find yourself.

It happens that during the same time as the Gamaches'' visit, the Finney family shows up for a reunion. They are anglophones (English-speakers) of the social class that used to dominate Quebec during the era when it was possible to grow up in Montreal without learning any French.

But it soon becomes clear that there is a lot more going on with the Finneys (or, as we soon discover, the Morrows, since the matriarch only became Mrs. Finney when she remarried after the father''s death) than celebration. They have a streak of viciousness that they use on each other and on strangers ---- including Gamache himself.

Of course there''s a murder ---- the most likeable of the family, perversely ---- and Gamache''s vacation is over as his team joins him from Montreal to conduct the investigation. Naturally, suspicion is cast on the whole family ---- who have such a history of emotional neediness and cruelty that it begins to seem miraculous that this is the first killing in the clan.

But Gamache''s biggest problem is figuring out how the murder was even done. The victim was killed by being crushed under a heavy statue that fell from its pedestal. But how was the heavy thing pushed off without the victim noticing the equipment that would have been required? And why didn''t the movement of the statue leave even the tiniest mark on the pedestal?

For those who like puzzle mysteries, this one is a doozy (I came very close to the right answer). But if you don''t care about the puzzle, you can read this as a serious novel about a family that has been working at cross-purposes for generations.

Most of them are hungry for love, but can''t recognize it when it''s offered; grudges are held for decades; and people who seem cold and hateful may have reasons which, if they had only explained them, would have made all the difference.

Meanwhile, the resort staff ---- a shy gardener, a rebellious young waiter, the maitre d'', the chef, the owner ---- play a significant role.

Of course the mystery is solved ---- and fully explained, or I wouldn''t be recommending the book. But this is so much more than a mystery that the genre label is frustrating.

Yes, it is perfectly satisfying to readers who head to the Mystery/Thriller section of the bookstore. But it would also be deeply pleasing to many readers who wander the aisles of the Fiction/Literature section, wishing for a novel about human relationships, but instead keep finding books by authors who are more interested in impressing critics than telling a story.

Meanwhile, I must say that I''m especially delighted with the character of Inspector Armand Gamache. His relationships with his wife and, by long-distance phone, with his son Daniel play a significant role in the story, and Gamache''s character consists of a great deal more than the mere eccentricity that he is profoundly afraid of heights.

I look forward to reading the other Inspector Gamache novels. Or rather, listening to the superb readings by Ralph Cosham.

It''s a shame the language is coarse enough to be a barrier to some readers, because otherwise the novel would be completely welcoming to readers with traditional values. If you can overlook a few needless f-bombs, though, this is what Agatha Christie''s novels have grown up to become.


By contrast, The Adults, by Alison Espach, is so riddled with foul language that it becomes oppressive and then absurdly funny. But that''s far from being the only barrier, because the entire book hinges on readers'' acceptance of a sexual relationship between a high school teacher and one of his students.

That''s not really what the book is ""about,"" though, and despite the barriers, I ended it feeling satisfied and even, to a degree, illuminated. Espach is a very good storyteller, and The Adults is a powerful exploration of a fifteen-year-old Emily Vidal''s gradual understanding of what adulthood means.

At first, adults are, to her, these alien creatures of her parents'' generation who do inexplicable things. When she witnesses the suicide of the father of the neighbor boy she has a crush on, it''s her first glimpse of the fact that adults are every bit as fragile as children, but without anyone committed to sheltering and supporting them.

Meanwhile, we watch the adolescent fantasies of Emily and her friends turn real as the dreamy young teacher crosses the line. It''s a morally fraught situation, especially since the novel treats it as a long-term love affair. On the one hand, many societies in human history have regarded a marriage between a fifteen-year-old girl and a twenty-four-year-old man as perfectly normal ---- even ideal.

And our rules can seem absurd: If a seventeen-year-old and sixteen-year-old, or a nineteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old have sex, no major crime has been committed. But if an eighteen-year-old male has sex with a seventeen-year-old female, he can be tagged as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

We also live in the post-Clinton-Lewinsky era, in which it turns out to be OK after all for a man in a position of vastly greater power than a young woman to exploit her sexually without losing his job, and the professional feminists are supportive and forgiving and agree that ""everybody lies about sex.""

But while sexual desire is always a powerful and understandable force in human life, I found this liaison to be more like a drug addiction than a love affair ---- and I think the author intended it that way.

In fact, it''s like the flip side of the coin of Twilight, in which the powerful male is not trustworthy just because he''s so ""in love."" Whatever else the novel says, it does not make this lopsided love affair ""romantic.""

Most important to the story, though, are Emily''s discoveries about her parents and their generation of friends, as she moves into their world and finds she is not any better than they were at managing the business of being an adult.

Despite the repellant features of the novel ---- or perhaps partly because of them ---- I found listening to Tavia Gilbert''s fine reading of The Adults to be a fascinating and moving experience. This is Alison Espach''s first novel; it will be interesting to see where she goes with the next.

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