I am falling so far behind on reviews it’s time for another grab bag! You may look at this list and say “Wow, Tyler (not my real name), you are all over the place with genres!” To which I reply in my best Scar/Jeremy Irons voice “You have no idea.” I tend to be mercurial with my interests and obsessions and just go wherever the whim takes me. Also whatever I see that looks interesting at the library because we are blessed to have a really great library system in town. Apologies for the word count, this is a long one. With that on to the list!
Yearbook by Seth Rogen
Yearbook is less an autobiography and more a series of funny essays and anecdotes spanning actor/writer/comedian Seth Rogen so far. There are a few behind-the-scenes tales from his various movies and series but for the most part, this is focused on his personal life. Which in turn is focused a great deal on his dedication to getting high. Weed and mushrooms are his drug of choice although one very funny chapter recounts his foray into the world of acid (LSD) so he really is up for about anything. I have never really been able to relate to people that are super into pot. I’ve smoked pot a few times, even did hash accidentally, and it usually just leaves me feeling paranoid. I don’t like the sensation of losing control which is usually where I land. That is not a problem for Rogen and he is a professional drug user. I thought this would mean I would have trouble relating to the various drug-fueled adventures but Yearbook is a hell of an entertaining book. Rogen recounts bizarre encounters with George Lucas and Nicolas Cage that portray them to be just as eccentric as you would expect. Rogen writes about his childhood growing up in Vancouver BC, his early career at the age of 14 working in standup comedy, his career in Hollywood with his longtime friend Evan Goldberg, and his experiences as a Jew, including a disastrous summer camp tale. Rogen is witty and charming, and at least on one page, seems to be very down to Earth. Yearbook is a fast read and there were several times I was laughing out loud. Give it a go if you are a fan. 4/5
Will by Will Smith and Mark Manson
Will is also a twist on the autobiography. It follows the life of superstar Will Smith in chronological order, but each chapter is headed by a different concept. Such as “Fear” or “Love”. At 500+ pages Will is not a short book. But for the length I didn’t feel like I knew Smith all that much better after the book was done. It’s a compelling read, and his life and career are fascinating. But his all-consuming drive to succeed is both inspiring and terrifying. Where Will stands out is as a behind-the-scenes on what it takes to arrive at, and sustain, a career as a global superstar. The book recounts his early childhood, his family life, and how he found an outlet in the emerging hip hop scene in West Philadelphia as an MC. That was the most compelling and relatable section and once the book shifts to “Will Smith Moviestar” it gets to be less interesting. Most of the people that featured in the first half, including Jazzy Jeff, all but disappear for the latter half. Smith’s relationships and family life, as well as dealing with his celebrity, take up the bulk of the pages. It is a book worth reading if you are interested in the man, but there are some glaring omissions. No mention of Smith’s involvement in the Church of Scientology is addressed, and there is little behind-the-scenes anecdotes. So if you were looking for funny stories from the sets of Independence Day or Men in Black, this isn’t the book. In fact, the book is almost entirely humor free, presenting Will Smith as an intelligent, serious man with a raging fire driving him to be WILL SMITH, a concept he writes is a persona and not the real him. Will attempts to pull the curtain back to show us the REAL Will Smith, but what it really shows is his bottomless ego and his ongoing struggle to be satisfied. 4/5
Gwendy’s Final Task by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
A few years back I read Gwendy’s Button Box, about a young girl gifted with a wishing machine and the havoc it raised in her life. It is a short novel (like this) and while I enjoyed it, I pretty much forgot about it as soon as I closed the cover. That book had a vague Dark Tower connection but overall was a neat and tidy riff on The Monkey’s Paw. At some point there was a sequel, Gwendy’s Magic Feather, which I didn’t know existed until I had already started the third and final book, Gwendy’s Final Task. Usually, when I realize I’ve inadvertently skipped an installment I will stop what I’m reading and go back to the earlier book. In this case, Gwendy’s Final Task recapped what happened in the last book and I decided I didn’t really care and had the gist so I’d continue on. In this final installment, Gwendy Peterson once again has possession of the accursed button box and has been tasked with destroying it once and for all. The mysterious box has the power to grant whatever the holder desires but at a terrible cost. The box is outfitted with numerous buttons, each representing a different continent. Press the button of that continent and you make something terrible happen there in exchange for your wish. The box also can psychically hold onto the possessor of the box, compelling them to push the buttons. It’s admittedly kind of confusing how it works and that seems to be the intention. With time running out and evil forces closing in on the box, the decision is made to throw it into space. Which requires Gwendy, now a US senator, with the assistance of the Director of the CIA, to finagle her way onto a spaceship to jettison the box herself. How much Stephen King has to do with this book seems to be up for debate. However, this installment stops dancing around its connection to The Dark Tower and makes it explicit with the box desired as a weapon to destroy the Beams holding up the Dark Tower. If you are a Constant Reader and have read this far, give it a go. Otherwise, you are probably fine to skip. It’s B- tier King at best, and at this point, the Dark Tower mythology is getting so muddled I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing gets rebooted. There is a brief sojourn to Derry, Maine at one point and it should surprise no one that the city is as awful as ever, with another hint that maybe Pennywise is only mostly dead. 3/5
End Of Watch by Stephen King
End of Watch is the finale to the Bill Hodges trilogy, beginning with Mr. Mercedes, continuing with Finders Keepers, and concluding here. It’s an enjoyable conclusion but goes much further into supernatural horror than the first two more grounded books. At the conclusion of Mr. Mercedes, the evil Brady Hartsfield was stopped by Retired Detective Bill Hodges before Brady could blow up an arena full of teenagers. Hodges’s assistant, Holly Gibney, delivered the final blow caving in Brady’s skull. The last time we saw Brady he was in a vegetative state in the hospital. The second novel, Finders Keepers, was an unrelated case but featured the same heroes as Mr. Mercedes after they formed the Finders Keepers detective agency. When End of Watch begins it has been five years since the massacre at City Center that kicked off Mr. Mercedes in a bloody fashion. On the same day Hodges receives dire medical news he is called in by his old partner to help investigate what seems to be a murder-suicide. The victim was at City Center during the attack. As more deaths turn up, all somehow related to Brady Hartsfield, the team slowly realizes that the catatonic Brady may somehow be behind the new murders, and planning something far worse to come. End of Watch is a mystery with a ticking clock which is a trope I always enjoy. The explanation for what is going on is outlandish but isn’t too far removed from King’s Firestarter, to be honest. The pieces come together fast leaving the team to race against time chasing an impossible suspect in a blinding blizzard. End of Watch is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy and is a strong mix of likable heroes, a loathsome villain, and a detective thriller construct that keeps you turning pages long into the night. 4/5
NOTE: Be warned, End of Watch features the repeated murder-by-suicide of teenagers as a primary plot point and as such may be difficult for some readers.
Runnin’ With the Devil by Noel E. Monk with Joe Layden.
I am a big music guy, but there are only a few bands where I can name all the members. Van Halen is one of them and I would hazard this is true for most people. The original lineup of charismatic frontman David Lee Roth, guitar god Edward Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, and bassist Michael Anthony is one of the most celebrated ensembles in rock history. Their sixth album in as many years, 1984, marked the first time as a kid I recall being aware of what a “rock band” was. 1984 spawned two of Van Halen’s biggest songs, “Jump” and “Panama” and for a long time in the mid-’80s, and even still to this day, those songs were inescapable. The band appeared to be on top of the world but in the book Running With the Devil, written by Noel Monk, former manager for the band, the party was rapidly and viciously coming to an end even as they were riding high. The book takes us through the “discovery” of Van Halen, the early albums and tours, all the way up to Monk being fired by the band right before David Lee Roth left. This is a down and dirty book, with fascinating details. Until very recently Monk was under a gag order after suing the band after his dismissal, explaining why it took decades to hear his side of the story. It’s hard not to believe Monk’s story here, because we’ve heard them before. We know how Michael Anthony was treated by the band in later years. Sammy Hagar wrote in his own book Red about how difficult Alex and Edward Van Halen were to deal with when they were loaded, and they were loaded a lot. The excess, the clashing personalities, and egos (oh the egos), made for a magical but ultimately unsustainable ride. If you like behind-the-music stories you should pick this one up. 4/5
The Kaiju Preservation Society by Joe Scalzi.
The Kaiju Preservation Society is a very fun snack of a book that ends just as it starts to get going. I hope this is the first of a new series from Scalzi, he certainly lays the groundwork for future installments in this universe. The book starts on the eve of the COVID-19 lockdowns with Jamie Gray being fired by her billionaire boss during a performance review while working at a DoorDash clone. To make ends meet she works as a food delivery driver for the same company and ends up running into an old acquaintance from college. The acquaintance offers her a job on his team but can’t give her any details. Desperate, and enticed by the six-figure salary, Jamie takes the job and soon finds herself face to face with mythology-made flesh. The novel is fast-moving and spends the first half setting up the universe before speeding into the crisis and resolution. A lot of groundwork is laid for what the kaiju are, where they came from, and the mission of the Society. The characters are diverse using she, he, and they pronouns to describe them, but the most interesting trick of all is Jamie is never gendered. She is barely described leaving it up to the reader to decide, or not decide. For the record, I assumed from the start Jamie was female and it was only around the end of the first act I realized they never say. It’s an odd choice, and ultimately a distracting one, but I’m sure it will land differently for others. I’m a Scalzi fan, and The Kaiju Preservation Society is great fun. I wish it was longer but I’m hoping there is more to come. 4/5
Last Guard Out by Jim Albright.
Last on my list is Last Guard Out, a memoir of the final years at the federal prison Alcatraz by a guard who worked there. I came across this one (autographed!) at my local library book sale for $1 earlier this year. I think Alcatraz is probably a niche interest that fits in that same wheelhouse as other popular Gen X childhood obsessions such as UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis. I have always been fascinated by Alcatraz and its reputation for being inescapable. The book, written by Albright, is a matter-of-fact but surprisingly well-written account of the day-to-day life on Alcatraz for the prisoners, the guards, and their families. Accounts of a couple of the high-profile escape attempts occurred when Albright was as the prison, giving a fascinating on-the-ground look at what really happened. If you can track it down, and you are similarly fascinated by Alcatraz, it is worth a read. 3.5/5