Review of The Institute

institute.jpgLet’s get this disclaimer out of the way so that we can get down to the meat and potatoes of this book review. I absolutely, positively love everything that Stephen King has ever written. Not so much his film adaptions, but that’s another review for another time.

Released in mid September, the storyline of The Institute follows two main characters. The first readers encounter is Tim Jamieson, an ex-policeman that’s traveling to New York for a job. Following his intuition, Jamieson ends up in DuPray, South Carolina. He ends up being a Night Knocker. For those that don’t know what a night knocker is, don’t worry I didn’t know either. Basically, it’s just a lowly paid member of local law enforcement that walks around at night making sure places are locked up. Jamieson has his own interesting history and is developing a life in DuPray when the story shifts over to the central character of the novel, Luke Ellis. 

Luke is a twelve-year-old genius that’s about to enter college. One night, he’s kidnapped from his home in suburban Minneapolis and taken to The Institute. It’s a facility located in Maine. Luke soon finds out that he and all the other kids in the facility have either telekinesis or telepathy. Oh, and the facility is operated by a super secret shadowy organization.

Going into the novel, I was certain that it was a sequel King’s 1980 novel, Firestarter. It’s essentially the same premise. A child with pyrokinetic powers is hunted by The Shop, a super secret government operation that does drug testing on people with telekinetic abilities. Spoiler alert: Firestarter ends with The Shop reforming under new leadership. With Doctor Sleep being a sequel to The Shining, it wasn’t that hard to think that The Institute was a sequel to Firestarter. However, don’t get your hopes up. There’s no references to the book that was adapted into the 1984 film starring Drew Barrymore.

While I really enjoyed Luke’s journey of survival and vengeance, all I really wanted to do was get back to Night Knocker Tim. For some reason, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tim’s normal, everyday life compared to the freaky and slightly traumatizing tale of Luke Ellis. As you could guess, the two main character’s path eventually collide and that’s when the story picks up. To quote Pam Beesly-Halpert from The Office, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

Stephen King is one of those authors that has an innate talent to craft a decent story with children as characters. The Institute is pretty much a mash-up of IT and Firestarter. You take a shadowy government organization testing children and the children must band together to survive. Luke and the other children share a deep relationship together and King so masterfully gives each child a story arc without bogging down the narrative.

The one thing that I truly did not like were the political digs at President Trump and the Republican Party. If you follow King’s social media, you’ll know that he doesn’t particularly look on them with a positive light. There aren’t many of these references, but they always made me cringe and pulled me out of the narrative when I read them.

I guess I wouldn’t be a good reviewer if I didn’t mention how the novel parallels real world events. When you finish this 576 page science fiction/horror thriller there are a few things that hit close to home in terms of vaccinations, missing children, and zealots that believe that the ends justify the means. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that The Institute is an interesting look into these issues and the deeper and terrifying implications they have on society.

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, The Institute will itch that literary scratch. For those that haven’t delved into the deep library of King, you’ll find this book a great introduction into it. The Institute is definitely one to put on your To-Be-Read list.

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When the End isn’t really the End

So here we are at the end of 2018. For me, it’s been a year of some really great moments. Of course, like the roller coasters at Six Flags once taught me, what goes up must come down. Fortunately, it seems that 2018 was filled with more ups than down.

Side note, I’d like to apologize to the people in the row behind me for that incident I had during the ride. Turns out roller coasters and chili dogs when you’re a ten-year old kid don’t quite mix.

The good thing about the end of the year is that there’s another one immediately as soon as the prior year ends. You also don’t have to wait for it to come out. The same can’t be said for books.

I have this friend (despite the rumors, I do have friends) that buys books as presents. We were walking through Barnes and Nobles before Christmas and he was looking for a book for his father. He ended up getting two or three from the same series. When I asked if his father liked the series, my friend said he’d never read the series. He went on to say that when he buys books, he often purchases the whole series or a few books from the series because if they like the book then they can immediately continue on with the next.

I’ve come across another issue with series. Specifically my own book series. Sometimes when I’m trying to get people to buy my book, they ask if they’re part of a series. When I reply that they are, they often say the following: “Well, I might read them when the entire series is published. That way I don’t have to wait for next one to come out.”

So, for this last Mastering the Craft of 2018, it’s Dec. 27 when I’m writing this, I’d like to discuss some advantages/disadvantages of writing a book series.

Advantages:

• The story you write can be much longer than if it was a single book. By stretching your plot out between six or seven books you can develop characters and include more detailed side plots for characters. Book series like The Dark Tower comes into mind. If Stephen King had written one single book about Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower, King might not have been able to really develop the characters Eddie, Jake, and Susannah. Which would have been a shame because those characters really are intriguing and only help to enrich the overall story.

• You really shouldn’t be in the writing business for the money. Strictly speaking, being an author isn’t that profitable unless you’re a King, Patterson, Rowling, etc… Writing should be about loving what you do and not loving the money you may gain from it. However, if you’re able to profit from your books, then writing a longer series may be worth it. Look at J.K. Rowling. She’s published seven books in her series. Mathematically, she earns more money from seven books than she would if she’d written one to three novels.

• Publishers tend to look more for series than single books. The reasoning I said above applies here as well.

Disadvantages:

• You could die before the series is completed. Sure, I could have built up to this disadvantage, but I thought I’d begin with the absolute worst. So fans of Game of Thrones are waiting for George R.R. Martin to keel over at any moment and leave his series incomplete. I’m sure if you search on the internet there are many articles that have been written on the subject. Shoot, Weird Al Yankovic even involved this in a parody of his. Stephen King almost died in 1999 when he was struck by a vehicle. If he had died that day, his Dark Tower series would’ve been incomplete leaving fans with only questions.

• You could have your series completed by another author. I know some of you might think this is worse, but the first one involves death. Of course, if the author that takes over your series is awful, then that would mean the death of your series. So… maybe that’s worse. An author’s books are his/her legacy. Having another author taint your legacy with their writing style is equal to dying and not completing it yourself. Tom Clancy is a great example. You’ll notice that even though Clancy is long since dead, his series goes on with “Tom Clancy’s” in front of every book. Disclaimer: I’m not stating that all those books are rubbish. I’m only questioning whether or not Clancy would want this happening. You’ll notice I didn’t include a James Patterson joke. I’ve grown up a bit.

• So you’ve decided to write a book series. Awesome! Except, you don’t really need to write a series. Your plot could easily fit into one or two books, but you’re determined to stretch it out into five or six books and call it “The (fill in the blank) Chronicles” or the “(fill in the blank) Series).” The outcome is that all your books are pretty short in length and even shorter in character/plot substance. If you ever do get the books accepted by a publisher it’ll be a miracle. But then again, James Patterson gets his books published so publishing miracles must be a dime a dozen. 

Hmm…. Guess I didn’t grow up that much.

Remember folks, when you’re writing a book and decide to make it a series you need to do two things. The first is to consider where your characters want to go, do, and how they’ll grow as characters. If your characters are the same as when they began then it might prove as a boring book series. The second thing you have to ask yourself is: Is my story meant to be a series? Ask yourself if you have the mental fortitude to lock yourself in for a few years as you write all the books in your series. If you don’t know the answers to these questions then maybe a book series isn’t right for your story. Try writing just one book and if you have plots incomplete then go forth with another book.

Have a Happy New Year and I’ll see you all in 2019! Unless, of course, assassins from Patterson and/or Michigan don’t get to me first. I tend to make enemies whenever I write these rants.

It Ends at the Beginning

“Ka is a wheel.” This saying can be found throughout The Dark Tower series written by Stephen King. The saying basically means that everything that goes around comes around. You reap what you sow. If you’ve ever read the full series by King, I’d suggest it, you know that this simple saying has more meaning behind it.

There’s a type of plot that’s pretty similar to this saying. This style is actually very, very old. Like a couple centuries ago. Well, maybe a bit longer than that, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s really ancient. Written at the tale-end of the 8th Century B.C., The Odyssey was written by Homer and is the second-oldest extant work of Western literature. For those Jeopardy fanatics out there, the answer to what is the oldest is “What is the Illiad, Alex.” 

Just so you know, if you win the gameshow because of this answer, I’d like more than just a copy of the home game. To me, I think 10 percent of the overall winnings sounds pretty fair. Checks can be mailed to James Master or made out to cash. I also accept PayPal.

The plot centers on a person, our hero or protagonist, that leaves his/her home in order to accomplish something and when that’s done he/she has to come home.Typically when they come home, if the story is written well, the hero will have changed in some way.

There are so many stories out there that still utilize this type of plot. Not satisfied with that statement? What, you want some proof? Fine, here you go:

The Lord of the Rings (Overall book series): Sure, it took awhile but J.R.R. Tolkien finally got Frodo and Sam to Mordor and tossed that little ring of evil into the lava. Oh, oops, spoiler alert. If you’ve not read or watched it, then I’ll spoil another thing for you: all Sam and Frodo can talk about is returning home to the Shire. Now, that could just be because they were in Mordor which isn’t the typical vacationing spot. I sympathize with Frodo and Sam every time I visit Michigan. And when they do return, they’re more appreciative of the Shire. They’re changed Hobbits that realize that the world is larger than they thought.

Wizard of Oz: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore Toto.” You know, I identify with Dorothy. Sometimes I’ll be driving with my friends and it’s dark, but since we’re dudes the stereotype is never to admit that we’re lost. You know, that old chestnut. Anyway, when we see a sign for Niles, MI then that’s when I feel lost like Dorothy. I’m not sure if my friends identify with a dog, a heartless tin man, a cowardly lion, and a brainless scarecrow. I just know I’m the Dorothy in the group. Hmm, in retrospect, claiming that I’m a little girl might have been weird. However, she kills witches so there you go. She’s also torn from her home, whisked away by a tornado, survives, kills a witch with her house, and then goes on another quest to kill yet another witch. Why does she do this? Oh that’s right, she wants to return home and face the consequences of Toto chowing down on that lady that looks like the witch that she just killed. With water. Say what you want, Dorothy is the Sam Jackson of 1900.

Taken: Before you stop reading, just go with me here for a second. Imagine you’re a retired CIA agent that used to be really awesome, but then retired so he could try and piece back the family life his old job helped to shatter. Now, his daughter gets kidnapped while backpacking through Europe. Side note, that’s why I don’t go backpacking. I don’t want to be kidnapped and sold to human traffickers. That’s another reason I don’t travel to Michigan. Everybody I know tells me it won’t happen to me, but they don’t know man. They don’t know. Anyhoo, now once that agent learns about his daughter’s disappearance, he has to take matters into his own hands and dust off those “particular set of skills” and return home with his daughter. How she was able to return home without a passport is beyond me though. You know what that agent receives on going home? A hug from his daughter. Everything he ever wanted.

So, if you’re writing a story that has this theme of a hero leaving and then returning back to his/her old life just make sure they learn something and grow as a character. Because you don’t want to have them experience all that pain and suffering without some kind of reward. Like when I last traveled up to Kalamazoo….

I’m not too sure why I’m bashing so hard on Michigan. Maybe’s it’s because I’m sick and tired of hearing Tim Allen talk about how “pure” the state is. If it’s so pure Mr. Allen, then why’s the water like that!?

What makes a “good” ending?

Just before I started writing this, I watched the first trailer for the upcoming film Avengers: Endgame. It looks to be as good or better than Avengers: Infinity War. If you’re not a superhero or Marvel Comics fan then please bear with me for a few more sentences. In the first few lines of the trailer, Tony Stark (Ironman) states that “part of the journey is the end.”

To me that strikes true. Seldom do readers really appreciate the end of a book. If the novel was especially endearing to that reader, the reader might be very sad or angry about it ending. There have been a few times in my life when I turned that final page and found no more words, only the back cover. Each of those times I sat there looking at the back cover thinking “What? That can’t be the end.”

Some readers might sit there appreciating the ending because it was so perfect. I’ve had that experience only once or twice. You sit sit there thinking about the story and the fact that there was only one real way to tie everything together and that’s the one the author wrote. Such an ending is unique and should be cherished. When I first read Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” I rushed through the book in one weekend. It’s a fairly large book, totaling in around 845 pages. It came out in 2004 and at that point I was still living at home. I remember spending most of that weekend on the couch. For those that don’t know, “The Dark Tower” finished King’s seven book epic tale of Roland and his quest to save the Dark Tower from the evil Crimson King. The series started in 1982 and finished 32 years later. It wasn’t just a series that King created, but a universe. We all know that the Marvel films are entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those seven books are the backbone of the King Literary Universe (KLU sounds a bit dull but I work with what I’m given). 

I knew when I started the book that some of the main characters were going to die. King is very merciless when it comes to the survival of his characters. When it came to execute those characters, and die they did, I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried. Sure, I just graduated high school and therefore an adult male. I cried at each and every death as if I actually knew them.

Endings are powerful things and need to be handled responsibly. Like Uncle Ben once said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I know, I said no more comic book references after that last one. It’s true though. 

But how should authors handle that power? Well… you’ll just have to tune in next week because this is just the introduction to a new series I’m writing that discusses What Makes a Good Ending. I figured that it would an appropriate time to write the series since it’s the end of 2018. For now, let me leave you with a quote from “The Dark Tower” written by the King himself.

“There is no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one to equal ‘Once upon a time.’ Endings are heartless. Ending is just another word for goodbye.”

A Successfully Failed Mission

As I write this, it’s the last day of November. It’s also the last day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’ve touched on this subject more than once this month. Basically authors are tasked to write 50,000 words during November. 

Well, I failed at that task. I was able to write about 60 percent with the novel I began November. Now, considering all the other words I wrote for work, rants, and all the other projects I worked on then I would have reached my goal. However, whenever I attempt this annual task I typically try to restrain myself in counting only words written for that targeted novel. Some of you might be saying, “But Jim, you failed. Don’t you feel just so miserable?” 

Nope, not a bit. 

The reason I don’t feel that bad is that I did what I set out to do. I started writing a novel. I knew it wasn’t going to be finished at 50,000 words. I typically have a goal of around 85,000 words for my books. That’s a completely different topic for a different rant. For me, the goal of NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing that 50,000 words. Sure, it would be nice to be sitting at that word count by the end of the month. What I’m aiming for is a significant amount of words that will eventually lead to my end goal of 85,000.

“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe,” states Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

As a side note, if you have a writer in your life that wants to read a very good book about writing then buy them King’s book. 

Anyway, what King writes is that in the end, it doesn’t even matter what your word count is or if you succeed or fail in your NaNoWriMo quest. The point King is trying to get across to people is this: shut up and write.

“The greatest teacher, failure is,” a little fictional green friend once said. Sure, Jedi Master Yoda was a fictional hermit on the planet of Dagobah. And sure, he spoke funny. But he was right. Over the last two years, I’ve suffered some devastating failures but I’ve always learned something from each and every one of them. And that’s why I don’t consider this failure as a complete loss because I learned something from it. 

That lesson is, you guessed it, another topic for another weekly rant.

Now that I’ve fulfilled my quota of Star Wars and Stephen King references for an article, I’m going to do what I suggested above. I’m going to shut up and write.

What will you do?

Looking for lost magic

Pumpkin Spice Lattes, pumpkin carving, trick-or-treating, the onset of chillier weather, and scary movies. Those are just a few reasons why October is my favorite month. When I was growing up, before my parents divorced, we would all help decorate our big two-story house for Halloween. We went all out. Cobwebs were strung like tinsel on the trees outside. We had our very own cemetery in the front yard with pun filled headstones and even a shallow grave. When costumed trick-or-treaters would walk up the porch steps, they would be treated to fog wafting across the porch and serenaded by spooky music. They would then be greeted to three animatronic dummies that would wave and lift their arms up and down. My father created them and named them “bloody men.” 

After we were done decorating, my mother would make hot chocolate for everyone and we would spend the rest of the evening on the porch drinking hot chocolatey beverages in the chilly weather and tell each other ghost stories. As the days crept closer to All Hallows’ Eve, my father would create unique costumes for the four of us. My favorite costume creation was when my father turned my two older sisters into a pair of giant fuzzy dice. Complete with felt and everything. We would go trick-or-treating and then when we got home we would sort out and trade our loot we hated with each other on the floor of the living room. 

For me, Halloween was never a time to dress up in expensive, store bought costumes and greedily horde candy. It was a time when the entire family would spend much needed quality time together. It was one of the few family traditions we had and I miss it dearly. All good things eventually come to an end and so did this tradition.

Perhaps that’s why my interest latched so tightly onto the horror genre in literature and cinema. I’m trying to find a little bit of the magic that fueled my now broken family’s discarded tradition.

When readers ask me why I write horror stories, I don’t really go into this reasoning. Usually, I give a sarcastic response about wanting to torture my creations. Normally, it gets an eye roll or a guffaw of laughter. That’s all I try for (if you really know me that’s generally my type of humor). 

Of course, if you really think about it, Halloween is the time for reclaiming lost magic. The origin of the sugar-laden holiday can be derived from the Irish mythological festival of Samhain, one of the four seasonal festivals of the year. At least that’s what Wikipedia states and we all know that’s reliable so take that for what that means. Now, according to that mythology, Samhain was a time when “doorways” to an alternate dimension known as the Otherworld, the realm of the dead, were opened.

Whether you believe in that stuff or not, you have to agree that books are magical objects. 

“Books are a uniquely portable magic,” stated Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. 

If you’re a constant reader of my weekly rants, you’ll know that I often use this quote from King. I use it because it’s the best description of literature. A book is a gateway into another world. If there was actual magic in this world, it most certainly has died off by now. All of those portals to the Otherworld have closed. But you can still find magic when you crack open a book.

So when I get asked what I’m going as for Halloween I smile at them and say “I’m going to be a magician.”