Michael: Gehenna Book One by H.W. Taft

Ms. Taft’s book is a well-written thriller that’ll hold your attention over the course of two to three evenings of compulsive reading and not a moment longer. The pace of the story and the way she writes it are both spot on, but there’s not much that will stick with you once you finish it. The setting, the story, and the characters are all missed opportunities that are particularly unfortunate given just how well Ms. Taft can write. Despite that, this book is an ideal read and forget thriller/romance.

To be clear, the writing and pacing are spot on. The author puts the sentences together well, seamlessly transitions between scenes, ends the chapters in the right place, and does a generally excellent job of presenting the story she’s come up with. I could easily see a publisher putting Ms. Taft’s work on the shelf beside a Stephanie Plum novel.

That said, writing stock thriller/romance novels for the rest of her days would be a waste of Ms. Taft’s abilities, and that’s the primary reason I’m going to be exceedingly critical for the rest of this review. Let’s be clear: if you just want something to fill the time without having to dwell on it too much, this book is a 5/5. If, however, you want to read something of substance that’ll stick with you and roll around in the back of your head, this book is nothing more than a great execution of bland formula you’ve trudged through a hundred times before.

First, there’s the content of the story itself: it’s about Liz, a woman who falls in love with a troubled bad boy, Michael Thane, who’s had 900+ years in Hell to strip him of all emotions. Of course, by the end of the book they’re married and breaking bed-frames like stress-testing machines at a furniture factory. It is the standard troubled-but-reformed woman turns a bad boy into a lovable, romantic stud through the force of being herself. Sure, there are the people they’re trying to protect, the villains trying to make Hell a worse place than it already is, and the jerks in between who don’t care, but the core story is a bog-standard improbable romance.

Second, the setting itself is both incredibly troubling and a wasted opportunity. It’s set in Hell (or Gehenna if you prefer), and it is very much Hell in the Christian sense. There’s a whole quarter full of those poor, ignorant pagans ticked off that they chose the wrong gods and happily sacrificing every soul they can get their hands onto. Most everyone and anything evil in the book enjoys murder and torture. Everyone who isn’t desperately seeking redemption is little more than a drunken nihilist. And those trying to redeem themselves are quite clearly Christian. The implication is that if you’re not a Christian, then you’re ultimate fate is to turn into a crazed, sado-masochistic vampire.

It’s a pretty bold theological statement to make, and it is made for no other reason than to offer a unique setting for a forgettable story. The location could have as easily been New York City. It’s not that I had a horse in this race, but this book has all of the plot holes that every work of fiction set in the afterlife and not written by Dante or Neil Gaiman have.

Souls spawn into Hell like pod-people, at random. If the entire point is to give souls a chance at redemption, it’s pretty silly that some can spawn in the middle of a bad part of town and get torn to pieces within seconds. Sure, the main character gets saved, and it’s implied everything happens for a reason, but given the book emphasizes just how many people get torn apart upon seconds of entering the afterlife, that doesn’t cut it.

The second problem: religion aside, Gehenna is nothing more than a Gritty Urban Place, a Gotham City that people also happen to call Hell. There is the nice part of town, the crappy middle part where all of the dance clubs, brothels, and drug dealers are, and then the part of town where people like to skin each other alive. I’ll say it again, but there was no good reason to set this book in the afterlife.

The third problem with the setting: people need to eat, sleep, work jobs, and can die. So it’s basically just like the real world with a few more psychopaths per thousand people. Sure, old souls turn into ‘demons,’ but demons are just another word (one that gets dropped relatively fast) for vampires. Vampires. So if you don’t find redemption fast enough, you get super powers and eventually turn into an insane monster. And if you die, I’m still not quite sure what happens.

There’s a simple rule: if you’re going to set a story in the afterlife, and people can die in the story without you knowing what happens to them afterward, then you’ve completely missed the point of setting your story in the damned afterlife. As far as I can tell here, about the only reason for the setting is so that the main character can fall in love with a vampire.

The afterlife, as a setting, has vast amounts of potential, but in this particular book that potential wasn’t realized.

As for the characters, there was nothing wrong with them, but they were little more than tried and true archetypes: the brooding vampire, the woman who warms his heart, the troubled but good commissioner, the dedicated best friend, the conniving council member, etc. They all served their purposes well, and they managed to rile me up a few times, but none of them really stood out.

The biggest problem, as mentioned earlier, was that every villain was a sadist, a masochist, or both. Gabriel, for his part, got off on torturing women. Physical violence, especially towards women, is one of the more predictable and boring ways to depict evil. If you really want to get into something that’s interesting, write about the mental processes necessary to allow a person to think that something like torture is acceptable.

Also, all of the villains enjoy kinky sex, and none of the good guys apparently do. This is a problem in a lot of crime drama where writers assume that anyone who enjoys messing around with a few peculiar toys has to be a serial killer or a murderer. There would be a loooot more serial killers in the world if that was actually true, so it’s a pet peeve of mine. Most author’s don’t realize they’re sending that message, but it’s something to watch.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing that makes this book special, nothing that burrowed into the back of my mind and made me think. Its setting and many of the characters are problematic for the reasons discussed above, and the story is about as straightforward as they come.

All of that said, Ms. Taft is a fantastic writer, and I’m giving her so much trouble for that exact reason. Her talents are ill-served writing bog-standard thriller/romance novels. But again, let’s be clear: she can write them damned well. This book serves the same functions as a good 90s action movie. It’s just that I believe Ms. Taft is capable of much more than that. I give it a 4/5.

You can pick up a copy from Amazon here.

Power Games: Operation Enduring Unity I by Richard Peters

This book aims to be an update of Dr. Strangelove that plays off of the current gridlock in the United States political system. Regardless of your preferences, no party or PAC comes out smelling like roses. As high as the book aims, it falls short of its goal because of structural issues, a detached tone, and technical errors. That said, it’s still an enjoyable, quick read.

The book makes three assumptions about the United States: (1) those in political office are power hungry fools detached from any semblance of reality; (2) the movers in shakers in the corporate world place far more value on a .05% increase in share value than they do human life; and (3) the 24-hour media purposely distorts the truth to promote extremism and get ratings. These three groups essentially keep grandstanding and manipulating the population until things spiral out of control, ultimately leading to a modern civil war.

Unfortunately, these assumptions have a depressing ring of truth to them, and the author succeeds in showing how all of these factors, coupled with accidents, dumb luck, and stupidity, lay the groundwork for the civil war. Like Dr. Strangelove, a great many of these events are over the top, but they’re believable enough to unsettle the reader. Mr. Peters doesn’t pull any punches and convinces you by the end of the book that a scenario like a civil war is depressingly possible, however outlandish it may seem.

The first big issue with the book is its structure. It’s similar to World War Z in that the author focuses on several different characters and drives the plot via vignettes more than anything else. Unfortunately, the characters are never defined well enough to really put the reader in their shoes. There are too many of them, and the author jumps between different ones in each chapter. It muddles things, and a one chapter, one character structure, as well as fewer perspective characters, would have made the book more cohesive.

There is a reporter in the book, but unlike the one in World War Z, she is only present in some of the chapters, not all of them, which prevents her from serving as a unifying force. And again, since the chapters aren’t labeled, the reader doesn’t quite get a feel for the chapter as quickly as the reader should.

The second problem is the tone: quite often, the author speaks rather than the perspective character, which makes it difficult to really dig down into the characters and setting. Although there is a bit of humor, it doesn’t change the fact that the tone is more a hypothetical an Axis & Allies player runs through between turns than it is a novel. It’s interesting, and the author’s knowledge of modern warfare is impressive, but again, at times I felt like I was reading a thought exercise rather than a book.

The final problem is really a series of issues with the technical writing. I noticed a few mismatched tenses, a few mixed up words, and typos scattered throughout the book. None of it really slowed me down, but I did notice it, and the distraction sapped some of the strength from the story the writing tried to deliver. That said, that sort of thing is really just a matter of practice, and there’s no easy way to learn to write without doing it.

That aside, it was an enjoyable book, and I managed to fly through it in a couple of days between last minute plane flights and poolside lounging. It’s worth taking a peak, because, regardless of its issues, there will be at least one chapter in this book with just enough reality in it to make you uncomfortable and question the current state of affairs in the United States. Accidents, dumb luck, and media-spun hysteria make for a terrifying combination.

I give the book a 3/5. You can pick up a copy of it from Amazon here.

Confessions of a Fast-Food Worker by George D. Wight

This book is a straightforward, entertaining collection of stories that thoroughly explain why you should never, under any circumstances, piss off people that are underpaid and handle your food where you can’t see it. There are occasional issues with grammar and spelling, but this book, which smacks of non-fiction, had me laughing more than most things I’ve read in a long time.

The one criticism I have is that it is a collection of personal anecdotes rather than a novel, but the author wisely kept the book short, more around the length of a novella, which made for a quick afternoon read. That said, it’s not the sort of material that makes for a long series of books, but for a few hours now and then it does the job quite well.

If you’ve ever worked a crappy night job (in this case at McDonald’s), especially one that involved customer service, you’ll immediately have a great deal of sympathy for the writer as he walks you through the most bizarre and infuriating experiences he had during his time chucking burgers at ungrateful pri..ahem, individuals, as well as how his coworkers and he got even with them, as well as with their employer.

There’s a lot of spit involved. And some larceny, a bit of fraud, and that greasy muck just under the stove where your mop never manages to reach. But mostly spit.

That said, it’s impossible not to root for him as he navigates his way through the mess that is minimum wage-slavery, and if you’ve been there, the wide variety of things he does to either get back at customers who are terrible human beings or outfox a company that routinely treats its employees as disposable waste that’s only of momentary use will give you a great deal of pleasure.

In many ways, it’s a collection of cathartic moments that you wished you had do, or wish you could bring yourself to do, even though a few of them certainly go over the line. Reading this book is a good way to mellow out after dealing with a frustrating day.

All of that said, to people with no experience in the realm of minimum wage employment, odds are you’ll find a great many stories in this book absolutely horrifying. I consider myself to have a hearty constitution, but there were particularly vignettes that, although I was laughing, left me wincing afterward. Followed by a bit of snickering.

There’s not much more to say about this book. It’s cheap, entertaining, and it does the job it sets out to do: tell hysterical tales of a fast food workers foul vengeance upon those who wronged him. I’d suggest eating a hamburger before you read this book, since it might be a few days before you can stomach one afterward, but it’s a sacrifice worth making. I give it a 4/5.

You can nab a copy off of Amazon here.