Recent Reading: a focus on Greg Stolze

You may recall that a little while ago, I read Stolze’s new superhero novel, Sinner, and really enjoyed it. In particular, Stolze showed a real talent for dialogue and character. Sinner left me wanting more, so I picked up Mask of the Other, and then Stolze was kind enough to send me a copy of Switchflipped, and I read both in quick succession — though it took me a while to figure out how to write about them.

These books are so different from each other and from Sinner! It’s very interesting how Stolze chose such different treatments for each of his novels. Each book shows the same gift for dialogue, but character is handled differently in each, and the structure of each novel is quite different, too.

Look, Sinner is nearly a pure first-person narrative with one pov character, right? And of course if it works – which entirely depends on the voice of the pov character – then this is the form that will most closely engage the reader with the protagonist. Because Hector Lear’s voice is so perfect, his story is extremely engaging.

Switchflipped is similar in some ways. It’s told in the first person, for one thing. Also, though it’s not exactly a superhero book, in a way it is, and if you like superhero stories you might want to give this one a try.

In Switchflipped, various people embody specific concepts. There is someone who embodies the concept of The Evil Witch, for example (She gets murdered early on, which is great, because, hey, Evil Witch), and someone who seems to possibly embody, I don’t know, the concept of a Mad Gadgeteer, maybe. And so forth.

The narrative actually starts when the fiancée of the primary main character, Jasper, reappears. She vanished five years ago, and now she reappears for one wild night, after which she leaves again, telling Jasper only that she couldn’t bear it if he got switchflipped because of her.

Pretty catchy, right?

Then the narrative switches among Jasper, his ex-fiancée (Jane), his current girlfriend (Vivian), a guy called Kung-Fu Pete (you can tell what concept he embodies, right?), and to a lesser extent half a dozen other characters. I think there are eleven characters who get at least a little pov time. So this is very different from Sinner obviously. It worked pretty well for me, because I liked Jasper, Jane, Vivian, and Pete. Here Stolze’s gift for characterization is crucial, because I would not ordinarily be very interested in this many different characters, but he made each of them come to life for me. I can think of more than one well-known author who bore me to tears when they break a narrative up like this, and maybe I’ll post about that later, but in this one, as I say, it works.

Jasper’s basically an ordinary guy, Jane is an ordinary woman who got caught up in an extraordinary and rather creepy situation, Vivian is a WONDERFUL psychologist, and Kung-Fu Pete is my favorite character in the book – I like heroes, and I like them to be pragmatic when necessary, and I just loved Pete.

Though one major plot element gets resolved in this book, there is clearly supposed to be a sequel. I will definitely grab it when and if it appears, because I really am just dying to know how Jane’s creepy situation fits into the broader picture, and do she and Jasper manage to get back together, and does it wind up working out between Vivian and Jasper’s friend Dave? And I love the sort-of-superpower Jasper acquired and want to watch that work through a full book.

Let me just reiterate once more that the dialogue is really fun in this story. Here’s one of my favorite exchanges:

A friend to Vivian: “Is David the one you were trying to set me up with?”

Vivian: “I was not trying to set you up, and yes, he was.”

The friend: “You do realize that your last sentence completely hogtied logic and rational thought?”

Okay! So that’s Switchflipped. How about Mask of the Other?

In one way, this one is similar to Switchflipped: it has a lot of pov characters. In general, though, it is VERY different. It’s told in the third person, and though one particular character (Rick Hazard) gets more pov time than the others, even he doesn’t necessarily seem like a main character. Moreover, though Rick is sort of admirable, if anything he gets less admirable over the course of the book, though I never really disliked him. Of the other characters, I really did dislike two and felt pretty neutral about several others. Of the minor characters I liked, all died.

All this bothered me at first. Then I realized: This is not a character-driven novel! (Obvious, right?) This is in fact a horror novel, a Cthulhu-type of horror novel, so it is meant to be driven by its atmosphere, not by its characters. Most of the characters exist to build the atmosphere by getting killed!

I liked it much better after I realized that. I’m not really a horror fan, but this was all right, and in fact I would have liked it a lot less if I’d found the characters really engaging, because after all most of them do die. Stephen King’s habit of introducing one ultra-charming character for the express purpose of jerking tears by killing her drives me insane, and in fact it’s so transparently manipulative that I can’t stand it and quit reading his books. I liked the way Stolze did it much better.

The dialogue is, naturally, excellent. I will just say, though, in case this is a major turn-off for you: we spend a lot of time with characters who start off in the military, so the dialogue is also often pretty, um, coarse. I would not, for example, loan this book to my mother. Even if she liked military SF / horror, she just about had a fit when I included half a dozen cusswords in Black Dog. This one goes well beyond that, eh?

Okay, disclaimers inside, I loved the bit where this rock group went to a ruined city on an island to film a music video. You can really see Stolze’s awareness of cinematography here in this chapter. This is of my favorite passages in the whole book:

“That sea is going to look great if we can catch it before the light goes,” she [the photographer] fretted after their third try, which, while still a failure, had been the least disastrous. Pulling her lower lip, she looked at the clouds, the water, the sullen band, and she came to a decision. It was visible in her posture. She straightened up, squared her shoulders, and said, “Right: Ruins, take twenty, hydrate, catch your breath. You guys are doing great. We are ready. We’re going to set the cameras, we’ve got the lights hung, and we are going to do this in one take. One take and we can be finished! You are going to run hard, play hard, hit your marks like they owe you money and at the end we’re going to have a single-shot video which will win a VMA and get you the recognition your music deserves. When you accept your awards, you can joke about what a bitch I am but you will do it with affection because this thing will be awesome.” She said it as if sheer force of intent could make it true.

That passage is pretty awesome itself. I was sorry when the photographer and the entire band got killed by the . . . well, never mind.

If any of you are Cthulhu fans, please read this and tell me how close to Lovecraft’s canon Stolze stayed? Because I am just curious.

So, the take home message for me is, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for Stolze’s next books. And I would like one of them to pick up where Switchflipped left off.

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