Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: The Usurper by Cliff Ball

Rating: 0.8 out of 5


Okay, I feel like I need to start out this review with a pair of declarations. #1) As I’ve said many times before, I do not enjoy giving out bad reviews. My aim with starting this blog was to promote independent authors, to dig through and find those little pieces of brilliance that might have gone unnoticed, not sell myself by being trite and cruel. Please keep that in mind. #2) I almost didn’t write the following review. After reading this book, I seriously considered contacting the author and saying, “Sorry, but I can’t.” However, I was sent a copy to provide a thoughtful, honest analysis of the story, and I feel like I owe it to everyone – myself, the author, and the readers – to follow through on this.

The Usurper by Cliff Ball is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It’s billed as a political thriller, but it’s actually a mash-up of current and past events, altered ever so slightly to tell an extremely convoluted and not at all coherent story. To say I was conflicted about this whole experience is an understatement. To give you a picture of some the reasons, let’s first take a look at the plot.

The story of The Usurper begins in Mexico, where this hippie named Ann decides (for reasons beyond my understanding) to offer her services to the Russians in order to help “take down” the United States. She’s brought in and meets her KGB handlers, then gets shipped around the world. Long story short, she’s given the “mission” of fathering a child that will destroy the US from within.

She has a son with a Black Russian (joke intended), and he’s trained in all things communist. He eventually moves to the States from the Middle East, attends school, is a miserable and not likeable person. As if things weren’t confounding before, this is where they devolve into farce. Mister Jackson, he who’s an agent for communism, is sent to Chicago after graduation, where he becomes a community organizer, marries a woman (another Russian agent) who possesses “a scowl on her face that would scare off most of the male population”, attends a church run by an anti-American preacher (and yet another Russian agent), and then becomes Senator before making his move on the White House and eventually brings to an end the American way of life.

Hm. I wonder who that’s supposed to be. To me, this tool – tweaking the lives of real people to fit your own storyline and agenda – is dangerous. My own personal feelings on the matter are thus – if you want to write a fictional historical thriller, keep it to the past…or at least make it different enough so that the particulars aren’t readily apparent. It’s disrespectful to the parties involved to so obviously paint them as “evil incarnate” just to satisfy the author’s need to get his or her point across. I feel the same way about the litany of “ripped from the headlines” television shows. How about we show folks a modicum of respect?

Anyway, that whole tangent is somewhat beside the point, because even with this, if the book had been written well, I probably would’ve liked it. But it’s not. There are problems aplenty, whether in regards to style, grammar, characterization, or plot. There is very little that makes sense. It’s all a bit maddening.

First of all, the structure of the story itself is tortuous. There are numerous sections dedicated to recounting history – everything from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Oklahoma City bombing to 9/11. These sections are meant to drive forward the plot, to demonstrate how the KGB has infiltrated almost every aspect of the world, but all they did for me was make me want to turn the page faster.

In style, this book reads like a bunch of drunken right-wing conspiracy theorists sitting around a campfire playing top this. “Some useful idiot hippy goes over to communism.” “Two hours later she meets Khrushchev.” “Yeah, well three hours later she runs into Gorbachev on a plane.” “Okay, but a year after that Putin becomes her liaison.” “Eighteen years later her kid goes to Harvard, where every professor is a KGB operative spouting socialist propaganda.” See what I mean?

If these were the only problems, that’d be one thing. But they’re not. Not even close.

The sentence structure is spotty. There are run-ons galore. Comma usage is inconsistent at best, deficient at worst. Every usage of the word “but” is surrounded by them. For example: I wanted to enjoy this book, but, found it difficult to do so. After a while, I just decided to ignore it.

With all this said, though, the characterization in The Usurper is the absolute worst aspect of the book, perhaps the worst I’ve ever read. In fact, to call them characters at all would be an insult to even the most poorly constructed characters in the history of literature. They’re nothing but bits of clay spouting rhetoric (in ultra-stilted dialogue), whose opinions change only on the whim of where the author wants the story to go next.

“How can you say that?” you might ask. Well, to illustrate my point, let me give you a passage direct from the book. (The setup: Ann, the hippie at the beginning, is brought to the airport to meet the man who will father her child. This is what happens when she sees him.)

She didn’t think she was a racist, but, she realized that she might still hold some of that attitude and those unfortunate viewpoints. The realization of it all really horrified her. She let out a sigh, and meekly said, “I didn’t know he was going to be black.”

“Is that a problem?”

“For me, yes, yes it is. I would prefer his kind not touch me.”


Also, as another just-as-glaring example, there is a soldier who comes home from war and joins the new Civil Defense – basically an army policing the American people. He doesn’t question it when Jackson orders a nuke dropped in Kansas. He doesn’t question when the former president and his family (who somehow survived the nuke falling on top of their concrete bunker) are pulled out and unceremoniously executed. But he sees a church burned down, and that’s what makes him realize something’s wrong? This is beyond silly. In fact, it’s almost insulting.

And did I say the dialogue was stilted? Here’s an interaction between Gary, now in high school, and Tim, yet another Russian agent his own age, to help illustrate my point.

“Putin was right when he said they had everything covered. Are you supposed to help me take down the United States?”

“Me? My dad would like me to, but, I prefer causing terror by placing bombs in front of post offices and other federal buildings. If we stick together, we could rule this school.”

I just about lost my lunch laughing when I read these lines. Heck, this happened so many times during the course of reading this book that it became one long guffaw-fest. In fact, as I was reading I was struck by the thought that maybe this book was supposed to be funny. Was it satire? So I went back and looked at the descriptions on the internet, and no, no mention of satire or comedy. This was a book presented as a serious political thriller, when it’s everything but. In the spirit of full disclosure, had that been the case it would’ve received a much higher rating (though still low because the writing is so off)…but alas, it’s not. And to me, that’s faulty advertising.

I could go on and on like this. The “my clippings” feature on my Kindle is chock-full of entertaining quotes. However, I won’t because it just seems like piling on in a way. Just know that this novel really makes little sense. It’s entertaining in the same way that Plan Nine From Outer Space is – because it’s completely inept.

I know this might sound cruel, but it’s my honest opinion. A lot of reviewers are speaking in hyperbole when they state that so-and-so might be the worst book they’ve ever read, but in this case I can say that’s the truth. There were many times that I couldn’t decide if I was glad or offended that this book is out there. I ended up deciding on the former. This is a book every author who is considering self-publishing should read. It’s a living instructional booklet on how not to go about constructing a novel. From the horrible characters to a philosophy as balanced as a Michael Moore documentary to the atrocious and tacked-on (and not at all foreshadowed) “twist” ending, there’s a lot here to take in. Let it be a lesson to all. It might entertain you like it did me, but there’s a big difference between laughing at a book as opposed to laughing with it.

At least that’s how I feel. You might see it differently. Who knows?

Plot - 1

Characters - 0

Voice - 1

Execution - 1

Personal Enjoyment – 5

Overall – 8/50 (0.8/5)

Purchase The Usurper in the following formats:



No comments: