A new Flashman adventure gives the reader some eccentric history, and Stephen King bypasses the conventional publishers with "The Plant," his new e-book. 

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A New Door to Stephen King's World
"The Plant" (available for $1 per chapter at www.stephenking.com) has all the elements of another success for pop novelist and weird-meister Stephen King. It's just that the distribution system is a little ... um ... peculiar.

Written in the epistolary style — that is, the story is told through correspondence among the principals rather than as a narrative or first-person account — "The Plant" is thus difficult to review, since only two chapters have been released.

It begins with a letter to Zenith House Publishers from Carlos Detweiler, a young florist's assistant from Central Falls, R.I. Zenith House is not a major U.S. publisher. In fact, it specializes in the offbeat and is teetering on the brink of failure. Carlos hopes the company will publish his strikingly odd novel, "True Tales of Demon Infestations."

When Zenith's John Kenton reads Carlos' query letter, he asks the author, despite his reservations, to submit a few sample chapters. Instead, Carlos ships him the whole book, wrapped in shopping bags and secured with twine.

Also in the package are some pictures — images which seem to depict a Black Mass. Six of the photos are labeled "The Sakred Seance." Four of them purport to depict a human sacrifice, and Kenton believes they show a death that actually happened.

When Kenton yields to his better judgment and turns the photos over to the police, Carlos is brought in for questioning. He's quickly released when police discover the putative sacrifice victim is very much alive.

As is always the case with his novels, King sucks readers into the story early on, and they're his until "The End." But in this case, there is no end. Not yet, anyway, since King is writing more as we read.

King is bypassing normal publishing procedures and posting "The Plant" on the Web. He asks each person who downloads the first two chapters to send him a dollar per chapter. Chapter three will be posted online, King says, "in late September." As of the end of July, according to the latest statistics posted on King's Web site, 152,132 people have downloaded the first installment, and 76 percent of them did indeed ante up a buck. (Style Weekly is among those who paid for its download.)

So what's weirder — the plot or the distribution system? My vote goes for the plot, and that's good news for the reader. The distribution system is merely a sign of the changing times. It's also evidence that King may be as good a businessman as he is an author.

— Don Dale

Eccentric History
Beginning in 1841, the fictional military exploits of Sir Henry Flashman have been unsurpassed in their drama and historical realism. His long list of involvements have included stints in the Crimean War and the Sepoy Rebellion in India and collusion with American historical figures such as John Brown and George Custer. With each new memoir by his creator, George McDonald Fraser, Flashman's credentials have become more formidable, his brushes with danger more crucial and his romantic dalliances more celebrated. In his new adventure, "Flashman and the Tiger" (Knopf, $25), the reader is reacquainted with Flashman at the scene of three historical episodes which have momentous repercussions.

In 1878, Flashman, still a spry 69, is approached by Henri Blowitz, Paris news correspondent for the London Times, who has a knack for ferreting out sensational high political and royal stories. As a repayment for an old debt, Flashman is asked to infiltrate a secret conference in Berlin in which a treaty between Russia and Turkey about occupation of the Balkans is to be ratified. Amidst much intrigue, his assignment is to report any details of the treaty so Blowitz can score a journalistic scoop. Also in the first segment, Flashman travels to Vienna in a diplomatic capacity to the court of Emperor Franz Joseph. He must try to prevent the emperor's assassination by Hungarian separatists and prevent global conflict.

The second memoir has Flashman as a key witness in the Tranby Croft Scandal of 1890 in which the Price of Wales may have been fleeced at the game of baccarat by William Gordon-Cummings, a commissioned officer with a prominent pedigree in British society. The revelation of cheating is contingent upon the testimony of Flashman's long-suffering wife, Elspeth.

Lastly, in the third episode, Flashman must contend with an old nemesis from his stint in fighting the Zulu in Africa and outmaneuver murderous intent with mental dexterity and careful timing.

George McDonald Fraser has given readers an enjoyable romp through history with the intrepid Flashman. Few readers can deny the unpredictable charm of a protagonist who is engaging and endearing. "Flashman and the Tiger" is another strong chapter in the exploits of a reluctant hero, who, despite his many moral shortcomings, will once again enthrall readers.

— Bruce Simon


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