Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Full Dark, No Stars : a review

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (2010)

Like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, this new collection from Stephen King consists of four long short stories. In the first story, “1922,” a farmer murders his wife, who has threatened to sell off part of their farm so she can move to the city. Though the crime is covered up from the authorities, the farmer - and his son who he enlisted to help with the crime - are subsequently haunted in different ways. “Big Driver” is a man who rapes a cozy mystery writer on her way home from a reading, but instead of reporting the crime to authorities, she chooses to wield her own justice. The third, and shortest, story is “Fair Extension,” in which a man dying of cancer makes a deal with the devil to save his own life, thus damning his best friend and his family. Finally, in “A Good Marriage” a woman learns that her husband has been committing horrific crimes for decades and she must decide what, if anything, to do with this new knowledge.

Though all the stories were good (I hesitate to use a word like “enjoyable” when describing horror), the first and last were the strongest. “1922” was the most like a traditional horror story in the amount of violence, gore and creepiness. What I liked the most about this story is that it was mostly realistic, with just a hint that maybe there is more going on. Is that corpse speaking to the farmer from beyond the grave? Are those sinister-looking rats planning something? Or is his imagination just playing tricks on him? That doubt is as close as it gets to supernatural, but it is enough. It’s a sad story too: the son’s loss of innocence, the destruction of a family, rendering the original plan to save the family’s farm completely pointless.

My favorite by far was “A Good Marriage.” King got the idea after the BTK murders, when the killer’s wife claimed she knew nothing about his crimes. Similarly, the wife in this story was happy in her life and satisfied with her marriage, until one day she stumbled across evidence of her husband’s secret life. Of course this changed everything, no matter how much she wanted to pretend it didn’t. The story was unpredictable and the ending clever. King does a good job of putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and it’s easy to imagine being this woman. There is nothing supernatural here, but it is a deft exploration of the dark side of human nature and the reader can’t help but wonder “What would I do in this situation?”

A longtime Stephen King fan, I have skipped his last couple of books because of their length and the mixed reviews, but Full Dark, No Stars is well worth reading. The entire book is only 368 pages, but of course you can just read an individual story or two. Though I bet if you start this book, you won’t stop after one story.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Room : a review

Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)

Jack and his mother live in Room, and Room is all that Jack has ever known. But his mother hasn’t always lived there – she was taken by Old Nick who locked her away where nobody could find her.

The voice of Jack narrates the story, roughly half of which took place inside the room in which Jack has lived all of his five years, (and his mother even longer). The other half was their adjustment to the outside world, a world completely new and overwhelming to Jack, filled with loud noises and complicated rules.

Writing from the view of a small child is risky, and so rarely successful. I read an interview with the author in which she explained that she had a child Jack’s age when she was writing this, and she borrowed some of his speech patterns and even made him roll himself up in a rug to see if he could get out. Clearly it was well researched, and that paid off.

Room is a great book – not in a literary award sort of way, but in an unputdownable way, which in my opinion is what counts. I can’t do it justice here, or adequately explain why you should read it but trust me, you should.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

World Made By Hand : a review

World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler (2008)

Sometime in the unspecified future, the people of Union Grove in upstate New York live without law, electricity, oil, news of the outside world, or many other things we all take for granted today. Robert has lost his whole family, as so many others have, but still struggles on trying to create a life of normalcy. He and his peers remember the old days of computers, cars, and corporate jobs but for younger folks this is the only life they have known. When a young man from the town is shot over a misunderstanding, some members of the community decide that the lawlessness has gone on long enough. Their new sense of justice spurs clashes that result in minor tragedies, but Robert and his neighbors are determined to build a society run on order, not fear.

Religion unsurprisingly takes on a larger role in this broken society full of desperate people. One of the major plots involves Brother Jobe and his New Faith followers moving into Union Grove after fleeing the violence of the South. Though many in the town (including Robert) are wary of religion, it becomes clear that the New Faithers want to integrate into the peaceful community and by the end of the book they seem to be forging an alliance.

I didn’t quite understand what had happened to the world, and if it had happened everywhere or just to the US. There was mention of bomb attacks on a few different American cities, and I’m not sure if that’s why the US no longer had oil or if it’s because there was no oil left to be had (see: James Kunstler’s non-fiction work The Long Emergency). Illness was rampant, and had claimed many lives including Robert’s wife and daughter. But I couldn’t quite connect how these events led to the society described in the novel.

This wasn’t the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read, but it wasn’t terrible. I liked that this future isn’t a dystopia. It’s not an easy life, but many of the characters don’t miss the “old times” much at all. Unfortunately, none of the characters were developed well enough for me to care about them. I think this could have been a much better book than it was, (and the trailer makes it looks appealing) but it fell flat and left me a bit disappointed.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

One Day : a review

One Day by David Nicholls (2009)

Over the course of almost 20 years, we visit Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew on the same day, and only one day, of every year. We first meet them upon their college graduation when they have stayed up all night together, and from this day their friendship grows. It takes many turns over the years, stronger at times, frequently tinged with sexual tension, occasionally appearing to be over entirely. Though they live very different lives - Dexter a famous tv presenter with a glamorous lifestyle while Emma teaches and struggles as a writer – they still manage to retain a bond.

When I first heard the premise of the book I was skeptical, thinking it was just a gimmick. Rather, it is a clever storytelling technique. Visiting the two characters on the same date every year guaranteed that many of the important events of their lives happened in between and were referred to or remembered, rather than described directly to us. In this way Nicholls focused less on the facts of their lives and more on how each character has changed, which only strengthened the novel. I’ll admit there were times when I wondered how their friendship still survived – or, more to the point, what Emma saw in Dexter – but their relationship was so compelling I literally did not want to put this book down.

As with most books that span so many years, I became heavily invested in the characters, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that when I finished this book, I felt a profound sense of loss. It could have been PMS, but I’m pretty sure it was the mastery of David Nicholls’ writing. As painful as some parts were to read, I can’t imagine any other way the story could have gone. Nicholls really got it right.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Christmas Journey : a review

A Christmas Journey by Anne Perry (2003)

Anne Perry is my guilty pleasure. I secretly yearn to live in Victorian times and wear ornate dresses with constricting undergarments while attending balls and adhering to strict social standards. Ok, maybe not. But I really felt like slipping back in time and indulging in one of her historical novels, and this short Christmas-themed book was perfect.

Little festivity appeared in A Christmas Journey, however. It began at a country house where a group of friends gathered for a long weekend in early December. A budding romance between Gwendolyn and Bertie was cause for much speculation, but at least one person was unhappy with the situation. One evening Isobel made a cruel remark about Gwendolyn’s romantic motivations in front of everyone. Later, Gwendolyn’s body was found in the icy river, after having apparently thrown herself off a bridge.

Vespasia, our heroine, offered support to Isobel, now ostracized for her assumed role in Gwendolyn’s suicide. The two women set off on a journey to deliver Gwendolyn’s last letter to her mother along with news of her death. The journey is longer and more arduous than they had expected, and they learn a great deal about Gwendolyn’s shocking past.

Aside from brief mentions of Christmas at the beginning and end of the book, this was a normal murder mystery so it wouldn’t feel strange to read it at another time of year. It was a very short 180 pages, which I read in just over a day. A perfect quick cozy read! Anne Perry has written several short Christmas mysteries, and I’ll keep these in mind over the next several months - they’ll be perfect for snowy weekends.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A break

The Practical Procrastination Pullover may need to be renamed the Perpetually Perplexing Pullover. Recently I finished the waist increases only to find that I had the wrong number of stitches. It is like déjà vu all over again. Currently I can’t bring myself to sit down and figure out what went wrong this time. I think it may be cursed, just like the Madelinetosh sock yarn.

Upon discovering my unfortunate pullover situation, I did what anyone would do, and cast on for a new pair of socks.

These are the Glynis socks from Cookie A.’s first book, Sock Innovation. They are the very first pattern in the book. I did not waste time choosing a pattern, instead throwing caution to the wind and casting on for the first one that looked plausibly compatible with the yarn.

I purchased the Lorna’s Laces on my trip to Webs that was probably a year and a half ago now. It is my first time using Lorna’s Laces and I’m excited to finally try it out after hearing so many lovely things about it. The colors are beautiful and I’m happy that it’s so nicely variegated, and not pooling into big ugly globs of color like so many other sock yarns. I’m also happy that it contains nylon because I’ve gotta tell you, people, I am getting sick of darning the socks and I’m hoping the nylon will help prevent holes for forming so quickly in the first place.

I am loving them so far.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dreams From My Father : a review

Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (audio, 2005)

Barack Obama’s books have been on my “to read” list for a while but I kept putting them off because of my oft-mentioned difficulties with reading non-fiction. I also have difficulty with audiobooks, so what possessed me to try Dreams From My Father on audio I will never know.

I suspect it’s an interesting book. In fact, I really enjoyed the parts I paid attention to, such as Obama’s childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii. I think my favorite part was when, as a schoolboy in Hawaii, he bragged about his Kenyan father, exaggerating his position, claiming that he was practically a chief of his tribe and that once his father was gone he, too, could be a chief. And that is practically like being a king! But maybe he would decline being chief. He hadn’t decided yet. Soon after making these claims, Obama learned that his father was coming to visit and would be coming to school to give a talk to his class! Yikes!

In another interesting passage, the young Obama picks up an issue of Life magazine and finds a picture of a black person who has undergone treatments to make himself appear white. The photo, and the idea of someone being so unhappy with their race, haunted Obama for years to come.

Obama also tells (and by the way, the audiobook is read by the author) about his years as a community organizer, and his trip to Kenya to visit his father’s family before he begins law school. This visit sounds enjoyable in some ways and disorienting in others, such as learning that nobody knows for sure who he is actually related to since Dr. Obama was known to have had affairs with married women and claim that various children were his when in fact they may not have been.

I know I missed a lot because of the audio format, and much to my chagrin I learned partway through that the recording I was listening to was abridged. Consequently, I don’t feel qualified to review it, but I have committed to posting about every book I read. Just take this all with a grain of salt.

Politics aside, if you are interested in memoirs of people from interesting backgrounds, including journeys to foreign countries and discussions about race and family, I would recommend this book. The writing is good, the author has an interesting story to tell and, hell, he’s the President. He is worth learning about just for that reason.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Tower The Zoo and the Tortoise : a review

The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart (2010)

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater at the Tower of London where he lives with his wife, Hebe, and a 178-year-old tortoise named Mrs. Cook. When the Queen decides to move her menagerie from the London Zoo to the Tower, Balthazar is put in charge of the numerous and varied animals. The logistics prove difficult, and not all residents are happy with the arrangement, especially the jealous Ravenmaster whose charges are subsequently overlooked in favor of the more exotic animals.

Meanwhile, various comical situations and ill-executed romances are brewing among other characters, including Valerie Jennings who works with Hebe in the London Underground’s Lost Property Office. Here the two women spend their days trying to find the owners of various amusing objects that have been left behind on the Underground, providing ample opportunity for the introduction of eccentric minor characters.

But not all is humor and fun at the Tower of London. At the heart of the story is the disintegration of Balthazar and Hebe’s marriage after the death of their only child, Milo, the details of which are revealed slowly throughout the course of the novel. Though Hebe has tried to talk to Balthazar about Milo, he is too overcome with guilt to do so, leaving Hebe frustrated and alone in her grief.

This book hooked me in from the very first paragraph. I enjoyed the colorful characters, the details of English history slipped in at every opportunity, and the way Stuart wrapped a rather sad story in such a light, humorous coating. Many of the characters – such as the Rev. Septimus Drew, or the landlady Ruby Dore – were so interesting that I’d be happy to read a whole book focusing on each of them as well. Quirky and delightful!

(P.S. This blogger hated it, and for some of the same reasons that I loved it. Interesting!)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hopeless Savages : a review

Hopeless Savages Greatest Hits 2000-2010 by Jen Van Meter

This graphic collection of comics follows 70s punk musicians Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage, who have married and moved to the suburbs to raise their 4 kids: Rat Bastard, Arsenal Fierce, Twitch Strummer, and Skank Zero. Usually referred to simply as Zero, the youngest of the family is the main character of the series.

In the first story, Dirk and Nikki are kidnapped and the kids must band together to save them. The second story is about the beginning of Zero’s relationship with Ginger. In the third story, Arsenal and Twitch travel to Hong Kong for a martial arts tournament but soon find themselves followed by local criminals. The final sections “B Sides” and “Bonus Tracks” contain shorter stories of earlier events such as the formation of Zero’s band, the Dusted Bunnies.

The family and their relationships take center stage – though they are unconventional, they are a strong family unit! There was a split at one point, when Rat rebelled and shed his punk exterior for that of a yuppie businessman, but in the first story he returns to the fold. I liked Van Meter's take on the alternative family, and her treatment of sibling relationships.

Mostly, I found the characters pretty likable. Zero has an odd proclivity to make up words, which was a little bit annoying, but as a character she is hard not to like and I found myself really rooting for her. There were a large enough number of characters that I didn't feel like I got to know enough of them, and I'd really like to. For a lot of the book I was just trying to keep track of who was who (I'm terrible at keeping characters straight!) but now that I have it figured it out, I'm ready for more.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding Your Own North Star : a review

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck (2001)

I’m not really into self-helpy books, but I’ve been reading some career-related guides so I keep veering into this territory. This one was recommended by a career book I read recently and when I saw who the author was, I ordered it through the library. Martha Beck wrote really good memoir about having a son with Down’s syndrome and I was interested to read her writing again.

Finding Your Own North Star is a guide to figuring out what you want in life. Not just your career, though, it’s all about the way you live your life in general. Beck emphasizes differentiating what you actually want from what your family, friends or society focus on. She addresses emotional issues such as working through loss and change, and provides many questions to ask yourself to figure out what you want to do in your life.

Parts are a bit hokey and I found myself skimming occasionally and rolling my eyes once or twice. The jargon is a bit much for me, with her repeated references to one’s “north star” “essential self” and “social self,” though I’ll admit they are useful terms. The author has a chapter on intuition in which she talks a bit about psychic abilities. She also believes in the annoying yet pervasive idea that if you are passionate about something you will become wealthy from it (an idea discounted by the book that referred me to this one), though at least she acknowledges that passion and interest aren’t enough by themselves to lead you to wealth.

Despite the detractions, I found her writing humorous and many of her ideas useful. I thought she had some good questions to ask when trying to figure out your life and how to be happy. Not that I worked through any of these exercises, mind you.

I have a friend from an old book group who reads a lot of self help books but freely admits that she doesn’t actually follow their advice. That’s actually a pretty healthy way to approach these books, I think. Just take whatever little nuggets are interesting or useful to you and remember those, but don’t worry about the rest of it. Now, off to try and develop my psychic powers…