Category Archives: Fiction

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” By Lionel Shriver

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These past few weeks have been busy with getting settled into my new full-time position.  However, that’s not the only reason why it has taken me so long to write about “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”  This book has been haunting me since finishing it a few weeks ago. It has taken me some time to gather all my thoughts on it and articulate what I’d like to say.

I’ll start with a basic, spoiler-free, synopsis before going into my review.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a series of letters written by Eva to her estranged husband Franklin about their son, Kevin, who at the age of 15 went on a brutal shooting spree at his high school.  Naturally, it is a sad, heavy book that is twisted, horrifying, and will mess with your emotions.  Before you read this book, I think there are several important things to note:

  1. The big climax in this book is not the fact that Kevin committed this horrible act.  From the very beginning, Eva talks about her son’s crime.
  2. Although the title makes it seem that this book is all about Kevin, it is actually more about Eva, her relationship with her husband, how she went from a career woman to a mother, and a reflection on her sense of guilt in the aftermath of Kevin’s deed.
  3. Shriver is an excellent writer.  However, a lot of negative reviews on this book focus on the fact that Eva writes letters to her husband that are too formal and don’t read the way you’d expect letters between two people who know each other so well.  For example, some people were annoyed that she’d write things to her husband that he already knew.  Why write in detail about their relationship when he knows what he said/did?  POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT: Well, if you think about it too much, the writing style gives away the huge plot twist. I guessed it within the first few chapters, and after having the plot twist confirmed at the end, the way Eva wrote to her husband made perfect sense.  

 

My advice to anyone starting this book, is don’t be put off by the writing style and the slow build up.  Every anecdote Eva reveals slowly leads up to the fated day of Kevin’s massacre and the aftermath.  It is worth it, trust me, to mull through the beginning and wonder where it’s going to end up, considering we already know Kevin is guilty and what he did.  I promise you though, towards the end, all the little pieces fall in place, leaving you shocked, and shocked at how shocked you are.

As heavy as this book is, there are many important themes weaved throughout.  Of course, the main question in the book is of nature versus nurture: Was Kevin born evil or did the fact that Eva was (as shown many times throughout the book) a bad mom reason for him snapping?  You will find yourself on an emotional rollercoaster in this book.  Sometimes you are on Eva’s side and are terrified of things Kevin (allegedly) does.  But then, you wonder if he ever really did anything bad, or is Eva remembering innocuous incidences and trying to find some sort of warning for what her son ended up doing?  Growing up, Kevin never actually does (or is caught) doing anything bad.  Maybe Eva’s skewed perception of him makes him look guilty.  Then you think that Eva might be a terrible mom because she never bonded with Kevin, yells at him, and denies him a normal mother’s love.  But Eva clearly had post-pardem depression so how much blame can you really put on her?  My feelings towards all the characters was complicated and mercurial.

Another theme is of motherhood and feminism.  Eva really did not want a child, but felt pressured by her husband to have one.  She gave up her career, her opportunities to travel, and some of her husband’s love for Kevin.  And she is expected to feel nothing but love and sacrifice for him. However, Eva never warms to her son and feels like a failure of a mother for that.  I’ve never had children so I would really be interested to hear the perspective of a mother on this book and Eva’s relationship with Kevin.

Lastly, this book is about violence in schools, and societies’ twisted obsession with covering people who commit violent crimes.  A quote from the book summarizes Eva’s views on this: “In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.”  Written in 2003, this book has a lot of eerie predictions about the world we live in now, where school shootings are a common occurrence for troubled people to get their minutes of TV fame before going out in a violent last hurrah.

Why should you read this book?  Looking back on how I described it, why would anyone want to subject themselves to somethings that seems really depressing?  Do it for the last few pages.  With all the disturbing content in this book, the ending is so heartbreakingly human and raw.  I listened to this book on my phone (which by the way–if you read this book I highly recommend listening to it versus reading it in print) while riding my bike and had to pull over at the end to let myself have a good cry.  It wasn’t a sad cry, just an overwhelmed-with-emotions cry.  I also think you should read this book because it opens your mind up to important questions about the themes I mentioned above.

After you read this, you’ll want to give your mom a hug.  And seriously question if you ever want to be a parent.

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“The Circle” By Dave Eggers

circle

“SECRETS ARE LIES

SHARING IS CARING

PRIVACY IS THEFT”-pp. 305

 

Technology can make our lives seemingly more simple while at the same time complicating them in unforeseeable ways.  The Circle by Dave Eggers is best summarized by the age old question popular in science/technology based dystopias: “How far is too far?”  Unlike other dystopian novels however, that question is never answered explicitly, and is ultimately up to the reader to decide.

Let me take a step back:

The Circle chronicles the evolution of Mae Holland, a 20-something post-grad that is stuck in an all-too-familiar-to-millenials rut.  She is working a crappy job, has student loan officers harassing her daily, and is living with her parents.

Her life suddenly changes when her best friend from college, Annie, helps her secure a job at “The Circle,” a fancy new tech company that is eerily reminiscent of Epic Systems (a software company in Madison, WI. The author also happens to be from Chicago, so I’m further convinced this place might have inspired him).  Compared to her previous job, The Circle is a utopia.  She has a living wage and supervisors who support her.  There are fancy themed department buildings, cafeterias where famous chefs offer succulent dishes, parties on campus at night, sports facilities, and even dormitories where you can sleep if you work late.  She can’t believe her fortune to work for a company like this.

While Mae finds herself more drawn in to life in The Circle, she finds life outside to be less exciting and grim.  What starts as a blissful fairy tale of a promising career starts to take a darker turn as The Circle expands its influence and power.  Suddenly people who openly express worry that The Circle is becoming a monopoly start to have their metaphorical dirty laundry once protected online exposed to the media.  Workers at The Circle develop technology that raises questions of what should be considered private versus publicly accessed information.

A lot of reviews of this book equate The Circle to 1984.  While I would agree that both illustrate a dystopia (one in development in The Circle) that rests on the value that personal privacy is a threat to national security, this book is much more complicated than that.  This novel is timely in that a lot of the young characters grew up hearing about terrorist attacks, school shootings, and corrupt politicians.  Not only that, their desire to be connected to others and validated on social media contributes to the paranoia and anxiety that fuels The Circle’s  power.  The Circle’s mantra quoted above expresses the shared values of these young characters who want to hold people accountable for atrocious actions and share their lives and find instant (yet ironically meaningful) connections on social media.

Eggers manages to handle these modern issues, questions, and controversies without lecturing the reader.  Unlike 1984, most characters in The Circle eagerly give up their rights to privacy for the sake of professional transparency and security (all for different reasons that are explored in the book).  What’s chilling is that in this novel, it doesn’t take government force to make people give up their rights; it’s the pressure to follow the example of their peers and “get with the times.” Concerns expressed by people who are wary of The Circle are dismissed by Mae and her colleagues with a pitying and condescending eye-roll.  They are, after all, pioneers of the new wave of technology. Resistance is futile…in fact resistance is blasé and a sign of moral flaws. 

Overall, The Circle isn’t solely a dire warning or a lecture on the potential harms of unchecked technological advancement.  Its power lies in its ability to creep into your subconscious and find yourself pondering “What if..?” when you next find yourself at a social gathering surrounding by peers tapping away at their I-phones.  Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say that the last lines of the book sent a shiver down my spine and have since made me contemplate the roles social media and technology play in our lives, as well as the effects lack of privacy and unrestricted access to information can have on society and the human psyche.  Another question The Circle raises is: Do we really want to know everything about ourselves, our friends, our family, or our history? 

The other big theme in this book was about human connection, which I would struggle to discuss without revealing major spoiler alerts.  In a nutshell, I would agree with the author’s suggestion that technology has, and will continue, to change how humans interact and relate to each other on personal and professional levels. Suffice to say that this book will make you think about a lot of aspects of human society and struggle with questions that don’t have an easy or apparent answer.

As I read over what I’ve typed so far, I realize that this book is very intricate in its layers of meaning.  There are many themes that I could have discussed here, but I chose to focus on the ones that resonated the most with me.

A final note on Eggers as a writer: this is the first book I’ve read by him and I was very impressed.  Part of what makes this novel so effective is his writing style, especially his insertion of metaphorical scenes that give you goosebumps without really knowing why at first.  I still shudder when I think about the symbolic scene with the company shark, who greedily eats every other sea creature in its tank.  Such visceral moments as these add to the foreboding undertone lurking parallel to the dialogue.

Have any of you read The Circle?  Let me know what you thought in the comments!

 

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“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” By Carson McCullers

heart

“Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”

I was pulled out of my “book rut” when I opened a copy of this novel.  By book rut, I meant that it’s been (in my opinion) too long since I read a book that grabbed my attention, transported me, and left me breathless and overwhelmed with emotion.  Being in a book rut is quite disappointing for bookworms such as myself. I thus scoured the Internet looking for ideas of well-written books that would captivate me.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter came up on a few lists so I took that as a sign.

It’s funny how loved, popular, and timeless the book To Kill a Mockingbird is, yet I’ve never heard of  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter before.  In many ways, they are very similar.  Both take place in the Southern US, both have a tomboy as a main character, both tackle issues of racism and growing up.  I was actually astounded at the similarities.  However, while To Kill a Mockingbird is centered around white people and the experiences of blacks through a white lens, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has prominent black characters that are richly developed, and complex.

This book was written in the 1940s by a 23-year-old white woman, yet had I not known that before reading this book, I would never have guessed that.  What makes this book so brilliant is the fact that a young Southern and white woman could write about complex issues of racism, grief, and sexuality with empathy and a deep insight that is beyond her years.

The cast of characters is a rag tag melee of misfits in the South who are united by their friendship with a mute named John Singer.  There’s Biff, a recently widowed store owner who is exploring his gender identity; Dr. Copeland, a black man who is frustrated with the plight of African Americans in the US; Jake Blount, an alcoholic who is obsessed with leading a revolution; and Mick, a young teen girl whose high hopes for life are slowly crushed by her family’s descent into poverty.  Singer has his own issues: his best friend/ soul mate (probably lover) is in a mental institution and so he has no one to lay his own burdens and love onto.

The most interesting part about this book was the deep biblical undertones.  Singer is like Jesus: the main characters are constantly coming to talk to him and tell him about their life, their burdens, their hopes and their fears.  Being a mute symbolizes that while people pray to Jesus or God, they don’t get a direct answer.  His character also represents how humans project their own ideas of who God should be.  For Singer, he means something different to each of the characters.  A significant moment in the novel is when all the main characters are together in the same room, and no one can talk to each other.  They all want to talk to the mute instead.  This scene is one example of how brilliant, metaphorical, and powerful this book is.

I could go on and on about the symbolism and meanings in this book, but I don’t want to spoil anything.  Do yourself a literary favor, and read this book. Be warned though: there are a lot of emotional parts.

Have you read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought about it.  Let me know in the comments your opinions!

 

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The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson

butterfly-garden

Where do I even begin?

I’ve read my fair share of books that scared me, scarred me, haunted me.

But until now, I had never encountered a book that managed to do all of that while also being mesmerizing and surprisingly readable.

This book is a young woman’s (Maya) confession in a police station.  All we know at the beginning is that she and many other girls were kidnapped and endured unspeakable horrors at the hands of a man referred to as “The Gardener.”  Though reluctant at first to open up to the cops, Maya slowly shares her heartbreaking account of her childhood and life as a prisoner with the other women.

Soon we learn that the gardener tattoos each woman with large butterfly wings (each woman’s unique) on their backs and refers to them as his “butterflies.”  As Maya confesses to the cops, the reader is taken with her on the same twisted, terrifying path of discovery as to what being a “butterfly” for the Gardener entails.

We know from the beginning that Maya and other women ultimately escape.  The purpose of the story and the impending climax is how Maya eventually became free and why she seems to hesitate at incriminating her captor.  As the novel builds up to this, the author develops through Maya’s account the characters of the butterflies and the gardener, giving them a raw humanity that sparks conflicting emotions.  It’s not a victim versus villain scenario.  It’s a complicated exploration of the dichotomy of the human condition.

This book with scare you, scar you, haunt you.  Its superior writing and storytelling are worth every emotion.

Have you read this book?  Let me know in the comments what you thought!

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A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

court

‘Had I but known, Tam-Lin, she said
What defeat this night I’d see
I’d’ve stolen both thine eyes
and changed thee fast into a tree.

‘Had I but known, Tam-lin, she said
before we left this night to roam,
I’d’ve et thy heart of flesh
and left thee with a heart of stone!’ -Tam Lin

 

Tam-Lin is a beautiful ballad that describes a teenage girl facing off against the Queen of the Faeries as she claims her inheritance of Cartenhaugh manor and her love for captive Tam-Lin.  I still have a beautiful picture book version of this tale that I would bring out each year on Halloween, aka the night that the Fairy Court allegedly rides out into the human world.

Anyone who knows me even the slightest is aware that my favorite Disney movie and fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast.  Stockholm Syndrome be damned, I think it is a lovely tale of learning to accept others for who they are, being ok with who you are, and that beauty is only skin deep.

This all ties into A Court of Thorns and Roses because the book is essentially a reimaginig of Beauty and the Beast with overtones of Tam-Lin.  In this case, the protagonist Feyre is held captive in the fairy world by a High Fae Lord named Tamlin after she unknowingly kills his friend while hunting.  Feyre, like Belle, is an outcast in her village.  Her family is impoverished, her mother had long ago passed away, and she is responsible for supporting her family.  Tamlin appears as a beast, but later transforms into a man, but with a mask that he cannot take off.  In fact, everyone in his court is stuck wearing masks, because of a blight that was cast long ago.

I bet you can imagine where this is going.  Feyre hates Tamlin at first for taking her away from her family and everything she has known, but as they become acquainted, save each others lives on several occasions, and Tamlin offers her an art gallery (unlike Belle, she’s an artist not a reader), their relationship gets steamy.  As a side note, I could not believe this book is considered “teen” fiction but perhaps I am becoming more sensitive in my (26 years) old age.  Anyways, this book is full of romance, adventure, fairies, an evil Queen, and pretty much everything fans of the fantasy genre will love.  While there are a lot of familiar elements in this book, it manages to be unique enough to create an engaging tale.  It’s passionate, it’s fast-paced, it’s the perfect summer escapist book.  If you haven’t read the ballad of Tam-Lin, I recommend doing so before starting this novel.

If I haven’t convinced you enough how enjoyable this book is, I just found out it’s a series and as much as I hate getting roped into them, I have to find out what happens next!

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Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

sharpteeth

 

“he knows that it’s impossible to tell a wolf
from a man if
he keeps his chin up
and his teeth clean.”-Sharp Teeth

What drew me to this book?  Was it the short and snappy title?  The stark cover?  Is it simply impossible for me to want to read anything but horror this summer?

No matter the reason, I found myself picking up a copy of Sharp Teeth and was subsequently sucked into an alternative reality of Los Angeles: a place spread out over the desert where wild dogs fight for power, money, and love.  Written in free verse, it reads like an epic poem; a classic tale of a hero on a journey fighting an enemy and winning the love of a fair lady.

In short, the novel centers around Anthony, a dog catcher who falls in love with an unnamed werewolf who just left her pack.  Their romance buds in the midst of a gritty and apocalyptic LA, where werewolves slip between their human and dog forms as their competition builds up to an inevitable war.  The plot is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story.  There’s impending chaos, but the beauty of the story is how love endures within the storm.

The most striking thing about the book is the metaphor of what the werewolves symbolize.  It’s not just a story about werewolves engaged in gang wars, but how we all have a little dog inside us; a wildness that we can learn to control, but not always.

Most of the time, the werewolves can turn into humans or into a dog whenever they wish.  When they are about to fight or kill, most often they revert to their wild side and become a dog.  However, they prefer to make love in human form.  The process of the characters changing into dogs represents their resignation to their basic, barbaric side.  As dogs, they can fight and kill with no remorse.  As humans, they are held to the same societal norms as everyone else.

Lark, a former alpha werewolf from one of the packs, is the character that stands apart because for him, turning into a dog is an escape from human responsibilities.  As a dog, he prefers to enjoy the freedom and simplicity that comes with being an animal by being with his “owner.”

Supporting the romance, action, and metaphor of this book is how the book is structured.  The free verse strategy makes you slow down and savor the words.  Otherwise, with the intense action the reader would easily slide through the story without taking time to appreciate some beautiful anecdotes.  I’ll end this review with one such example:

“Everyone is always looking in the wrong direction,
we worry about our lovers while losing our jobs
we stress out about cancer while our children run away
we ponder the stars while burning the earth.
Lark used to say the bullet we’re running from
is almost never the one that hits us.”

 

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Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Summer is in full swing and for a few months I am not a student who is also working two part time jobs. That means that my schedule is full of opportunities to read, and reading I have been doing. Guilty pleasure reading that is. My plan to tackle the behemoth that is Infinite Jest was put on the back burner when I stumbled across the horror novel Let Me In by the Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. An anti-Twilight vampire romance/horror novel? My curiosity thus piqued, I began the ultimate descent into a Swedish vampire nightmare.

The book begins with introducing a young boy Oskar, who is a loner and frequently bullied at his school. One day he meets a young girl, Eli, at his apartment whom he befriends and falls in love with; even as he becomes more aware of her increasingly bizarre habits and behaviors. Peppered in with the central story are other characters within the town. There’s a group of poor alcoholic peers dealing with their own issues and the mysterious murder of one of their friends, the bully’s point of view, and a teenage boy living in Oskar’s apartment complex. Eli’s “father” is given his own storyline as well. I am still deciding whether or not I like this tactic. On one hand, using multiple characters and perspectives, Lindqvist transforms the novel from a simple bloody horror fest to a sort of social commentary on the poor and overlooked population in Sweden. However, I found myself caring more about Oskar and Eli and wished their relationship and plot line had been more flushed out.

This is a heavy, dark book, and not just because of the vampire aspect. Pedophilia, genital mutilation, violence, alcoholism, poverty, and loneliness are all equally prominent themes which together create a sense of pure dread. I took longer to read this book than I expected because I needed to take frequent breaks and watch something funny on Netflix to mitigate the effects this story had on me.

On the other hand, this book is very well written and fans of the horror genre will not be disappointed. It’s creepy in a way that it sneaks up on you, making you feel like you’re walking down a dark street and are positive someone is following you, even though you keep turning around and see nothing.

As people have said before, this is the ultimate anti-Twilight book. It’s a vampire love story, but it’s not sparkly skin and Robert Pattinson’s pouty expression. It takes the erotic themes associated with vampires and twists them in a way that is satisfyingly disturbing to a horror fan like me.

Curl up in a blanket, and invite this book in.

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Shadow’s Summer List (So Far…)

Normally I’ve avoided discussing my personal life on this blog for several reasons: keep this website semi professional, uphold the privacy of other people, and my mission that this blog be centered around books.  However, I must digress for a little bit to explain my absence.  It’s not that I haven’t been reading, quite the opposite in fact.  Before my recent literary marathon, I moved back to the US a month ago, adjusted back to American culture, and went through two heartbreaks.

I felt (and still do to a degree) sorry for myself and sorry for the people I’ve hurt and have had these crushing feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and failure on my shoulders.

Where there is loneliness and lamentation, literature awaits with open, non-judgemental arms.  It was thus that I admitted defeat in the romance department and threw myself into the world of words.

With thanks to the reader for bearing with me through my tangent, I present to you what I’ve read so far this summer:

  • Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

beforeigotosleep

While I awaited my mother’s arrival at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, I had about eight hours to kill.  Within that time, I read this book on my I-Pad.  It was that addictive.

Short summary: a woman wakes up older than she was the day before with no memories.  She finds out that she has short term memory loss and amnesia due to a car accident.  As she tries to unravel her past and piece together shards of her memories, she starts to realize that not every one is who they say they are and she cannot trust everyone around her.

This book was creepy on many levels and the suspense built slowly, always leaving you wanting more.  Highly recommended for fans of Hitchcock and Gillian Flynn looking for a quick summer read.

PS: If you saw the movie already, it doesn’t hold a candle to the book.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

  • Help for the Haunted by John Searles

helphaunted

John Searles used to live in the same town as Ed and Lorraine Warren, who inspired the movies “The Conjuring” and “Annabelle.”  In this book, it is clear this couple also inspired the parents of the main character.  Sylvie Mason’s parents are psychics/paranormal experts that help people who are haunted/possessed.  A year after their tragic death, Sylvie tries to piece together the night of their murder as she also discovers her parents had secrets haunting them as well.

This book reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” in that it shows a character looking back on his/her past which at the time seemed magical and at times frightening with a new adult perspective.  It’s a coming of age story of sorts that I think many people can relate to.  As we age, we see our parents and our child hood memories differently.

Equal parts scary, touching, and tragic, this book is another great summer read.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

girlonthetrain

Another heart pounding, addictive book is “The Girl on the Train.”  Fans of Gillian Flynn will also like this book for its unreliable characters, plot twists, and suspense.

Recently divorced and alcoholic Rachel rides the train every day at the same time.  At the same stop, she has a quick glance into a couple’s home whom she believes to be the epitome of marital bliss.  One day however she witnesses something that shatters her perspective of the couple.  With that, the tension builds as she tries to figure out what happened to the couple and weave together her alcohol soaked memories.

If I hadn’t been working full time, I would have easily read this book in a day.  There’s a good reason why this book is currently a best seller and that’s because it’s an easy read that hooks you at the beginning and is the perfect book to stay up late on a summer night reading.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

  • Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

shotgun

My mom and brother were discussing this book together until it got to a point where I told them to stop their discussion until I could join.  When two people won’t stop talking about a book in my family, I know that I can’t be left out.

A little bit about Nickolas Butler: he is from my home state (Wisconsin) and like all Sconnies, he really really loves Wisconsin.  It’s evident throughout the pages as he paints with words scenic pictures of Wisconsin farmlands, small town life, and describes in detail the smells, the textures.  As a Sconnie, I could easily picture the scenes and recall the scents.  If anything, this book is well worth a read for the great descriptive writing.

A short summary:  four friends grew up in the same small town.  As they grow up, their lives part ways and intertwine.  One friend becomes a famous rock star, one takes over his fathers farm, one gets married and moves to Chicago.  Another becomes the town (recovering) drunk.

As someone who grew up in Wisconsin, I could relate to this book.  The desire to go out into the world and make a difference, but the constant pull towards home and nostalgia for the past.  This book isn’t exactly a coming of age story, but more of an aging story.  As the characters get older, leave their home town and come back, you see how their relationships with each other and their town change.  It’s a book that I think anyone over 18 could easily see a part of themselves in.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

  • Looking for Alaska by John Green

alaska

I read “The Fault in Our Stars” and loved it and laughed and bawled my eyes out.  This other book by John Green however was somewhat of a disappointment in comparison.  While Green does a good job of relating to teenagers and how they cope with grief and growing up, I found this story somewhat subpar.  I think teenagers would enjoy this book but as an adult, I was looking for more.

Basic summary: Pudge goes to a boarding school where his life is changed by meeting a fellow classmate, Alaska.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

  • An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

katherines

Another John Green book.  Since I’m too poor right now to buy “Paper Towns,” I figured I’d read his other books while waiting for my library copy.  My sentiments about this book were similar to “Looking for Alaska,” an enjoyable book, addresses teen issues and romance appropriately, but not his best work.

Short summary: Colin sets off on an impromptu road trip with his Arabic friend after being dumped by the 19th Katherine he dated while trying to create a formula to predict how a relationship will end.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

  • The Fifth Child by Debra Lessing

fifth

Just shy over 100 pages, this book manages to pack a punch without wasting a single word.  While reading, I was reminded of “Rosemary’s Baby’: a happy couple whose world is turned upside down by a demon baby.  However this book is unique in that it is about a couple who wants to have many children.  They succeed in procreating right after marriage.  When their fifth child is born however, he is…different.

This book is just plain creepy.  The way the fifth child is described, both in mannerisms and physically, is sure to give you nightmares.  Besides ruining your chance of a good night’s sleep, this book is excellently written.  Lessing manages to achieve great character development, build a chilling plot, and end with a bang all without hitting 200 pages.  When you’re in the mood for a scary night, pick this up instead of switching on Netflix.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

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Horror Novels as Scary as the Films

In college, I developed an obsession of horror movies.  Not the gory ones meant to shock and appall you, but the slow burning ones that creep under your skin and exploit your perception of what is safe and comforting.  Many people like to be scared for kicks, I just prefer to do so within the solace of my apartment.

Anyways, I was jonesing for a good scare last weekend and without anything better to do, ended up reading two books that were written in the 60s/70s and promptly had successful movie adaptations that are considered classic horror films.  Have you figured out what those books are?

The_Exorcist_1971

Of course, The Exorcist, the movie that spawned a whole franchise of demonic possession films. Most people are familiar with the story: a sweet girl Regan, who is the daughter of an actress becomes possessed after talking to an entity she calls “Captain Howdy.”  After exhausting all other options, her desperate mother calls upon a Jesuit priest to help her daughter.

The movie is frightening in that you see a very innocent young girl turn into a projectile vomiting, swearing, cross desecrating, head turning all the way around being.  The book however is even more terrifying in that there is more of a build up of the characters, so Regan’s decline into possession is gradual and ultimately shocking.  Also, if you thought the movie was bad, the book describes in detail some more disgusting things the demon makes Regan do, which ultimately would not be appropriate at all to be shown in a movie.

Besides containing more horror than the movie, the book is better in that the characters have time to become more developed, and thus the motivations and actions shown in the movie are better understood.  For example, Karass, the priest that determines Regan is possessed, is shown to be a man full of guilt for abandoning his mother and feeling responsible for her death.  This is touched upon in the movie, but the book does a better job of showing the scope of his emotional baggage.  Compared to the movie, his ultimate action to save Regan in the book seemed more natural and satisfying.

The last great thing about the book versus the movie is the build up towards the exorcism.  In a movie, if they spent screen time covering all the events leading to the exorcism, it would quickly become boring as it would be a string of scenes involving Karass doing research.  In the book, it was a logical string of events that created eager anticipation for the climax.  Karass is very careful in the book to admit that Regan is possessed.  He actually spends most of the book convinced that she is suffering from some sort of mental disease.  It is only when he carefully considers her actions and eliminates any clear sign of mental illness that he decides to propose exorcism.  I actually appreciated this attention to detail because it seemed realistic to me.

Watching the movie before reading the book did not make this horror story any less enjoyable.  Of course, the book is always better so reading the novel made me appreciate the movie that much more.  I give this book five out of five stars for great character development, and a good mix of shocking and slow building horror.

Rosemary-Baby-Ira-Levin

What if you found out the person that had vowed to love and respect you til death do you part, was actually a member of a satanic cult and let the Devil have his way with you? Yeah I don’t know what I’d do either, but that is the very situation Rosemary finds herself in in this book that went on to become a successful horror movie in the late 60s.

The horror in this book isn’t your typical serial killer or monster/ghost situation. Rather what makes it scary is the idea that the people you think are your friends and the person you think you love are actually conspiring against you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Poor Rosemary, she married the man she loved and for that her parents cut all ties with her.  All she wanted was to have a happy life in New York with her husband and have three children.  After moving into a fancy new apartment and making friends with her new neighbors, the Castevets, she finds out she is pregnant.  From there, the horror starts to sneak in as she realizes something is wrong with her pregnancy, and her husband and neighbors might not be the devoted husband and nice old people they seem to be.  Furthermore, her husband suddenly starts to become more successful in his acting career.  Is she going crazy or is there some deep dark secret the Castevets and her husband are hiding?

Of course, many people have seen the movie already or already know the ending.  I had already seen the movie myself but I enjoyed the book a lot more.  I realized that Roman Polanski did a great job adapting the book and casting the characters, but overall I feel that Rosemary’s Baby is more effective as a book rather than a movie.  My biggest issue with the movie was that not a lot happened.  In the book, you get more into Rosemary’s mind and psyche and that drives you to keep reading.  The only thing the movie added to the story was showing how the pregnancy affected Rosemary’s health.

I give this book five out of five stars because it is a good mix of camp and horror, and hooks you from the first page (I ended up reading this in less than 24 hours).

Overall, I highly recommend both of these books to the lovers of classic horror. After watching the movies, you will enjoy the great writing of these two books.  After going back and reading the novels, you will then have a greater appreciation for the films.

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“Cloud Atlas” By David Mitchell

cloudatlas

Do you remember the first time you encountered nesting dolls? You saw an ornately painted wooden figure and picked it up out of curiosity.  Then you noticed a crack running through its midsection.  Puzzled, you pulled both halves apart to find another, smaller wooden doll on the indside.  You repeated the process again and again, until finally you were left with a tiny replica of the original figure, and the disassembled parts of the larger dolls.  Next, you put the smallest figure into the one that was slightly bigger, and so on, reversing the process until you are left at the beginning.  You weren’t quite sure of what exactly the purpose of the nesting doll was until you had reached the center, and returned to where you started.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a literary nesting doll.  The book consists of six novellas.  The first five novellas stop mid story.  When you reach the six novella, there is no interruption in the plot.  From there, the stories pick back up and finish, but in the opposite direction.  To put it simply, if each novella were assigned a number, the structure is: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1.

Each of the novellas has a different genre within itself, but the overall book is a complex exploration of religion, science, philosophy, and reincarnation.  The unifying theme is a comet birthmark, which makes its appearance in each story on one of the characters.

The message of the book, which is that we are all connected by time and souls that float from one body to the next, becomes obvious as the reader progresses from one novella to the next.  Each novella is fairly weak when examined apart from the other novels, but perhaps this was an intentional strategy.  Like a nesting doll, you need to read the entire book to fully appreciate the message.

My biggest critique of the book was that the delivery of the moral lacked the literary punch I was expecting.  Perhaps Mitchell was trying to achieve too much in this behemoth that his main message was overwhelmed by sub-meditations and revelations.  I found myself wondering what exactly he wanted the reader to take away from this ambitious novel.  It was only after I watched the movie and couldn’t fall asleep that night that I realized: if anything, this book makes you think.  There I was, lying awake at night, trying to decipher all of the complexities and subtleties and finding myself going around in mental circles.  I can’t remember the last time a book has affected me in this way.

My recommendation to readers is to watch the movie after reading the book.  Even for the seasoned bibliophile, this book is complicated and seeing the action on screen helps in peeling away the layers of the story.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars for being thought provoking, but falling short of delivering a novel, mind-blowing message that it promised.

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