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Sci Fi and Horror Short Stories…Oh My!

Last week I wondered whether I was becoming a literary masochist.  Between the two volumes of short stories I read, I bounced between being horrified and depressed.  All that influenced my reading choices however was that both of the authors happen to be my two favorite novelists.  With that, let me dive into the scary one first:

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Night Shift by Stephen King

Just when I think that King can’t frighten me anymore and that I’ve read enough of his work that I know what to expect from him, he shocks me again.  Though some of these stories have ties to his other novels, such as Salem’s Lot, The Stand, and Christine, there is plenty of new horror to experience in this anthology.  Many of his short stories in this book have been made into movies, such as Children of the CornQuitters Inc., and The Ledge.  

Just as he does in his novels, each short story starts out slowly, with characters surprisingly well developped given how condensed the action is, and by the time you start to notice the goosebumps rising on your arms, the climax whacks you in the face and you suddenly feel yourself shifting uncomforably in your seat.  King is a master of what I consider to be the key to creating good horror: he takes a seemingly normal situation you would feel comfortable in, then turns the plot completely around, making you realize no one is safe and evil can lurk anywhere.

Best story in the book: it’s a tie between Graveyard Shift and The Ledge.  Graveyard Shift is terribly frightening for any one who has even a sliver of disdain for rats.  The Ledge is less scary but is suspenseful and has one of the greatest literary twists at the end.  It will have you on the edge of your seat, pun intended.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

After I read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury became one of my all time favorite authors.  Although I am not a huge fan of science fiction, he uses the genre as a way to promote his warnings about humans and violence and our dependency on technology.  In that way, his books are powerful and dreamlike.

The Illustrated Man is a collection of short stories with an encompassing theme: in the prologue a man meets a tattooed carnie in Wisconsin.  Each tattoo tells a story.  Following are the stories that are pictured on the tattooed man’s body.  Many of the stories are about space travel, Mars, and aliens.  The sub plot in these novels is about how advances in technology have caused man to become isolated, either physically or mentally from others.  The other main theme is the generation gap between parents who hold onto old traditions and books, and the younger generation that embraces technology and distances themselves, again physically or mentally, from their forefathers.

This anthology is sometimes depressing, sometimes scary, but overall thought provoking.  It never ceases to amaze me that Bradbury warned us of a world of people dependent on technology and passionate about violent media in the 1950s, before TV had become ubiquitous.

Without a doubt, the best short story is The Veldt, which is about two children who live in a smart house.  They come to love their nursery, essentially a room completely composed of TV screens, more than their parents.  This story is completely terrifying and makes you question your own dependence on techonolgy.  If you aren’t a fan of science fiction, I recommend you at least read The Veldt.  

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

I was trying to articulate why it is I love short stories so much.  The fact that you can read them quickly is, of course, a plus, but the reason goes deeper than that.  David Sedaris said: “A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” I don’t think I could explain my sentiments better than that.  Great short stories, such as the ones I’ve talked about in this post, have done just that.  They achieve what a great novel does in a fraction of the pages: leave you dizzy, unoriented, and somehow different.

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Filed under Fiction, horror, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Short Stories

New Year, New Book Challenge

2015 is officially here, and with the arrival of a new year, I’ve set out to conquer my 2015 reading challenge. In 2014, I successfully met my goal of reading 50 books. This year, I’m upping the ante and am determined to read 75 books. Sound crazy? I think so too. However, I have adopted the Nike attitude and will “Just do it.”

Thus far, I have read two books. Here they are:

1) “It” by Stephen King

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You might say I’ve developed a sort of obsession of King novels. You wouldn’t be wrong. From the past few books of his I’ve read, I know that I can expect a novel with meticulously developed characters, a long yet well crafted plot, and a struggle between good and evil. In “It,” these three main aspects were encountered, as well as the theme of childhood memories. Many people have probably seen the movie or are somewhat aware of the plot, so in brief, the book is about a group of adults who return to their childhood town to combat an evil entity that terrorized them as children.

As far as horror goes, this book was on par with “Christine.” The evil clown was absolutely terrifying and I’m sure if I encountered such a being as him as a kid, I’d repress those memories too. The book was further terrifying because of the sad childhoods each of the children had. The girl, Beverly, is severely beaten by her dad. One of the kids has a mom with an un-diagnosed case of Munchausen by proxy syndrome. The main character Bill finds his brother dead in a gutter with his arm ripped off. I mean, all of the characters need some serious therapy for what they went through growing up, evil clown aside.

What startled me about the book was that it showed how easy it is to repress bad memories for the sake of self preservation/so you don’t end up in the looney bin. When brought back together again after 30 years, the characters finally have to face their past so they can stop the evil clown from terrorizing and killing another generation of children.

Nearing the end of the book, I was so depressed I bought a bottle of wine and wrapped myself in a blanket to get to the end. Of course, the wine only exacerbated my feelings so I was an emotional wreck, akin to Bridget Jones after a break-up. I had to watch re-runs of “How I Met Your Mother” for a few hours to fully recover.

With that said, this has been the first novel I’ve read in awhile that really made me feel something. It tore me apart and beat on my soul, but that’s what books are supposed to do: take you out of this world and throw you back as a changed person.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars for being well written and emotionally twisting.

2) “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson
Oye, Mr. Thompson. The author famous for creating a new genre, gonzo journalism, and being an open receptacle for every kind of legal and illegal drug. I’ve joked before that I don’t feel like a real writer because I’ve never taken hard core drugs and my best writing is done in the early morning with a cup of hot coffee, not sloshed in a townie bar with a pint nearby. Thompson, on the other hand, truly lived the motto: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Although how often he edited sober is debatable.

F&L in short, is a fun drug fueled romp. I devoured the book the way Thompson took ether: I eagerly inhaled it. Having no desire to ever take drugs, it was never the less entertaining to read about his exploits, from leaving hotels without paying to getting pulled over and forgetting he was holding a beer, to his “lawyer” that matched him pill for pill. Honestly, you have to give the guy a lot of credit for being continuously high and drunk and still managing to write a funny, yet self aware book.

This book is a classic piece of American literature, and it deserves it’s fame. It represents the period of American history in which it was written and is an excellent example of gonzo journalism.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars for being well written and entertaining.

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2014 Books: A Summary

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My failure to post for the past several months is a result of moving to Turkey and being too busy getting acclimated to my new environment and reading to write.  Though my blogging has been scarce, I have gotten more reading done in the past four months than I’ve ever had the chance to do in my life.  I love my host city in Turkey, but there’s not a lot to do so I’ve been walking a lot and have discovered the wonder of audio books.  Get exercise and read at the same time?  Why haven’t I jumped on this bandwagon before?

Anyways, it would be a ridiculously long post if I wrote a review of every book I’ve read recently.  Instead, I will group them together into categories, and share my favorite book from each.

1) Dean Koontz books

Life Expectancy

Sole Survivor

Velocity

Innocence

Strange Highways

Favorite: Life Expectancy.  It’s a classic Dean Koontz novel that contains suspense, elements of science fiction, but the characters are particularly well developed in this novel.  I thought the ending was perfect as it tied up loose ends but left the reader questioning what would happen if there was a sequel.  The book had you guessing the entire time, but Koontz revealed answers slowly in a way that keeps the reader from getting too frustrated.

2) A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R.R. Martin

A Storm of Swords

A Feast for Crows

A Dance with Dragons (started)

Favorite: it’s a tie because these books tend to run together and it’s been awhile ago since I’ve read them so I’ll just say that as a series, I’m hooked. I want to finish the latest book so I can look up fan theories without worrying about spoilers, but the next book won’t come out for at least another year.  Oye, the annoyance of being addicted to a series! It’s like Harry Potter all over again, but Mr. Martin is taking his sweet time.

3) Non-fiction books

Jesus Freaks (true crime book about the Family cult) by Don Lattin

Life After College (self help) by Jenny Blake

Wild (memoir/travelogue) by Cheryl Strayed

Hallucinations (science) by Oliver Sacks

The Good Nurse (true crime) by Charles Graeber

In Defense of Food (science) by Michael Pollan

The Red Queen (genetics, currently reading) by Matt Ridley

Favorite: In Defense of Food.  Michael Pollan strikes again with a well-researched book that makes you question your food culture.  I enjoyed The Omnivore’s Dilemma years ago and have watched many documentaries on the food industry in America, but this book offered a fresh look at the issues in the US.  What I like best about Pollan’s writing is that he bases his arguments on facts and research, not his hidden political agenda. In science writing, it’s easy to pick out certain studies and use them to promote veganism or animal rights, etc, but Pollan is clearly interested in the food industry because he is inspired by the science behind it, not the social issues (although his research leads to social issues that are easily ignored).

4) Books related to Turkey that I read right before coming, or during orientation

The Yogurt Man Cometh by Kevin Revolinski

Tulipomania by Mike Dash

An Ongoing Affair: Turkey and I by Heath W. Lowry

Favorite: The Yogurt Man Cometh.  It’s a short and snappy travelogue about one man (from my home state Wisconsin!) who teaches in Turkey and shares his misadventures.  I enjoyed reading the book while in Turkey because I could relate to some of his experiences.  His book also inspired me to be more persistent in blogging regularly.

5) Teen Books

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Favorite: The Fault in Our Stars.  I cried. So much.  Then because I loved the book so much and am an emotional masochist, I immediately went and saw the movie.  And ugly cried some more into my popcorn; the tears upping the salt content; giving me temporary hypertension.  Before reading The Fault in Our Stars, I had a bad taste in my mouth about teen books after the poorly edited, meaningless sack of literary garbage that is The Hunger Games.  The Fault in Our Stars restored my faith in the teen lit genre and hope for the future generation.  It’s a book that’s destined to be a classic.

6) Books written by celebrities that, upon looking back, I’m not sure why I read them

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Favorite: Neither.  I think I was sucked into exploring this genre while working at BookPeople because these books were flying off the shelf like hotcakes.  Moral of the story: when it comes to bestsellers, the customer is not always right.

7) Classic novels

Little Birds by Anais Nin

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The Secret History by Donna Tratt

Favorite: It’s a tie between A Clockwork Orange and The Secret History.  Both were very disturbing books, but they had strong messages and are guaranteed to haunt you.  The Secret History had well developed characters and was impossible to put down.  A Clockwork Orange is a classic book, but is definitely worth reading.

As a side note, The Wasp Factory is probably one of the most messed up books I’ve ever read.  I finished it in one night and immediately took a long shower afterwards.  It’s not a bad book, it’s actually quite brilliant.  But you will feel like the world is a horrible place afterwards.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As another side note, I was very disappointed by two books. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the first.  It’s no fault of Mr. Stevenson though.  It was incredibly well written, but the success of the book depended on the reader not knowing the big punch line.  Everyone today knows that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person, so it ruins the whole book.  The whodunnit question that I’m sure was trailing readers along eagerly over a hundred years ago is now common knowledge.  Poor Mr. Stevenson.

The other book that I may be criticized for hating is Little Women.  All the characters were so annoying.  I thought they were all spoiled, self centered, shallow, and weak.  Jo was the only character with any sort of complexity, but oh boy she learns her place in the end when she finally settles down and adheres to expectations of society.  Furthermore, I found all of the girls’ “problems” to be incredibly petty.  Beth had the best idea, which was to just sorta check out of life before she ended up living as a housewife whose only excitement would be something like her dear husband bringing her silk gloves but she, being humble and pious, would sell them to buy poor children some bread.

8) Sci-fi–Fantasy–Horror

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I can’t choose a favorite from this list, because all these books were amazing, with the exception of Night Circus.  That book was just, meh.  Warm Bodies was a captivating book that was more than just a zombie novel.  The Girl With All the Gifts was enjoyable because the author put a lot of work into making the science behind a zombie apocalypse make sense.  The two zombie books, along with Never Let Me Go were all thought provoking books that asked the question: what does it mean to be human?  The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a bizarre book, but the fantasy elements were successful in supporting the theme of childhood memories.

9) Stephen King

Christine

The Green Mile

Salem’s Lot

It (Currently reading)

Favorite: Christine.  Wow, this book packed a punch.  The character development is phenomenal, the storytelling is perfection.  The last Stephen King book I read was Carrie, and that was years ago.  This book had me hooked from the beginning.  I can see why King is such a successful writer: he adds so much color and flavor to the characters that you can picture them acting the action out in front of you.  He is also a master of slowly building up suspense.  I enjoyed his other books, but Christine especially stands out, I think because of how Arnie changed so drastically in response to Christine.  Right now, I’m reading It and I think this one will come in a close second, if not I’ll like it as much as Christine.

10) Other novels

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

The Goldfinch by Donna Tratt

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Favorite: It’s a tie between Me Before You and The Goldfinch.

Me Before You is a heartbreaking love story, well written and captivating.  The Goldfinch is an epic Dickens style novel that covers years of one boy’s life.  Both were enjoyable reads in their own way.  I’ve heard that some people don’t like The Goldfinch because they were expecting some sort of art history book or something like The Da Vinci Code.  If you’re going to read it, expect to enter a long, but well written novel with great character development.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 52 books this year.  Wow.  And most of the books I’ve read this year I’ve finished between September and now.  In a year, I’ve read at least one book from almost every genre in existence.  Some books haunted me, some scared me, some made me laugh, some made me wrap myself in a blanket and go through a box of tissues, some made me question society, and some shattered my ignorance.  Most importantly, they all took me on adventures and returned me as a person changed.

As Stephen King said: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

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Filed under Classics, Fiction, horror, Humor, Memoir, Mystery, Non-fiction, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Teen Books