Thoughts on “The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

Amazon Summary: When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

***Author’s note: I think it’s fair to make it clear that this book is meant to be a modern retelling of The Turn of the Screw (a book which I have not read) and so I am basing this book entirely on its own merits.***

Rowan makes for a great protagonist, but in my mind Heathbrae House is the true star of the novel.

From the outside, Heathbrae is a dignified and eye-catching piece of real-estate with old Victorian aesthetic and flashy gadgetry.

The inside, however, reveals a much darker truth.

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As Rowan notes, the house’s transformation from a run down Victorian into a modern home replete with fancy technology is not a smooth one. Rather than blending together to form a charming country estate, the modern amenities and old architecture clash with one another in garish ways. The house itself suffers from an identity crisis which is perfectly in keeping with the story’s themes, especially relating to Rowan.

 Rowan has experience as a care-giver, however, it’s obvious she lacks a lot of the matronly appeal one in such a position is supposed to hold. She, herself, comes from a cold, loveless household and is desperately trying to find one of her own. She does her best to fit into the role but as the horrors increase, her facade begins to crumble. 

I found Rowan’s struggle heartbreakingly relatable. She’s found herself in a difficult position, where all her actions can and will be monitored in a strange and new environment. I think all of us have found ourselves in such a struggle, so it was easy to route for her as she goes through all these trials.

It doesn’t help that she’s constantly second-guessing both herself and those around her as strange events keep occurring.

In spite of the fact that I’m a total scaredy-cat, most books don’t have the power to truly scare me. This is especially true when they take place in modern times. The suspension of disbelief in the day of iPads and internet streaming is so weak it can take a great deal of co-ercing to get me to go along with the program.  However, The Turn of the Key literally made me afraid to turn the next page. I know, I know,  it’s a cliché, but the environment Ware created was so creepy and foreboding, I genuinely dreaded turning the page. What was a I going to discover? A corpse? A murder weapon? A ghost?

It legitimately kept me guessing as to what was going to happen, even though I knew for certain a child was going to die at the end.

Speaking of the end…..

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Perhaps it’s just me, but I was incredibly disappointed.

It didn’t seem to me that the twists worked very well as none of them were built up to.

The best kind of twists are the ones that make perfect sense upon second reading. All the clues are there but they are so innocuous you don’t notice them from the start. However, upon reflection it all makes perfect sense and you kick yourself for not recognizing the signs. In this case, however, I think Ware played her cards too close to her chest.

She gave away so little in the fear that her audience would figure out the ending that when the reveal happens it feels like she pulled it out of her arse.

For those that don’t want to the ending spoiled for them, don’t go any farther.

 

*********Spoilers ahead, reader beware***********

 

Okay, so I thought the twist that Rowan was actually Bill’s daughter was kind of….um…

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Even after rereading Rowan’s first encounter with Bill, it still didn’t make sense to me.

When Rowan is describing Bill’s appearance she says she can’t tell how old he is, but she speculates he could be forty.

Rowan is in her late twenties.

That would mean her father would have been 12 years-old upon her conception.

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To be 100% accurate, she guess-stimates his age from 40-60, but all the same. Why would she think he could possibly be 40?

Not to mention, there’s never any indication that there was more to the scene than what information we were presented with. If I went to all that trouble to find my biological father (stealing my roommate’s identity, uprooting myself from the country, and agreeing to live in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of strangers) I would be devastated to learn that he was a pervert.

Nonetheless, Rowan carries on as if it were nothing more than an inconvenience.

What makes this twist frustrating is I believe it could have been fixable if enough care was taken.

For instance, instead of saying “Sandra and Bill” in her narration, she could have said “Bill and Sandra.” A reader might question why she was putting Bill’s name before Sandra’s even though most of her interactions are through the matriarch of the family, but I doubt anyone would think enough about it to put two and two together.

As for the big reveal that it was actually Maddie pulling the strings all along…that’s fine…I guess…

Her motivation does makes sense and it’s easy to see how her father’s bad behavior could result in her acting out in a big way.

The problem with this revelation is I seriously doubt a child her age could pull off something that elaborate. This kid would have to be Hannibal Lector-level crazy. Think about it. She gaslighted Rowan, found out how to by-pass all the security (I know kids are good with tech but come on), snuck into a boarded up attic and a whole host of other things.

Let’s be reasonable here, this is all very, very unlikely.

The twist that Ellie accidentally killed Maddie was….okay, I guess.

It’s difficult to articulate why I was disappointed by this. Perhaps its my own personal hang-up with Scooby-Doo-isque endings where there’s always a guy in a mask behind everything instead of an actual ghost.

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I get it.

It’s the 21st century.

We are supposed to be beyond superstitious nonsense, but come on.

Can’t it ever be an actual ghost?

Ghosts are fun.

Throw me a bone, here.

Overall, if Ware had just re-written a couple of things, I think she would have a first rate book on her hands. As it stands, I can’t give this book anything higher than a 6/10.

I won’t say the twists ruined it for me, but they did take away a lot of enjoyment for me.

 

Thoughts on “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” by Gary Stewart with Susan Mustafa

“My father wrapped me tightly in the dirty blue blanket and laid me there on the floor, making sure the pacifier was in my mouth so I would not cry before he was able to make his escape. He turned away, leaving me alone on the stairwell, clad only in a white towel that served as my diaper. Decades later, I would realize that the day my father abandoned me was the luckiest day of my life”

After thirty-nine years of zero contact, Gary Stewart is reached by his biological mother, hoping to form a connection. Elated, Gary accepts her offer and learns as much about his parentage as he can. However, the more he learns about his father, the more complicated things become.

Not only was his father a criminal, wife-beater, and a statutory rapist, he might have possibly been one of the more notorious serial-killers in American history: the Zodiac Killer.

The Most Dangerous Animal of All” is unlike any true-crime book I’ve ever read.

In fact, to call it a true-crime book is being overly simplistic. It’s not just a book about a murderer and his victims, it’s also about survival and the power of hope in the face of insurmountable odds.

I enjoyed the book for the same reason a lot of people didn’t. I scrolled through several one-star reviews on GoodReads, complaining this wasn’t like most true-crime books and it read too much like a novel.

I, personally, liked this stylistic choice, even if it took away some of the authenticity. Of course, as many reviewers pointed out, there is no way Stewart could know about conversations that took place decades before his birth, nor is it likely he had perfect recall of discussions he himself had with other people. But when you are dealing with a book like this, it can be necessary to take some artistic license provided you are true to the character of those involved.

There’s also the complaint that we didn’t need all this background information of the author.This gripe is honestly confusing to me. If you read the dust jacket it’s easy to see this is a personal story and would involve a lot of information about Stewart. After all, this is about his father and some background information is required for context. Not to mention, his personal story is fascinating.

Now, of course, there is the question as to whether or not Earl Van Best, Gary Stewart’s father, actually was the Zodiac killer. From the evidence he compiled to make his case, I would be very, very surprised if he wasn’t.

I don’t want to give too much away as I encourage you to read this book on your own, but I will say that the evidence Stewart presents is compelling. Many might call it circumstantial, but if he isn’t the Zodiac Killer, there is a hell of a lot of coincidences that need to be accounted for.

If you plan on reading this book, I suggest you do so on a weekend because, frankly, you’re not going to be doing much else. It hooks you in from the very beginning and won’t let you go until the end. I read the whole thing in about two days time and I imagine more ambitious readers would be able to knock it out in one.

It’s honestly difficult to say anything bad about it.

Perhaps the dialogue was a bit too stilted.

The repeating of information we already knew towards the end was a bit tiresome, nevertheless, I have few gripes with this book. I recommend it to anyone, even if you aren’t a fan of most traditional true-crime stories.

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Thoughts on “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO HAVE ANY FOREKNOWLEDGE OF THE CONTENTS OF THIS NOVEL, READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED. 

Summary: January 1937. 28-year-old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. After they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year, Gruhuken, Jack feels a creeping unease.

I love books about the arctic.

It’s a bastion of cruelty set against a backdrop of incomprehensible beauty. It’s so hostile and isolated yet life miraculously persists in spite of it all.

I think that is what makes it the perfect landscape for a horror novel.

Not only are characters forced to contend with whatever supernatural entity is on their tail, the very land itself threatens their survival on a daily basis.

So how was it?

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I can’t pin-point precisely where the story lost me.

It started off strong, setting the scene and describing the hopelessness that would motivate someone like Jack to forgo all he knows to venture to no-mans-land.

Then it got dull real frigging quick.

I’m all for a slow-burning horror, but this book was a drudge to get through, which is quite an achievement when you consider it’s a meager 252 pages.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this novel’s greatest failing is its characters. Our supposed hero Jack in particular makes for a tedious protagonist.

Jack is supposed to be the underdog, the only lower-class citizen in a team of upper and middle-class scholars who do this sort of thing on a lark, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for him.

Jack is moody, whiny, and, frankly, he acts like a petulant child even though he’s nearly in his 30s.

“I’ve moved to my bunk because Algie is using his collapsible safari bath, and I’d rather not watch. All that wobbly, freckled flesh. His feet are the worst. They’re flat pink slabs, and the second, and third toes protrude way beyond the big toe, which I find repulsive. Gus saw me staring at them, and flushed. No doubt he’s embarrassed for his ‘best pal.’- 78 pg

70% of his narration in the first act is either devoted to giving tongue baths to Gus or berating Algie for even the slight infraction. Granted Algie is kind of a dick, but the way Jack carries on about him reminds me  too much of my high school days when girls started petty feuds with one another for no reason.

In fact, Jack’s whole demeanor is effeminate to the point of irritation. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s gay, or if the female writer struggles writing from a male perspectives.

Speaking of being gay, I thought things were going to get interesting after it became obvious that Jack was developing feelings for Gus. After all, this novel takes place prior to World War II when feelings like this were not only socially unacceptable but illegal as well. Would Gus reciprocate? Would he be disgusted? Considering they would have to live with one another for a year in confinement, this had the potential to brew some real drama. With no societal conventions to keep them apart in this world so detached from the rest of civilization, how would two Englishmen who truly love each other interact? Would their affections survive the harsh climate and high tensions of living in such an inhospitable part of the world?

Don’t worry.

These question are never answered.

Instead of developing the milquetoast character of Gus, the author gives him appendicitis so he and Algie are forced to leave the island.

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Yeah.

Really.

Bet you thought this would be one of those character-driven novels where people start off as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts but develop as the story progresses, didn’t you?

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No, instead we are held hostage by Jack for the remainder of the tale.

I admit he does become more sympathetic as the story progresses. At first he hated the canine companions they purchased for the trip, but he eventually grew to love them and appreciate them for the good-boys that they were. It’s hard to dislike someone who appreciates dogs for the amazing beings they are.

Nevertheless, I would hesitate to say Jack ever truly becomes “interesting.”  The writer had a chance with leaving him alone to delve deeper into his subconscious to see what makes him tick. Instead it’s mostly surface-level information and him making O-face over Gus.

I never felt a sense of urgency on Jack’s behalf either. In The Terror, the crew were constantly in peril, not only from the monster, but also food shortages and rampant illness. Other than been spooked, Jack is fine. Even though he is isolated, he has ample food and supplies to last him over a year. Hell, now that the rest of his expedition team is gone he actually has more. Why am I supposed to be scared again?

….Oh, yeah, there’s a ghost, I guess.

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Personally, I think the spirit’s story was over-explained. Nobody knew his name or his true origins but the fact that we have his motives explained to us kind of takes away from the dread. If they just left him as some vague, malevolent force that communicated through dreams and visions, he would have been more terrifying.

It could have been like a ghost story/mystery where Jack had to piece together what the ghost wanted and why it was there. Or better yet, it could be called into question whether or not what Jack was seeing was actually real or not. They addressed men go crazy in these parts of the world, so why not play with that?

Instead we’re spoon-fed the whole story by ye old trapper guy. It’s not even that unique of a story.

In the end, the ghost really didn’t do much anyway.

By the time he actually started raising cain, I lost interested and was reading purely for completion’s sake.

In the end, Gus dies like we knew he would due to an accident the ghost caused….somehow. I don’t know, it wasn’t explained very well.

Jack and Algie become friends after this tragic event because the story said they did, and the protagonist and his good-boy husky live some semblance of happily ever after.

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Part of me feels guilty for giving this book a poor review. After all this is Paver’s first novel for an adult audience, which might account for its lack of depth. Nevertheless, this book didn’t do anything for me. The plot had a lot of potential, it just didn’t reach it.

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Game of Thrones: Book 1 v. Season 1

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 OF GAME OF THRONES AND MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE BOOKS. 

Good news! I can consider myself a good nerd now that I have finally completed the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

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That being said, I have many thoughts that I am wanting to share on the subject of both the first beloved now maligned TV series and the first book in the timeless saga written by George R. R. Martin.

In this post I won’t be going into the specifics on how the book and show differ necessarily (if you’re more interested in that, then watch this video series by The Dom). Instead, I will be discussing what I think worked best between the two in terms of story-telling.

Points to the show: 

Faces to the names 

George R. R. Martin has unquestionably made one of the most intricate fantasy worlds in existence, rivalling even the likes of J.R.R Tolkien in its density. Its packed to the hilt with lore and customs and people….

….and therein lies one of the issues in Game Of Thrones.

There are too many goddamn people. 

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I tried to read the first book before I started watching the series, but dammit if I couldn’t make it. There were just too many name to remember, too many notes that had to be taken.

It didn’t help that some of the characters had similar physical attributes, making it even more difficult keeping track of who was who.

Wait…is Jorah Mormont this old, white, bald dude, or is he that other old, white, bald dude?”

Converting the written word into a visual format allowed me to put a face to the name and has made my reading experience less confusing as a result.

Cersei

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While in some ways I appreciate the characters in the book more than in the TV show, I think Cersei proves to be an exception to this rule.

Cersei is not a POV character in the first book and so we are only able to see how she interacts with other POV characters a.ka. Sansa, Tyrion, and Ned Stark. While we do get a taste of how nasty and demented she is in the novel, we don’t see her in her more vulnerable moments like we did in the show.

There’s a scene in the first season in particular where Cersei asks Robert if there was ever a chance they could have been happy, to which Robert responds with a heartbreaking “no.”I thought this scene added more emotional depth to Cersei’s character, enabling the audience to see her as something more than just a cackling villainess.

Ned Stark 

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I love Ned Stark in both the novel and in the show. However, Sean Bean’s performance brings much more warmth to the character than existed in the book. For the life of me, I can’t recall a time where Ned laughed or cracked a smile outside of the show. I’m sure it happened, but for the most part he was ever the stoic Northerner, waiting for the next conflict to arise. In the show, there are more moments of levity and he actually lets out a chuckle or two. It makes him look more approachable and gives him sort of a Mufasa-isque quality to him.

Robb and Catelyn’s Grief

In the books, we don’t see how Robb and Catelyn react to Ned’s death immediately after they receive word of it. Instead the story flashes forward to when they arrive at Riverrun, heartbroken but not quite despondent.

In the show, however, there’s a truly  tear-jerking moment where they show Robb futilely hacking away at a tree with his sword and Catelyn going over to console him, promising they will have their revenge on the Lannisters.

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It’s a really sad scene and it shows how deeply Ned’s loss has effected them.

The Music 

This one might be considered unfair because a book can’t have audible music, but it is definitely a point in the show’s favor. The composer, Ramin Djawadi, does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere with his music. I have yet to hear a soundtrack that packs such an emotional wallop. Death scenes, action scenes, emotional scenes. He can do them all.

Those cellos have me swooning every time.

Here’s a free video on Youtube that contains some of the songs from the show. I recommend you check them out here or on Spotify.

Points to the book: 

More Lore 

One of the most obvious draw-backs of visual media is time. With each episode needing to be about 45 minutes or shorter, there isn’t nearly as much freedom to explore the world. I think the show did a pretty decent job cluing in the audience as to how Westerosi society operates, nevertheless, it was always going to be at a disadvantage compared to the book.

Point of View

There are very talented actors attached to Game of Thrones, but there is no substitute for being able to crawl into a characters mind and read their thoughts. The experience of reading is just far more intimate.

In the book, we see so much more about the world and we get small but satisfying tidbits about character’s pasts that make them all the more real. I think some of my favorite inclusions are Catelyn Stark’s ruminations on growing up in Riverrun. They were touching and added more dimension to her character, really driving home how out of control everything has gotten since her youth.

She is an outsider taken to a land much colder and harder than her childhood home. Their climate is different, their customs are different, even their gods are different. Nevertheless, she finds herself having to fight for this alien culture that she has never truly understood.

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More Fantasy

The book is pretty gritty in comparison to the traditional fantasy novel, but there is more of a nihilistic atmosphere to the show than in the book. I think this makes it more palatable for the casual viewer as fantasy tends to be an acquired taste, but I personally like the more fantastical environment the book creates.

Dany’s and Bran’s dreams in particular add a level of sinisterness and foreboding that don’t land quite as successfully in the show. We are shown the dream of Dany walking to the now destroyed remnants of King’s Landing, but there are other seriously messed up things she sees in the book. As for Bran, he has a dream towards the middle of the novel wherein  he has to learn to fly while an endless pile of bones looms below him.

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I can also appreciate the characters aren’t constantly saying “fuck” in the book. It’s not that I have a problem with the word, it just takes me out of the moment. I’m pretty sure “fuck” wasn’t a word in medieval times so when it’s used with reckless abandon in the show, it’s a bit distracting.

Aging down of characters

This might be considered a weird point in the book’s favor, but hear me out. The fact that all the kids are so much younger in the book makes the events that follow all the more tragic.

Can you imagine not even being in your teens and having all your family members murdered? Or, like in Robb’s case, having to take over for you Lord Father after he is held hostage and having thousands of people depending on you to be their leader?

To me, the aging down of the characters drives home the underlying premise of the novel: When we seek to destroy each other, we are also destroying our future a.k.a our children.

Conclusion:

So which do I think is better: the book or the TV show?

I think I’m going to give a cop-out answer and say I don’t know.

There are things I believe the TV show did better and things I believe the book did more effectively. Most of the shortcomings of either are due to their respective mediums and not necessarily a result of incompetence on either side…..

That won’t come until much later.

Normally, I can’t read the book after seeing a film or watching a TV show based on it, however, I don’t believe my having seen the show beforehand hampered my ability to enjoy the book series. In fact, the opposite is true.

So if you haven’t read the books but have seen the TV series, I recommend giving the books a read anyway. There are very well written and will hold your interest regardless if you know what will happen later on.

Spoiler-Free Thoughts on “Drood” by Dan Simmons

Summary: On June 9, 1865, while traveling by train to London with his secret mistress, 53-year-old Charles Dickens–at the height of his powers and popularity, the most famous and successful novelist in the world and perhaps in the history of the world–hurtled into a disaster that changed his life forever.

Did Dickens begin living a dark double life after the accident? Were his nightly forays into the worst slums of London and his deepening obsession with corpses, crypts, murder, opium dens, the use of lime pits to dissolve bodies, and a hidden subterranean London mere research . . . or something more terrifying?

I love Dan Simmons’ The Terror and consider it one of my favorite novels of all time so  I thought I would give this novel about Charles Dickens and the mysterious vampiric figure named Drood a stab.

To sum up my thoughts:

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Based on the summary, you would think the focal point of this novel would be Dickens and his relationship with Drood.

Well….you’d be wrong.

To start, the main character of the novel is not Charles Dickens, but rather Wilkie Collins, real-life writer, contemporary of Dickens and full-time toss-pot.

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This bitch

I love flawed characters but Collins is the most tedious narrator I have ever had to sit through. And coming from someone who used to read a lot of YA, that is saying something.

It’s not enough he’s sexist even for the time period, he’s also a baby and hypocrite with virtually no positive attributes.

Scarlett O’Hara had her indomitable spirit, Holden Caulfield his relatable loneliness. But this guy? There’s nothing worth gravitating towards. When he isn’t suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia no doubt exasperated by his rampant drug-use, he’s a boring douche-bag.

Did I mention he’s a total mama’s boy?

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As for the novel itself, it begins on a hight note when Dickens describes the train accident at Staplehurst that left dozens of people dead and Dickens alive but shaken.

The titular character of Drood, a vampiric figure with horribly mangled features and ambiguous dark powers, is brought into the picture and from there we are left to wonder who (or what) he could possibly be. Is he a vampire? Is he a human with arcane abilities? This is the perfect introduction to such a frighting figure so mired in mystery.

The problem is for a great chunk of the novel Drood is not only absent from appearance but conversation as well.

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me for half the book

The narrator abandons the hunt for Drood for long stretches at a time in favor of going through his and Dickens’ life and their respective professional careers.

While I enjoy historical fiction and learning about famous people of the past, there was at least 100 pages worth of material that should have been cut from the story.

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When the focus is on Drood and his origins, the story flourishes. When it isn’t it’s a mixed bag of mild curiosities and abject boredom.

I, personally, think the novel could have benefited from a split perspective, one following Dickens and the other Collins. That way we could have had the benefit of viewing both characters from the other’s perspective as well as thrown in a red-herring or too.

In Drood‘s defense, there is a pretty satisfying twist at the end. I had a hunch about the direction the story was going, but that didn’t stop me from being impressed by it. That being said, the drama of it was undercut by the main character’s anti-climactic response which, in turn, soured my enjoyment of it.

I guess you can’t have everything.

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I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of weeks now because I’ve been indecisive about whether or not I like this book. While I was engrossed most of the time, there are just as many parts to this story that I don’t like.

The atmosphere is haunting and visceral as any Victorian drama should be, yet the numerous digressions and pit-stops in the plot tempted me to put it down for good.

I suppose if you twisted my arm, I would give this book at 6/10.

It wasn’t a horrible read, but I think it could have been a lot better if an editor had taken the red pen of death to it.

If you are more interested in the life of Charles Dickens (and Wilkie Collins) than the supernatural, then you will likely enjoy this book more than I did. However, if you find yourself more interested in Drood, I would suggest reading something else.

Overall I don’t regret reading Drood, nevertheless, I am hoping my next Dan Simmons book will be a bit more on-point.

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Spoiler- Free Thoughts on “11/22/63” by Stephen King

Summary: Life can turn on a dime—or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in a Maine town. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away…but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke…Finding himself in warmhearted Jodie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten…and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.

The best way I can describe this book is it’s Stephen King for people who don’t like Stephen King. Many of his tropes are in evidence (Maine, alcoholism, dumb rednecks, religious fanaticism, etc), but they are mercifully kept in the background, making their inclusion more tolerable.

I enjoyed the idea of time being like a sentient being that sets upon Jake like white blood cells on a foreign body, throwing unexpected obstacles in his way to change the future. It’s an interesting concept that I don’t think has been done in many novels. We’ve seen how changes to the past have detrimental consequences for the future, but we haven’t seen the past itself as a living organism. It raises a lot of interesting questions about destiny. If the past resists change, does that mean time itself has already been written and we’re doomed to follow one track forever?

I was genuinely on the edge of my seat wondering how King would wrap this whole thing up and, without giving anything away, I was not disappointed.

It is a long book (like many of King’s novels), but it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a big novel. The pacing is always snappy and even the more subdued scenes have a steady forward-moving momentum that makes it seem like everything is in aid of the overall plot and not just an excuse for the writer to lolly-gag.

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However….that’s not to say I had no problems with it.

In fact, there’s one issue that dogged me for a greater part of the novel: Jake’s motivation to stop the Kennedy assassination.

In all honesty, when you look at all the variables….this is actually a pretty stupid idea.

Jake’s hypothesis is that if Kennedy had lived he would have put a stop to the Vietnam War which would invariably save the lives of thousands of people.

Without getting too political,  JFK was objectively a competent leader who did more good in his tenure than harm. However, the question of whether or not Kennedy would have chosen to continue the war had he lived is an on-going debate even today. In fact, many Vietnam historians both left and right of center, believe he would have continued to keep troops overseas regardless of any personal hang-ups he had with the conflict.

Simply put, Jake is banking on a lot–and I mean a lot–when it comes to the potential outcome of saving Kennedy.

Imagine sacrificing six years of you life, virtually everyone you’ve ever met, all modern amenities including medicine, your freedom, and potentially your life, all based on a theory. 

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I might be more willing to buy his dedication if he was a public defender or former military with a checkered past he needed to atone for, but he was an English teacher with a squeaky clean record. It wasn’t as if he had become a jaded post-modern lump that wanted more fulfillment in life either. From what I could tell, he was perfectly content living as a high school teacher in a small town. He really didn’t have a reason to dump his life so quickly, family or no.

I would be lying if I said this ruined my reading experience, but these were thoughts that followed me as I read deeper and deeper and the stakes grew ever higher.

Even as someone who normally does not gravitate to King’s writing, I found this to be a very engaging and entertaining read. I recommend anyone, regardless of literary tastes, give it a try.

It’s suspenseful, dramatic, engrossing and overall good fun.

8/10

I Couldn’t Finish “The Last Unicorn” by Peter Beagle

So spoiler warning, I guess, even though this book was written over forty years ago. 

I usually don’t write blog posts about books I don’t finish but I thought I would make an exception with this one as it hasn’t been since The Magus that I have had such a drastically different opinion from the masses.

I was surprised by the overall positive reviews on GoodReads in regards to this book.

They keep referencing the gorgeous writing style, the wonderful plot, the lyrical prose and the spell-binding metaphors. I’ve read several pages worth of these opinions and I keep thinking…did we read the same book?

In my opinion, the metaphors were usually clumsy at best and downright cringe-worthy at worst.

Molly’s own face closed like a castle against him.”

Um…what?

Does he mean like a drawbridge? Is that what he was going for?

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It was actually one such metaphor that convinced me to put down the book and walk away.

It’s after the gang make it to Haggard’s castle and Molly “put[s]her face in the little cat’s random fur.

What is “random” fur? I guess he was trying to say its fur was patchy, but if that’s the case why didn’t he just say the cat’s fur was patchy?

Another complaint I have against this novel is the hopelessly confusing tone. I believe it’s possible to balance genuine peril and whimsey (most of the staples of fantasy have done so in the past) but the issue is this author doesn’t do this very gracefully, and even some fans of the book seem to agree on this point.

There are obviously humorous moments like when they meet Captain Cully and his motley band of Merry Men wannabes and they are subjected to his humungous ego, but these scenes are usually followed up with something serious happening like the appearance of the Red Bull.

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Then there are the historical anachronisms.

I know these references are meant to serve as jokes, but most of the time they come across as needlessly distracting rather than genuinely comedic. If they were more consistent with these inclusions it would be fine, but they are spread too far apart to to be all that funny.

I feel the same way when they occasionally break the 4th wall and acknowledge they are characters in a fairy tale. While this can be done well, it makes the tone more confusing.

It’s like it’s trying to be a satire of fairy-tales but not wanting to commit to it 100%.

As for the characters, I don’t particularly care about any of them apart from Schmendrick who is bust-a-gut hilarious. He’s essentially Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy balled up into a single person.

The unicorn’s character is undoubtedly the least interesting of the lot. I’m not opposed to an aloof personality, but her motivation to find others like her isn’t all that compelling since she seems to have done well enough without them for ages. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that her main reason for wanting to find them is not necessarily because she misses them as individuals, but rather she thinks of them as extensions of herself because unicorns are total egotists.

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I have been told that she undergoes more character development after she becomes human and learns to regret and stuff but…I wish there had been more instances of people calling her out on her bs.

Instead of being transformed into a beautiful woman for whom anyone would do anything for, she could have been changed into a normal person and have to live with the fact that nobody (except maybe the prince) thought she was anything special. That could have opened up a lot of comedic opportunities.

Molly is…there.

From what I’ve seen so far she’s mainly just tagged along to tag along. When I stopped, she hadn’t done anything integral to the plot yet, apart from have witty banter with Schmendrick. She’s not a bad character so to speak, she just doesn’t really do anything.

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the book at all, there were moments where I was genuinely amused (the part with Captain Cully being one and Schmendrick’s origin story being another). It just didn’t grab me as much as it should have. For all the tongue-baths this book receives, I was expecting something a bit more.

What I got was essentially Shrek without as much charm or heart.

Oh, well.

Back to the TBR list, I suppose.

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Damn you, Outlander Series: Thoughts on A Dragonfly in Amber

WARNING: POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SECOND BOOK IN THE OUTLANDER SERIES, A DRAGONFLY IN AMBER. READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION. 

My relationship with the Outlander series so far is mired by indecision.

There’s so much to adore about these books: the remarkable characters, the rich descriptions, the sexy-fun times, the action-packed storyline that constantly keeps you on your toes.

However, there are also problems with it as well. Problems that are often very difficult to overlook.

For example, the distinct lack of plot that seems to dog each story from the get-go.  Plenty of things happen, mind you, and there is conflict for days. Nonetheless, it just doesn’t always feel as if it is working towards something.

It’ll give A Dragonfly in Amber some credit in that it is a lot better than it’s predecessor at having some direction. The Frasers’ plan to stop Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion counts as a plot…I suppose. Unfortunately, it’s often thrown by the wayside in favor of entertaining weird diversions that have nothing to do with anything. Hell, you could make trading cards out of all the pointless interludes these books dole out: random sword fights, Jamie being dared to piss into a bucket but then being unable to after suffering a trampling by a horse, some argument between Jamie and Claire about him getting horny over some hookers.

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Oh, speaking of Clarice and Jamie.

To add to my list of grievances, there is one exchange between Claire and Jamie that’s a bit too Freud-like for my taste. At one point, Clarice mentions to Jamie that she wishes she could –I’m not making this up, I swear– put him in her womb to keep him safe. 

Let me repeat that:

Claire wanted to put her grown, adult husband inside of her womb to keep him safe.

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Um… I haven’t had an overwhelming amount of romantic entanglements in my life, but that does not seem like a normal compulsion for someone to have. Especially not a compulsion that the layman would voice out loud to anyone for any reason ever.

Not to mention Jamie’s reaction to it is fondness bordering on indifference. Look, I know you’re used to her saying weird shit to you, what with her being a time-traveler and all, but that has to give you some pause, doesn’t it?

Pretty much any  sentence that could be formed in the english language would be less awkward than that one. If she said she wanted to shrink him and put him in her pocket that would be kind of cute. But her womb? Her baby-holder? Her Dutch oven? She wants actually put him in-

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It doesn’t help that they shared a quasi-incestuous moment in the previous novel. When Claire is trying to snap him out of his rape-induced depression, he literally calls her “mother” and she encourages him to come to her bosom and-

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Okay, moving on.

So, Captain Randall should be renamed Captain McGuffin as his only function seems to be to get things rolling again once the story has become stale.

No, really, he shows up everywhere they go: France, Scotland, your closet. I know he’s important since he’s the great-great grandaddy of Claire’s husband, but come on.

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What are the actual odds? They could be sitting on a park bench feeding the birds and all of the sudden weeeep a Wild Randall appears!

Randall uses Creep Attack.

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It’s super-effective!

Bearing all of this in mind, what nice things do I have to say about this book? Well, it kept me guessing, I suppose. Although I already knew they would lose the battle, you know, because the story began with Claire in the future having already been through-

Okay, good things dammit.

Claire’s reactions seemed quite a bit more realistic in this book than in Outlander. When she and a friend are set upon by rapists, she has a breakdown and doesn’t just shrug it off and shag her husband like she did in Outlander. There’s also a reference to when she murdered a 15 year-old soldier who was just trying to do his job, which had previously gone unobserved until this book. I found it pretty disturbing it hadn’t gotten much of a mention before since, you know, she committed murder of a child.

Uh….in spite of the many distractions, the pacing overall was a lot snappier than the previous novel and from the beginning it jumped right into the action instead of lolly-gagging around forever.

As usual, Jamie is wonderful in every way as is his inability to understand modern beauty standards such as waxing your private parts.

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The chemistry between the two main characters continues to be engaging and a joy to read about (at least when they aren’t going full Oedipus on us, that is). Truth be told, I think the story shines the brightest when it’s focusing on their relationship with each other. I appreciate the Bonnie Prince story line for giving these stories a reason to exist, nevertheless, I never found it as enjoyable as reading Claire and Jamie simply being in each other’s company.

Another point in this book’s favor is that Gabaldon doesn’t particularly romanticize the past (apart from, well, the actual romance, of course.) She is unflinching when it comes to describing the horrible living conditions and bleakness that comes with 18th century living. It’s not all fancy dresses and handsome heroes. There’s a sinisterness and hopelessness about it as well. I also appreciate the fact that none of her characters necessarily make it out unscathed. When they aren’t being raped (which happens quite often) they are being tortured, or captured, or dying. The pain they feel is quite real and, unlike in the first novel, isn’t glossed over as much.

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I was afraid after reading the ending of the first book that the horrible torture Jamie experienced at the hands of Captain Jack Randall was going to be brushed under the rug, however, I was pleased to learn that this was not so. Jamie’s experiences still haunt him and has a visible impact on who he is as a person. I’m grateful that his rape had a lasting effect and wasn’t just used as a plot devise to create more tension.

I loved that more of Clarie’s psyche was explored in this novel. In fact, the dream she had about being in Frank’s classroom while he was lecturing may have been my favorite part of the entire book, oddly enough. It just made her seem more three-dimensional as we don’t often hear that much about her past aside from the odd parcel about being raised by her uncle and such. I would actually be interested in reading a chapter or two dedicated to describing a scene that occurred in her formative years or during the War. We get a snippet here or there, but I’m always left hungry for more. We hear quite a bit about Jamie’s past, but not that much of Claire’s.

Overall, I enjoyed reading A Dragonfly in Amber even as I mentally criticized it. There’s just something about Gabaldon’s writing that sucks you in.

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I told myself in the past that I was going to give up on this series, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do so. Maybe it’s the romance, the fascinating historical backdrop, the characters, or Jamie’s sexiness. I don’t know, but whatever foibles this series may have, it’s still a damn enjoyable story and I don’t believe it will be long before I begin the next one.

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Thoughts on “The Terror” by Dan Simmons

WARNING: CONTAINS MILD TO SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK. 

The Terror and her flagship, Erebus, are stranded in the arctic.

Their food source is contaminated.

Sickness is rampant.

Their ships have been ravaged by ice.

And no rescue is expected.

…….Oh, and, also, there’s an immortal polar bear demon that can only be appeased by allowing it or someone else to play another human’s vocal cords like a flute.

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What I liked: 

The characters. I thought Simmons did a pretty stellar job distinguishing between each crew member which is saying quite a bit considering how many characters there are in this thing. As someone who often struggles with remembering who is who in most stories (another reason why I have yet to actually read the Game of Thrones series) his repetition when describing each character and their physical features and rank was very much appreciated. While many other characters could have used a bit more development, I believe he did a good job of making them come alive, especially Crozier, the Captain of The Terror and Erebus‘s Goodsir, the anatomist who remains one of my favorite characters.

The attention to detail. It’s obvious that Simmons did a lot of research with this piece from boat geography, to describing an arctic landscape without just using the word “ice” over and over again, to the ranking system. It’s impressive to read. You actually feel like you’re there, freezing along with them. Before reading this book I had no idea how awful scurvy really is, not to mention the other illnesses the crew had to suffer through. And make no mistake, this book does not skimp out on the gross details or give the dying any sort of dignity. It reports on how they crapped themselves, screamed, bled and farted. While this can be tedious to read it does a fantastic job of conveying the pure hopelessness of their situation which made this piece all the more engrossing.

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Historically accurate attitudes. While it is a bit cringy reading bits where characters go on racist or homophobic diatribes, at the very least I can say that it is historically accurate for that time period and I’m glad Simmons didn’t try to politically correct the characters in order to make them more sympathetic or likable.

Crozier’s second sight. While I didn’t think all of his visions were strictly necessary I loved the reoccurring dream he had where he is forced to partake in communion with his eccentric grandmother. It painted a perfect picture of what was to come and provided the audience with beautifully creepy imagery.

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The surprise ending. I admit I nearly quit reading this book because of the sheer hopelessness of it all. I knew that it real life none of the crewmen survived so watching them furtively cling to life in what essentially would be an exercise in futility seemed like a chore. However, I didn’t give Simmons nearly enough credit and he ended things on a note I had not expected.  Turns out my favorite character, Captain Crozier, survived after all and made a family amongst the natives.

What I didn’t like: 

It’s too damn long. I’m not opposed to slow burns, but this book went on waaaaaay longer than it needed to. I, personally, think they could have cut out maybe 100 to 200 pages or so and it would have been just fine. I actually thought about giving up on this book just because it was such an uphill climb.

Not enough monster. At a certain point in the books, after the crews decided to abandon their ships and go it alone, the monster attacks just…stop basically. And for no discernible reason. I guess it’s because the story would be over with too quickly? I’m not sure but it’s absence is sorely missed and hard to explain. In fact the monster more often than not appears as a sort of McGuffin. If you look at the story itself you wonder if the book even needs a monster at all. It’s not as if the crew didn’t have enough problems already. I mentioned the starvation, the intolerable atmosphere and the spread of illness. Then again, I did like the creature and the mythos surrounding it so I guess I can excuse it.

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Some of the character perspectives are pointless. Not many of them, you understand, but I’m still trying to figure out where Simmons was going for when he wrote the part where one of the oldest shiphand was talking to a former lover of his about the chances of rescue and Darwin and whatnot. It wasn’t a badly written scene or anything, I just don’t see why it needed to be there. Especially when neither of the characters present for that scene had that much of a part to play in the grand scheme of things.

Overall opinion: 

So, in spite of this book’s foibles, I did enjoy it quite a bit and even consider it one of my favorites now. I’m hoping to sample more of Simmons’ work in the future and hope his other pieces are just as entertaining as this one.

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Thoughts on “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK OUTLANDER AHEAD.

Strap in, folks, this is gonna be a long review. Then again this was a long book, so what do you expect?

What I liked: 

The great characters. I didn’t always like Claire, but she always felt like a person and not just a vassal through which the author could carry out the story. Everyone had an interesting backstory and their own distinct personality, which really helped me get into the spirit of the novel. The dialogue was very personalized as well and I was impressed at how each character was able to give lengthy exposition without it sounding too unnatural. I also found that, despite the Game of Thrones level number of characters, it was easy enough to remember who each one of them were because of how unique Gabaldon made them.

The immersive environment. It’s very easy for a reader to lose themselves in this book. The way Gabaldon is able to describe the lay of the land is impressive and I never had any difficulty wondering where exactly these people were or what the environment looked like. What I can appreciate is the environment isn’t just a backdrop, it’s engrained into the story itself.

Sexy times for all. While the romance between Jamie and Claire may have been a bit rushed, what with Claire still having a husband back home, I believe the chemistry between these two is strong. The fact that they’re both well-developed characters helps me care more about their relationship and I think Gabaldon writes sex pretty well. She doesn’t explain so little that you can’t tell what’s happening, but she also doesn’t explain so much that it comes across as mechanical and weird.

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The historical accuracy. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel and as someone who has tried to write historical fiction with mixed results, I can really appreciate her efforts. The details she put into this really help the story come alive, especially when she writes about the environment and costumes people wear. She also doesn’t shy away from describing the abominable odors that persist in these types of places back in the 18th century. I was doubly impressed when she went into details about which herbs to use for healing and how to describe how someone would properly attend a wounded man back in those days.

What I didn’t like: 

The focus was all over the place. I don’t think I would be out of line for saying that this book is by and large plotless. While there are many obstacles that the lead characters run into, there is no centralized conflict. For the most part, the structure of the story is “this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened.” It didn’t ever seem to be leading up to anything. On the one hand it left me guessing as to what would be the final outcome of the story, but on the other hand it made me wonder just what the point of all of this was. This is a shame because there were so many points of interest such as Claire missing the modern world, Jamie’s outlaw status and, I think most importantly, the inevitable doom that is to befall the Highlanders.

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Claire’s unrealistic reactions to killing. The book makes it clear on several occasions that Claire is accustomed to seeing people dying because of her position as a nurse during the War. However, I’d like to point out that there is a huge difference between watching someone dying and actively participating in their murder. In my humble opinion, Claire’s reaction to having murdered someone is disturbingly understated. Granted the person she murdered was trying to sexually assault her, taking a life is an unnatural act and a psychologically stable person would be horrified at having to do so. Especially one who swore an oath to always preserve life in any way she can. I thought they would explore this more after she was forced to murder a 16 year-old in order to save Jamie, but even then she doesn’t seem to feel that guilty about it. What makes this even more difficult for me to swallow is that this boy really didn’t do anything wrong. He was just a young lad who was trying to do his job to the best of his ability. He just happened to be on the wrong side.

It went on for too long. I think much of this can be attributed to the fact that this book lacked a plot so the author just went along with the story until she felt like stopping. While I enjoyed this book, most of this story didn’t actually need to happen in the grand scheme of things and I’m actually shocked at what they left out. For instance, the final battle to collect Jamie from the infamous Scottish prison….happens off screen…….

We spent pages and pages talking about Claire fighting a wolf (a conflict that I don’t believe even needed to exist since it doesn’t contribute anything to the plot), but when it comes to the climax, the great escape, the novel’s main villain dying….it happens off screen…….

There was no reason to cut that part out. There were so many other pointless scenes that could have been scrapped. They did not need to cut the one part that needed to be in there.

I admit, I’ve gone into this fandom totally blind so perhaps Black Jack comes back with a cyborg eye and there will be a real show-down. I don’t know. I’m just judging this book by its own merits.

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What the hell is up with Chapter 39? So the scene where Claire tries to save Jamie’s life after his torture at the hands of Randall while they’re at the monastery….Can anyone tell me what happened in that scene? I think she was trying to rekindle his will to live but…that should not have worked. Mind you, I only have a passing knowledge of psychology when it comes to PTSD related events, but I’m pretty sure forcing a patient to relive a traumatic event literally days after it happened in an uncontrolled environment would not result in a sudden miraculous turn-around in their mental behavior. Particularly when they are at death’s door to begin with. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that should have made him keel over.

Jamie’s torture. I’m gonna be honest, I thought it was overkill. The extent of his injuries and psychological torture should have left him a completely unresponsive husk of a man or dead. At least if this had stayed as true to life as it had been before. One of the most interesting aspects of his torture was left, for the most part, unexplored. While recounting the horror he faced while against Randall, he lets slip that the sight of Claire makes him ill because Randall basically conditioned him so every time he thought about Claire he would either be beaten or worse. In one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the whole book, he tearfully explains that he doesn’t want to see her again because just her being there reawakens all of these awful memories.

Me:

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Wow. That is dark. More than dark, that’s completely and utterly heart-wrenching.

Aaaaaaand after Claire’s Most Awful Idea Ever, he’s totally fixed and ready for some bairn-making.

Ummm……

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There’s no reason why this should have worked. You can’t just undo classical conditioning.

Mrs. Gabaldon, you seem like a smart lady and all, but I don’t think you understand how psychology works. Sadly, once a mind is screwed up that badly, the damage is usually permanent. If not, it takes a looooong time for an individual to overcome it.

I think that Jamie’s aversion to Claire would have made an excellent jumping off point for the next novel and would justify a book of equal length, especially if she found out during this debacle that she was pregnant with his child. Not only would Claire have to deal with the impending slaughter of the Highlanders and the Dragoons looking for Jamie, she would also have to confront the possibility of raising a child in a foreign country in the past alone. That’s more than enough conflict for a book, in my opinion. But instead we get a miraculous recovery from Jamie and they all live happily ever after. At least for now.

Overall opinion: 

I enjoyed reading this novel and I’m more than a little interested in reading the next installment. However, I also believe this book could have been so much better if some things were cut and if the story had been given more focus. It was interesting just watching them go about their daily lives, but I think actually giving it a plot would have raised the stakes a considerable amount.