Monday, December 30, 2019

A brief foray into Stephen King

Stephen King's book about the craft of writing had been sitting on my shelf for years.  I can't remember who gave it to me or where I first picked it up, but I decided to finally read it.  I've read a little King here and there, and always been impressed with what I've read - I think he gets so little credit for being a true literary genius, and this book provided incredible insight into all he has done to develop and hone his craft.  Part-memoir, and part-how-to, I wouldn't say this book inspired me to do any writing of my own (King works WAY too hard, I don't think I'd have it in me - not to mention that whole talent part), but it did get me very interested in reading more of his fiction.  And so I did. 

I started with Carrie - and I should preface all of this by saying even though I know the basic story lines of many of King's novels, I have not seen any of the movies they have been turned into (except for Pet Sematary, which I loved and scared the daylights out of me).  Carrie is a teenage girl raised by a hyper-religious single mother who isolates and abuses her daughter, and has left her wholly unprepared to deal with the realities of the world she lives in.  As a result, she is ostracized and teased mercilessly by her high school classmates.  But, of course, Carrie is no ordinary teenager - and between her special powers, and her deep-seated desire for revenge, it's about to be a (pig's) bloodbath. 

From Carrie, I moved on to Salem's Lot.  I had no idea what to expect, but this one was so creepy, I had to keep all my lights on at night after reading it!  The main character, Ben, is a writer who returns to his hometown after 25 years to write a book about an allegedly haunted house in town.  His arrival coincides with the disappearance of a young boy - and the discovery that the boy's brother has turned into a vampire!  The town's residents are quickly being transformed while Ben reunites with old friends to combat the infestation.  The plot is so hokey that you'd think it'd just be campy and fun, but King's writing and storytelling is so intense, that I found myself legitimately frightened!  I knew nothing about the plot of this book before I picked it up, and find it so amazing that he wrote this in 1975, clearly inspired by Dracula, but well before the relatively recent craze of vampire novels - and yet, I have never heard King credited with being any influence on or godfather of the current literature, which I think is just another example of King not receiving the credit he deserves for being such a profound influence on our culture.

Finally, for this time with King, I turned to The Shining, another one that I kind of knew the basic story about from popular culture, but had never actually read or seen the movie.  Writer Jack Torrance takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel.  Located in the snowy mountains, the hotel is closed to visitors during the winter months, which Jack assumes means he will have lots of time to devote to the writing of his new book.  He brings along his wife and young son to stay with him.  While the hotel at first seems like a quiet but idyllic location, Jack's son Danny seems to sense an ominous presence.  As the weeks pass by, the family becomes more and more isolated, until madness (or perhaps something more supernatural) takes over.  This book is so creepy, that after reading it, I decided that I've had enough of Stephen King for awhile.  He is a brilliant writer - and a master storyteller.  But, my tolerance for horror and psychological thrillers is not very high.  I want to keep reading, but I know it's better for my own mental health to stick to happier endings.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Pairs of Mysteries All Around

I love a good mystery- and some bad ones too.

The Drop The Black Box (Harry Bosch #15 & #16) - Michael Connelly: The best thing about Michael Connelly is not that he writes a good detective novel, but that he does it with such speed that no matter when I decide to return to him, he has a new book out there for me!   In The Drop, Bosch finds himself embroiled in a political nightmare when the son of his nemesis, Councilman Irvin Irving's son is found dead and Irving demands Bosch investigate the death.  In The Black Box, Bosch matches the bullet from a current murder to a death nearly 20 years earlier.  In typical Connelly fashion, both books are page-turners with multiple crimes solved (including very cold cases) and internal corruption revealed.

The Girl in the Spider's Web & The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Milennium #4 & #5) - David Lagercranz: Following the death of Stieg Larsson, Lagercranz continues The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.  I read the first novels in the series long enough ago that I can't make a great comparison between the authors, but seemed to me that Lagercranz did a fine job sticking to the basic formula - making the story suspenseful and having the reader pulling for Salander the whole way through.  Like all the others, these involve a little hacking, a little journalism, and a lot of espionage and double crossing. Thoroughly entertaining.

The Girl on the Train & Into the Water: Paula Hawkins: After Gone Girl, I admit I'm a sucker for any book that people tell me is basically like Gone Girl.  And so I picked up The Girl on the Train about Rachel (the girl on the train) who obsesses over the lives of a couple she is able to view from the seat of her commuter train each day.  One day, she believes she sees a crime committed and becomes unhinged in her attempts to prove what she believes she saw.  Rachel turns out to be an unreliable narrator, which I think is not a wholly new phenomenon in literature, but is one that has become more frequently used, and I think can often make a story more fun.  While Rachel becomes more frustrating and unlikeable as the story unfolds, I really enjoyed the twists and turns of this mystery and found it ultimately worth my while (but it's no Gone Girl).  Given my general enjoyment of The Girl on the Train, I was eager to pick up Hawkins's next novel, Into the Water which follows a town following the discovery of a dead woman at the bottom of a river.  I had a very difficult time getting into this book - it may have been that I had too much going on when I read it, but it felt to me that the book itself had too much going on - too many characters, too many narratives, and too much to live up to.  I may try it again in the future, but for now, this one was not for me.

Taylor Reid Jenkins

While I try my best to save money and get the majority of my books these days from the library, I still do derive a great deal of pleasure from visiting local bookstores.  I justify my visits by still buying way too many books, and convincing myself that it's good to support small businesses.  One of my favorite local bookstores is A Great Good Place for Books, where the owner always has a few excellent recommendations up her sleeve.  She introduced me to Taylor Reid Jenkins a couple months back.  I really enjoyed these two, and look forward to reading her other novels soon!

I picked up Daisy Jones & the Six several times in bookstores and just wasn't moved by the subject - sounds like a fictional version of Fleetwood Mac - a charismatic singer in the 70s caught up in drugs and relationships with band members.  I'm just not really a music person and didn't think I'd find it very interesting.  But, then Katheleen from GGP told me I should give it a try, so I went on faith - and I'm glad I did.  The book is told in vignettes of recorded interviews from the various bandmates, producers, and other people involved in the Band, The Six, and revolves around their lead singer - Daisy Jones.  While at times I found myself getting exhausted with the hedonistic lifestyles of the various characters, and their poor decisions, I really enjoyed the way the story was told, and did find myself invested in the characters and caring about how they all turned out in the end. 

Evelyn Hugo is one of the biggest stars Hollywood has ever made, so when she finds herself at the end of her life wanting to tell her story, and she calls a young no-name journalist to write it up, questions and intrigue abound.  As Evelyn's life story unfolds, she reveals the true nature of her seven marriages, and the true love of her life.  I enjoyed the way this book was written - with Evelyn telling her story through each chapter, and then various breaks in between as the journalist's own backstory (not as interesting) came through.  The mystery of the relationship between Evelyn and the journalist was a bit heavy-handed, with Reid trying too hard with cliffhangers and creating a bit of melodrama about what might be revealed, but all in all, I found this to be a very entertaining read, with a lot to think about in terms of who makes it in Hollywood and the price people are willing to pay for fame.

YA/Middle Reader Books

As my children get older, I find that there are more of these titles on my TBR list - because I'm reading to them, I'm trying to get ahead of what they might be reading soon, and because I just generally enjoy books aimed to the 8-14 range (though some YA tend to be more in the 14-17 range it seems, or maybe I have really forgotten what it's like to be a kid!)

Piecing Me Together - Renee Watson: Jade has a bright future ahead - she's one of the few students from her neighborhood attending a fancy private school.  She's been given the opportunity to participate in a youth mentorship program, and she is a talented artist.  But not everything seemingly being given to her seems worth having.  As a young black woman, she feels torn between a world that tells her she should be working hard to leave the place she came from, and feeling proud of her family and her upbringing.  She is caught among many worlds - thinking things are often black and white, but learning as time passes, that there is so much gray in the middle.  She struggles with relative privilege, the intersectionality of race, gender, and class, and learning to find her voice even in a world that wants her to just appreciate what she's been given.  Every chapter of this book had a story in it worthy of discussion.  I'd love to read this book in a book group, but more importantly to believe that young readers are reading it as a part of their curriculum or among their group of friends.

Book Scavenger - Jennifer Chambliss Bertman:  I read this one to my 8-year-old son.  In the vein of Mr. Lemoncello's Library, Book Scavenger centers around the legendary book publisher Garrison Griswold, who is known for his quirky scavenger hunts and games.  Twelve-year-old Emily is his number one fan, and when she discovered a strange book in a San Francisco train station, she is convinced that it has something to do with Mr. Griswold's recent disappearance.  New to town, she befriends her neighbor, James - also a lover of clues and ciphers, to figure out the clues, and avoid the dangerous men who will do anything to prevent them from solving the mystery!  The first in a series, we're looking forward to reading the next installment!

Darius the Great is Not Okay - Adib Khorram:  Teenage Darius struggles with clinical depression.  Instead of being supportive and compassionate, his father shames him constantly and derides him for seemingly not trying to just be better and act "normal."  When his grandfather in Iran falls ill, the family travels to with them.  While Darius finds himself trying to come to terms, not just with his depression, but now with being even more different in another country, he meets Sohrab.  The two play soccer together, and Sohrab allows him to just be.  So much of this book was awkward and painful to read - but in that way, it was so much like coming of age.  As Darius tries to figure out how to trust and lean on a true friend, he also figures out that he has a lot more to offer - himself and the world - than he'd ever believed possible.

The Night Diary - Veera Hiranandani: After her mother dies in childbirth, Nisha grows up with her twin brother, her quick-to-anger father, and her grandmother in India.  Her dead mother was Muslim, but her father is Hindu.  The year is 1947, and the country has just been separated into two- India and Pakistan.  With hundreds of thousands of people crossing borders to avoid the violent conflicts over religion, Nisha's family flees in the middle of the night for a safer home.  Nisha chronicles the confusing journey in her diary - which she addresses to her dead mother.  Through it she attempts to understanding the nature of the conflict between Muslims and Hindus, but also between her father and brother, herself and her lost mothers, and to make sense of the world around her where no one has the time to stop and explain anything.

Friday, December 27, 2019

A Few Quick Entries

With 50 books to update on this blog before the end of the year - I have to keep my summaries quick!  Here's a list of a bunch I read during the year that I enjoyed, but weren't particularly noteworthy (I rarely, if ever, finish a book I hate these days, so anything that makes its way here is usually not the worst!).

Gray Mountain - John Grisham: I'm always a sucker for the latest Grisham novel - I think I've come to have fairly low expectations and to expect them to be formulaic, but I still find myself more often than not quite pleasantly surprised.  In this one, Samantha, a big firm lawyer, is offered the chance to work pro bono for a legal aid clinic in lieu of being laid off.  She finds herself in the heart of Appalachia taking on Big Coal.  This is quintessential Grisham - David v. Goliath - what's a few death threats when you're on your way to exposing corporate greed?  As always, an enjoyable page-turner.

The Silent Wife - A.S.A. Harrison: In the vein of Gone Girl, this psychological thriller tells the story - from alternating viewpoints - of a husband and wife destined for disaster.  He's a cheater, she's vengeful.  Both are determined to have their way, even if it means the other loses their life.  Engaging and creepy - I left all the lights on while reading this one.

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel: For awhile I felt like I was surrounded by the end of the world - from The Road to The Passage, I admit I started to get a little tired of books about abhorrent illness and looters around every corner.  And, so I may have picked this one up already feeling a little exhausted.  Station Eleven focuses on the life of a Hollywood actor, going back and forth in time from his heyday on stage, to many years in the future when a mysterious illness appears to have decimated most of the population.  I enjoyed seeing how the lives of various survivors intertwined - from their pasts and into their futures, but the ominous subject matter left me a little worse for the wear.

Funny Girl - Nick Horby: I absolutely love Nick Hornby. I find him heartwarming and clever, and have enjoyed nearly all of his fiction and non-fiction.  Funny Girl is actress Sophie Straw's journey from latest "it" girl to television phenomenon - and all the quirky characters she comes across along the way.  I don't think I completely bought Hornby's attempt at a female main character, but it was predictably enjoyable.

Fiction Selections

Every once in awhile, I make a real push to read books that have just been sitting on my bookshelves at home for years.  Sometimes I'm left wondering why I ever bought the book in the first place - where was I in my life that this sounded at all interesting?  Other times I love the book so much I kick myself for letting it sit on the shelf unread for so long!  Here's a mix of the latest flurry from the bookshelves:

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier: After The Girl with the Pearl Earring, I never pass up a Chevalier novel when I see it at a used bookstore.  But that's not to say it won't sit on my shelf for awhile.  This book alternates between the present day - telling the story of Ella Turner who upon moving to a small town in France, decides to research her own French history.  This leads to the story of Isabelle du Moulin who lived in the same area more than 400 years earlier.  Of course, the two women are linked in some way, but the detective story that emerges as Ella attempts to find herself through her research is a definite page turner.  I should read a bit more of those Chevalier books on my shelves..

Dreaming Water by Gail Tsukiyama: I've enjoyed a number of books by Tsukiyama, including The Samurai's Garden, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, and The Language of Threads.  I always find her stories engaging and her writing beautiful and straight-forward.  In Dreaming Water, Cate steel grieving the loss of her husband, has to face the fact that her adult daughter, Hana, is dying from a rare disease.  As Cate and Hana come to terms with their pasts and the future they don't want to face, one of Hana's old friends comes back into the picture - and the book explores their friendships and how each one deals with the end in their own way.
In The Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib:  This story asks the question of how accepted into an "American" community a family of immigrants can be - what happens when a tragedy occurs?  Who will take the blame?  How will each member of a family deal with their loss, grief, and isolation?  The Al-Menshawy family immigrated to a NewJersey suburb from Egypt - they appear to be living the American Dream - their own home, stable jobs, and seemingly true friends in their school and neighborhood.  This book explores the painful reality of how much more it takes, both physically, mentally, and emotionally, to find one's place - especially in a place hell-bent on exclusion.