Mini Reviews (Halloween Edition)

A lot of people ask me to recommend creepy books this time of year. I wasn’t able to do this until recently because I didn’t often read scary stuff. As a kid, I ran out of the room if a trailer for a horror movie came on TV, and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series was almost too much to handle. (I’m pretty sure there was one with an evil ventriloquist’s dummy…) Reading nightmarish stuff the last few Octobers has been fun because this is a genre I’d previously neglected—I thought it would be all gore and jump scares—but it’s full of imaginative writing, memorable characters, and brilliant pacing. This is also the one genre where I almost don’t mind cheesy “and then everything was okay” happy endings because if the monster weren’t defeated at the end I might never sleep again. 😉

So here’s this year’s crop:

(Title links lead to Goodreads pages; this will be long enough without summaries!)

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Overall: 4.0 (of 5.0)
It’s a classic, but I’m not sure it’s aging well. The core story (creating the monster, some of the monster’s experiences, and the final showdown) are solid, but the connective tissue comprises middling philosophy and rampant sentimentality. Everyone in Dr. Frankenstein’s life (except the monster) is the absolute BEST: his friends are paragons of virtue, his cousin/wife-to-be is a shining beacon of goodliness, and his saintly mother dies with a smile lest she upset anyone with her grief. Dr. Frankenstein is a tedious narrator and his self-pity is trying. All his misery comes from his inability to treat his creature with a shred of decency, but what is he to do when the poor creature is just so…ugly?

His words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him, but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred. I tried to stifle these sensations; I thought that as I could not sympathize with him, I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow.” (81)

And check out this hyperbolic whinging after the creature exacts his revenge:

A fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness; no creature had ever been so miserable as I was; so frightful an event is single in the history of man. (112)

Dr. Frankenstein is worse off than anyone in history! Shelley’s use of “creature” here is great, though, since it shows (again) that the doc’s chief fault is a lack of empathy. The sections narrated by the creature are a welcome change of pace, but they soon become too long-winded (impressive for a being that just learned to speak). In a blessing to English teachers everywhere, the creature remains unnamed and students out themselves as not having read the book the instant they call him “Frankenstein.”

– – – – –

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0)
The most surprising book of the month! I saw both film adaptations (the Swedish original and the American remake) circa 2010 and only remembered the basic plot. The book was much more expansive, with a larger cast, more vampires, and more gross-out moments. When I started reading, I didn’t pay as much attention to characters I thought would stay on the periphery (i.e., everyone outside Eli and Oskar’s immediate orbit). Far from being the filler characters they are in the movie, though, many of them have complete story arcs. Eventually, I figured this out and started paying more attention. Once I did, I was impressed.

Let the Right One In has got a little of everything. Lindqvist’s version of vampirism has its supernatural/fairy-tale elements alongside pseudo-sciency bits. Vampires can’t enter a room without being invited, even as the virus that creates them is described more like a medical condition. As in, modern people who catch the virus describe it in medical terms—it’s an old condition described in a new way. This makes for a suprisingly interesting mash-up, something I didn’t even know was missing from usual vampire fiction. There are vampires resigned to their fates, tragic ones, and truly disgusting ones; this range is unusual and leads to a deep and involving story. Be warned though: It’s pretty disgusting.

Note: The pedophilia angle (mostly in the first quarter of the book) was unexpected. If it was implied in the movie I either blocked it out or didn’t catch it. Eli’s relationship with Håkan is symbiotic in a bad way: She knows he’s attracted to children and he knows she’s a vampire. Their exchange of services is nauseating and clearly untenable. I mention this because it isn’t something you’d expect to encounter in a vampire book and it’s incredibly disturbing.

– – – – –

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Still reading…no score yet.
Part of familiarizing myself with a genre means I’ve got to spend time with the classics. I read some H.P. Lovecraft in high school, but his writing didn’t appeal to me. The stilted, old-fashioned language and the weirdness put me off. The King in Yellow has been cited as one of Lovecraft’s influences for the Necronomicon. I’m only halfway through this collection now. While the stories are good, they’re also deeply strange and skin-crawling.

With the exception of one story so far, this collection is structured around an assortment of characters finding the play “The King in Yellow” and going mad. Some are drawn to it, others try to avoid it, but no one can stop reading once they get started. The play itself is never outlined (not yet at least) so it exists mostly in its effect on the characters. Given that the same general plot is explored in each, I was expecting a lot of repetition, but there’s a good amount of variety in the characters so far. Somehow, it’s eerier that a variety of people are drawn to the play, including seemingly normal people. Since this is one of those books that has influenced many others, readers who are more familiar with horror might see these stories as rote and predictable (even I’ve called a couple endings), but they’re well-written and definitely provoke a shiver.

– – – – –

It by Stephen King

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5.0)
Full review here. TL;DR: Great book; great movie.

– – – – –

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

I’m not posting a mini review since The Loney deserves a full one. I’ve read it twice now and can’t make up my mind about it. The brooding atmosphere that comes from two (two!) gothic mansions and a religious mania make it a claustrophobic read, but the warm relationship between the brothers adds some lightness—plus, they give the reader someone to cheer for. The pacing is brilliant but the ending… There’s just not enough information for me to sort it all out. There are a few ways to interpret it, but all open a plot hole. I read The Loney with a couple friends and everyone had a slightly different take on the ending, but no one’s theory answered all questions. There was a loose thread in each that unwound the whole thing. Frustratingly, not enough people have read this little gem, so online chatter is in short supply.

Therefore, I should give this book a high score so that many, many more people read it! But if any one of those people ask me to explain the ending I’ll be at a loss and look like an idiot… My hope is that in pulling quotes for a full review, I’ll figure out the ending. It’ll be like in college where I didn’t figure out my thesis statement until halfway through the paper.

– – – – –

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Still reading…no score yet.
I’m not sure why I thought this book would be creepy. I wanted something with a little sci-fi edge to round out the list. Don DeLillo’s unsettling White Noise is one of those books I had to read for class that turned out to be good. Though I own a couple other DeLillo books, I keep returning to White Noise. I do this sometimes—when I find a book I really like by an author, I’ll stall on their other works in case they aren’t as good. It’s so disappointing when a writer follows up a great book with a mediocre one!

Fear of death is a big theme of White Noise and, while it isn’t scary, the repeated refrain “Who will die first?” is the kind of thing that gets stuck in my head when I’m trying to sleep. Since Zero K digs into dying more directly, I expected the same kind of unsettling vibe. Though many reviews describe this book as funny, the cryogenic facility felt terrifyingly sterile to me. I thought this book was heading into some dark territory (hence its presence on my October list), but I put it down halfway through. I wasn’t feeling a connection to any of the characters and their ridiculously pretentious mode of speaking got to me.

99% of the reason I picked up this book is that I’ve been working on a series of stories about a cryogenic facility and wanted to check out the competition. DeLillo and I have gone completely different directions with our stories, which is really all I wanted from this book.

– – – – –

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0)
This is more of a psychological thriller than a horror novel, but Tom Ripley isn’t someone I’d ever want to meet. I didn’t link to Goodreads because this is a book that’s more fun the less you know about it; spoilers are tough to avoid for this one given its popularity. All you need to know is the barest outline: A wealthy man pays Tom to convince his son to return home. The son, Dickie Greenleaf, has been gallivanting around Europe and his father thinks Tom, a former schoolmate, can push him in a way that family can’t. Tom soon becomes enamored with Dickie’s way of life and doesn’t want to uphold his end of the bargain since it’ll upend the gravy train.

The Talented Mr. Ripley starts slow but builds to a fever pitch. The writing is clever and tight, there are numerous bits of dark humor, and details from the earliest chapters pay off at the climax. Tom’s internal monologue, bizarrely, is simultaneously over-confident and paranoid. It’s such a closely-written, internal portrayal of his mindset that it’s hard to see how this was ever adapted into a film. Even if you’ve seen the film, there’s plenty here for a more unfiltered view of the characters.

– – – – –

Happy Reading!

October TBR

I’ve spent the last two Octobers reading creepy books. The cooler weather makes it feel good to curl up under a blanket and read something scary.

There will be a couple non-scary reviews in October too. I’m behind with NetGalley reviews and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach comes out on the 3rd.

I’ve picked out seven for this month:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I read this back in February and have been sitting on the review. It’s not scary, but seems seasonally appropriate given how Frankenstein’s monster is a common Halloween costume.

 

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I’ve seen both movies—the Swedish original and the American remake—though it’s been a while. I don’t read many vampire books, but this one sounds good. Both movies had some excellent jump scares so I plan to read this with all the lights on.

 

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

I picked this up after the first season of True Detective, but haven’t read it. I tried the first story, but it was weirder and trippier than I thought it would be.

 

It by Stephen King

According to my Kindle, this book is 1,477 pages long. What a doorstop! I wouldn’t have put it on my October list if I hadn’t just finished it because I’m not sure I could fit seven reviews into the month if I had to read 1,000+ page books too. The book is more frightening than the movie; many of the most terrifying/disgusting scenes would be hard to put on film without looking campy/cheap. Still though, if you haven’t seen the new movie—you should.

 

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

The end of this book is strange so it’s been on my reread list since I read it last year. The religious mania in the book creates an uncomfortable, unsettling tone and there are TWO gothic mansions, not just one. That’s twice the fun.

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo

I wouldn’t call the overall story “horror,” but there was one chapter in the middle that made my blood turn cold. I had to set it down and walk away. Zero K taps into the whole fear-of-death thing, though not so obviously as White Noise. White Noise has a repeated refrain of “who will die first” every time the lead character looks at his wife that similarly got under my skin.

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

No ghosts, vampires, or werewolves here—just creepy ol’ Tom Ripley who kills his friend and takes over his life. Yikes.

For some recommendations in the meantime, here are links to reviews from previous years:

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Hell House by Richard Matheson

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Shutter Island by Dennis

Slade House by David Mitchell

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

And don’t forget the most terrifying, skin-crawling vampire book of all time: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. 😛

Happy October!

 

 

Review: She

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 4

I first read She for a British Imperial Lit course when my workload didn’t allow a leisurely pace. The professor was especially keen on well-used/integrated quotes so my first time through this book was a mad rush for themes and quotables. Fortunately, imperialist themes are easy to pick out…

Writing ‘at white heat’, and in the flush of success after the publication of King Solomon’s Mines, Haggard drew again on his knowledge of Africa and of ancient legends, but also on something deeper and more disturbing. To the Englishmen who journey through shipwreck, fever, and cannibals to her hidden realm, She is the goal of a quest bequeathed to them two thousand years before; to Haggard’s readers, She is the embodiment of one of the most potent and ambivalent figures of Western mythology, a female who is both monstrous and desirable—and, without question, deadlier than the male! (back cover of the Oxford World Classics edition)

Some passages in She are very dated, but I don’t expect a book from 1887 to reflect modern sensitivities. That said, I first read She after Conrad’s Lord Jim so it seemed downright progressive by comparison. Haggard has far less talk about the ‘natural superiority’ of British men and She-who-must-be-obeyed (a.k.a. Ayesha) easily winds Leo and Holly, two Victorian gents, around her little finger.

Like all good adventure stories, She follows the fulfillment of a millennia-old quest. Leo, a handsome and learned young man, inherits an iron chest and potsherd that outlines an improbable story written by an Egyptian woman, Amenartas. The story goes that Amenartas was fleeing Egypt with her husband, Kallikrates, when they encountered Ayesha, who wanted Kallikrates for her own. When he rejected her offer of power, immortality, and “love,” she killed him. According to the sherd and its accompanying history, Leo is a direct descendent of Kallikrates and must kill Ayesha to avenge his forebear.

Along with his mentor/father-figure, Holly, Leo decides to follow the path laid out by the relic. They travel to Africa and encounter a cannibalistic tribe. While under attack, they’re saved on the orders of She-who-must-be-obeyed, but not everyone obeys her order to immediately release Leo and his companions. Accompanying Ayesha’s grand entrance is her pronouncement of death upon everyone who failed to heed her command the instant it was issued. Holly entreats her to be merciful, but she explains:

“Were I to show mercy to those wolves, your lives would not be safe among this people for a day. Thou knowest them not. They are tigers to lap blood, and even now they hunger for your lives. How thinkest thou that I rule this people? I have but a regiment of guards to do my bidding, therefore it is not by force. It is by terror. My empire is of the imagination. Once in a generation mayhap I do as I have done but now, and slay a score by torture. Believe not that I would be cruel, or take vengeance on anything so low. What can it profit me to be avenged on such as these? Those who live long, my Holly, have no passions save where they have interests. Though I may seem to slay in wrath all because my mood is crossed, it is not so. Thou hast seen how in the heavens the little clouds blow this way and that without a cause, yet behind them is the great wind sweeping on its path whither it listeth. So it is with me, oh Holly. My moods and changes are the little clouds, and fitfully these seem to turn; but behind them ever blows the great wind of my purpose.” (161)

Unfortunately (or perhaps not, in terms of entertainment value), Ayesha isn’t quite how she presents herself here. In this snippet, she seems to be a grand creature existing on a higher plane. She sees the big picture and can’t concern herself with trifling humans. But, the more time Holly spends with her, he finds that she’s vain and petty. In Leo’s presence, she further downgrades to a squirming schoolgirl with a crush. And the contrast is fantastic! Haggard balances Ayesha between two stages of development: on one hand, she has spent millennia contemplating philosophy, beauty, and language; on the other, she has spent 2,000 years in a cave and her social skills are non-existent.

In Ayesha’s flightier moments, Holly bemoans the weakness of her sex (it doesn’t help that he doesn’t get on well with the ladies back home). There’s low-key sexism at work, but other than her womanish vices, there’s little about Ayesha that’s human. Her long life and departure from social mores means that she acts according to her whims; she’s uninterested in kindness, traditional morality, or the concerns of mortals. So while her connections to humanity are through girlish stereotypes, these flashes of relatability are necessary. Somehow, the first analogy to mind is the way people get very excited when big cats act like house cats. There’s less fear or being mauled when you’re looking at big cat in a box and thinking: “Aww, just like my little cat at home!” When Holly looks at the more human side of Ayesha, he’s less frightened of her for a moment.

Throughout the book, Ayesha consistently has the upper hand. Holly and Leo are reduced to inane babbling in the face of her insurmountable beauty. At times, their compliance to her plans and goals feels overdone. Possible counterargument: Ayesha appears to engage in minor mind control since their affections for her wax and wane according to her wants.

Perhaps my favorite part of the story, however, is when Ayesha leads Holly through a massive network of caves and catacombs of a lost people. These people had the power to preserve their dead exactly as they looked in life. Holly and Ayesha tour long, twisting caves and vast antechambers, musing on the faces of the dead and the tragic end of the city. Their tour culminates with a suitably eerie scene which Haggard pulls off to great effect.

Haggard’s prose is smooth and easy to read. The antequated speech between Holly and Ayesha (“thou seest,” etc.) is a constant reminder that she’s from another age. They converse frequently in Arabic, though she offers to speak in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew (ancient forms of each). It’s not until Ayesha shows some interest in the modern world that Holly and Leo show a flash of fear—Ayesha thinks the Queen of England can be toppled! Oh, to be writing a paper on this book again…

Overall: 4.5  She moves quickly and reads so smoothly that it feels modern at times. The pacing is excellent, building to a fever pitch by the end. The story is strange, as you can already tell, but it’s absorbing. How will Leo and Holly deal with Ayesha when they’re utterly powerless in the face of her beauty??

Translation: Read it.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

16 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  7. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  9. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  10. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  12. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  13. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  14. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  15. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  16. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Review: The Moving Finger

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 1

I’ve been reading the Miss Marple books in order. Even though they’ve all been murder mysteries, the small-town vibe and gossip keep them light. Usually, series with a recurrent investigator feature that character as the lead, but the three Miss Marple stories I’ve read all feature different narrators. Miss Marple has been increasingly far from the action until here, in The Moving Finger, she only makes an appearance at the end.

The placid village of Lymstock seems the perfect place for Jerry Burton to recuperate from his accident under the care of his sister, Joanna. But soon a series of vicious poison-pen letters destroys the village’s quiet charm, eventually causing one recipient to commit suicide. The vicar, the doctor, the servants—all are on the verge of accusing one another when help arrives from an unexpected quarter. The vicar’s houseguest happens to be none other than Jane Marple. (Goodreads)

Jerry is my favorite narrator so far. He’s in the country to recuperate from a flying accident and has a jovial relationship with his sister, Joanna. They’re initially outsiders in Lymstock and Joanna doesn’t immediately get the memo on country dress:

I added: “Your face is all wrong too.”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Makeup No. 2.”
“Exactly,” I said. “If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possible a soupçon of lipstick—not very well applied—and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.”
Joanna gurgled and seemed much amused.
“Do you think they’ll think I’m awful?” she said. (Loc 8022)

The pace of the mystery is slower than in other Christie books I’ve read and the murder victim takes a while to show up. Through the first act, Jerry and Joanna are left to puzzle over anonymous notes which don’t seem terribly threatening at first. Tension builds nicely through these scenes while the reader waits for something to happen. The letters make wild and improper accusations, but they’re so obviously false that everyone’s reaction is to throw them on the fire. For a time, this is the biggest mystery: in a tiny town where everyone knows each other’s business, why would anyone put so much effort into fake secrets:

“There are so many things the letters might say, but don’t. That’s what is so curious.”
“I should hardly have thought they erred on the side of restraint,” I said bitterly.
“But they don’t seem to know anything. None of the real things.”
“You mean?”
Those fine vague eyes met mine.
“Well, of course. There’s plenty of adultery here—and everything else. Any amount of shameful secrets. Why doesn’t the writer use those?” (Loc 8835)

In related mysteries: Why does Miss Marple take so long to arrive? Without her, the case moves along fine. Jerry makes a few deductions of his own and the investigators seem competent enough. Miss Marple’s presence feels tacked on (even though it’s very welcome). I suppose it’s for the best that she’s minimally involved. For her to be centrally involved in each case, all the murders would have to take place in, or very near, St. Mary Mead, which would quickly strain credulity. St. Mary Mead is a lovely, sleepy village; it shouldn’t be awash with corpses. It’s amazing how many TV shows slide into this pitfall—as soon as the “regular Joe” starts investigating murders, bodies turn up everywhere… at weddings, in their favorite cafe, falling from the sky, and so on.

And Then There Were None is still my favorite Christie novel. The Miss Marple stories are more fun, but the solutions have yet to be as satisfying. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple’s explanation verges a bit close to “if everyone is acting according to stereotypes and generalizations, here is the motive for the murder.” There was some of this in Murder at the Vicarage too, but it wasn’t as vexing since Miss Marple could also draw on her first-hand knowledge of her friends and neighbors.

Overall: 4.4  Unexpectedly, I have mixed feelings about Miss Marple’s presence in her own mystery series! She has a great way of making cryptic observations until she’s ready to solve the case, but she didn’t get to do much of that here. Also, the romantic side-plot felt unconvincing. I’m still not completely sure whether it’s entirely comedic or if it’s meant to be heartfelt too.

Translation: Read it.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

19 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  7. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  8. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  12. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  13. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  14. She by H. Rider Haggard
  15. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  16. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  18. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  19. ??? (To Be Determined)