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. ūüėõ

Happy October!

 

 

Review: Sleep Donation

Note: A draft went up yesterday instead of the actual review. Many apologies!

20 Books of Summer: Book 9

Karen Russell’s¬†Sleep Donation has all the same problems as¬†Swamplandia! but with a fraction of the page count. Don’t spend your time on this book. Its premise may entice you and the first quarter may draw you in, but the rest is mess of plot holes and weak characters. There’s no closure either, so there isn’t a prize for reaching the last page. This review is a mini So Bad, I Read It For You post and contains lots of spoilers. I would have done a full write up, but I didn’t want to reread Sleep Donation to¬†pull quotes. Summary from Goodreads:

A crisis has swept America. Hundreds of thousands have lost the ability to sleep. Enter the Slumber Corps, an organization that urges healthy dreamers to donate sleep to insomniacs. Under the wealthy and enigmatic Storch brothers, the Corps’ reach has grown, with outposts in every major US city. Trish Edgewater, whose sister Dori was one of the first victims of the lethal insomnia, has spent the past seven years recruiting for the Corps. But Trish’s faith in the organization and in her own motives begins to falter when she is confronted by “Baby A,” the first universal sleep donor, and the mysterious “Donor Y.”

Sleep Donation explores a world facing the end of sleep as we know it, where “Night Worlds” offer black market remedies to the desperate and sleep deprived, and where even the act of making a gift is not as simple as it appears.

Sleep Donation has a strong beginning. Russell writes about fatal insomnia in a terrifying way. Usually, creepy books make me worry I won’t sleep well, but Sleep Donation¬†made me worry I might never sleep again. Russell has long passages detailing the staring eyes of people desperate for rest. The main character, Trish, shares the tragic story of her younger sister’s death again and again to convince people to donate a portion of their sleep. Sleep transfusions are the only hope for the afflicted:

During the early trials of the sleep donation procedure, Gould’s team made an astonishing finding. For roughly a third of patients, full recovery from the orexin-disorder is possible after a single ten-hour transfusion. (Loc 241)

Though it takes a small number of transfusions per patient to cure them, the National Sleep Bank is always running low. As many as 250,000 people are on wait lists for transfusions and no one knows the cause of the disorder. Russell throws in some poetic and well-written theories:

According to these professional Cassandras, sleep has been chased off the globe by our twenty-four-hour news cycle, our polluted skies and crops and waterways, the bald eyeballs of our glowing devices. We Americans are sitting in an electric chair that we engineered. What becomes of our circadian rhythms, the “old, glad harmonies” that leapt through us like the vascular thrust of water through leaves of grass? Bummer news, Walt: that song’s done. (Loc 179)

When the book begins, Trish is camped outside the Harkonnen’s house, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Harkonnen to sign the consent forms that will allow her to draw their child’s sleep. Their daughter, “Baby A,” is a universal donor. Her sleep is free of impurities (nightmares, etc.), but no matter how much she donates, it’s never enough. Whenever the Harkonnens’ worry about possible aftereffects on their daughter’s health, Trish trots out the story of her sister’s death with a lamentation that a single transfusion would have saved her.

Trish’s inner narration hints at a cost to Baby A’s frequent donations, but the risks of donating are never articulated. Instead, there’s a lot of ominous handwringing about what¬†might happen to Baby A. At first, I thought passages like the one below were overwrought foreshadowing, but they’re really teasers for questions the novella leaves unanswered. What happens to Baby A in the end? No idea. However, Trish believes:

…Baby A’s life would have been far better off, I’m certain, if I’d never found her. (Loc 407)

But WHY?

The story takes an ominous turn when Donor Y makes a donation contaminated with a horrific nightmare. It’s such an awful dream that the people infected with it go to extremes to stay awake. Insomniacs at death’s door start refusing transfusions because they’re so frightened of catching Donor Y’s infectious nightmare. What now? It’s one thing for people to choose death over sleep when they know what the nightmare entails, but the people who choose death over the possibility of a bad dream seem a little nutty. Details of the nightmare are kept secret because no one wants the idea getting out and spreading faster (somehow, no one posts it on the Internet). If you’re curious about the nightmare, Russell provides no description of it—nothing could live up to the hype, anyway—but Trish admits the people willing to die rather than have a nightmare are making an unexpected choice:

People are confused by the new taxonomy of insomnia: Wait, these twenty insomniacs make a full recovery in Cuba, they have one bad dream, and they give up on sleep¬†for good? So they are infected with a nightmare; what in God’s name could be so frightening that death seems preferable to sleeping? What are they seeing, at night? (Loc 624)

Through all this, Trish continues to recruit people for donations. The way she whips out her sister’s death, channels her grief, and converts her listeners is mentioned again and again, but it’s strangely hollow. No one responds to her story with one of their own. Given the scale of the crisis, why do so few people have their own tales of loss? Why do they need to hear about Dori before they decide to donate? Isn’t the nature of sweeping pandemics that everyone knows someone affected, if only through gossip in their circle—“A friend of my friend knows someone who died…”¬†Why is Trish’s story so isolating? No matter, though, because it’s an effective story and Trish tells it just right.

Whenever the Harkonnens start waffling on whether or not their daughter’s sleep should be drawn, Trish lays Dori’s story on Mrs. Harkonnen again and it works for a little while. Soon the Harkonnens are fed up with Trish’s relentless begging:

“She thinks that one day you will stop asking.” [said Mr. Harkonen]
“But we will! When the neuroscientists figure out a way to synthesize what she produces naturally…” (Loc 1185)

So that’s the goal: to synthesize Baby A’s pure sleep. Slumber Corps will syphon a little sleep from Baby A’s donations to research/recreate it while parceling out the rest as cures. This is what any reasonable person would assume, right? Even if you haven’t read this book, you know that 1) Baby A can’t cure the insomnia single-handedly because she’ll never produce enough sleep to meet demand, 2) synthesized sleep is the answer, and 3) Slumber Corps can’t synthesize Baby A’s sleep without examining it to see what makes it so special (Baby A is the¬†only universal donor).

With all this in mind, it might shock you as much as it shocked me that the PROBLEM, the HORROR that emerges near Sleep Donation’s climax is¬†when Trish learns Slumber Corps gave some of Baby A’s sleep to a lab in Japan for them to synthesize:

“Their team approached me. They’ll clone her sleep before we manage it, I guarantee it. They are working to make an artificial injection right this second.”
“All that money—”
“Went right back into our organization. Nothing traceable to us, or to the Harkonnen baby. Anonymous donations,” he says smoothly, and I don’t know whether to believe him. (Loc 993)

Well, selling sleep could become a slippery slope. Maybe Trish is right to be worried. How much is being sold?

‚ÄúOnly a portion of her donations has gone overseas. The rest, as you know better than anybody, we‚Äôve distributed in this country.‚ÄĚ
I’m grinding down so hard my jaw is pulsing. An artificial injectable. How much money does he stand to gain, I wonder, if the Japanese team succeeds. (Loc 1001)

But money isn’t Trish’s main concern:

“Look: I took the Harkonnen gift, and I¬†multiplied it. Can you imagine what it will make possible if they synthesize her sleep? In the grand scheme, the benefits that accrue to every living person will be extraordinary.”
My head has been shaking no, I realize, possibly since this conversation began.
“But I’ve been telling her parents that her draws go straight to the National Sleep Bank. That we need every drop of her sleep to save lives—”¬†(Loc 1006)

I don’t think Trish and I are reading the same book… Trish has been telling the Harkonnens that the goal is to synthesize their daughter’s sleep. I know this because she tells them that synthesis is the goal more than once. She calls it “the dream”:

“How far away are we from… from synthesis?” Mrs. Harkonen wants to know.
“Oh, goodness. That’s the dream, isn’t it.” (Loc 1491)

This is the point when I gave up on¬†Sleep Donation. Baby A’s sleep is a finite resource, and who knows how long she will be able to donate? So why not take a few drops and multiply them into a cure? And it’s not like this is my personal solution to this ethical quagmire; it’s also Trish’s perspective. Or, it was, until it was more dramatic for her to be against synthesis. This premise raises real ethical concerns—there’s such demand for Baby A’s sleep that the few drops siphoned away could be the difference between life and death for some people. What a waste that Sleep Donation¬†leaves this completely unexplored in favor of Trish’s objections of “but I promised!” when she has been stringing along the Harkonnens already.¬†What will happen if Baby A’s sleep develops a fault or the family learns the donations harmed her in some way and withdraws consent? Sleep Donation takes place some time in the near future. Perhaps “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is no longer a saying.

So there’s not really a conflict here, just a narrator who would spurn a cure if someone made a buck from it or if she looked foolish. Notice that Trish isn’t concerned that the wrong hands might monopolize the cure and sell single doses for tens of thousands. If she was fighting for accessibility and transparency, she’d have a case. As it stands though, why is she so opposed to some money flowing back to her company? Does she think their donation vans grow on trees? That billboards and TV networks advertise sleep donation from the goodness of their hearts?

Is Trish really going to track down a news crew and say, ‚ÄúBaby A can‚Äôt provide enough sleep so there‚Äôs an international effort to synthesize her sleep so that we can cure everyone! Those MONSTERS!” Maybe if she¬†had done this, the novella might have had an ending instead of just trailing off. A silly ending is still an ending.

I was willing to forgive this lame plot turn because Trish’s thinking is less clear in the last quarter of the book. I thought maybe she was becoming an unreliable narrator and I had a front row seat to the negative effects of too much sleep donation (Trish donates the same amount of sleep as Baby A, per the Harkonnen’s request). But just as I began to consider this a valid (albeit dark) theory, I reached the last page.

So the premise is great, the execution is rubbish, but how is the writing? Well, it’s hard to judge. Some passages are brilliant and moving because Russell has an expansive vocabulary and endless ways to describe insomnia and the wide, staring eyes of the sleep-deprived. Her continuous harping isn’t repetitive so much as immersive—I was genuinely frightened by this sleep disorder. But some of Russell’s more inventive descriptions kicked me out of the book. Consider:

Genevieve murmurs something, softer than orange juice sucked through a straw… (Loc 855)

Genevieve is one of many terrified insomniacs waiting for sedation. She’s desperate and pulls at her skin throughout this scene. Given her sad predicament, it’s sufficient to say she “murmurs.” Clarifying that this murmur is “softer than orange juice sucked through a straw” is one of the stranger bits of writing I’ve seen lately. Russell is straining so hard to be unique she might pull something. As I read this, I jumped out of the story and wondered whether this orange juice was low- or high-pulp. I imagine the amount of pulp would affect the way it sounds being sucked through a straw. (“Some pulp” is delicious, by the way.) Given the intensity of the scene, though, an evaluation of orange juice consistencies should have been the last thing on my mind. There are many passages like this.

Overall: 1.5 This score wouldn’t be so low if the first quarter of the novella hadn’t been so promising. But Trish is incompetent in a bad-story way, not a this-is-a-story-about-an-incompetent-person way. In summary, Sleep Donation¬†has a strong premise/opening, garbled middle, and nonsensical ending. What other book is like this? Oh, right: Russell’s Swamplandia! When I dislike two books by the same author for the same reason, I suspect I would be happier not reading any of their other books. Alas, I have one more book by Russell on my TBR. Third time’s the charm?

Translation: Don’t read it. And, if you read all the spoilers in this review, you don’t have to. You’re welcome!

 

11 to go!

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  2. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  3. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  5. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  6. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  7. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  8. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  9. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  10. The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri
  11. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  12. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  7. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
  8. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

Review: The Bedlam Stacks

Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks moves slowly through its introductory material. After reading the first third of the book, I checked Goodreads to see whether I should continue. Enough reviewers called it a “slow burn” that I stuck with it. At times, all the pretty and overwritten details reminded me of¬†The Night Circus, but¬†The Bedlam Stacks has more plot, more answers, and more interesting mythology. From Goodreads:

In 1859, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall after sustaining an injury that almost cost him his leg and something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather’s pines explode, and his brother accuses him of madness.

When the India Office recruits Merrick for an expedition to fetch quinine—essential for the treatment of malaria—from deep within Peru, he knows it’s a terrible idea. Nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who’s made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is desperate to escape everything at home, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for a tiny mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where a salt line on the ground separates town from forest. Anyone who crosses is killed by something that watches from the trees, but somewhere beyond the salt are the quinine woods, and the way around is blocked.

Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods, and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions; why the villagers are forbidden to go into the forest; and what is happening to Raphael, the young priest who seems to have known Merrick’s grandfather, who visited Peru many decades before. The Bedlam Stacks is the story of a profound friendship that grows in a place that seems just this side of magical.

When I say some details of¬†The Bedlam Stacks are overwritten, I mean that too many small moments are given too much attention. Decent dialogue doesn’t require a description of a character’s tone or gestures after each line. As is, the writing feels very self-conscious, as though Pulley fears being misunderstood. I’m sympathetic because I used to write this way. If one of my characters was going to change their mind over the course of a conversation, I wanted to show their transformation via eyebrow twitches, chuckles, and whatever other facial tics I thought were subtle at the time. I spelled out everything.¬†Unfortunately, sympathizing with this writing style doesn’t mean I enjoy reading it.

Paragraph-by-paragraph, Pulley’s overly-detailed prose is lyrical. It conjures clear images, no easy feat once things take a turn toward the fantastic and magical. But after a few chapters, the unnecessary details snowball into an avalanche. It takes Merrick too long to leave for Peru because he can’t go before encountering some moving statues and exploding trees at home. I think these scenes are meant to be an intriguing taste of what’s waiting for him in Peru, but all they really say is “if this story ever gets going, it might be interesting.” The premise is great, but be warned: You’ll wait a long time for a payoff.

It’s true that I did not enjoy reading The Bedlam Stacks,¬†but some elements are clever. The moving statues kept me reading as did the forest. The forest is full of glowing pollen which leaves trails when disturbed, so it’s home to some spectacular chases. Both the statues and forest benefit from Pulley’s tendency to overwrite because they’re so beautiful, creepy, and interesting that you’ll want the maximum level of detail.

I’m trying to think of something nice to say…but I like tight, concise writing and this book is bursting with the opposite. Pulley’s #1 trick to convey importance/foreshadowing is to add more and more details and repeat them over and over. But maybe she has a point: How can we know cinchona trees are rare/valuable if we aren’t told over and over? How can we know Raphael is unusual if we don’t read about his surprising strength and cold hands a dozen times? How can we know the plot is high-stakes unless it can only be solved via¬†deus ex machina? Wait, that last question raises a whole other issue…

Overall: 2.4 ¬†Everyone loves this book on Goodreads/Amazon so far. Usually, it doesn’t bother me to have a different opinion than most, but it feels icky to criticize a book that was provided by the publisher. However, I feel it’s important to maintain standards on this blog. My favorite bloggers to follow are those with similar taste to mine—when they recommend a book, it’s a safe bet I’ll like it. I assume at least some of my followers stick around for the same reason, so I can’t give overly warm reviews to books I don’t actually enjoy.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury USA (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Punch Escrow

2o Books of Summer: Book 7

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein is another fun discovery via NetGalley. Summary from Goodreads:

It’s the year 2147. Advancements in nanotechnology have enabled us to control aging. We’ve genetically engineered mosquitoes to feast on carbon fumes instead of blood, ending air pollution. And teleportation has become the ideal mode of transportation, offered exclusively by International Transport—a secretive firm headquartered in New York City. Their slogan:¬†Departure… Arrival… Delight!

Joel Byram, our smartass protagonist, is an everyday twenty-fifth century [sic] guy. He spends his days training artificial intelligence engines to act more human, jamming out to 1980s new wave—an extremely obscure genre[—]and trying to salvage his deteriorating marriage. Joel is pretty much an everyday guy with everyday problems—until he’s accidentally duplicated while teleporting.

Now Joel must outsmart the shadowy organization that controls teleportation, outrun the religious sect out to destroy it, and find a way to get back to the woman he loves in a world that now has two of him.

Even though I picked up The Punch Escrow¬†for the teleportation mishaps, my favorite parts of the book were in the details: Joel’s day-job as a “salter” and the various types of AI.¬†Salting:

Every choice [computers] came to could only be based on data and algorithms that had been preprogrammed into them. That’s not to say computers couldn’t get new ideas, but every new idea they got could only come from remixing old ideas, or external input from other computers, or through human input—which is where I came in.

We salters spent our days coming up with arbitrary puzzles that AI engines couldn’t grok. Every time a salter’s gambit was not anticipated by an app, that app got smarter by adding the unanticipated random logic set to its decision algorithm, and the salter got paid. Essentially, I made my living by being a smartass to apps. (Loc 229)

The sassy, back-talking computer is a staple of sci-fi (especially sci-fi that tries to be funny), but it feels more gimmicky than real. The¬†Punch Escrow¬†takes a cleverer approach by showing Joel outsmart apps to teach them nuances of language such as double entendres and humor. Seeing various types of AI (rooms, vehicles, personal assistants) analyze Joel’s requests and wordplay is satisfying. Each responds in its own way according to its programming and function. There is more thought and care in these scenes than I expected from the outset. From the blurb, I worried the book would verge on silly/slapdash as Joel ran around cracking one-liners. Instead, the salting scenes occur naturally as Joel struggles to return to his wife.

Self-described “smartass” characters can either be fun or prompt much eye-rolling. Smartassery is something that must be conveyed through a character’s dialogue and actions; as soon as a first-person narrator describes him/herself as smart, witty, or clever¬†they aren’t.¬†Joel’s braggy nature brings him close to this line, but he became more self-aware just as he approached my last nerve. Once there’s a second Joel running around (“Joel¬≤”), Joel evaluates some of his own personality traits the way an outsider might and draws the same conclusions as the reader. In these self-aware moments, he reminisces about his wife. Given that Joel’s internal monologue carries the book (and there are two of him), other characters drift to the background. Joel’s musings on Sylvia keep her around and develop her character despite her limited screentime. Joel’s overall goal is to find her, and this isn’t a compelling quest unless the reader invests in their relationship.

Some of the early reviews play up the “hard sci-fi” angle, and while The Punch Escrow certainly qualifies as such, it’s not as technical as you might think. Complicated explanations are filtered through Joel’s no-nonsense style, and his analogies make the connections between the science and plot simple to follow. Klein strikes a good balance: there’s enough science to legitimize the story, but not so much that Joel stoops to lecturing. There are philosophical and ethical dilemmas sprinkled throughout, too. Alas, my anti-spoilers policy…

But wait, there’s a tiny nitpick about Joel’s musical tastes:

I’m not a fan of the 1980s nostalgia in futuristic books. It makes sense, intellectually, because there are plenty of people who listen to centuries-old music. There’s a push-pull created when using the 1980s, though. It’s nice to hum along with the character, but 1980s music prompts images of giant boom boxes and bright clothing which clash against sleek, futuristic worlds. I’m not sure why the 1980s stand out in this way; if a character listens to Mozart, I don’t imagine them in a powdered wig.¬†I suspect my knee-jerk revulsion to 1980s tunes in sci-fi is because of Ready Player One and its lists, lists, and more lists of 1980s cultural references. (Btw, I’m timing a SBIRIFY post to coincide with Ready Player One‘s release…) At least Joel limits his 1980s love to a few songs.

Overall: 4.4 ¬†There is one minor issue that might be a plot hole, but I’ve got my fingers crossed it’ll be handled in the other books (a sequel¬†and prequel). (If not, you’ll hear about it then.) The climax is a bit formulaic, but it’ll play well if The Punch Escrow¬†is made into a movie. Quick note on formatting: I’d recommend a print copy over an ebook due to the number/length of the footnotes. Personally, I find it easier to flip around a paper copy than an ebook.

Translation: Read it.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Inkshares Geek & Sundry (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

 

13 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  6. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  7. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  9. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  10. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  11. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  12. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  13. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead