Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cluster Critiques

Joyland by Stephen King

Every now and again Stephen King writes a really good book. Joyland, his most recent, isn’t one of those.

The setting is ripe, a carnival and all of the attendant carny creepiness. And, of course, King occasionally drops in a showstopper sentence, like:

“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction,”


“When you're twenty-one, life is a road map. It's only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect that you've been looking at the map upside down, and not until you're forty are you entirely sure. By the time you're sixty, take it from me, you're fucking lost.” 

Set in North Carolina in 1972, Joyland is a murder come ghost come coming of age story, none the telling of which stir the heart, or give goose bumps, which is disappointing because Lord knows King can. But the problem with Joyland, and the reason that I recommend you skip this barely passable paperback, is the characters are characterless. Even the villain isn’t villainous.

It will be interesting to see what King does with his next book, the sequel to The Shining, Dr. Sleep. Redrum Redrum!

Wool by Hugh Howey

We (the public) seem to never tire of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, as if we keep reading about it, it won’t actually happen. When I bought Wool I didn’t buy it because it was sci-fi, I bought it because it came so highly recommended. Of course what I've learned, as the result of many disappointing sci-fi reading experiences, is that sci-fi aficionados read through a different lens than us amateurs.

Actually the story wasn’t bad, and the concept was quite intriguing. A thousand or so people have lived in an abandoned missile silo for so long that no one remembers when they didn’t live there. Earth’s environment is toxic and all that visibly remains are the ruins of skyscrapers in the distant horizon. This miniature of earth struggles with the same issues as always, power, class distinction, law, etc., which eventually result in “ranging against the machine.” The major difference being that it all happens with a 15-story silo. I thought the following description of the story from Emily Ding on the Litro website was good:

This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

To tell you much more would be a spoiler so I’ll just say that Wool isn’t perfect, but it is a better than average sci-fi thriller.

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

I didn’t want to like this book, and I was almost successful. Me Before You started out feeling like a mystery, swerved dangerously towards feeling like a romance novel, and then pulled up just in time to provide a very satisfying ending, a feature that is inexplicably rare in best sellers.

Louisa Clark, a nobody very satisfied to live a nothing life in the suburbs of London for the rest of her life, stumbles over chance and ends up the caregiver to a James Bond-type used-to-be, now paraplegic and really pissed about it, Will Taylor. Over time these two halves make a whole and we enjoy the ride. 

Moyes’ writing is simple, subtle and flows easily over you. The well-paced story keeps you headed in a direction you’re not sure of but sure you want to follow. Read Me Before You before you read anything else.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

OK, OK. I confess. I like true crime, which is a bit of a misnomer because when a true crime book is really good, you’re never entirely sure what is true and what isn’t. Fatal Vision is the nearly endless (945 pages) and relentlessly compelling (I finished it) story of Dr. Jeffery McDonald. He is a Princeton-educated, Green Beret, too nice and too good-looking guy, who over the period of nine years was suspected of, and eventually convicted of, killing his wife and five and two year-old daughters in an extremely macabre and bloody manner. The aspect of the book that made it most interesting to me is that much of it is verbatim-recordings made by the author, McGinniss.

Being the narcissist that he is, McDonald actually hired McGinness to live with him and record everything so that the two of them could publish a book about the murders, investigation and trial following McDonald’s vindication and release.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way, as McDonald was finally convicted and eventually sent to prison for life. McDonald, a very charming and popular guy, to this day has thousands of people claiming his innocence, him being one of them. He still says a bunch of drug-crazed hippies did it.

There are two really scary things about this book, other than the brutal murders of course:

If you think he is guilty, and I do, it is scary how close he came to getting away with it, and it is scary to know that he is being held in a “minimum security” prison in Bastrop, Texas, just 45 minutes from my house.

If you think he is innocent, it is scary because he will spend the rest of his life in prison because he couldn’t prove his innocence.

If you like true crime, you will love this book, and you might just like it even if you don’t.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

At first, the title of this book turned me away. Just as after September 11, 2001, the word “tower” had new meaning, so too does the word “wave” mean something quite different after December 26, 2004.  That was the day that the world as Sonali Deraniyagala knew it ended.  In a matter of seconds she lost her mother, father, husband and two young sons, swept away by the tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people, and nearly took her life as well. That kind of tragedy is too hard to face. I turn away not wanting to know that it could happen to anyone, to me, to you.

But I took a chance on Sonali Deraniyagala, and I am glad I did. With heartbreaking dignity and spare narrative, Deraniyagala made me feel, not sorrow nor pity, but rather extreme gratefulness. Not just grateful it didn’t happen to me, but also grateful for the way the author expresses her astonishment, loss, guilt, sorrow, hate, debasement, love, memories and so much more.

For example, when she grieves less for her parent than for her husband and children she thinks, “How hideous, that there should be a pecking order in my grief.”

Here’s another example. “I can only recover myself when I keep them near. If I distance myself from them, and their absence, I am fractured. I am left feeling I’ve blundered into a stranger’s life.” I recommend that you read Wave because it is a beautiful love story.

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