Category Archives: Book Review

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Book Review – Cujo

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1981

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Cujo isn’t really about a killer dog, that’s just something for the cover of the book.  That’s just something to catch the casual reader, or to rope in those King fans who know him for horror and want to be scared again.  But for those looking for something a little deeper, Cujo delivers bucket-loads, metaphor for days, stories under the story that have so much more to share with us than simple chills.  King is the master of the layer cake, something on top to make the money and something below to feed the soul, and it’s that dual talent that makes him such an artist.  Cujo is a shining example of that rare ability, which aids it in reaching the upper level, and shows us just why King is king.

Two couples are going through a major life change, both with young boys watching the struggle and learning what it might mean to be married.  Vic and Donna Trenton seem to have it all together; he’s an ad man, she’s a stay-at-home mom, they’re attractive and relatively young, their four-year-old son Tad is both bright and fun to be with.  Down the road a bit, out in the boonies, Charity and Joe Camber are living a slightly different life, he an independent mechanic, she afraid of the anger of her husband, ten-year-old Brett torn between the parents he simultaneously loves.  As shit hits the fan in their respective relationships, a random event will shake them all to their core; the Camber’s loving Saint Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat, and quickly begins to lose him mind.  Torn between the love he has for his humans and the evil that’s eating him from the inside, Cujo turns to violence, and draws the skeletons of our main characters out of all their closets, exposing their worst fears to the light.

King does so many things so perfectly; setting a quick table, layering on the symbolism, making audiences feel accustomed to his setting, and then scaring us to death.  All his talents are on display here, in one of the best books he’s ever written.  Cujo is so much more than a frightening tale about a rabid dog, and even more than one metaphor about the everlasting power of the monsters in our closets.  It’s about marriage, fidelity, what we pass to our children, what we lie about to ourselves, how we allow others to fool us.  It’s much more sad than it is terrifying, though there is definitely still an element of claustrophobia and terror; we spend a surprisingly small time with and/or talking about the dog, the plot really takes place between the characters and is often aimed at their sons, showing readers where the real points are being made.  I’ve read enough King to know when he was on his game, and Cujo is a prime example of how he can focus an emotion toward an experience with an ease and a skill that’s almost beyond belief.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 


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Book Review – Firestarter

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1980

Firestarter is one of King’s weakest book, and no wonder; it was written smack dab in the middle of The Stand and The Gunslinger, two epic tales that took too much attention to worry about anything that wasn’t connected to The Dark Tower.  It’s a throw-away novel that lacks so much of the magic that King seems to weave so easily, and that’s a big disappointment.  They made a crappy movie version of it anyway, with Drew Berrymore if you remember, not that novels should be judged by their film counterparts; don’t blame the author for taking the money and running.  Firestarter is just a weak story all around, and so can’t be brought into our living rooms in any successful format, because the base simply isn’t there.

Many years ago, when they were in college, Andy and Vicky volunteered for a government drug test where they were given a light hallucinogen and then sent on their way with hard cash.  Seemed a simple thing to do, but the trial bonded the pair, and they would go on to get married and have a whip-smart girl named Charlie.  But the lingering effects of that drug, a substance that the government lied through their teeth about, would change the course of their lives.  Andy developed the ability to “push” the minds of others toward what he wanted, though at a cost to himself.  Vicky began to be able to close doors and move objects, mostly without even knowing she was doing it.  And Charlie, the mutated product of two superpowers, could wield fire, with a stunning ferocity that even she could not control.  Now a secret program wants Charlie as their own personal weapon, and Andy will have to use all of his ability to make sure she stays safe and free.

The foundation might be cool, but the rest of Firestarter never lifts off; it remains cold and grounded despite King’s best efforts to breathe life into its plot.  We get too little of Andy & Vicky and far too much of Charlie in captivity; the best part of the story is the drug, the effects, trying to live a normal life, getting scared, worrying about being watched, heading out on the run.  But that part seems like an afterthought; we spend far too long on Charlie being broken down by an NSA-type government group, where the characters are all evil Deep Throats and insane sadists.  The main bad guy is a giant Native American who loves to hurt people; it’s pretty strange.  King focused on the wrong pieces, and I simply don’t think his mind was entirely on the work at hand, because the entire book felt rushed, pushed, and poorly-executed.  It’s a rare miss for an amazing author; chalk it up to a simple mistake.

My rating: ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – ‘Salem’s Lot

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1975

If you’ve read any of my book reviews, or even some of my movie reviews, you know that Stephen King is my favorite author.  My love for his work and his work itself both go much deeper than simple horror, and that’s why I think he’s such a goddam genius; the scares of the surface lead readers down a dark path to haunting metaphor, with superb storytelling along the way, making masterpieces more common than mistakes.  I recently decided that I needed to figure out which King books I had missed reading, so I made a spreadsheet that some would find exhausting instead of exhaustive, but that I enjoyed building.  He’s written 71 fiction books, I’ve read 43, and now I go along chronologically to fill in the gaps that the other 28 represent.  First up, King’s second ever published work, ‘Salem’s Lot, which is by no means perfect, but shows us what’s to come from a brilliant and twisted mind.

Ben Means is a relatively successful author who, after a personal tragedy, returns to a childhood home to write a new book.  He wasn’t born in Jerusalem’s Lot, but he spent a very impactful period of his youth there, which left him with a nostalgia for the small town and also an unending fear from one night he can’t quite shake.  It involved an old “haunted house”, where a family was once killed, and which now serves as an inspiration for dares among the more rowdy kids.  Ben received quite a fright there all those years back, and so now returns to face his fear, and to be inspired to craft a story from his memories.  But something has changed in ‘Salem’s Lot; a new owner has moved into the dreaded Marsten House, feeding on the evil that once resided there.  Townspeople begin to die at an alarming rate, putting Ben and his new companions in the middle of a war for the soul of the village, and perhaps for the world.

You should know that this is a vampire story, plain and simple.  In later years, King would bend traditional horror standards into his image, creating evil that’s not quite as clean as just a monster that we’ve all heard stories about and know how to kill, making his tales more about the inner evil of man than just the outer evil of devils.  But this is the beginning of his career, he leaned on the crutch of convention a little more than he would later in his tenure as the King of Horror, which can’t be held against him really, but should be known if you start reading this book thinking that you’re diving into a universe of allusion and meaning.  Also, this was the building block for all of King’s little-Maine-town-with-a-big-problem books, of which there are many, as you well know if you’ve ever picked up much of his fiction.  He loves that recipe, it works well time and time again, we’ve read it many times before, but it started here; a young writer, a small town, its amusing residents, its dark secrets.  This was the start of it all, even more than Carrie, and so many would follow, some much better, of course, and never perhaps this raw.  Get ready for vampire visitations, stakes through the heart, love amidst the tragedy, the awesome King/Maine/literature/paper mill/soda pop references we’ve grow to love, just maybe on a slightly smaller and less perfected scale than will surely follow, as even the master learns a thing or two.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – A Place for Us

Category : Book Review

Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza

Year: 2018

Kurt Vonnegut said that what women want people around for is to have more humans to talk to, and what men want people around for is to have more pals.  Vonnegut is a genius, so we should take his word on basically everything, but in this I understand completely what he means and I completely agree.  Women want to talk, men want to hang out, and that subtle difference is exhibited in the books we typical enjoy reading; women want books that give them someone new to talk to them, men want books that give them somewhere new to hang out.  Obviously that’s narrow and maybe even sexist, but I also think it’s generally true, which is what I mean when I say that a book is written for women or written for men; I don’t mean the other simply can’t enjoy it, I mean that it was written from a place of inescapable Vonnegutian Philosophy, that’s all.  A Place for Us is a novel sculpted in the manner of conversation over transportation, which might appeal to one group over another, but ultimately shouldn’t stop anyone from reading, enjoying, and, perhaps, taking away something very special.

We are invited to become temporary members of a Muslim family living in California, even while they go through their darkest times.  Coming from India, and a place of culture and tradition, the family succeeds in finding a community in their new home but struggles to balance the outside way with the way things are run inside their home, made more difficult as their three children grow older and begin to make choices of their own.  Rafiq is the father, a strict man who believes in the value of the old ways.  Layla is the mother, trying to keep a happy home in a place she fears will pull her family apart.  The children are Hadia, Huda, and the youngest, a boy named Amar, who will have the hardest time getting older and making good choices, as he struggles against the bonds of religion and clashes with a father he feels will never understand the strain of being a young Muslim in an evolving America.

This book in an example of storytelling over storymaking, and it’s your job to decide which of those you’d rather read.  Here, we are placed within a family, we watch them change through the years, we see their moments of success and of misery, we begin to understand the difficulties of their journey and why they are the people they have come to be.  It feels very personal, like a true story, and I’m sure much of it is, at least in a sense, and that will be a huge positive for those looking for immersion into a unique narrative, for those who like a book to speak to them as if in conversation.  But for those looking for more, look elsewhere.  The physical writing of this novel is weak, it’s far too conversational and episodic, like it was told off the cuff without much effort to elevate the text beyond speech.  And learning about traditional Indian-Muslim practices was not something I was interested in (for full disclosure, the closest “ism” that describes my beliefs is antitheism), so every italicized term just threw me more off the course of what little plot there was, and made me dread what religious term I had to hear about next.  I will say this though; Part Four, which was from the father’s point of view, and basically read like an open letter to the son, was spectacular.  It summed up everything the book had been trying to say, it made it all much more realistic and emotional, and was almost enough to get me to say that I loved the novel as a whole.  But I didn’t; the majority of it was almost amateurish and sometimes dull, a story being told instead of constructed, when what I typically want is a pulling of my mind into a place that doesn’t exist until it’s written.  Still, I will never forget that ending, one of the best I’ve ever experienced, and pretty much worth the rest of the read, which I never hated, but didn’t enjoy as much as others assuredly will.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Stand

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1978

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it one more time; Stephen King is my favorite author, and I will defend that seemingly unexciting choice by protesting once again that he’s a master of layers, of writing horror for the masses that contains depths for the discerning, which is why the guy is a genius.  There, I’m done, moving on, but it needed said; he’s so much more than simple scares, he’s got real talent that buries itself deep and demands that you work to truly appreciate it, and that’s something I’ve obsessively enjoyed doing over the years.  The Stand was one of the first King books I read, after coveting it on my dad’s shelf before I was old enough, finally getting my hands on it and falling completely in love.

It began with a malfunction at a military base, and ended with the destruction of modern society.  A virus created in an underground lab somehow found its way out, and immediately began spreading across the United States, killing more than 99% of the population, and most likely spreading across the globe as well.  The result is isolated pockets of people in small groups surviving as they can, coalescing to share their stories, and to talk about their dreams.  It seems that good and evil have begun a battle for the soul of the planet, an old black woman calling the righteous to her in Nebraska, an evil smiling man calling the black of heart to Las Vegas.  The line in the sand has been drawn, sides have been chosen, and a battle will be waged for the future of mankind, as a small band of heroes head west across the Rockies to face, if not the Devil, his chosen prophet.

This time around I read the extended edition, which I wouldn’t recommend, because writers have editors for a reason.  It’s true, and the same goes for directors; editors have a huge impact on art, and it is usually their hand that perfects the beautiful.  Without a good edit, so much wonderful content would be bloated beyond recognition, and even though that’s not exactly the case here, I think it’s apparent that King’s book needed a little trimming.  So read the regular cut, and enjoy one of the best epic tales ever written.  Good vs evil, man vs annihilation, the very soul of each human on the edge between hope and hell; powerful stuff.  And the characters are so great: Stu & Frannie, Nick & Tom, Larry & Glen, Harold & Lloyd.  They each are given their time, among so many others, nothing is sped through, you literally live among the plague and make choices along with the rest of the survivors, and by the end you feel like you’re walked every mile with those who sacrifice themselves for the fate of man.  I even like The Stand miniseries, it’s solid, if dated and little too clean, and it’s pretty incredible to think that this was only King’s fifth book, that his whole career was ahead of him, but that he might have already written his most important work.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Rose Madder

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1995

I’m gonna have to do something sacrilegious here and disagree with my favorite author; Steven King thinks that he was trying too hard with Rose Madder and with Insomnia, that they are stiff novels, and most readers agree with him, but I can’t.  At least not fully, because I do think Insomnia is one of his weakest books, even with its ties to The Dark Tower, but I can’t say the same about Rose Madder, even if it’s generally considered Lesser King.  I consider myself an amateur expert, I’ve read enough to say that, and I’ve re-read enough, I’ve connected enough, I’ve dived in deep enough, King is the author I know best, for sure.  And while this book is very different from his others, it also takes the time to paint a very clear picture, one that unsettles more than entertains, which may be, for some, part of the problem.

Rose Daniels is being abused constantly, so much so that she’s begun to retreat within her own head, to stop thoughts of leaving from forming before they even have the chance to emerge, which is part self-preservation and part burgeoning insanity.  Her husband Norman is a cop, a vicious man, a trained dog, always on the edge of violence, and Rose feels fear for her life every day, when she hasn’t shut her mind so completely that she can’t feel a thing.  One day, almost ridiculously spontaneously, Rose decides to leave, walks out the door, and doesn’t look back.  Her new life as Rosie McLendon in a big city hundreds of miles away is moving in the right direction, thanks to a battered women’s group and a young man named Bill, who is everything she never dreamed she’d find, but the happy times are cursed from the start.  Norman is on the hunt, he will run down his Rose, and she will have to face him eventually.  A painting that Rosie finds at a pawn shop and feels a strong connection to will strangely become the weapon to defeat her husband, and the tool to find the strength she always had inside.

So many things.  First, I understand why this isn’t a popular King book, and I can even understand why King himself doesn’t love it; it’s his book, I guess if he says it’s no good, it’s no good.  But I can’t help feeling like there’s a way to “enjoy” this story, that others maybe didn’t find that door, and that that’s the problem.  The abuse story is shockingly unsettling, some won’t even be able to make it past that, and perhaps they shouldn’t try if it all feels too personal and too real.  It’s hard to stomach, painted brightly with no blurry edges around the evil character of Norman, but I think that’s the way it needs to be.  Also, the connection to The Dark Tower is nice, though small, as is the fantasy element of the painting, which is vitally important to the action and I think handled really smartly.  Rose and Bill are awesome, I was rooting for them, and there are so many chapters that are just Norman creeping closer, losing control of himself more and more, until by the end he’s a raving lunatic, and I loved watching that devolution.  Lastly, I think I read this book like I was watching it as a movie instead, and I think that’s why I liked it so much.  It would look amazing on screen, the other-wordly elements would play beautifully, and I know that most King stuff doesn’t adapt well, but I feel like Rose Madder could, maybe in part because it’s not your average reader’s favorite book to curl up with.  It’s uncomfortable, it’s disturbing, but it has real heart and something really important to say, which is why I wish more people would give it more of a chance.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

Category : Book Review

Author: Tad Williams

Year: 1988-1993

Count this trilogy among the best fantasy epics of all time; George R.R. Martin does, it was an inspiration for his Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones, of course, to you TV people who might not know the official name of his book franchise).  Perhaps Williams’ greatest accomplishment with this franchise is its containment, because, although he has written more from this fictional world, this trilogy is a closed book, with one war, one hero, one mission, it’s just spread over three books, and that amount of self-editing is something we should be praising authors for so that they’ll do it much more.  The magic of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is that, while it does focus in and refuses to get distracted, it’s also told from many points of view, has many characters to root for, and a myriad of complicated reasons to stay engaged and to, ultimately, fall in love.

Simon is a kitchen boy who lives in the great Hayholt castle at the center of Osten Ard, a land of kingdoms currently ruled by a High King named John, who has conquered fairly, treated his subjects well, and, on the eve of his inevitable death, is respected and renowned.  As he dies, his sons argue over the throne; Elias is the elder and more militant and will become the overlord, while Josua is solemn, bookish, and won’t contest the succession, although he fears for his brother’s sanity and his rashness.  The evil Pryrates has Elias’ ear and is known to dabble in dark arts, which soon becomes apparent when he makes allies with the undead Storm King, one of the immortal race who once ruled Osten Ard before mankind came with their iron weapons.  Now, with the help of Simon, who finds himself at the middle of the swirl, and many loyal lords, who begin a quest for three legendary swords that just might turn the tide, Josua must pool all knowledge together to combat this rising threat, before darkness takes over the land and Pryrates, with Elias as his puppet, wins once and for all.

I read this trilogy in the 90s, probably right after the last book was written, and it had such an impact on my literary taste that I can’t put it into words; it was on a level with reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, or stumbling across Wheel of Time, franchises that are so amazing that they rise above everything else to live on a cloud by themselves, untouchable and magnificent.  Perhaps this series isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Tolkien’s or Jordan’s, but Williams created something special here, and you should absolutely have it in your life if you’ve ever loved fantasy novels.  It’s so smooth, so seamless, with multiple character viewpoints, multiple offshoot adventures, but all leading back to one climax, one place, one war, wrapped up so perfectly you’ll never read the like again.  That’s something Wheel of Time was not able to do, pare down, so I applaud Williams for controlling himself, it makes a big difference.  The three books are The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower, but they read as one large piece, not different stories, with flawed heroes and incredible villains sprinkled throughout who always have a fascinating part to play in the greater showcase.  Simon is a classic but extremely well-written main contributor, the elf/dwarf/human balance is both cleverly & originally struck, and the action is brutal & adult without ever crossing over into graphic territory.  This trio of books is simply a wonderful and entertaining set of gateways through the imagination of an author to a place that you’d swear was real and don’t ever want to leave; lucky for those of us who love it, we can revisit it any time.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Hunger

Category : Book Review

Author: Alma Katsu

Year: 2018

Historical fiction is a fun genre, so when I saw a recommendation in the genre at my local library that looked interesting I thought I’d give it a try.  The author has only written three other novels, a trilogy, so reading her latest is taking a big chance, but as a history buff I was willing to take a shot.  She turned the Donner Party into horror fiction and that’s pretty cool, but unfortunately her writing talent wasn’t up to par with her idea.  Filled with letters and dates and true life events, the book was still unable to rise above its fabricated pieces and conversations, creating a muddle of mismanaged ideas that are in no way worth your time.

Setting out later than most wagon trains, the Donners and many other families joined together to take the long road West toward California and a new life.  Starting out at the traditional spot of Independence, Missouri, bad luck seemed to dog them all the way, included squabbles and deaths and jealousies and affairs.  A dark presence hovered over the whole affair, and it only got worse as the party decided to take an alternate route across the mountains at the spine of the country, instead of the typical longer way.  Trapped in the upper passes and starting to get hungry, and with legends all around telling of hungry spirits preying upon the weak of heart, order started to collapse, and the rest is history.

This is a stellar idea, taking a real event that we know so little about and fleshing out the details with fiction, especially horror, which works perfectly in this situation.  Is it evil or just mankind, is it nature or an otherwordly force, these are the questions that haunt the wagon train and the reader alike, which I give two thumbs up.  But the rest was crap, I hate to inform you.  The idea might have been strong, but the execution was absolutely terrible, with no sense of what audiences want to experience, or how good stories are told.  The dialogue was stilted, the characters too many, there was no cohesion, plotlines went everywhere, and although we kept returning to real history, which was fine, it felt like two separate tracks heading for a merger at which we’d just crash and burn.

My rating: ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Revival

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 2014

Revival might be the weakest King book I have ever read, and I’ve read my fair share.  I love his style, his immersion, his references, and basically all his stories; he has an unmatched gift that can’t ever be explained.  But Revival is weak sauce, throwaway fiction, without a real point or a strong hook, and it left me feeling like he wrote it in his spare time, not with any real focus.  In fact, this book was written in between King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch), so maybe he quite literally did give birth to this story while he was busy doing other, more important things.  Because it feels like an afterthought, or perhaps a side note, a tale that could have made for an interesting short, but was never made for an independent novel, as it was doomed from the start.

Jamie Morton can’t escape the madness of his childhood minister, Charles Jacobs; the fates of both men have been intertwined for some dark purpose.  As a boy, Jamie looked up to Charles, they were friends even, and the minister shared his love of God with the curious child, as well as his passion for science and electricity, which were his obsessive hobbies.  But when Charles lost his wife and son in an accident, he left his religion behind, and Jamie grew up while growing further & further away from his own faith.  But the two were linked, and as Jamie fell into drug addiction, Charles advanced his experiments with the healing power of electricity, tapping into some other-worldly force to treat the sick, but with an ulterior motive that definitely wasn’t Godly.  Jamie would become an Igor to Charles’ Dr. Frankenstein, the pair playing with fire, all the while knowing that, beyond the veil between life and death, there might be a sleeping evil that won’t react well to being disturbed.

This novel is so convoluted with religion, addiction, trauma, and pseudoscience that it’s hard to wrap your brain around all the themes at once, while also trying to dive into a horror story that’s mostly neither scary nor interesting.  It’s a curious idea, but fleshed out far beyond its breaking point, like The Shining taken down the wrong road and given too many different threads to handle.  And I even felt that King was off his game, ending chapters with phrases like, “But I had no idea everyone around me was about to die”, as if he didn’t have any other tools at his disposal than cheap, college-level fiction tactics.  The entire book read as if it was written by someone on a lower talent tier than King’s usually-sharp standards, and that’s a major disappointment.  I’ve read almost everything he has ever offered, and Revival might be the most phoned in, the least thought through, and the only one without a reason to invest.

My rating: ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Joyland

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 2013

One of King’s simplest novels, and one of his easiest stories to consume, Joyland stays away from deep undertones and gruesome horror, at least to the extend that his other books delve into, and instead reads like pulp fiction, a genre King is constantly referencing and dabbling in, without usually taking the plunge.  Joyland is short for a full novel, flies smoothly by, and offers an enjoyable read, without amazing metaphors and nightmare scenarios, making it one of King’s most broad reaching and perhaps accessible.  I like everything he does, from short stories to full epics, from character studies to gross out gore, so count me in for whatever, but I think this book in particular might be one I could easily recommend, if only because it doesn’t require a devoted fanbase, just a casual audience.

Your first heartbreak can become a moment that imprints itself upon your timeline for the rest of your life, and, for Devin Jones, that melodrama is exactly his current situation.  He took a job at Joyland, a small-potatoes Carolina amusement park, to earn some money in between years of college, but at first he thought that he and his girlfriend would be able to deal with the distance.  But apparently not, because she’s off with another guy, and Devin is left miserable beyond repair.  Or, perhaps, not quite, because Joyland somehow becomes more than just a job, it becomes a home and a way of life, at least for a time, and the people Devin meets there will change his life forever.  When he stumbles upon an unsolved mystery and a young boy with second sight, Devin will have to walk down a dark path toward the truth, but thankfully never quite alone.

King wrote this story as a pulp novel, a crime story, a dime paperback thriller; all the things he constantly talks about but rarely writes.  His books, other than his short stories and novellas, are usually much more deeply involved, but Joyland is a chance to get in and get out, to enjoy a summer with a boy, albeit one that turns deadly rather quickly.  Hey, it’s still King after all, there’s still death and sex and supernatural drama, what did you expect, but the force is toned down, and that’s why I think this novel might be one a larger audience could enjoy.  Devin in a great character, the people he meets are fascinating, and the action is cool; you can’t ask for more from a beach read or a summer thrill ride, whatever you might want to call this genre.  And the book is still written with King’s talent, his mastery for background, and his ability to transport us into a different world in the span of a few pages.  Read and enjoy, just don’t expect The Stand; Joyland is a different beast entirely.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆