Book Reviews

The Sense of an Ending
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The trouble with this book is that the first third is a blisteringly well-written story of young love while the second two-thirds flies forward forty years and is the blisteringly well-written story about a man writing emails to an angry ex-girlfriend.

The plot concerns Tony, an isolated man in 60s, who is trying to recover the diary of an old friend from an ex-girlfriend, Veronica, who refuses to let him see it. Why Veronica is upset with Tony after forty years of no communication is the novel’s big mystery–and it’s one I found myself quite invested it. Tony wants to figure out why Veronica hates him and overcome her contempt, but searching for answers seems to only further infuriate her.

“You never got it, Tony–and you never will,” she says, and Tony wonders if the key to understanding everything isn’t buried somewhere in his own frustratingly imperfect, shifting memories.

At times, I was reminded of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, insofar as the story’s protagonist is a man with little to do but sit around and find the world endlessly perplexing and inscrutable.

But while I hated the endless drone of Murakami’s book, I really liked Julian Barnes’s book a lot. Maybe because it was tightly focused and had a compelling central mystery that actually resolved in the end. This book was more of a page-turner for me than all the genre fiction I’ve been reading lately. While I was a touch disappointed with the ending (it felt like it relied too heavily on a reveal that I didn’t find entirely shocking, and I was left wondering what becomes of the main character), I was enchanted and moved by the idea that as life progresses and friends are lost, so too is the sense of one’s own history without corroborators needed to give us some sense of our own reality.

Brilliant, and close to perfect, but the ending struck me just a shade too prudish and judgmental.

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Seed by Ania Ahlborn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the story of Jack Winter, who ran away from home when he was a boy to escape a demon he met in a cemetery behind his house. Now that he’s older and has a wife and two daughters, Jack discovers his youngest daughter has been claimed by the same demon he’s been trying to avoid for so long — a demon which may or may not have caused him to do some diabolical deeds when he was a boy.

Seed has a good ending, and it obeys a lot of my own guidelines for horror stories (try to be actually scary, make us care about the characters, limit the involvement of computers and guns and cops, and make your villain as lethal as possible), but the trouble is that the book is mostly stage direction and internal monologues, neither of which proves that interesting (Jack tends to think most about things the narrator chooses not to share with the audience, which is annoying). Also, it’s a little unclear if the demon is inside the daughter or an external presence. (It can be photographed, annnnnd yet it never attacks anyone? Huh? What IS that thing?)

But hey, at least it’s not vampires or werewolves and no one is sparkly shiny! Points for original horror.

I think this would have made a totally badass short story. As a novel, I think it’s stretched way too thin, and there aren’t enough details to keep the prose interesting. There’s also no second act at all, and the story spins its tires forever until the end decides to happen. I like Ahlborn’s sensibilities, but this feels like a warmup to something better.

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Short-Stories by Various
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This small collection of a handful of classic stories proves refreshing, if a touch moralistic. I love Hawthorne’s writing, but his stories I find just a touch too direct. (Don’t lecture me, old man!) My favorite in here is one I hadn’t read before, “The Griffin and the Minor Canon,” which is basically the story of a gargoyle coming to stare at its likeness above a church. Its presence terrifies the villagers, and the further reactions made for interesting reading. Something about that story really works on me.

What I love about this collection is how representative it is of horror stories as literature.

Some bad formatting in this free kindle version frustrated me at times.

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The Day of the Triffids
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stop me, oh-ho-whoa stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: A man wakes up in a London hospital to find no one around, stumbles out into Piccadilly to find the world has gone all apocalyptic while he’s been sleeping.

Yep. Turns out this book was made into a movie called 28 Days Later, among others.

There’s a lot to recommend this book by John Wyndham, which details the attempts to rebuild civilization after a meteorological event renders most of the world blind, leaving them at the mercy of dangerous, scientifically-engineered plants known as triffids, which are tall clumsy things with vicious stingers that now run rampant over a population too sense-deprived to effectively corral them anymore. For one, I liked the author’s vocabulary, and the guy can actually write a nice sentence. For another, I thought a lot of this book was really well-imagined. The details and reactions to the events were nicely convincing, and I adored the second chapter, which discussed the origins of the triffids.

Unfortunately, the book as a whole was perhaps just a little too languid in its pace. It felt cozy and safe most of the time, and I wished that it could have been more exciting. Until very close to the end of the book, the triffids play a painfully minor role, and while it’s interesting that most of the conflict arises from the need to find a solution to meeting the needs of a population that’s gone blind … I just, what can I say, I wanted more triffids. I loved their design, I love the way Wyndham describes them moving with their long stalk swaying nearly comically front-to-back, but it annoyed me how little drama they ultimately provided.

I really want this killer plant book to be scarier. Alas.

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The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Richard Hannay’s been feeling bored with his life in London. Reading the paper one morning, Hannay sees something about a politician he admires, and next thing he knows, he’s conjured an anti-semite out of thin air to spin yarns in his parlor and tell him there is a plot to kill the admirable politician and launch Britain and Germany into war. Luckily for Hannay, this anti-semite is murdered mysteriously, leaving Hannay looking pretty suspicious, so what can he do but become the author’s wish-fulfillment and go on the run and engage in a little international espionage.

By which I mean he runs around in the fields. A lot. He hides in this field. He hides in that field. Some shadowy figures close in, and off he goes, running again.

I much prefer the move version, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. At least that has good music for all the running around parts.

This book is a series of improbable scenes of a man adopting various disguises to avoid detection while he does next to nothing of any import — until the final chapter, where he unravels it all in one of the most ridiculous scenes I have ever read. Seriously. He realizes that the man sitting right in front of him with NO DISGUISE ON is a man he met and had a conversation with a few chapters earlier. And it’s treated like an ah-ha! moment.

Credit where it’s due, I suppose for being one of the first of its kind. Rumor has it this book started the spy genre. If so, I wish they’d had a better blueprint. This is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. It has little resemblance to the Hitchcock film of the same title.

And they call it a classic …

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The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects
The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects by Mike Mignola

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d read the single-issue comic before and always wanted more. This collection of short stories by Mignola (and special-guest story conceived by his daughter) rounds out the experience in satisfying ways.

The eponymous story features the character of Screw-On Head, who is a small mechanical hero under the employ of Abraham Lincoln, sent on a mission to save the world from some ne’er-do-wells. Great writing and artwork, as per Mignola’s usual, abound, although the story itself might be a little bit of a standard-issue MacGuffin-driven yarn.

But the following stories, which feature and expand upon characters and elements of Screw-On Head, are shockingly good. I especially liked “The Witch and Her Soul,” which has the single most beautiful depiction of a “mortal coil” in a story that made me laugh out loud.

All of these are winners, though, and I thought the last piece, which was sort of a coda for the rest of it, depicting objects from the other tales in an atmospheric museum, was so inspiring and effective it made me want to read everything again right away.

This is a book I will cherish for quite some time.

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Fight Club
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read this book for a second time after giving the movie a rest for a few years. The book reads like a fever dream of underground boxing and how-to recipes for making explosives out of soap, sprinkled with just enough self-empowerment rhetoric to give it some philosophical heft. I don’t picture Ed Norton when I read this story of a man who creates an anarchic club that spirals wildly out of his control, but I do appreciate the way the film translated this story into something a bit more streamlined and concrete. I like the first half of the book better than the second, although sometimes Palahniuk’s style reads more like summary than story. The themes are all there; I’m not so sure about the scenes and the drama, which often seem more like incident than meaningful steps along a path. There’s a murder at the end of the book that, in particular, seems to come out of nowhere. And, like any Chuck Palahniuk book, the motifs are repeated a bit too much (if Chuck P. were a band, all his songs would have the same beat). Even so, it’s a fun book, visceral and thought-provoking.

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The Grove
The Grove by John Rector
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There’s potential here–the writing style itself is pretty clean and the setting is evocative enough–but unfortunately this story suffers from a character continually doing the wrong thing for moderately inexplicable reasons. The plot is simple enough: a man, who should be taking medication for some kind of schizophrenic disorder, has gone off the pills. One morning, he wakes up to find his wife gone and a dead body out in his field. He can’t remember the fight with his wife, which apparently was pretty bad, nor can he be quite sure he didn’t murder the teenage girl. He chooses not to report the body, and the rest of the book concerns his modest investigation into what happened to her. I found the choice there hard to take; why, after continually blacking out and being so afraid that you’re doing terrible things, do you not either 1.) start taking your pills, or 2.) turn yourself in? The resolution of the plot also left me cold. The ending was far too simple. I’d love it if there was more adventure in a self-published work; why be so cookie-cutter when you have the freedom to do whatever you like? Still, it’s a short, to-the-point thriller, modest in its goals, and at times effective.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book, about a freshman in high school in 1991 who pines for a pretty senior while discovering drugs, music, and literature, hit so close to home, most of the time it reads like a happier revision of my own life (I was a freshman in 1992 and briefly dated a few juniors, so … close!). I even read most of the same books, including The Fountainhead, and had conversations with adults about them very similar to what Charlie has here. What really drew me into the story, however, was the earnest sweetness of the main character; kinda wish I’d been more like him at the time. Oh well!

Anyway, the story itself can seem a bit like a salad of After School Special topics (domestic violence, child molestation, date rape, drug and alcohol abuse, homophobia — the list goes on and on!), written in a decent imitation of J. D. Salinger (although Charlie’s so much less of a dick than Holden), and while I appreciate the craft of writing a young voice, the bland rhythm of a young voice can get tedious after a while. It also detracts that every single beat of some subplots are predictable (the gay romance subplot, for example, holds few surprises). There are a lot of good-natured observations about life here, but they’re all a little bit obvious for this reader. Even so, I have to admit that it was a pleasure to read something so refreshingly well-meaning and good-natured, after all the other tortured stuff I’m usually reading.

Something so gallantly irony-free could only be set in the early 90s, and it made me miss those days a little bit. I just wish it had dug a little deeper and tried to get a little bit more out of the shadow of The Catcher in the Rye.

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Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book because I just got out of a really long relationship with a George R. R. Martin novel and wanted something fast and super-entertaining and thoroughly inappropriate. Snuff in all ways fit the bill.

This book really made me feel gross most of the time I was reading it, but I loved the experience. Palahniuk throws out more fake porn film names and euphemisms for jerkoff than I think anyone really needs to, but I still love the energy.

This story takes place while 600 men stand in a room, waiting for their chance to go on camera as part of a record-breaking gang-bang porn film. There are five main characters, men #72, #137, and #600, as well as the female talent wrangler Sheila and the pornstar herself, Ms. Cassie Wright. I found all five to be interesting, well-drawn characters, and I loved the character revelations. There were a lot of surprises.

But what I most liked about this book was the way it made me feel about flesh and how we treat our bodies. There’s a lot of sex/death comparisons, but I simply can’t shake the disgusting way Palahniuk relates condoms to bowls of junk food (there’s a table full of junk food, and a bowl of condoms, which … well, I’ll let you take it from there).

And then there are the fun facts, or “True facts”, as they are called here, which are top tier. Seems most of these characters have a Palahniuk-like love of the random bit of amazing trivia (such as that Hitler invented the blow-up doll, which blows my mind in so many ways). Loved it all. These tidbits are worth the read all on their own.

But at the end of the day, I think this might also be one of Chuck Palahniuk’s sweetest novels, as well as one of his most icky. Really liked it.

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