Tag Archives: Book reviews

The Passage
The Passage by Justin Cronin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is long. Reeeeeeeeally long. Unnecessarily long, and the prose itself often super-bland, even cliche at times.

But this book is also really, really good.

The plot is easy to describe. The story starts in the near future and speeds into the future, where a vampire apocalypse (otherwise known as a plague of virals) decimates North America. We tour the landscape with a fairly well-drawn group of survivors in what at times seems almost like the Waltons meets Mad Max; there’s a lot of focus on characters and family values amidst the scattered post-apocalyptic mayhem.

While I liked the first third a fair amount, I almost didn’t make it out of the sections after that which introduced the Colony. Too many descriptions of what people were dreaming about (I’m looking at you, Chapter Thirty-Five), and Cronin sometimes seems too quick to skip around the really fun parts of the story–you know, the parts where the virals actually attack? I’ve never been so infuriated by a section as I was by The Night of Blades and Stars portion of this book, which was a lot of tedious build-up with the ensuing event barely written about. Cronin goes into great length about how uneasy everyone’s sleep was, but to learn about the event itself, we have to get it after the fact during a town meeting. Unbelievable. I almost stopped reading right there.

But I’m glad I kept going. The second half of the book was a blast, and the end of the book I found satisfying, interesting, and moving. Cronin has structured his story in an unpredictable way–often the chapters and the parts seem almost random in their length–and character lifelines are equally uncertain. How long anything lasts is never a given, and sometimes the narrative itself speeds ahead through years and decades at a time. The novel’s scope is actually epic, and that makes for a lot of interesting reading. And the book’s real standout is the section called The Haven, which culminates in a fantastically gripping sequence involving a train.

And like Stephen King, Cronin’s preference for his characters over his monsters is clear, and on the balance it works. I grew really attached to almost all the people we follow out of the Colony, and after finishing the book, I find that it’s fun to have them living in my head. I like thinking back on the events of the book, and I’ll definitely be reading the promised sequels.

But seriously … this book could be at least 300 pages shorter, and I wouldn’t complain.

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The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How can you tell if you, or someone you know, is a psychopath? Reading Jon Ronson’s superbly entertaining exploration into the way we catalog each other and the benefits and dangers inherent in affixing labels to people, I found myself doing exactly what Ronson describes himself doing the first time he picked up the DSM-IV–I started diagnosing myself and worrying about the contents of my own head. Luckily, by the conclusion, I felt reassured that I was probably fine, but the question remains: if I can’t be sure about myself, how easy is it to be sure about someone else? And what’s the cost of being wrong?

Ronson’s stories and the portraits he presents of the people he interviewed are quite compelling reading. There’s Tony, who is stuck in an institution for violent psychopaths but maintains he isn’t insane and that he claimed to be so only to escape his jail sentence. The trouble is no one believes him, because psychopaths apparently never want to admit they’re insane, too. Then there’s the former CEO of Sunbeam, who may have had a bit too easy of a time firing people, and a man goaded into coming up with insane sexual fantasies by an undercover police officer hellbent on proving he’s a murderer.

As a librarian with a professional interest in the idiosyncrasies of the cataloguing process, I was fascinated to read the chapter detailing the history of the DSM itself. While I don’t follow Ronson all the way down his path, I am overall sympathetic to the point that all systems of categorization are flawed, the people behind them often full of strange prejudice (just look at Melvin Dewey! that guy was a total jerk!), and the application of any given taxonomy to the complicated stuff of life is never an exact science.

But make no mistake — this book is fun reading. I was engrossed and fascinated the whole time, and I adored the enthusiasm and open-mindedness of Ronson himself.

This is some well done pop nonfiction, and I’m definitely going to read The Men Who Stare at Goats. Highly recommend this one.

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The Lottery and Other Stories
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read this collection because I think The Haunting of Hill House is one of the greatest horror novels ever written. The twenty-five stories collected here are not exactly horror, but they’re usually dark enough to suggest that even if creepy things aren’t happening in these rooms, horror is never that far down the hall.

“The Lottery” is still probably the best in the collection, although I might prefer “Flower Garden,” which is a nicely nuanced story about racism in a small town. Other standouts include “Elizabeth,” about a woman realizing her disposability to her boss; “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” which is a fantastic bit of quiet cruelty; and “Renegade,” about a woman who is left to deal with a chicken-killing dog.

Almost all the stories here echo “The Lottery” in their depictions of society strangling the individual. Often, there’s a battle between the city and the town, as well, as Jackson writes quite well about people moving from one population density to another. As someone who grew up in a small mill town in Maine and now lives in New York City, I related to a lot of the troubles some of the characters were having.

While the balance of the stories are well-written and evocative, some others fail to have the punch I think Jackson was intending. “Charles,” in particular, was dreadfully predictable. So, a few gentle points off for that and for some of the other shorter pieces that didn’t work so well, but overall a wonderful collection.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oscar Wilde, defending his own book from its detractors, hailed his own work a classic. I agree. This book is a delight, and certainly one of the best horror novels ever written. Smart, witty, diabolical, and even sometimes charmingly earnest for a book absolutely dripping with irony. The prose is beyond brilliant; Oscar Wilde knew how to turn a phrase. Much of the time, the novel feels like a play, but Wilde’s dialogue, especially that of Lord Henry Wotton, carries these chapters well.

But what a dark journey! A pretty young man wishes on his own portrait that it should age and he should not. And so it happens. Dorian continues living his life–a rather debauched one, it turns out–and the painting suffers all the ill effects. No matter, he locks the hideous thing away and continues on a magnificent downward spiral into doom that leaves no trace.

It is a clever premise, especially as it plays out in scenes such as those when Dorian falls in love with a woman for her success at playing various Shakespearean roles. He falls in love with her as the characters, not as herself. This echoes the earlier love of surface, of Art itself, more than the love of the soul. Funny that Wilde, who was known for being an aesthete early in his life, would paint such a scathing picture of people so in love with Art that it corrupted them completely, but I think there’s more to this book than the simple message that “sin is bad for your soul.” This is a novel of homoerotic betrayal and suppression, where a young man makes a bad choice to chase artifice (Lord Henry, who loves nothing more than to say clever stuff he doesn’t even feel he needs to believe himself) over substance (Basil Hallward, who paints the portrait itself and clearly loves the hell out of Dorian).

More than that, it’s just damn good at being creepy and fiendish. I can see in this everything from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to the stories of Poe to American Psycho to the Last Werewolf. The characters are complex and convincing, the writing is some of the sharpest I’ve ever seen, and the story is a knockout. A great novel!

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The Family Fang
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My favorite book of all time might well be Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, so when The Family Fang opened with a strange family doing odd performances, I knew this book was likely to be up my alley. Kevin Wilson’s debut novel is a quick and easy read and one I really didn’t want to end.

The plot concerns a family of artists, where the mother and father use their two children as props for their real-world artistic stunts, staging elaborate hijinks in the real world to elicit reactions from the unsuspecting public. This lifestyle naturally somewhat traumatizes the kids, who end up feeling like they are always somehow part of an approaching disaster staged by their parents. The four Fangs are delightful characters, though Buster and Annie are the most well-drawn (as they should be, I guess), with their parents seeming almost impenetrable in a way. Wilson has a gift for coming up with often hilarious stunts for the Fangs, and I looked forward to the end of each chapter, where another Fang piece would be detailed.

Sometimes I felt like Wilson was a little less imaginative, or a bit sloppy. Would a barber in Tennessee (or wherever they were) really tell someone he was going to make them look like Jean Seberg from Breathless? Really?! I don’t buy it. Also, there’s a reference to Annie’s boyfriend, a screenwriter, being “quickly on his way to becoming one of the most powerful people in Hollywood,” or something to that effect, which is completely ludicrous. Screenwriters are not, as a rule, powerful, and it seemed like Wilson was writing about a world he didn’t really know that well whenever he wrote about Hollywood. While the ideas for the Fang pieces are genuinely cool, the ideas for the screenplays and movies and video games he writes about are much less convincing. I hated every time I had to read about Fatal Flying Guillotine III, which is a fake video game that really makes the rounds in the book and just reads as a really cheeky invention by the author.

Furthermore, the ending to the story itself seemed way too abrupt and far too easy. I was captivated by the mystery, but the resolution left me wanting more. And I really didn’t like the final chapter, which seemed cheesy to me, almost treacle.

Overall, though, a fun read and an impressive debut.

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Mile 81
Mile 81 by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great story for a quick flight from Logan to New York. I’m not going to say too much about the plot, since the story’s so short, but I’ll say that, once again, it’s the people not the monsters that King draws best. Something bad happens at an abandoned rest stop, do you really need more? Most of the characters meet a terrible fate, and it’s King’s ability to make you care so quickly about them that steals the show. Also, the atmosphere of the abandoned rest stop is outstanding. Loved every creepy detail.

All that said, the “big bad” of the story, to borrow a phrase from the Buffyverse, is laughable. King writes the hell out of it, of course, but it’s still an embarrassing concept. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but I do want to say that there’s a wobble effect described here that seems like King’s trying to describe some really terrible CGI. Two things about that: 1.) when writers start letting CGI color their imaginations, they need to be slapped and told to work harder; 2.) even if you want to let the modern abomination that is Hollywood CGI color your imagination, at least write about expensive CGI. The effect King sells in this story is some Syfy Channel-level work, at best.

Giving this one four stars for being compelling and filled with great details and characters; docking it a star for having a worthless, uninspired (and rather recycled, in terms of the King-verse) central villain.

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The Last Werewolf
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, damn. Here I was, really enjoying this book, until it just … got old fast. The title sums up the plot accurately enough: Jacob Marlowe is the world’s last werewolf, who is being hunted by an international group dedicated to killing occult creatures, but the joke’s on them, because Jake has a bad case of ennui and plans to kill himself, anyway. Think James Bond if James Bond was a werewolf who wanted to kill himself after too many women, too much booze, and too many years on the prowl. The first few chapters were unique and fun, lots of great lines.

But then … ?

The first moment of disappointment came with the first major love scenes in the story. So many good lines, and yet–too many overwrought ones. And the action and story itself I found far too simple and almost entirely predictable. Also, like Jake I found myself not quite caring about what happened. Maybe that’s the problem with having a character who doesn’t want to live.

Story is a bit like a dessert that you start eating feeling delighted by and end feeling like you should’ve stopped ten forks-worth ago, because now it just seems like the worst thing you ever did, eating that cake.

That said, there were too many sentences I loved to give this book any less that three stars.

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Full Dark, No Stars
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Almost a four-star review, but not quite. I enjoyed the stories overall, but I feel like the ideas just weren’t good enough. When I think of the stories in Different Seasons, or Four Past Midnight, or even the Bachman Books, I feel like this collection of four novellas comes up lacking a bit.

The collection start with “1922” — the story of a haunted man and his equally haunted son — begins in unbelievability, wanders into decent horror story territory, and then waddles off into a muttering, clumsy puddle of half-baked plot before whimpering to its conclusion. But hey, some of the details were cool (loved the rats! loved them!), so I wasn’t entirely bored. But I didn’t in the end find much to believe in this one. Might’ve been better as a real short story.

Next comes “Big Driver” — and this one pretty much follows the plot of films like Last House on the Left (itself rented and viewed by the main character) and would have seemed really derivative to me, had it not been for King’s striking ability to write well when the mood suits him. I wound up having a blast with this story, even if I wanted to reject its very premise from the moment I realized what it was going to be about. The conclusion was suspenseful, and if all the stories were as good as this one, I’d probably have given the collection five stars.

“Fair Extension” was absolute garbage, and King should be ashamed of himself for it. This deal-with-the-devil story has the devil go by the name of George Elvid. Yes. That’s right. Elvid. One look at that name, and I wanted to slap King on the wrist.

Finally, “The Good Marriage” continued King’s habit of writing long stories of women alone in a house sifting through their husband’s stuff. This one discovers a nasty secret about her husband. It was interesting, and decent enough, but rather long-winded at times for my taste. Nice ending. Also, though, I feel like this one could have been better as a real short story. There’s a lot of fat on this one.

So I guess I liked half the stories here, barely liked another, and full on mocked another. And yet … it was all so very easy to read and King kept me turning the pages.

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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good, fun reading about cholera breaking out in mid-nineteenth century London and the way two men figured out what was really going on. The central character is John Snow, who fights against prevailing superstition and wrong-headed ideas about the nature of disease. The story of Snow’s research is really fascinating, but Johnson loses me a little in his somewhat unfocused ramblings toward the end. The “epilogue” in particular goes on for quite some time about nuclear disarmament. I mean, I get it, but really? I came here for the cholera story, not Johnson’s thoughts on 9/11. Overall, though, this was a great read.

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Geek Love
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the best books I have ever read, and the horror novelist in me wants to claim it for my own genre. Here’s the slew of adjectives: dark, funny, disturbing, and beautiful. These are some of the best, most perfectly captured characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time with.

The writing is beautiful without getting in the way of the story itself, which rolls forward at a perfect clip. I found myself underlining passages quickly so I could hurry up and turn the page.

And what a story. A novel hasn’t gotten this far under my skin for a long, long time.


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