I’m staying just about on pace for my new year’s resolution of reading a book a month. I got ahead at one point, but between running into a couple of books that were hard to make myself read and other stuff that made me not want to read at all, I slowed back down a tad. I have four reviews here, though I’ll actually be talking about five books. Not that it makes a lick of difference to you, but I’m going in reverse chronological order, starting with the book I just finished. Alrighty then, let’s get to it.
Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn (2006)
I liked Gone Girl quite a bit (though I understand some of the backlash it received) and was curious to see what Flynn’s other work was like. I was not disappointed.
Her debut novel centers around Camille Preaker, a talented-but-not-living-up-to-her-potential reporter living in Chicago, who is sent back to her hellhole hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the murders of two young girls, apparently the work of a serial killer—both girls had some (or all) of their teeth pulled out prior to disposal of the bodies.
Camille is not entirely mentally stable herself, as it’s revealed that she’s a cutter: she takes pleasure from carving words into her flesh, and is fresh off a stint in rehab to try and cure her of her condition. As the story goes on, however, and we meet Camille’s mother, stepdad, and half-sister, we see that Camille may be the sanest one in the family.
Thoughts as a reader: This story is dark. As in, near pitch black. It paints an ominous picture of small town life that gave me the feeling it hit very close to home for the author (who, I know from reading about her, also lived in Missouri). Most—though it should be noted not all—of the characters are really screwed up, which of course makes them interesting to read about. The ending, while I did predict it partially, still made me grin at the sick twist of what happened to the victims’ missing teeth.
Thoughts as a writer: I really enjoy Flynn’s writing voice. It’s easy to dive into her work and lose yourself. Her characters are vivid and easy to picture in your mind. With only three books under her belt (and movie deals for all three books), she has already established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Also, reminding myself that Sharp Objects was her debut is incredibly intimidating as I continue to write and rewrite the story I finally decided on to make my own first novel. It reminded me of when I was first learning to play guitar and thinking I was making some progress, then listened to BB King or Eric Clapton and realized I was only a few steps down this new path, and the masters were so far down the road they were almost out of sight.
My rating: 4 stars
The Haunting of Hill House — Shirley Jackson (1959)
Shirley Jackson is a legend in the literary world. There is even an award named for her given to writers “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.”
Widely regarded as one the all-time classic horror novels and the be all end all of haunted house stories, I was thrilled when I happened to find Hill House at my local library. I thought I owed it to myself as an aspiring horror writer (or maybe more accurately, a writer who occasionally writes horror) to check this book out and read it ASAP.
Hill House is an old mansion with a troubled past. Doctor John Montague is an investigator of the supernatural who rents the house for the summer to see what (if any) evidence can support the legend of Hill House. He and three guests occupy the house and…well, you know. It’s a haunted house story, after all.
Thoughts as a reader: I’m afraid to write this. I want to just come up to you all one by one, look in all directions to make sure the coast is clear, then whisper this to you: I did not like this book. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. Seriously though, I don’t know what to think. This isn’t a very polarizing book that some people like and some people don’t. It is unanimously praised as one of the greatest scary stories of all time. To disagree means you’re stupid or you just don’t get it. I’ll leave it for others to decide on which side of that I fall.
The scares are subtle. Very, very subtle. So subtle they’re not even explained, and sometimes barely mentioned. But that’s not my problem with it. This book lost me before it ever got to the scares. This is a very short book, and by the 50-60 page mark I was pleading for something to just happen already.
Thoughts as a writer: After having it hammered into your head to avoid adverbs like the plauge the majority of the time, it’s a bit distracting to read something that has them peppered in so liberally. One character “stretched luxuriously.” What the hell does that even mean? I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room a lot of the time, but seriously, what is that?
Maybe this book is too understated, too subtle for me. I just don’t know what else to say. I literally fell asleep reading this book. I will almost certainly read it again sometime, just to see if anything strikes me differently the second time around.
My rating: 3 stars (because I’m afraid to give it less, otherwise the writers’ mafia might come see me and I might meet with an unfortunate accident, capiche?)
Double Feature — Owen King (2013)
Another find at my local library. Owen is the youngest son of Stephen King (and brother of Joe Hill), so naturally I was curious.
A novel about a young filmmaker trying to make a name for himself in his B-actor father’s shadow. Sounds vaguely familiar.
This is the only book since I started really reading again that I haven’t finished. It was a little slow (albeit interesting) from the get go, with lots of big words I had to skip over or look up. That’s okay—if you have a big vocabulary, by all means use it; it’s good for me. No, where I finally gave up was about 60-70 pages in, where I encountered something I hadn’t seen before:
A sixteen-page-long paragraph. Sixteen pages. One-six. I knew then I wouldn’t be finishing the book in the allotted 14 day period I had from the library, since it was a “new release.” I know I could’ve gotten more time, but I had also checked out Hill House and was excited to read that. I very well may come back to it sometime.
My rating: Incomplete
Pygmy —Chuck Palahniuk (2009)
I didn’t know anything about this book before I checked it out of the library. I’ve read/listened to audiobooks of three of Palahniuk’s novels; some I liked and some I didn’t, but I would consider myself a fan of his, by and large. Earlier I used the word polarizing—you want polarizing? Here we go.
Pygmy is the tale of a covert terrorist agent from an unnamed country, sent (along with a handful of his comrades) to America under the guise of being an exchange student. He’s 13, a complete genius who has encyclopedic knowledge of science and literature, and is extensively trained in some sort of krav-maga style of martial arts—his entire body is a deadly weapon.
Oh, and did I mention: The entire book is written in broken, ‘foreigner’ English. Some people can’t deal with it; it’s distracting, to say the least.
Thoughts as a reader: I read three pages before putting the book down and saying to my wife, “I’m not going to be able to read this crap.” It kept calling me, though, and the next day I picked it back up and made myself read the first two (very short) chapters. That did it. I knew then that come hell or high-water I would finish this book. And believe it or not, I’m glad I did. It takes some concentration to get into the weird, broken English. (Sample sentence: “Here worship shrine, all male neck must bind around with knotted banner, silk banner knotted at windpipe so dangle two long strands down chest to waistband trouser.” Okay, all the men at church are wearing neck ties—got it.) And why is it that this child genius who knows how to kill people with one finger, build bombs and quote famous authors hasn’t yet gotten a grasp on basic English? You just have to suspend disbelief there, as well as a lot of other places.
And yet, the story managed to get its hooks in me and by the end I almost laughed out loud a couple times. I don’t know if this will make sense, but I felt like I was reading the novelization of an as-yet unmade John Waters movie—characters that were absurdly satirical, and lots of lame sex jokes.
Thoughts as a writer: This took balls. To be honest, I don’t know who has bigger balls: Palahniuk for writing the book, or his publisher for agreeing to put it out. I guess it’s easy to have such testicular fortitude when you’re already a best-selling author, versus some (mostly) unpublished schmuck like me. It may never make my list of best books ever, but I admire the work it had to take to make it happen, and I do have a soft spot for it. And if John Waters ever makes a movie version, I want a producer credit.
My rating: 2 stars (although my view has softened and I’m tempted to bump it to 2 1/2 or 3)
The End of Alice — A.M. Homes (1999)
Another book I had heard a lot about. This one makes me feel weird, in both good and bad ways. I saved this one for last for a reason.
Alice is about a convicted pedophile doing his time in prison while hoping against hope for parole, when he unexpectedly becomes pen pals with a 19 year old girl. She knows who the man is (he is quite infamous because of the crimes he committed against the titular Alice, which is what put him in prison), and confesses to him that she is having similar thoughts about a 12 year old boy in her neighborhood. He is both aroused by the girl’s desires and jealous of the attention the girl gives the young boy. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that the girl serves as a catalyst to make our convict remember things he’s tried to forget while in prison: his primal urges, his penchant for violence, and what ultimately was ‘the end of Alice.’
Thoughts as a reader: If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized by now I’m no prude. Quite the opposite. I actually like stories that are weird, strange, dark, violent, disturbing, you name it. Very few books or movies get a very big reaction from me. That said, The End of Alice made me want to run screaming into a Silkwood shower and scrub myself with a Brillo pad, crying ‘unclean…unclean…’ Yeah. It’s that bad. But it’s good…if you can take it.
There is incredibly detailed description of pedophilia and horrific violence, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. But the thing is, it’s written so eloquently that it sucks you in (again, if you can take it) to the point that you almost start to empathize with this monster. I doubt many of you have seen the movie Happiness, but it reminds me of Happiness if it was written by a sex-crazed version of Hannibal Lechter.
I actually liked this book a great deal, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone because I don’t know many people who could stomach it. If you’re not sure if you can handle it, you probably can’t. If, on the other hand, you can get through the vile acts described in the book, I found it quite good. My only real complaint is that the story was a bit anti-climactic. I thought the story was building toward what was going to happen with the girl and the 12 year old, when instead the climax of the story if finally finding out what actually happened to Alice.
Thoughts as a writer: Again, the balls it took to write something like this. And I hope this comes out sounding the way I mean it to, but I’m astonished this book was written by a woman. I’d love to know what kind of research she did to get in the head of such a despicable, evil person so completely. As sick as it is, I would read this again, even though I half-jokingly wondered once if buying it or checking out of the library put me on some kind of watch list.
My rating: 4 stars
Well, that’s it until the fall book report. I’m currently reading The Ruins by Scott Smith, and despite being intimidated by its size (not to mention having already seen the movie), at 60 pages in I’m beyond hooked.
I’d love to know your thoughts on any of the books above, whether you’ve already read them or plan to go and read them—or avoid them—because of my review. Let me know! Other than that, what about you? Read any good books lately?