The BOJ Quarterly Book Report: Spring Edition

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more. I set a goal for myself of at least 12 books this year; I thought that was attainable without stretching myself too thin. So far I’m right on pace with my book-a-month goal—in fact, I seem to be picking up a little steam as time goes on, maybe building my reading muscle back up(?), so I might even exceed it. Time will tell.

I toyed with the notion of writing reviews for each book on GoodReads as I read them, but so far I’ve yet to pull the trigger on that (and BTW, if any of you are on GoodReads feel free to look me up and send a friend request—I don’t do much except rate books as I finish them, but lord knows you can’t have too many friends on social media, right?). Then I thought about a recap of all the books I’ve read at the end of the year, but then I thought I wouldn’t even want to write anything that long, why would anyone want to read it? So I came up with a new plan, to do a few at a time; quarterly seemed to make the most sense, at least for the time being. I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with this format, but for now I’m just going to go with it. The star ratings are what I gave them in GoodReads.

 

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NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (2013)

I’d been wanting to read some of Hill’s work for a while, and when Amazon had a sale on the e-book I couldn’t resist.

Victoria “Vic” McQueen is a fairly normal little girl. Until, that is, she jumps on her trusty bicycle. With it, she has the ability to ride onto a rickety old bridge (that was actually demolished years earlier) and use it to transport her to different places, helping her “find” things—and people—that are lost.

Someone who shares a similar gift is Charlie Manx, a vampiric old man who gets powers from children. He abducts kids and takes them to “Christmasland,” a surreal land from which there is no escape for the now soulless children. Vic encounters Manx as a child and manages to escape his clutches, upon which he is locked away until he seemingly dies. But with a little help Manx is let loose upon the world with revenge on his mind, and his eyes set on Vic’s son.

Thoughts as a reader: A great, original idea that’s a little anti-climactic. Despite it’s length, there are leaps in time from Vic’s childhood to adulthood where a little more detail might have been nice. Still, a really good book.

Thoughts as a writer: I really liked Manx; he reminded me almost of a modern-day Freddy Krueger, in that he was terrifying but had a twisted sense of humor. He also had a very distinct way of speaking—I found it a little distracting at first, but it grew on me by the end. Most of the characters were well fleshed out, except for Vic’s son Wayne.

4 stars

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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (2012)

If you’re a writer, you most likely already know of Chuck Wendig. If you’re not, you’ll probably know about him soon enough. Author of god knows how many books and the Picasso of profanity, Wendig’s website, terribleminds.com, is a wealth of knowledge no writer should do without. It was high time I read something other than his blog, and Blackbirds, being the first in a series, seemed the obvious choice.

Miriam Black has the unique ability to be able to see how and when you’re going to die. All she needs is the briefest of contact—a handshake, the brush of an elbow in passing, anything—and she can see how and when you’ll meet your demise. She uses said gift to get by in a less than scrupulous manner, when she meets a man who knows her secret and blackmails her into going deeper, trying to get more and more, and a trucker who, through one of her visions, she can see will die in thirty days, calling her name. She is drawn into a world of criminal heathens who don’t care if she lives or dies, and must rely on her wit to make it out alive and try to save her new trucker friend.

Thoughts as a reader: A short, fast-paced, and original story. It was a lot of fun to read and I have the sequel ready to go for the near future.

Thoughts as a writer: Wendig isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but he clearly knows of which he speaks on his website. His writing crackles with energy and the story is tight. There were some cut-away chapters of Miriam being interviewed that seemed almost like filler to get the story to novel length, but other than that, no complaints.

3 stars

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Bag of Bones by Stephen King (1999)

I didn’t realize until after I finished this book just how well-liked it is. With someone who puts out as many books as King does, he has quite a variety of fans: there are the ones who still think of him as a horror author and don’t like anything else; those who don’t like the horror but enjoy the more literary works; and the sci-fi/fantasy crowd that love his Dark Tower books. As I read reviews on GoodReads, it seemed that this is considered one of his best “literary” books. And while not horror, it is spooky and does have some truly horrific goings on.

Mike Noonan is a successful writer who lives in Maine (hmm…sounds familiar) when his wife dies suddenly of a brain aneurism. It takes Mike a long time to start picking up the pieces and try to move on with his life—he does so by deciding to spend the summer at the lake house he and his wife had as a vacation home in a small town. Once there, a chance encounter introduces Mike to Mattie Devore, a young widower, and her daughter Kyra. Mattie is fighting for custody of Kyra against her father-in-law, a mega-rich old man who rules the town and can buy pretty much anyone/anything he wants, and is used to getting his way.

Thoughts as a reader: I thought it was really slow off the mark, taking a good 60-70 pages before anything happened (besides the death of Mike’s wife, which happens right off the bat). Once Mike gets to the lake house it does pick up and get more interesting, and there are some neat developments. It’s a good book, and I can see why some people (who don’t care for his horror novels) might hail it as one of his best. I wouldn’t quite go that far, as I’m not one of his “horror only” fans, but I do like a bit more in the scare department. Some of the scares here, especially toward the end, seemed a little hokey to me.

Thoughts as a writer: Is this book ever the lesson of Chekov’s Gun—the idea that something introduced in a story must come into play later on. If memory serves correctly, there is literally nothing in the story that doesn’t mean something and help resolve things toward the conclusion. I really enjoyed/appreciated that aspect of the book.

And while those first 60 pages or so seemed slow story-wise, as a writer they were very interesting, as he detailed what life was like as a famous author—the pressures put on him by his agent and publisher; the marketing strategy as to when they would release his books; how that can all get derailed by another famous author releasing a book out of their normal schedule (damn you, Mary Higgins Clark!); and, perhaps most interestingly, how when he was on a hot streak he wrote book after book and stashed them away, so that when he was crippled by writer’s block after the death of his wife he was still able to produce books on schedule for four more years. I assume most of that is pretty much true, which just goes to show once you “make it” you still have plenty of pressure on you to perform.

3 stars

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Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard (1988)

One of the coolest things about having a pretty good sized library of books is that you can go through them and find books you either forgot you had or don’t even remember acquiring. The latter was what happened with Bag of Bones—I still have no idea where that book came from—and the former is what happened here. A few years ago my wife bought me about 8 or 10 Leonard paperbacks (always the good wife, love you honey!) and I thought I’d read them all until I moved some books around and saw there were two or three I’d forgotten about. Despite the horrendous-looking cover seen above, I picked this one.

The story starts with a bang, literally, as we meet Detective Chris Mankowski, who as the story begins is leaving the Firearms and Explosives division  for a job in Sex Crimes. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Robin, a former radical/activist in the sixties, and Skip, her old flame and partner in crime who took his talent for making things go boom and got a job in Hollywood as a stuntman and explosives coordinator. Robin convinces Skip that the time they spent in jail in the sixties was thanks to two brothers: Mark and Woody Ricks, who since the hippy days have inherited a boatload of money and are now filthy rich. Robin has a plan to get some payback (and payment) from the Ricks brothers and needs Skip’s help to see it through. As with most Elmore Leonard stories, things don’t go according to plan.

Thoughts as a reader: Classic Elmore Leonard. Aside from Greta Wyatt, the woman Chris meets when she comes into the Sex Crimes unit to file a report on Woody, every major character has an angle and is looking to score. Robin and Skip’s plan changes almost right away before starting to unravel completely, but it never feels contrived or forced. For these (mostly dimwitted) characters, everything that happens seems perfectly plausible. King will always be my favorite writer, but Mr. Leonard’s books give me a certain satisfaction when I finish them that not all of King’s books do.

Thoughts as a writer: Good god, where to start? The dialogue. The characters talk in a natural way, which I’ve realized is hard to pull off. It’s really difficult to have a character talk like a normal human being without it sounding forced or corny. He really is the master. Also, his advice to writers about leaving out the parts that readers would skip? This is a good example of that. It’s a pretty short book, but the story is tight—there’s no need for any more. One final note, I really have to give the man credit—I don’t know how many other writers could pull off having a character named Juicy Mouth.

4 stars

As you can probably tell, I’ve been staying well within my comfort zone as far as author and subject matter go. I’d like to expand my horizons, so to speak, but I’m not really sure which way to turn. So, as corny as this sounds, have you read any good books lately?

Stephen King’s A Bit of a Tweeker

I was doing some what I heard once called AFTK (away-from-the-keyboard) writing the other day—some of you may just call it ‘spacing out’—and as I thought about a particular story idea, I realized I needed a certain type of minor supporting character. As luck would have it, I had already created such a character for a different story that would fill the role nicely; the two stories were set in the same town, so it was perfectly plausible. I thought that was neat, having a little thread connecting two stories. Then I started thinking, and realized that I’ve either already done that or had planned on doing it in almost all my longer stories.

I know they were conscious decisions on some level, but it was never anything I really put a lot of thought into. It’s not just a little easter egg to myself (or my eventual readers, someday), there’s some actual benefit to it. Once you create a character you like (and manage not to kill them off), it makes it a little easier to put them into a story because you already know them. Their backstory, their attitude, the way they talk. It provides a depth that new characters may not possess until they’ve been developed a lot further.

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I’ve been thinking about Elmore Leonard a lot lately. I just started reading his book Freaky Deaky, and for the story I’m working on right now I’m trying to shoot for a Leonardian (did I just make up a word?) vibe and wanted some inspiration. Mister Leonard has also happens to have quite a few intertwining characters throughout his world of cops, crooks and cretins. It adds an interesting layer of depth to his stories if you happen to know the characters from other books.

Then there’s Stephen King.

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I’d heard once that a lot of King’s characters wove their way through his stories, so I decided to check it out for myself. It’s enough to make your head spin. I honestly don’t know if there’s a single novel of his that doesn’t cross over with another in some way. Not even just characters themselves but relatives of characters. King has created entire family trees in his universe, even going so far as writing himself into his heralded Dark Tower series (a fact I didn’t know until I started doing the research for this post—I really have to read that series).

If you have the time are awake and alert enough to try and follow it, click here to see how his characters, locations, and more intertwine in this insanely detailed flow chart.

Do any of you find yourselves going back to characters like they’re old friends you’re going to visit for a spell? Are there books or authors that bring in characters from other works that especially tickles your fancy?

Sometimes, The Book Isn’t Better

Over the past month or so I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I know some people out there don’t like audiobooks, but I really enjoy them. As someone who’s always been fascinated by voice acting, I love hearing a good performance of a good book. I thought Gone Girl was pretty good. Not great, but good. Having already known that David Fincher is attached to direct the film version when it hits theaters in 2015, as soon as the audiobook was over I had one thought – I’ll bet the movie’s better. Which is kind of backwards to popular opinion, isn’t it?

We’ve all heard it before. Most of us have probably said it ourselves, and probably more than once.

“I saw _Insert Movie Title Here_ the other day.”

“Oh yeah? How was it?”

“It was okay. The book was better.”

I used to think (and sometimes still do) that some people would say that no matter how good the movie was, just as a sort of humblebrag to let people know they’ve read a book. But there’s a reason all of us have heard that and most of us have said it – it’s usually true. There are things in books, be they physical descriptions, what characters are thinking, etc. that can be hard to convey on film. Then there’s the matter of the story itself. Some stories just lend themselves to the written word better than any other medium. So the movie that really is better than the book can be a rare bird indeed.

The Ground Rules

First off, as usual with my “list” posts, I’m limiting this to five. Also, I’m keeping it honest by only ranking books I’ve actually read. It would’ve been easy to include books I hadn’t, as the same books populate every other similar list – Jaws, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, The Godfather and many others. And seriously, is there any way humanly possible the book Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi could be better than Goodfellas? But I resisted temptation. Finally, I’m limiting the list to just one Stephen King book/movie adaptation. I’ve read his work far and away more than any other author, and could easily devote an entire post solely to films based on his work.

The Honorable Mentions

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986) vs Red Dragon (Thomas Harris, 1981)

manhunter                          reddragon

This was a tough call for me, so I decided list it as an honorable mention just to give it some recognition. Although I haven’t read it in several years, the first of the Hannibal Lecter books has long been one of my favorite thrillers. When you take a book that good and adapt it with Michael Mann directing, you’re going to get a good movie. And you do. Manhunter is very good, and it may very well have made my list if it weren’t for one thing: the ending. Some people consider the end of the novel to be a bit cliche, but I liked it. The movie changed it for whatever reason, and it left me disappointed. That being said, Manhunter is still a great movie. Although Anthony Hopkins would eventually claim the character as his own, it’s very interesting to see how Brian Cox plays Dr. Lecter.

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) vs The Shining (Stephen King 1977)

jack                         shiningbook

Like I said, I’ll keep the list limited to one Stephen King adaptation, but if I’m doing honorable mentions I may as well go ahead and mention The Shining. It is my all-time favorite horror movie, and I usually end up watching it every October when channels start running horror marathons leading up to Halloween. Thing is, I really like the book, too. It’s scary in its own right, and I think over the years the movie has overshadowed it, which kind of sucks. But, as much as I hate to disagree with the master, I like the movie better. King purists (which are a rabid bunch) vehemently disagree with me, but I’ll stand my ground. The film is actually much darker and funnier at the same time. The movie is a bit like the book on LSD. So what Stephen King work did I rank higher? Funny you should ask, because that brings us to…

The List

5. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) vs Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King, 1982) *from the book Different Seasons

shawshank                 differentseasons

This is a case where the movie really didn’t change too much; just some small tweaks like combining multiple characters into one, adding the death of a character to heighten the drama, that sort of thing. The story itself was really not altered. It’s just that the movie was that damn good.

As big a fan of movies as I am, I don’t always notice things like cinematography, art direction, lighting, etc. After writing, acting, and directing the other technical aspects of a film can go unnoticed. When I watch Shawshank I may not necessarily recognize exactly what it is that sets it apart from so many other movies, but I know it’s special. It’s a bit like eating a delicious plate of food. You may not be able to pick out each specific ingredient, but when you taste all of it together you know it’s something extraordinary.

This movie is also the very, very rare exception where I wholeheartedly approve of the “Hollywood ending.” Honestly, was there any other way this movie could’ve ended other than with Andy and Red meeting up on the beach?

4. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) vs No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy, 2005)

nocountryfilm                   nocountrybook

I have a confession to make: I’m not a huge Cormac McCarthy fan. When The Road came out to such acclaim, I thought I should give it a look to see what all the hubbub was about. I think I made it about 35 pages, then gave up. A couple months later I picked it back up and finished it. It was a challenge, though. I guess his writing style is just not for me. I obviously see the talent Mr. McCarthy has, but it’s lost on me. It’s like listening to Mozart when you’d rather just crank The Ramones.

That being said, even after my experience with The Road I wanted to give him another shot. I had already seen the Coen Brothers film and really liked it a lot, so I decided to try the book. I did like it better than The Road, but something about it just never really grabbed me and pulled me in. Like Shawshank, the movie barely changed a thing story-wise, but it just heightened everything to a new level. I felt a tension and sense of dread watching the movie that I didn’t feel with the book. Maybe reading the book first would have had a different effect on me, but after reading a few pages of Blood Meridian, I think it’s safe to say my Cormac McCarthy collection will never take up much space on my bookshelf.

3. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) vs Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk, 1996)

fightclub                 fightclubbook

Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite authors, easily in my top 5. The thing about his books, though, is they don’t necessarily make for an easy transition to the big screen. Which makes Fight Club that much more remarkable. David Fincher took a very complicated story and managed to make it easier to follow without dumbing it down at all. He turned a good book into an excellent movie. The casting and direction were also top notch, and I can’t imagine the book being adapted any better. Palahniuk himself has said that the film is superior to his book, and I have to say, he’s not wrong.

2. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) vs Rum Punch (Elmore Leonard, 1992)

jackiebrown                 rumpunch

Again, an author in my top 5. Elmore Leonard has a gift for writing dialogue that sets him apart from most other writers. I got a box full of Leonard paperbacks for Christmas a few years ago and tore through most of them in no time flat. Writing this reminds me I need to go back and read the rest to remind myself why he’s a master.

At this point in the list we reach movies that really made some changes. In the case of Jackie Brown, some pretty significant changes. For one, the ethnicity of the main character. In Rum Punch, Jackie is white. Casting Pam Grier, changing the character’s last name to Brown, all the awesome music, creating an homage to ’70’s Blaxploitation films? All Quentin Tarantino.

He still could have made a good movie without making those changes, but it’s those changes that make the movie what it is. Following the blockbuster success of Pulp Fiction, I think this movie let some fans down who were perhaps looking for something a little more violent. That’s really a shame, because I think Jackie Brown is nearly flawless. Robert Forster was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, but lost to Robin Williams for his performance in Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams was great in that, but part of me feels Robert Forster was robbed.

1. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) vs The Prestige (Christopher Priest, 1995)

prestigefilm                        prestigebook

This film tops my list for two reasons: it’s my favorite film of the five, and it changed the source material the most. Christopher Priest’s novel is intriguing to say the least, but Christopher Nolan took that novel and made something truly awesome.

I should mention here that I really can’t stand period pieces. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a dude, or because I’m American, maybe both; all I know is if a story is set before, say, the 1950’s I’m generally not interested. So when I heard the plot of The Prestige – two rival magicians in nineteenth century London feud while trying to one-up each other performing the ultimate illusion – I was less than thrilled. But given Nolan’s track record (Memento is another one of my favorites) I decided to check it out.

I loved this movie, and I feel it’s one that practically demands repeat viewings. The way elements of Priest’s novel are taken and tweaked are so masterful that I felt like it made the book seem vastly inferior. The way the film unfolds in the same manner as a magic trick blew me away, and I think is something that may be lost on a lot of people, which is why the film asks you, “Are you watching closely?”

Like with No Country for Old Men, I read the book after seeing the film; reading the book first may have changed my opinion.

Well, there you have it. As always, these are just the subjective opinions of some geek on the internet. Feel free to agree or disagree as you please by leaving a comment below. If you’ve read one of the books but not seen the movie, or the other way around, do so and see what you think, and please, let me know.