Book Review, Contemporary, Crime Novel, Fiction, Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King was one of my most anticipated releases of 2018, and one of only two books that I actually pre-ordered this year. I’ve always been a King fan, but something about the description and his development over the last couple of decades heightened my intrigue even further.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of him lately and trying to trace his themes across novels and genres. There are some common threads, and really three distinct avenues that I’ve been able to tack down, thus far: first, his interest in the psychological terror of the unknown/supernatural; second, his interest in morality and the battle of good versus evil; and finally, his interest in the ethics of humanity and the truth(s) of human nature. That said, it seems like The Outsider is in many ways a masterwork that brings together King’s three primary themes and genres, at last. While reading it, I sensed a very delicate and compelling balance between the supernatural horrors of Itand The Shining, with the moral questions embedded in pieces like The Stand and The Shawshank Redemption, and the ethical concerns of his realistic, true crime fiction like “The Body” and Joyland. It is all here, working together almost seamlessly to deliver what is certainly one of King’s best works to date.

The story itself centers around a man named Terry Maitland, a popular man in his small town; he works as an English teacher and coaches the Little League baseball team, currently on a winning streak. He is well-liked, trusted, and respected in the community, almost without question. And then the unthinkable happens. A young boy, one of Maitland’s baseball players, is found dead—indeed, far worse than dead—in a park, and all evidence points to Maitland as the perpetrator. Not only does the town turn on him, and with seemingly every good reason to do so, but slowly, more sinister forces begin to enter the picture as well. At first, the evil unleashed in this town seems to be the result of human nature; there is a mob mentality that develops when a crime so evil, so unspeakable is apparently perpetrated by one of the town’s most unimpeachable residents. The residents find a kind of joy, a catharsis, in bringing as much pain to bear as they possibly can against Maitland and his wife. But not all is as it seems.

After more preventable tragedies, and a lot of early assumptions, there is another murder. The modus operandi is exactly the same as the first crime, but how could this be? Maitland had an alibi for the first murder, a nearly rock-solid one. And he was already under arrest when the next happened. What could be going on in this little town? King spins an elaborate web that spans the country and, like a bizarre supernatural crime novel, the reader is introduced to new characters, new locations, and histories that play more and more significant roles in the unfolding drama and that sometimes lead in one direction, and then another, often falsely. The end might surprise some readers, while others might come to it with met expectations. I, for one, was right about something the entire time, but also completely fooled exactly twice. That made for a fun ride!

Personally, while I was disappointed in a major decision Stephen King makes in the end, and dissatisfied overall with the denouement, I still think this is one of King’s best works because it does bring together all of his best practices and the very reasons why we keep returning to King’s works. King’s characterization is also more on point and balanced in this work than in any others I can think of at the moment. He always has much to say about the human psyche and the ways in which we tend to disappoint one another when we need each other most. Even when the thrills and terrors of supernatural horrors are layered on the surface, creeping us out and giving us the thrills of the genre, it is always the very humandecisions beneath that horror which results in the actual intrigue and terror at the heart of his narratives.

In this case, the situation is somewhat reversed. The crimes committed seem disturbingly possible, and they are described in gruesome, horrifying detail. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything more terrifying than the realistic and all-too-human nature at the surface of the crimes. For that reason, I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of the book and think, had King kept going with the direction the book seems to be taking through that part of the book, it would have ended up being my new favorite. That said, what is clear is that The Outsider is undeniably Stephen King, and in fact, it is Stephen King at his very best.

Are you a Stephen King fan who has read this latest novel? If so, what did you think?

My thoughts on other Stephen King works can be found here.

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Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Coming-of-Age, Fantasy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horror, Middle Grade, Mythology, Potpour-reads, Rick Riordan, Stephen King, Thriller, Young Adult

A Garden, A Maze, A Sematary*

In this second “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in May. The Secret Garden was a title on my Classics Club Challenge list. The Burning Maze is third in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan, and I read Pet Sematary because a new film adaptation is supposedly in the works and I tend to get caught up in that sort of thing. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I recently read The Secret Garden as part of my Classics Club Challenge, after many years of seeing it come and go from my various TBR lifts and shelves. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but have always put it off, probably because, subconsciously, I thought of it as a children’s book – a sorry excuse indeed because why should that matter? How many children’s books, especially classics, have I read and loved? Nevertheless, I have these tendencies, as I’m sure all readers do, to approach my reading with certain prejudices, and this being both a “child’s” book and a “girl’s” book, I wondered, isn’t it likely to be well beyond my interest at this point? Of course, then I actually started reading the book and couldn’t stop myself thinking, where has this book been all my life? Confession time? I guess I’m a bit of a reading diva, and it’s pretty stupid.

Anyhow, The Secret Garden begins in India under British colonial rule. We are introduced to the protagonist in this way: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.” Hilarious. Who begins a children’s book by dissing the main character’s appearance!? Something about that opening, and the honesty of the narrator throughout, drew me into the story and had me feeling equal hatred and empathy for little Mary and even little Colin, her cousin, both of whom are really rather terrible little brats at the beginning. But then a farm boy named Dickon starts to come around, and the secret garden is discovered, and the magic of humanity found in friendship, childish wonder, and the natural world begins to do its work. And it’s stunning and romantic in the best way imaginable.

For some reason, I thought this book was going to be more of a magical realism/mystery/fantasy kind of tale. It is actually firmly rooted in naturalism and realism; it is a coming-of-age tale that expresses magic in the everyday experience, and in the way children, even horribly disagreeable ones, can grow and change into wonderful people, given the right environment, the best challenges, and some great friends. I wasn’t expecting this kind of story, but it was exactly the kind I needed at the time of reading it. And Dickon, the nature sprite who is all things dirt and animal, plant and hill, is now one of my favorite characters of all-time. If Burnett had written a sequel from Dickon’s perspective, I could easily imagine it becoming a favorite of mine. The other characters, including the adults, are human enough and just present enough to matter without getting in the way of the children’s’ tale, which is and should be front and center. There are some very adult themes, a truly underlying sadness, and some dark commentary on colonialism, which makes reading this one as an adult all the more interesting and moving.

Now the real question: Should I watch the movie? Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0.

The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze is Book Three in the Trials of Apollo series. Apollo has been sent to earth in the form of a pudgy, pimply teenage boy, largely without any kind of godly power at all, and is tasked with helping the Roman and Greek demigods fight the horrors of the Triad: three evil, dangerous, and powerful former Roman Emperors with plans to take over the world. Beneath their plot, even, lies the power of Apollo’s most feared antagonist, Python, the god of snakes. As is typical with Riordan’s books, the pace is fast and the plot is fun. There is a lot to learn regarding roman mythology, especially, and that is always exciting for me. There is also a bit of tragedy in this third book, one that the reader is somewhat eased into but that is nevertheless difficult for those who have been invested in the two Roman series’ so far.

In this third installment, we learn much more about Meg, the twelve-year-old demigod who is essentially Apollo’s “master,” and her background. Some old and familiar characters from other books in this series, as well as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’, reappear. As with many of the other books, this one follows a certain formula that readers of Riordan’s books should come to expect; Burning Maze even revisits one of the original Percy Jackson battlegrounds, the Labyrinth, but in this case the visit is short and sweet, and the maze then becomes an underlying menace rather than a place of action for the entire plot.

Riordan has also taken more and more chances with his books over the years, something he began with (I think) the Heroes of Olympus series and then carried over into the Magnus Chase books (I have not kept up with the Kane Chronicles, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to that one). Riordan is an outspoken LGBTQ ally, for example, and a number of LGBTQ+ characters have been written into the stories, some major and some minor. This has been extraordinarily exciting to witness in the middle grade genre, and it has been particularly effective, I think, because Riordan does a nice job of delicately handling the reality of “coming out” with the kinds of reactions his queer characters receive from other characters, mostly accepting but sometimes with shock, wonder, curiosity, etc. The humor is still excellent, as are the character relationships. One of the most interesting and rewarding elements is the way that Apollo is growing from book-to-book. One of the themes of all the Riordan novels is how flippantly the gods take their relationships with humanity and their human children. The fascinating piece of this series is that we have a god who has been made human and who is now experiencing all that it is to be human, which is changing him in very profound ways. It is a smart and meaningful take on the modern myth series. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I was going to check my Goodreads account to see how many King novels I have read so far and where this one falls in that line, but I realized it would take more time than I’m willing to give it. We’ll just say, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. The reason why I like King so much is actually not because I like horror/thrillers (it’s quite frankly not a genre I read very often). Instead, I like King because he has so much to say about the human psyche and human instinct. Pet Sematary is considered to be one of King’s most chilling horror novels and, while I don’t think it’s really his scariest or goriest or any of that, I can agree with the assessmentbecauseit treats the human condition in such an honest, and horrible, way.

The book is about Dr. Louis Creed and his young family, all of whom move to Ludlow, Maine so that Creed can take a job as a University physician. The majority of the novel is background, character building, and scene-setting. Almost all of the real action, the terror, takes place in the third and final section, which is much shorter than the first two. This helps create a false sense of security throughout most of the book while simultaneously allowing the ending to be much more dramatic and exhilarating, even unexpected (if anything from King can be considered unexpected – maybe that’s silly!) The horror begins when Creed’s daughter’s cat is killed and Creed’s neighbor, perhaps against his will, shares a secret that is better left unknown. This sets forth a series of ominous events that increase in impact and effect, until at last, a force beyond anyone’s control grips Ludlow, especially the Creeds, and begins to pull all the strings.

Pet Sematary was written between 1979-1982 and then published in 1983. King was reluctant to send it out to his publishers because he himself was so concerned with what he wrote, and it is not hard to understand why. Few popular novels that I can think of at this time so honestly and deeply addressed the lengths to which a person will go in order to ease an unthinkably painful emotional and psychological burden. Creed is suffering the worst pain imaginable, as is his wife, and his grief causes him to be compelled further and further down a path he knows is horribly dangerous and morally wrong. How can a man be driven to make all the wrong steps? In small increments and through tiny justifications and false ratiocination (as Poe would call them), until, without realizing what is happening, the decisions have been made and the actions have been taken, and all hell has broken loose.

Pet Sematary reminded me very much of King’s other most popular of horror novels, IT. The ominous force is even described as “IT” –an unnamed thing—and various points in the novel. I wonder if King was already working on that idea as early as 1979, even though IT itself did not appear until 1986. There are so many similarities, but the most prominent is the theme of evil as an uncontrollable force of human nature: good and smart and decent people being compelled to do terrible things. What is scarier than that? Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

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Fantasy, Stephen King, The Dark Tower

The Waste Lands by Stephen King

I finished reading Stephen King’s The Wastelands (Book III in The Dark Towers series) on February 12, 2018. Here I am, on March 18, 2018, finally sitting down to write about it. I’m not sure what that means, except perhaps that I wasn’t feeling very compelled to get thoughts down right away. Usually, that means I was feeling rather “meh” about the title. When I absolutely love a book, I need to write about it right away. When I hate a book, I need to write about it right away. Lately, it seems I’ve read quite a few books that were middle of the road, and that’s unusual because I tend to pick well for myself. Of course, I might be blowing all of this out of proportion and simply ignoring the fact that I’m pretty damn busy teaching six classes this semester. Next week is spring break, so maybe I’ll finally get caught up on my own stuff.

Anyway, here’s what I can remember of The Wastelands. It is pretty weird. Even by the standards of Stephen King and this particularly weird fantasy series, The Waste Lands is weird. The last gunslinger, Roland, is back in action with his two new sidekicks from The Drawing of the Three (which I’m only now realizing I never reviewed?) They continue on the quest toward the Dark Tower, where Roland believes he will meet his fate. What this is exactly, remains unclear. The “villain” seems to have died back in the first book, The Gunslinger, but he remains a menacing figure throughout the series thus far. In addition, a new menace is revealed: a lingering technological sentience, a kind of senile artificial intelligence whose dementia, taking the form of an evil locomotive, is on a murder-suicide mission. The only thing standing in the way of this train and its quest to destroy the planet is The Gunslinger, his posse, and a book of riddles.

Sound weird, yet? Honestly, the premise is pretty ridiculous, and I say this as a devout King fan. He’s certainly imaginative. On the plus side, this book does manage a somewhat believable miracle which returns a favorite character from The Gunslinger to the plot line. I was not expecting this development, but it was wholly welcome because, honestly, he was the most interesting character in the series and I think the story needed him. To avoid spoilers, I’m walking a fine line in trying not to reveal anything about this character, but those who have read the first book in the series probably know to whom I am referring. That said, the characters “reanimation,” as it were, is pretty interestingly handled. It is certainly fantastical, but this is a fantasy series, after all.

Eddie Dean and Susannah continue to develop as well, and even Roland has moments of growth-through-weakness. The connection between our own earth—in time and space—and the planet Roland belongs to, gets a little bit clearer. Not only do we learn more about the doorways that bridge the space-time gaps, but we also learn who might have visited Roland’s world before, which explains the evil that has manifested itself there. In the wake of this early visitor is a “legion of fiendish foes both more and less than human.” The bad guys are acceptably creepy and disgusting, and specifically contrasted against the pure innocence of the one who returns from book one. The tension this creates could not have happened without that character re-entering the storyline, which is all the more reason to applaud King for doing it (despite some complaints that, well, the character was dead… and that’s cheating!)

Ultimately, even though this was the strangest of the three books so far, and felt sometimes very silly, it was still almost as gripping as most of what King does. It left me more eager to continue the series than did The Drawing of the Three, so hopefully that gradual trend continues. I began this series in 2013 – five years to read the first three books in an eight book series. That’s unusual for me.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

 

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Blog Post, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, writing

Writing On Writing

2016 was what I had planned to be, or hoped would be, my “year of writing.” One year to welcome many future years. I think I shouldn’t have included that second verb, hoped, after my original one, planned. This is part of the self-doubt that all “on writing” books seem to mention at some point or another, and most of them repeatedly.

downloadSpeaking of “on writing” texts, I’m currently reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, which is wonderful so far (about 40% into it). And I’ve read three others in the last year. Each has been very different. The first was Stephen King’s On Writing which read more like a memoir highlighting much of the writing aspects of his life. This is perhaps appropriate when considering the rest of the book’s title, A Memoir of the Craft. I found this approach worked well, though. King spoke a lot about writing as it fits into real life, especially early writing in the “younger” life. He got his start much sooner than I, yet I hope I can still consider myself “young enough.” That might be wishful thinking.

48202The second read was Willa Cather’s On Writing, which was something else entirely. The second part of her title is Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. As that full title suggests, Cather’s is a collection of essays rather than a single narrative, as King’s is. Much of the essays are Cather discussing others’ works, though some are her reflections on how or why she wrote particular pieces of her own. Some few, like “On the Art of Fiction,” tackle the idea of “on writing” more directly. I enjoyed this one because it gave insight into how writers respond to other writers; what they look for, where they find strengths, what they consider weaknesses, who and what they admire, and why. It’s valuable information, especially coming from someone as supremely competent, knowledgable, and interesting as Willa Cather.

51JP9AJJVVL._AC_UL320_SR216,320_The third title is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. This one was a perfect middle road between King and Cather. It is a collection of essays, written over a number of years, like Cather’s, but it is much more personal and reflective, and written with a “new writer” audience in mind, like King’s. What I loved about Bradbury’s collection is that it is filled with so much joy, so much passion and support.

What I found interesting, if not surprising, is that despite their differences, each of these (and, now that I think of it, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, too, but it’s been a while since I’ve read that, so I’ll leave it out of discussion for now) shared some few important elements in common. What’s even more serendipitous is that the three things that stuck out to me the most are the very things I’ve struggled with for so long.

I. Be Honest & Trust Your Imagination

This first theme came up frequently, and in various ways, in all three books. I responded to it in two critical ways. In the first case, trust your imagination deals with those moments when you don’t feel like what you have to say is interesting, important, creative, fresh, valid, or whatever. It’s that common self-doubt all writers probably have at some point, and which forces them into writer’s block or exhaustion. I think this is especially important not just in getting started with the process, but in dealing with the many rejections that are certain to reach your inbox. King, Cather, and Bradbury all place importance on honesty, first; if you are telling a story that is true to you, and means something to you, stop thinking about it and let your imagination go…it will get somewhere, and you can deal with it when it’s done. Trust Your Imagination applies to another situation, though, which is within the story world itself. I once gave up on a novel, one that, in retrospect, I think has been my best idea and which continues to call to me every day (it’s the one I plan to return to on Monday, when I begin again). Part of why I gave up is because I felt like I had to know everything – every detail about the location, every detail about history of the region, the country. Every detail about the main character’s particular hobby, which I dove into researching and started making notes about. To some extent, yes, I need to know these things – but just enough of them. I never have to give the reader every single piece of history; if they wanted that, they’d go read a history book, right? This is something King, Cather, and Bradbury wrote about frequently over the course of their books. I’m not writing a manual, I’m writing a piece of fiction. There are some things that must be right (if my book takes place during the time of JFK’s assassination, okay, I’d better get the date right), but otherwise, I need to remind myself that most of the creation and interpretation and information gathering actually takes place in the reader’s mind. It’s that “show don’t tell” mantra all over again. And, wow, it’s such a relief. I feel like an apartment building has been lifted off me and I have begun to breathe and see again for the first time in a long time.

II. Be Honest & Forget About Money or Fame

This seems like it should be another no-brainer. If you love to write and you feel like you have something to say, or maybe might even be a little bit good at writing, then you should just find joy in writing. But who doesn’t think about their audience? I think about it constantly, and it intimidates me; it holds me back. I worry, mostly, about what my friends and family will think about my stories; will I reveal too much about myself in the telling? Do I really want to let them into the deepest, sometimes darkest, realms of my imagination and psyche? Then, I think about the general audiences, critics and consumers. Will anyone in the world be interested in what I write about? Will an agent take a chance? Will a publisher? It seems silly to think about all this before the writing has gotten very far, or even begun at all. Of course, it is silly to think about it then, or at all. But that doesn’t keep it from happening, and I doubt I’m the only one who experiences this. It’s probably my biggest hold up, and this is where King, Cather, and Bradbury all say: STOP IT. Write, just write. Love it. As with the theme above, be honest about it and why you’re doing it, but damn it, don’t do it for the money because that will probably never, ever come. Am I okay with that? Probably much more so now than I ever was before. Is it all entirely out of my head – fear of rejection, desire for fame? No, and maybe it won’t ever be entirely gone, at least not until I’ve found my stride and have begun to write every day, to be confident in it, and to really feel like I can, I must, go on with it. That’s going to be the persistent thought now. Instead of thinking about all these other people and their reactions, I’m going to try to simply be excited about my ideas and where in the world they’re going to take me.

III. Trust Yourself & WRITE!

Write, write, write. Boy, you’d think I was reading books on writing or something. King and Bradbury were especially surprising in their treatment of this topic. For some reason, I remember hearing, for most of my life, that writers should be prepared to write whenever the muse hits, to be prepared with pen and paper wherever they go, but that they should never “force” the writing. King and Bradbury, two of the most commercially successful writers of all-time, say this is hokum! Both of them write in highly regimented ways, working for a certain number of days every week (both of them say 6 days per week, holidays and birthdays included), and for a certain length of time (or word count, in their cases). Cather, too, expressed the necessity of writing all the time. King, Cather, and Bradbury, but especially Bradbury, reinforced the idea that writing, like anything, is a skill (and an art) that can only get better with practice and honesty to one’s self and ideas. This is something I tell my students all the time: you can’t become a better writer if you don’t read and write a lot. The more you do those things, the better you’ll be able to see the strengths and weaknesses, the necessary moves and adjustments to make in your own work. So, there’s a bit of “practice what you preach” for the old English professor! I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, and in many ways I do and have written every day, but the missing piece of the puzzle was also found in King’s, Cather’s, and Bradbury’s examinations: write in the genre you want to be most successful in. My writing has been primarily academic and scholarly, for coursework and such, or blogging, for the general love of talking about literature. In my mind, though, when I think of myself as a writer, that is not the kind of writing I’m thinking about.

While reflecting on these three books and thinking about all of the great advice therein, I began to work on my plan for the coming semester. I originally wanted to schedule out my days and workload for the entire term, September through December, but I decided to begin with the month of August, for two reasons: the first reason is practical; I’m scheduled to teach four courses this semester, beginning on August 22nd, but I only know for sure that two of those courses is going to run; so, if the other two courses do not run, then I’ll be adjusting my entire schedule — why do five months of planning to change it all in two weeks? The other reason is because I need to know that what I propose for August is actually feasible and can be maintained for the entire semester. If it is, I’ll expand – – not a big deal.

What is the plan? Well, I have designated times for working on my dissertation, for teaching, for exercise, for writing articles, and for grading/planning each of my classes week-to-week, as well as for required, reoccurring meetings that come as a result of an existence in academia. There are two benefits to this plan, I think. The first benefit of being so strict with myself is that I can see what needs to be done when, and I can hold myself accountable to everything I need to do without letting it pile up. Old habits of last year left me scrambling at the end of every single week to do much too much work; hence, I didn’t do nearly enough of what I should have. The other benefit is that it doesn’t only show me my “work” time; it also shows me all the time that is my own, to do whatever. There’s not a lot of free time, but there definitely is some every day, and that calms me. Again, last year, I felt like I was always busy, but that’s mostly because I was being stupidly irresponsible with my time.

I might not get my book written this year, because I’m writing a dissertation; but I will get that dissertation written, and I will work on my book, too, and I’ll still be able to do other things.

King, Cather, and Bradbury. Delightful kicks-in-the-pants. Woolf, keep me honest! 

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Andrew Smith, Austen in August, Blog Post, David Levithan, David Shields, Helene Wecker, J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, Nancy Sommers, Personal, Shane Salerno, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Year In Review

Roof Beam Reader’s Best of 2013

Hello, Readers!

Since I surpassed my 2013 goal of 60 books read (I’m up around 64, right now, with 2 books in progress and likely at least 1 more to go) before year’s end, I thought I would take a cue from some of my favorite bloggers who are posting a “Best of 2013” list.

The list below includes a small selection of categories from which I’ve read this year, with one “favorite” spotlighted for each category.  These are books I’ve read in 2013, not necessarily books that were published in 2013.  I hope you enjoy!

Best Academic Text

15793484From Queer Theory and Feminism, to Linguistics, Rhetoric, and Film Studies, this was a year of heavily theory-based, academic reading, for me.  I read some incredibly interesting texts on the history of sexuality, the French Revolution, bibliographical and textual studies, and the creative writing process.  Of all of these academic texts, though, I think my vote goes to a short little book called Responding to Student Writers, written by Harvard Professor Nancy Sommers, whom I had the honor to meet and work with this summer.  As an English instructor (and, more specifically, a teacher of first year college composition), I found the suggestions, tips, tools, and resources in this booklet to be helpful, as was the CD of student interviews that came with it.  Nancy Sommers is a well-respected expert in the field, and for good reason.  If you are a teacher who often assigns essays/research papers, analyses, etc., then Sommers’ work shouldn’t be missed.

Best Book on Writing / Literary Theory

340793I read a number of books this year which would fall into the category of literary theory and/or “on writing.”  I thought it prudent, then, to mention some of these and to pick a “favorite” amongst a group of rather good texts.  These include, for instance. E.M. Forster’s groundbreaking Aspects of the Novel, Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Novel, Jim Powell’s graphic guide Postmodernism for Beginners, Judith Mayne’s brilliant collection of essays on feminist film studies, The Woman at the Keyhole, and Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird by Bird.  Of all the books that fit this category, though, my favorite overall has to be Virginia Woolf’s lecture series, A Room of One’s Own.  Anyone interested in writing, and particularly the historical connection of women and/or socioeconomic status to the process, should definitely check this one out.

Best Contemporary Fiction

13596166I did not read all that much contemporary fiction this year, which is not unusual (I tend to lean towards classics and/or academic texts).  Still, there were enough to be considered and I believe this is a popular category for many of my readers, so I thought I should name a few standouts. First is a wonderful collection of short stories by E.J. Runyon called Claiming One.  Another was the highly controversial but interesting Tampa by Alissa Nutting.   My favorite, though, had to be Stephen King’s Joyland.  Normally, King would probably be the stand-out in the horror/mystery/paranormal genre, and he certainly nailed it with Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining, but Joyland was much more akin to some of his earlier stories, such as “The Body.”  There was some suspense, some magical realism, and a bit of crime-thriller to it, but mostly it was a book about summertime, coming-of-age, and living life. I absolutely loved it.

Best Genre Fiction Book

15819028I read much more genre fiction this year than I did general fiction (other than classics, which will be addressed below), so I am excluding a general fiction category and simply focusing on those books which might be considered fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.  Of these, I have read a number of works, including The Gunslinger and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, both of which I highly recommend.  Also,  Inferno by Dan Brown, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Although Shirley Jackson’s book came close to taking the title, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by The Golem and the Jinni.  I finished it recently and have not had time, yet, to write & post a review, but it was a stunning piece of work.  There’s something of the old-fashioned Romantic wonder and awe of nature in this one – it is bits and pieces of Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson fused with contemporary narrative style. Loved it.

Best LGBT Book

17237214This is an important category for me.  As most of you know, I’m currently in my second year of Ph.D. studies in English, but I’m also about to finish my graduate certificate in LGBT studies.  That said, I have not limited this category to works “of literary merit.”  In this category, I considered books on theory, books which would be called “classics,” and also contemporary fiction, young adult, and whatever else. This made it a bit tough, as I had to choose from a range which included Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram (fantastic), Sexuality in Europe by Dagmar Herzog (fascinating), and Shine by Lauren Myracle (touching).  Others that deserve mention include Sodom on the Thames by Morris Kaplan, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  It was such a great pleasure to read so many awesome LGBT works of fiction and nonfiction this year.  The ultimate prize, though, has to go to the incredible Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan. This book touched my soul – it is a book that I felt had been missing from the conversation for far too long, and Levithan delivered it to us beautifully.

Best Nonfiction Book

18238043This is probably the largest category that I had to consider this year, with texts ranging from biography and autobiography to cultural studies, gender and sexuality, literary theory and criticism, and so much more.  It almost had to become separate categories, almost. Some of my favorites of the year included How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, Queer Theory by Annamarie Jagose, Vive la Revolution by Mark Steel, and Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich.  One of the books that I found most helpful, interesting, and readable was Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters.  When all is said and done, though, my absolute favorite nonfiction read this year was Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno.  If you settled for watching the documentary, then you are missing out on so much.  This biography, unlike others on Salinger, was in-depth, unbiased, well-researched, and revelatory in many ways.  Anyone interested in the life and works of J.D. Salinger should put this at the top of their list.

Best Work of Classic Literature

46133This was my second largest category to consider, and this final call was so difficult!  I love classic literature, so picking one book from such an incredible list of authors, periods, and subjects is almost impossible.  Some of the best of the year include O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, which shouldn’t be missed, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, which was a difficult but rewarding read, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams which was stunning, The Adventures of Don Quixote which was hilarious and which I enjoyed far more than I had anticipated. My favorite, though, goes to one of the first books I read this year and one which has stuck with me throughout 2013 – Orlando by Virginia Woolf.  It is poetic justice for Woolf, perhaps, that she has landed on this “best of” list twice, considering I used to vehemently refuse to read her books (I had one bad experience with her many years ago, and swore never to return!).  But Orlando is a stunning, daring epic.  She was disappointed with it (or, more accurately, with the supposed lack of focused attention she paid to it), but it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Best Young Adult Book

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith.  Not only was this the best Young Adult book that I read in 2013, but it was one of the best books I read this year, period.  The competition for this category was stiff, with books by Veronica Roth, Rick Riordan, David Levithan, Benjamin Saenz, Rick Yancey, Cassandra Clare, and Michael Scott to be considered. All of these books were enjoyable and some of them were downright incredible, but Smith’s Winger is a force to be reckoned with.  If you haven’t yet read this book, I would encourage you to read my review and see if it’s for you. Odds are, it is. I also highly recommend his other works, especially Stick, and I look forward to his next publication, Grasshopper Jungle, which is due out early in 2014.

Other Favorite Things

My favorite post of the year: On Horrors and Heroes

My favorite event of the year: Austen In August

My favorite review of the year: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

One blogger I couldn’t get enough of this year:  O of Behold the Stars

So, those were my favorites of 2013.  I am currently reading Ulysses by James Joyce and On What Grounds (Coffeehouse Mysteries #1) by Cleo Coyle, both of which I’m enjoying, for different reasons.  I plan to read one more this year – so that’s a possible three books I could add to this list of “favorites,” but let’s just leave them here as honorable year-end mentions, shall we?

What were YOUR favorite books this year?

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Book Review, Classics, Feminism, Fiction, Horror, Mini-reviews, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Supernatural, Thriller

Spooky Reviews: Doctor Sleep, Hill House, and Macbeth

16130549Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Final Verdict: 3.75/4.0
YTD: 58

Doctor Sleep is the long-awaited sequel to one of Stephen King’s most popular novels, The Shining.  In it, readers are given the opportunity to witness Danny Torrance as a seriously screwed up but equally well-intentioned alcoholic adult.  While some of the suspense of its prequel has not been carried over into this revisit, still King proves why he is a master of his craft and fans of the original will probably not be disappointed by this follow-up.

The story begins with Danny as a child, just a few short years after the events which took place at the infamous and nefarious Overlook Hotel.  Danny and his mom are living alone, relatively happy and healthy.  Danny’s connection with the Overlook and the otherworldly in general has, for the most part, dissipated.  At least, that’s the way it seemed.  Soon enough, we learn that the dead still visit young Danny – and he must reach out to his old mentor, Dick Hallorann, to learn how to lock away the demons for good.  Ultimately, Danny grows up allowing his mother to believe that his “shining” has dulled – he, like the girl he will one day meet- would rather deal with his abilities on his own, leaving his mom free of the worry and pain which would surely haunt her life, had she known how upsetting his own was.

As an adult, Danny becomes an alcoholic like his father.  He hides this, too, from his mother (who must surely have known on some level).  He travels the country, a homeless drifter, drinking, screwing, and working jobs just long enough to make a few bucks.  Eventually, he sleeps with a woman who, along with her son, will haunt Danny’s memories for years to come.  After this lowest-of-low experience, one which the reader should learn of on their own, as it is an anchor to Danny’s life trajectory, Danny eventually ends up in a small New England town where he meets the girl who change forever.  His relationship with her is one of mentor and mentee, and it aids in Danny’s road to sobriety.  There are others out there like him and Dick, after all, and this girl is more powerful than any he has ever met.

Just like those who shine for good, however, are those who exist from evil.  Vampire-like beings, once human, they feed off of the power of the shining.  This power is, of course, most concentrated in children.  These parasites, an ancient, powerful, and enormously wealthy and well-connected community,   travel the country in their R.V.’s, unassuming middle-aged and elderly folk whom nobody would bat an eye at, but who lure and kidnap children, torture them for their “steam” (what they call the excretions of their shining) and then kill them.

Eventually, psychically, their leader, Rose the Hat, crosses paths with Danny’s young apprentice, Abra.  At this moment, the scene is set for a battle that will come – that must– come; a showdown between good and evil, between shining and vampire.  Abra, Danny, and a few companions must face, head on, this enormous evil force and defeat it once and for all, or die trying.

Ultimately, Doctor Sleep is an intricate, well-developed, and moving sequel to a King masterpiece.  While it is not quite as horrifying as his earlier works, King’s talents as a story-teller remain unquestioned.  The emotional depth and strength of characterization he brings to this one, too, are admirable, particularly as King’s earlier works tended not to be much concerned with character development (they were much more about creating a mood of suspense or terror than about telling any one person’s story).   I was skeptical about the book at first, and remained so for the first couple dozen pages but, in the end, I find myself thinking about the book quite a bit – even weeks after finishing.  The mark of a good story, no?

Notable Quotes:

“After the things that she had seen and been through, she knew that shadows could be dangerous. They could have teeth” (7).

“The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser” (83).

“In her head every superstition and old wives’ tale still lived . . . she knew superstition was shit; she also spat between her fingers if a crow or black cat crossed her path” (88).

“Perhaps kids really did come into the world trailing clouds of glory, as Wordsworth had so confidently proclaimed, but they also shit in their pants until they learned better” (123).


51NlY23zNHLThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 56

This has been one of the most surprising reads of the year for me, so far.  I’m not sure why I didn’t realize that this Shirley Jackson is the same Shirley Jackson who wrote “The Lottery,” but it didn’t take too long to figure it out.  The Haunting of Hill House is simply overflowing with the most luxurious, sumptuous, sensual language imaginable.  It’s freaking beautiful – and it’s a horror story!  Well, sort of.  I would consider it to be more of a psychological thriller, akin to, say The Sixth Sense, but it is typically considered one of the best “horror” books of all-time, so there we go.

Anyway, what did I love about this book?  Well, the plot.  The characters.  The language, especially.  The book’s opening paragraphs are some of the best I have ever read, from anyone.  It’s the kind of story introduction any writer would dream of crafting – perfection.  The rest of the book is much of the same.  Romantic language that flows into the most bizarre, eerie plot situations.  Eleanor Vance’s troubled mind, Theodora’s narcissism and lesbian inclinations.  Mr. and Mrs. Dudley and their dunderheadedness.  Doctor Montague’s obsession with the other-worldly, an obsession which leads to tragedy.

On the surface, the book is a supernatural tale about four people who visit a haunted house, each for his or her own reasons.  Dr. Montague and his assistant, Theodora, are researching psychic phenomenon (specifically something called “haunting”).  The doctor is an occult scholar who has invited Eleanor there due to her documented experience with poltergeists.  The fourth is Luke, who is the future heir to Hill House.  Initially, the house seems a bit haunted, but in an “isn’t that odd?” sort of way – doors closing by themselves, strange noises in the night, etc.  Soon, though, the house begins to flex its muscles, almost as if awakening from a deep slumber.  It begins to recognize the people living inside of it, and the house sets its sights on one visitor in particular.

Beneath the veil of “thriller” are the many deeper elements of the story.  Jackson is positing feminist ideals, presenting lesbianism in an off-hand, natural sort of way (quite unheard of in 1959), and engaging her readers in questions of science, religion, and human relationships.  It is a complex, multifaceted novel, of which the supernatural is only the method, rather than the theme.

Immediately upon finishing this book, I went out and bought another Jackson novel (Hangsaman) and also watched two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House.  The first version (1963) departed slightly from the book, but it was much more true to the story than the remake (1999) and much the better film, overall.  The remake was, in fact, quite terrible.  In any event, the book is one of my favorites of the year – Jackson is a brilliant writer, one whom I regret not having really investigated sooner.  I could see myself spending a great deal of time studying her life and works sometime in the future.

Notable Quotes:

“Some houses are born bad” (70).

“It was said that the older sister was crossed in love, although that is said of almost any lady who prefers, for whatever reason, to live alone” (77).

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone” (3).

“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?”

“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”

“Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”


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Re-Reads, Read-Alongs, Shakespeare, Stephen King

Readalongs: Macbeth and Doctor Sleep

Hello, folks!  I have decided to take part in two read-alongs during the month of October.

macbethNumber One

The first is a read-along of Macbeth, which I guess I’m technically “hosting,” but it will be very informal.  The idea came about via a Twitter conversation (as is usually the case) with @Leeswammes and @bibliosue.  Anyone who would like to join in, please feel free!  Macbeth is a five act play, so we plan to read basically one (or 1+) act each week.

I will have a more formal reading plan posted on October 1st, which is when I plan to begin reading.  Macbeth is great fun, so if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s also PERFECT Halloween reading. You can find additional thoughts and a sign-up widget in Bibliosue’s announcement post, Here.

sleepalong

Number Two

The second read-along is hosted by Tif at Tif Talks Books.  This is for Doctor Sleep, which is the new Stephen King novel, a sequel to his incredibly popular (and awesome) The Shining.  Details about this read-along can be found Right Here. We’ll be keeping up with our reading on Twitter, with the hashtag #Sleepalong.

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