Review ~ Bird Box

Cover via Goodreads

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Something is out there…

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now, that the boy and girl are four, it is time to go. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motley group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos.

But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted? (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Horror genre. Lots of people I know really like this book.

What Didn’t Work (for me)
This is a case of cilantro AND werewolves for me and that’s my fault. Often, when I read a book blurb, I focus in on one or two things that sound really interesting to me and ignore other things. In the case of Bird Box, I had zeroed-in on a mother and her children living in an abandoned house with something outside that could drive them insane.

My mind jumped to the story I’d like from that situation: from the children’s perspective, who have grown up with outside darkness as normal, how is that for them? What if (in a spectacular conjuration of a werewolf) they’re mother is just imagining that there is something outside? See, that’s not what Bird Box is, so I can’t fault it for not being what I wanted.

As for cilantro, I don’t really care for post-apocalyptic. I have a hard time suspending my disbelief well enough and for long enough buy the whole world falling apart. There was way too much counting-cans-in-the-cellar survivalism for my taste. I’m also particularly not a fan of Lovecraftian know-it-go-mad tropes.

I didn’t mind that the big bads of this novel were never explained, but I found the climax to be too much of a coincidental convergence of factors and the actual end to be a bit flat.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/OverDrive Read, HarperCollins, May 13, 2014
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: Horror

Hosted by Kate and Kim at Midnight Book Girl

Hosted by Andi @ Estella’s Revenge and Heather @ My Capricious Life

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Review ~ Universal Harvester

Cover via Goodreads

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa—a small town in the center of the state, the first “a” in Nevada pronounced “ay.” This is the late 1990s, and while the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: It’s a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.

But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets—an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns She’s All That, a new release, and complains that there’s something wrong with it: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious. But he takes a look and, indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blinks dark for a moment and She’s All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She’s All That is back. But there is something profoundly unsettling about that scene; Jeremy’s compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks much like a barn just outside of town.

There will be no ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same . . . (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Was cruising the horror section at the elibrary and was attracted by the cornstalks. Iowa? Creepy videos? These were both selling points (or rather borrowing points).

What Worked
Iowa and creepy videos were also the best things about Universal Harvester. This is a book with a very strong sense of setting (small rural towns) and a good peg on the people who live in them. There is a certain biographical short hand that can be given to each other, if you live in a state like Iowa or Nebraska (where I’m from), based on where you live. To live in Ames or Des Moines or Omaha is different from living in Nevada, Cresent, or Giltner. But you might know someone who moved to the “big city” or maybe your college roommate was from a farming town, so you suddenly have connectedness to those people and those places.

Part one of this book is about that dynamic and the very unsettling videos that Jeremy finds. For a while, we’re not given too many details about the videos except that they really throw Jeremy, and other characters, for a loop. Are they stuff films? Something Blair Witch-y? A deadly VHS video curse that needs to be passed on? The cover blurb (and, well, the title of the book) seems to imply some sort of cosmic horror. The point of view of the story is a very removed first person omniscient with a narrator who occasionally comments, somewhat intimately, on the events in the story, but doesn’t seem to be a character in the story. It is rather disconcerting.

What Didn’t Work…
Everything that wasn’t Iowa or creepy videos. The last two-thirds of the book somewhat explains what’s going on…somewhat. We flash back a generation for the history of a character that we have barely met and follow through her personal tragedies which in some ways mirror the tragedies in other character’s lives (notably, the loss of mothers). There was some level of menace to this, but mostly it was fairly unremarkable in comparison to the first third of the book.

Overall
The through line of the plot doesn’t quite work for me. Despite the long character histories, there are really very few answers given about what happened—why the videos were made, why people chose to participate in them, why they were spliced into random VHS tapes. Any conclusions I came to are nebulous. I’d say, if you’re looking for a literary novel that has a slight tinge of horror to it, this might be for you. I was really expecting something different.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/Overdrive, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 7, 2017
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: literary, horror

Hosted by Kate and Kim at Midnight Book Girl

Hosted by Andi @ Estella’s Revenge and Heather @ My Capricious Life

Mini Reviews, Vol. #9


My 20 15 10 Books of Summer efforts crashed pretty hard. I was going to make a last valiant effort during Bout of Books, but alas:

I ended up in digital libraries like some sort of ebook junky. So, here’s a wrap-up, not of 20 15 10 Books of Summer, but of what I ended up reading instead.*

alt text Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

As a kid growing up in the Midwest in the 80s, I don’t think there was any escaping the reach of pro wrestling. Even before he was the brute squad, one of the most recognizable “faces” in the wrestling industry was that of Andre the Giant. This is a no-nonsense graphic biography of Andre Roussimoff, warts and all. It’s also a nice snapshot of the world of professional wrestling as a business and an entertainment.

alt text Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell is my ultimate slump-buster. Don’t know what to read? In a mood? Rainbow Rowell. But, I didn’t like Landline as much as I have her other books. I loved the voice of it, but the characters and plot didn’t do it for me. In the end, it didn’t feel like the story went very far.

alt text The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee

So, I stumbled upon a book recommendation engine. “What should I read next?” That sort of thing. I plugged in The Last Unicorn (not what I just finished, but my favorite book of all time) and The Silver Metal Lover was the top of the list. And it was available through the Open Library, so…I thought I’d give it a go.

A YA dystopia, it is not my kind of book. Jane, our young protagonist, feels everything so acutely. She breaks away from her rich, controlling mother through the love of a good…robot. Despite the kind of ridiculous title, there’s not a lot of sex. Which is just fine. Instead there’s a ton of drama and peril. Maybe more sex would have been better.

* I did go 6/10 for my 10-ish Books of Summer, which isn’t a passing grade, but is actually better than I thought before I counted.

Reread ~ The Last Unicorn

Cover via Goodreads

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

She was magical, beautiful beyond belief — and completely alone…

The unicorn had lived since before memory in a forest where death could touch nothing. Maidens who caught a glimpse of her glory were blessed by enchantment they would never forget. But outside her wondrous realm, dark whispers and rumors carried a message she could not ignore: “Unicorns are gone from the world.”

Aided by a bumbling magician and a indomitable spinster, she set out to learn the truth. but she feared even her immortal wisdom meant nothing in a world where a mad king’s curse and terror incarnate lived only to stalk the last unicorn to her doom… (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I’m currently writing what I’m referring to as “light fantasy”: fantasy with more humorous animals and sly curses than armies and thrones. So, I decided to reread some of my favorites of the genre.

What Worked
During this reread, I noticed the themes of ownership more. I’ve always been intrigued by Mommy Fortuna’s  line “You never could have freed yourselves alone! I held you!” It’s a sentiment that is echoed over and over again as each character gains and loses something, but with attention that can be focused on the fate of that owned thing.

What Didn’t Work
I read aloud the first couple chapters of The Last Unicorn on our way back from Sacramento. I had noticed in Beagle’s last book, In Calabria, that occasionally the use of similes and metaphors is a bit…excessive. I had never really noticed it in Unicorn until I was reading it to Eric. I think our conversation went a bit like this:

Eric: Uh, that prose is a bit purple.
Me: …yeah.

Takeaway, in my own writing, make the similes special.

Overall
Still my favorite book. Peter S. Beagle, still one of my favorite writers. I’ll be reviewing his newest collection The Overneath in a couple month’s time.

Publishing info, my copy: paperback, ROC, 1991
Acquired: UNL’s bookstore, summer of 1993
Genre: fantasy, light fantasy

This is 5/10 Books of Summer!

Review ~ Club Deception

This book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Club Deception by Sarah Skilton

A glamorous romp through the scandals and secrets of LA’s most exclusive fictional magician’s society, CLUB DECEPTION.

Claire Fredericksson is the beating heart of CLUB DECEPTION, LA’s most exclusive magician’s society. She’s the Queen Bee of Magician WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends), and the genius behind her philandering husband Jonathan’s award-winning magic show. Claire’s life is upended by the arrival of two new women to the closed group of wives-Jessica, a young trophy wife with a secret, and Kaimi, an art expert looking for the long-lost Erdnase papers by posing as a girlfriend. When a magician rivalry erupts into murder, the women must uncover the truth and set things right for the men they love. With a cast of endurance experts, Vegas stage stars, and close-up card handlers, this novel weaves a tale of murder, fame, and many, many illusions. (via Goodreads)

Note: I did not finish this book.

Why was I interested in this book?
The magic/magician aspect of this book was the big draw for me. I was a bit hesitant though. Many of the books I’ve read with magic aspects get those things wrong, or (maybe worse) just use them as a light flavoring to the plot.

What Worked
Skilton does a great job with the magic. It’s not just “Houdini, yeah, he was a magician, right?” There’s references to tons of historical magicians and allusions to some modern ones. One of the plot points revolves around lost/stolen original drawings from Erdnase’s The Expert at the Card Table which is an excellent idea. From a magic standpoint: this was totally the book for me…

What Didn’t Work
…but otherwise, it’s not at all the book for me. Truly, I think this is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” I’ve never connected well with noir, which Club Deception shares some aspects of. I’m also not a fan of the heightened drama that goes along with Dynasty-like storytelling. It was hard for me to stay engaged with the story when most of the characters are scheming wives and unfaithful husbands. I stopped reading at the 32% mark because I really wasn’t enjoying my time with this book.

Overall
Despite the magic, I’m not the audience for Club Deception. Now, if you grew up with Dynasty and/or rather enjoyed Revenge (the 2011-2015 TV series) give this book a try.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ARC, Grand Central Publishing, July 25, 2017
Acquired: NetGalley, 5/22/17
Genre: mystery

This is 4/10 Books of Summer!

Review ~ The Last Days of Night

This book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history–and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?

The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society–the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal–private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?

In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
The late 19th century is a time of fantastic innovation. It was, as this book is titled, the last days of night before prevalence of electric lighting. This is also a time of industrialization of innovations. In the U.S., the notion of patrons directing invention was never a thing. Instead it’s patents and investments. And at the heart of the current war are Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

What Worked
Using the point of view of Paul Cravath, a lawyer, Moore allows the story to be, well, a story instead of a primer on electricity. Having said that, The Last Days of Night is more technologically sound than historically sound. All the characters are based on real people, even Paul, but characters are embellished and the events are consolidated and rearranged to serve the story. For the most part, this didn’t bug me as much as it has with other works.

Moore begins every chapter with an epigraph. These epigraphs are quotes by contemporaries of the story like Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla or modern innovators and technologists like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Karl Popper. The use of our present day Edison/Westinghouse—Gates and Jobs—give the story a feeling of scope. After all, isn’t the Apple/Microsoft desktop lawsuit the 20th century’s current war?

What Didn’t Work
While The Last Days of Night doesn’t get bogged down by the science-y aspects of the story, it also doesn’t have more than one speed. It chugs along at a good pace, but it lacks any of the tempo changes that signifies that something is actually happening in the story. The ending in particular felt flat to me and rather “Hollywood” in the way many things were wrapped up.

Overall
About mid-way through the books I felt that it would make a pretty good TV show. I later found out that it had already been optioned for a film with Moore serving as screenwriter. Indeed, Graham Moore wrote (and won an Oscar for) the screenplay for The Imitation Game, a movie that annoyed me a bit with the “Hollywood” rounding of Alan Turing’s story. Still, I’ll probably give The Last Days of Night a watch if it ever gets made. I like the period and I like the characters. The story can stand by itself.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, Random House, Sept. 20, 2016
Acquired: NetGalley, 5/11/17
Genre: historical fiction

This is 2/10 Books of Summer!

Review ~ The Lost World

Cover via Goodreads

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

Professor Challenger–Doyle’s most famous character after Sherlock Holmes–leads an expedition into the deepest jungles of South America. Together, the men–a young journalist, an adventurer and an aristocrat–along with their bearers and guides, search for a rumored country and encounter savagery, hardship and betrayal on the way. But things get worse as they get closer to the hidden world they seek. Trapped on an isolated plateau, menaced by hungry carnosaurs, it begins to look as though the expedition may never return. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Since reading The War of the Worlds back in December, I’ve been working my way through the “scientific romance” genre. I decided to branch out from H. G. Wells and read one of my favorite authors of the era: Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, I’m not sure I had ever read anything by Arthur Conan Doyle other than his Sherlock Holmes stories…

What Didn’t Work
Remember how in A Study in Scarlet there is a fairly long digression to the Salt Lake Valley and it’s perhaps not the most scintillating of Doyle’s writings? I felt that way about much of The Lost World. Parlors and the backstreets of London seem to be what Doyle does best. The wider world? Maybe not so much. (Doyle is one of my earliest writing influences; I don’t do the wider world any justice either. I blame you, ACD.)

What Worked
The thing that Doyle does do well is create problems for his characters. Being on safari in Brazil to an area filled with strange and dangerous beasts isn’t enough. No, our heroes must be firmly trapped, food and ammo dwindling, on a high plateau filled with dinosaurs and warring clans of natives and ape-men. As ornate as the problems are, so must the solutions be. Of course, Prof. Challenger and the rest are up to the task of escaping and proving to the world that the Lost World exists.

Honestly, I haven’t decided whether the gender politics of the story should go on the pro or con side of this review. The sole female character of this piece is Gladys, the object of affection for our narrator, Ned Malone. Honestly, she doesn’t seem that into Ned and sets him an impossibly task to win her love. I don’t know who’s worse here: Gladys for not telling Ned that she’s not interested, or Ned for buying into her BS and //***SPOILER***// being heart broken when he gets back and finds that she’s married a clerk //***END SPOILER***//. The whole situation almost feels like satire, which I’d be amused by. But I’m not sure it is.

Comparison With Wells
So far in this genre, I find that like Wells’ fiction better. Ranking what I’ve read in the past year would probably go like this:

  • The Island of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells, 1896
  • The Time Machine, H. G. Wells, 1895
  • The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells, 1898
  • The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912
  • The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells, 1897

Two things have thus far stuck out to me. First, Wells doesn’t really give the readers a hero to follow. Yes, there are geniuses in his stories, but they are ambiguous characters at best. Often, the narrator in a Wells tale is only managing to squeak by rather than being particularly heroic. In what I’ve read of Wells, there are no manly man like Prof. Challenger to save the day or even a Ned who is trying his damnedest to prove himself. Wells’ characters are survivors, while Doyle’s are conquerors.

Second, Wells always seems to have a point to make. While I don’t find him particularly preachy, or at least he balances it with entertainment, his views shine through. Doyle, less so. When Challenger and the other explorers help the “Indians” defeat the ape-men, there is some minor note about the horrors of weaponry and a smidge mention of colonialism, but mostly it’s celebration of the modern over the primitive. Mostly, I’m okay with Wells adding some politics to his stories.

Overall
The other two Professor Challenger stories sound very different from The Lost World, so I’ll probably give them a look. But probably not before I read more Wells.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle edition, The Project Gutenberg EBook, originally 1912
Genre: scientific romance

This is 1/10 Books of Summer!