Review: Gerald’s Game

3/5

 

 

 

Jessie and her husband have a game. He locks her up in real handcuffs, she pretends she doesn’t like it and wants to be set free. Except this time, she really does…

Every time I picked this book up, I was surprised by how far into it I was. I got to page two hundred or so, and realised nothing much had happened. That isn’t, by the way, a criticism, but praise of King’s writing skill. Who else could keep you turning the pages when all that’s happening is backstory? And it’s fairly obvious early on what’s at the bottom of Jessie’s backstory, at that.

So for most of the book, we get flashbacks into Jessie’s life, shifting randomly to her college years and to a solar eclipse when she was ten years old that defined and marred the rest of her life, until she finds herself submissive enough to be chained to a bed in the middle of nowhere with handcuffs she can’t escape from.

But what also kept me reading was how King was going to pull this off and get Jessie out of there. It didn’t seem likely he would kill her off at the end…Likely, but not impossible.

When the climax of the book arrives, it’s over in thirty breathless pages.

So those small things kept me reading for the three hundred or so pages, until something did happen. When the climax of the book arrives, it’s over in thirty breathless pages or so, and…

…that’s when it all fell apart. King spends the next twenty pages explaining the backstory of another character, before we finally get to Jessie’s ending (happy or otherwise, I won’t drop a spoiler).

I saw that giant epilogue when I was finishing this up last night and sighed. It felt very tacked on and unnecessary. Why not leave the ambiguity of what happened open? I hate to be vague, but unless you’ve read what went on, I don’t wish to spoil it.

This was written as a companion to Dolores Claiborne, and was meant to be a shorter story. There are elements there that mix in with Dolores: A single woman desperate and under pressure, incestuous fathers and abusive relationships. Tying them together is the single eclipse that changes both Dolores’s life and Jessie’s. I didn’t feel like I needed to have read DC to have read this though.

I wish I’d warmed to Jessie more and liked her better. I wasn’t rooting for her as much as I was for Dolores, which was a shame. Her passive personality annoyed me more than Dolores, although I understand why she was like it.

And as deep and exhaustive as her backstory was, I still don’t feel like I know her.

What do you think of books that share a fictional universe? Let me know!

Pancake Challenge!

On Tuesday, it was Pancake Day in the UK. Traditionally, people were supposed to use up food and not eat it again until Lent, six weeks later.

Personally, I just use it as an excuse to eat pancakes.

And “it’s raining” is enough of an excuse to eat pancakes for me, to be honest.

Any road up, my good friend and book buddy Becky from Blogs of a Bookaholic challenged me to link books to pancakes. Works for me!

These are pancakes.
This is Becky. She is, as far as I am aware, not a pancake.

It might seem an odd choice, but I’m going with Christine by Stephen King. There’s a particular section where Christine is chasing down another car (I should mention that she’s a haunted car, because, you know…Stephen King) and the scene is described so vividly that you are right there watching the whole thing unfold. It’s a great piece of writing.

Everyone in Patrick Ness’s books is a snarker of the highest order. I mean, everyone. He writes such vivid and solid characters it would be hard to pick one from the crowd. They are all amazing wits and his characters sparkle with life, even when his stories fall flat.

Becky went with Eleanor and Park, and that works for me as well! It’s something I could see myself dipping into just to enjoy the moments!

 

 

 

 

I’m going with a classic on this one – Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. I love the way he develops so well through the story until…ah, but that be a spoiler! He’s definitely one of my Dickens heroes.

 

 

 

More Than This is an odd, meta-fictional story. Is it really happening? What happens after the end? Why do plot elements appear just as the main character mentions them? There’s a lot of unanswered questions there…

Here’s an interesting choice: Sherlock Holmes. Much as love the stories, there’s no getting away from the fact that Holmes is an unsocial, smug, condescending jack ass. What makes it even worse? He’s always right. Curse that man and his intelligence!

But, more seriously, I could not be Watson and put up with Holmes for long. (And I love peanut butter…I just borrowed Becky’s graphic!)

Thank you for letting me borrow your graphics, Becky! This was fun!

Review: The Talisman

5/5

Chased east by the ambitious and power-hungry partner of his dead father, Jack Sawyer and his dying mother find themselves in New Hampshire, exiled from California. Jack is sent on a road trip back to the west coast to retrieve something called “The Talisman”.

Its description is vague to the point of non-existence by the man sending him on the trip. It’s the McGuffin that powers the plot along. But Jack is just desperate enough to try it…to try anything to save his mother.

And, it seems, not just his mother needs saving. Jack discovers he can travel to a parallel world called “The Territories”, a place which has “magic instead of physics.” (A world King would later expand into his Dark Tower series). Ruler of this place is a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jack’s mother, a dying queen who also needs saving from the Territories equivalent of his father’s partner.

There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to leave the book alone.

The Talisman is not a short book by any means…but the best part? I didn’t even notice, because the pages flip by so easily. From Jack’s first trips into the Territories to the horrors and good friends he finds in this world and the other, nothing lags or drops. There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to leave the book alone, even though I’ve read it before and knew where it was all going.

At the time of publication (around 1984), this was touted as an adult horror story, I believe. But horror forms such a small part of the story that it seems like a mis-identification: This is odyssey, this is Frodo and Sam growing as characters as they travel the road to Mordor.

This is all about the journey. This is about finding strength you didn’t know you had, discovering who your friends are, finding friends willing to die for you as you would for them.

This is as much about a twelve year old boy discovering what it takes to turn into a man, and what sort of man he wants to turn in to.

In 1984, this was classed as adult fiction, but there’s nothing here that a teenager couldn’t read. I would class it as young-adult, actually, both in terms of protagonist and the themes that run through it. And like the best of YA, there’s something there for all of us, no matter how old we are.

I like to call it “The best book by Stephen King you’ve probably never heard of.” But in two words instead of eleven: It’s bloody brilliant.

Drop everything else and go read it. Right now.

(This slightly modified review first appeared on Goodreads in 2012)

Movies: Stand by Me (1986)

“The kid wasn’t sick. The kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid was dead.”

I can narrow down when I first saw Stand By Me to a period of two or three years in the late 1980s. I’m guessing ‘87 or early ’88. I remember which room of the house I was in and where I was sitting.

I remember it so well for a lot of reasons: My brother rented it (on VCR tape!) and brought it home with some other movies and some friends. They watched the other movies first; to this day, I have no idea what they were.

Then they stuck on Stand By Me and promptly fell asleep. But I never felt less like sleeping in my life. I sat there completely captivated by it. Hey! Kids my age! And not acting like they were five years old!

By the times the credits rolled, I loved this movie.

But there was more there. The power of the acting and the strength of the characters pulled me into their world and their search for the kid killed by a train. I had a moment of uncertainty and doubt when they fell in the swamp and went down to their underwear: I’d seen quite a few films where that happened and the characters never get dressed again, but the film thankfully picked itself up and carried on. By the time the credits rolled, I loved this movie.

It was a long time before I discovered this was a Stephen King novella in a four story collection called Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, and I was just as enchanted with the story as the film. Dig it out and read a copy when you get a minute.

Then in 1990, something happened to my brother. He was driving too fast on a slippery road, rolled the car he was in, and died.

I didn’t see SBM for another few years after that, and suddenly it had more relevance than ever. After all, the last time I’d seen it, my brother was sleeping four feet away from me. It changed from a film to become a personal where-were-you-when moment for me.

In April my older brother Dennis had been killed in a Jeep accident. Four months had passed but my parents still hadn’t been able to put the pieces back together again.

Check.

Chris:  Gordie?
Gordie:  Why did you have to die?

Gordie:  Why did he have to die, Chris? Why did Denny have to die? Why?

Check and check  again.

It’s a movie that resonates for me on so many levels. It touches the part of me that still grieves for a dead brother after nearly thirty years.

You won’t have the same experience as me watching it, I realise that. It’s a very personal journey for me, as much as it is for Gordie LaChance.

Stand By Me is more than a movie for me: It’s a memory and an experience, one of the mileposts of my life.

Review: Eleanor and Park

5/5

Park doesn’t think much of Eleanor when he first sees her on the school bus. And Eleanor doesn’t think much of Park when she’s forced to sit next to him either…

Wow. That was something else.

Where to start with E&P? I’d start with the ending, but to do so would feel like a major spoiler, and it’s not something I want to spoil for anyone, even by dropping it under the safety of hidden text. Just read the book for yourself, then we’ll talk about the ending.

I wanted to talk about the ending so much when I finished it, I almost bothered my book-buddy friend on a Sunday night when she probably had better things to do. I would have asked my wife about it, but she’d have to read it first, and I didn’t want to wait that long.

But enough ending-related vagueness. What can I tell you about this book?

The simplicity of the writing pulls you in and along for the ride. The sentence structure is simple, almost an elementary level. But those simple sentences have complex themes poured into them. It’s like minimalism for writing; all the power is underneath the words. It drags you down the page and pulls you through the book.

There are no easy answers to the questions asked around the edges of this story. Eleanor is pushed into hard and uncomfortable shapes by the world she lives in. She cares deeply for her brothers and sisters, but finds she can’t drown with them and she can only save herself when the waters close over her head. Park, by comparison, seems to have life easy, but there are undercurrents to his life that make his footing less secure than it seems.

I liked the additional complexity of having it set in 1986 as well. Eleanor can’t simply reach into a back pocket and call 911, any more than she can call Park. He’s only a few blocks away, but it might as well be miles.

And how lost Park is without Eleanor, the music gone from his life both metaphorically and literally. The songs he’s never going to be able to listen to again. Ah, man.

It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again.

I loved the way this book made me remember how it all felt. It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again, for the first touch of a hand in ours.

(Falling asleep listening to your love on the phone, the conversations about nothing that mean everything. The first time you ever made someone a mix tape. Yeah, I’m that old I can remember doing those: The careful selection and editing, the struggle to get everything to fit onto a 90 minute space. Trying to squeeze your personality down to thirty songs. Even though I didn’t get there until I met my wife – my own Eleanor in style and bearing if not by name – until ten years later than Park, I still went through it all.)

I was almost blubbering and had to stop sometimes when I was reading this, because it’s so fragile, what Eleanor and Park have.

I felt like I would break it by looking at it for too long, and that would make my heart ache for its lost beauty.

It’s wonderful to watch these two fall for the first time, as we have all fallen. And in watching, we remember when they were us.

Books of the year: 2018

Another year on Goodreads!

My year in books at Goodreads.

I’ve been a member there since 2012, which raises an eyebrow from me when I think about it. Six years of reading habits!

22 books this year, which sounds about average for me. One every two weeks seems about right!

I managed to knock two books from my I-will-read-everything-by-Dickens list. Hard Times was a surprise for me: I was expecting something in a prison, or more brutal, but it wasn’t like that all. It’s one of my top four Dickens novels (so far!).

Two five stars highlighted there for the outstanding The Hate U Give, an extraordinary first novel from Angie Thomas. Read it!

And I loved Eleanor and Park (review coming in Jan 2019!), a book myself and my pen-friend are still discussing on and off.

The Stephen King’s this year followed a pattern of single female characters in peril. Of those, Dolores Claiborne was the highlight, but I enjoyed The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon right until the closing pages.

Endings being a weakness of King’s, he also managed to ruin Gerald’s Game for me by wandering off into some sub-plot I didn’t need to know.

More disappointments this year than highlights: Scythe didn’t really work for me, and Release was even worse. I expected better from Shusterman and Ness… Challenger Deep is more like it, guys!

The Children of Men spent too long on unnecessary backstory and the plot just plodded along, and Gray Mountain was John Grisham out of the court room and out of his comfort zone.

Three new fiction authors this year: PD James, Gillian Flynn and Joe Hill. Of those, I think Hill is the one I’m likely to go back to.

I already have some books lined up for next year (Dry, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the end of the World. Thanks, Becky!), and there’s the sequel to A Handmaid’s Tale due in November.

I should have finished all of Dicken’s novels by this time next year, which is something in itself! Then it’s on to his short stories. How did this man have time for ten children and two wives?

What books did you read this year? Which ones stick with you and which did you forget you’d read? Let me know!

Review: Moondust

2/5

In 1999, Andrew Smith was interviewing Charlie Duke, astronaut and moon walker, when he was interrupted. A fellow moon-walker had died, and now there were only nine of them left. Inspired and motivated by the fact that soon there would be none, Smith set out to track them down and talk to them about their experiences…

The first thing to note about this book is how much harder it would be to write today. Now, instead of nine, there are only four left (October 30, 2018). Soon there will be none, which is an astonishing thought: For three years, mankind sent people to the moon and then never bothered again.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts.

I know a fair bit about the Apollo program, but Smith throws facts and information into his mix that I wasn’t aware of. He develops relationships with some of the astronauts, and struggles with others. I was most fascinated by the two introverts – Neil Armstrong and John Young. Armstrong avoided all attempts at a face-to-face interview, but Young was stranger: He sat with Smith at a conference table, not opposite, but one chair offset, and gave his bare replies to the wall.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts, which I found amusing, since I am one and he’d presumably have as much trouble talking to me. He seems a pleasant enough fellow, but I wonder about his skill as an interviewer if he can’t get what he wants from his subject.

The most annoying thing about the book is Smith’s writing style. Here’s a sample of his compound, complex sentence structure:

“Houston would never win a beauty contest, but Bean’s neighbourhood on the edge of town is lovely, like a series of causeways cut through a friendly forest, saluted by all manner of towering, weeping trees, no one’s idea of Texas.”

…and he runs these throughout the book. Full stops, man. Use. Them.

Also, Smith drops references to the 1960s and assumes his audience is familiar with them. He talks about “Warhol’s Electric Circus” as though we know what he means. Some context would have been nice.

This is a book as much about Smith’s journey as the astronauts. He wonders why he feels motivated to do this project and shifts from controlling fathers to the astronauts as mirrors for ourselves.

At some point, he realises, the experience stopped being the astronauts and became our expectation of it. We all went to the moon, and we all came back with something different.

But we also all came back with the same thing: How fragile we really are.

Review: Dolores Claiborne

4/5

Accused of a crime she didn’t commit, Dolores Claiborne sits down with the sheriff of her little island community and tells him what happened. And to explain that, she has to tell him why she murdered her husband thirty years before…

I’ve said it before in my review of The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, but I’ll repeat it here: King does his best work when it’s him and a few other characters. Never mind his sprawling epics with a hundred people like IT and Under the Dome.

He works best when he can dig into a character and scoop them out, when it’s just the two of them locked together. For me, that’s why his short stories are things I read and re-read.

And boy, does he do it well with Dolores. Right from the first line, you’re pulled into this woman’s head and taken along with her as she talks her way through the story. The style is an uninterrupted narrative without chapter breaks or section breaks, a recording of her conversation with the local sheriff.

And it’s only her talking. We get snippets like this:

What’s that, Andy? Yeah, that’s what I said, weren’t you listenin to me first time?

But mostly we listen to her voice and her accent and her life and we’re carried away with it. There’s nothing flat here; this feels like a real woman talking and telling her life story, and it’s captivating. The hard choices she makes, the hard life she leads with a drunken and abusive husband and the hard and (very rich) woman she works for, Vera.

There are moments of black comedy as Vera and Dolores try and outsmart each other. Vera is bed-bound, and out of meanness or just boredom, tries to avoid bed-pan duty. Dolores counters, and Vera counters back. It’s two very smart and very tough women playing speed chess with a bedpan. It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t make you laugh and yet it does.

Then there are moments of great empathy as well. Vera is losing her mind, and Dolores would often climb into bed with her and hold her until she slept when the nightmares came. Dolores feels the emptiness of the giant house where they live and needs the warmth of another human as much as Vera, it seems.

In many ways, their relationship reminded me of the two women in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? They’re tied together in love and hate because they have nothing else. Their husbands are dead and their children are gone. All they have is each other, and that’s better than nothing.

I discovered that this is related to another book, Gerald’s Game, but I haven’t read that and didn’t feel like I missed anything.

The only reason this drops a star is that King seems to run out of steam a little after the death of Dolores’s husband. Not a sense of ticking boxes, but there’s a sense of wrapping up the few loose ends and finishing off, and the narrative seems to lose a little power.

One of my top five Kings, and one I shall be returning to.

And one final note: I’m not one for audio books, but I bet this is a kick-ass one.