Review: Rose Madder

 

4/5

 

 

A small event in the battered life of Rose Madder makes her reach a decision: Leave her violently abusive husband of fourteen years, or stay until he kills her…

King rates this as one of his least favourite books, for some reason. I didn’t see that at all. Much as Rose does, I’ve known a woman leave her abusive partner with nothing but the clothes she’s wearing. I know the absolute, not-all-heroes-wear-capes quality bravery it takes to do that. The terror of him that made her twitch every time a car drove by. For me, this story seems pretty spot on.

It shines through the writing that he wants to give Rose a chance.

King grants Rose with bravery, strength of character, modesty and grace. He clearly has nothing but respect for her, and utter contempt (as we do as readers) for the husband chasing her. It shines through the writing that he wants to give Rose a chance, and a happy ending. Well…not quite a happy ending. Rose doesn’t escape without scars she can’t help rubbing her hands over.

So far, so faultless. Rose is one of the best female characters King has created, right up there for me with Dolores Claiborne. The same for her backup posse of characters. Her friend Gert gets a chance to kick ass late in the book, and I practically cheered.

But that didn’t seem like enough: He also has to make Rose’s husband Norman completely beyond redemption, so far into a villain that he almost becomes a caricature. So he not only hates women, but is homophobic, racist and psychopathic. Every bad character trait is poured into Norman. It’s not hard to hate Norman, but Norman is a walking stereotype. Subtler characterisation might have made more complex.

King doesn’t feel confident enough to give us the ending we want.

This is a book about strong women, but King doesn’t feel confident enough to give us the ending we want: We want Rose to kick Norman’s ass, we want Rose to find a way to be rid of him forever. Instead, we’re given a substitute from another dimension. It is another woman (sort of) who takes care of Norman, and that woman is a metaphorical twin. But it’s the not the same.

In the climax, Rose believes she’s empowered by a trinket she discovered in that other dimension. Sometime later, she discovers the trinket wasn’t with her. The power is in her all along is the not so subtle message.

Rose demonstrated over the past three hundred pages that’s she capable, she’s resourceful, she’s more than brave. Give her the freedom to solve her own problems when push comes to shove, Mr King!

Review: Full Dark, No stars

3/5

 

 

Four novellas of revenge from Stephen King:

1922 – A farmer murders his wife who threatens to sell his land.

Big Driver – A murder-mystery writer is raped and left for dead.

Fair Extension – A man bargains for his life – at a cost.

A Good Marriage – A woman discovers an alarming secret about her husband of nearly thirty years.

Sometimes, I think King tries too hard to be taken “seriously” as a writer. It feels like the pin of “master of horror” starts to dig under his skin, and he can’t stop rubbing it. Then he tries stories like this, more literary attempts at story telling than his usual horror. Sometimes they work, and sometimes – most times for me – they don’t. That’s generally how I felt about these.

 They were too flat and two dimensional to make me care enough.

There was a detachment from the characters I felt throughout every story: I was watching them, but not feeling them. They were too flat and two dimensional to make me care enough about them or the motives for their revenge. There’s a lack of closure with the stories which seemed missing as well.

In 1922, for instance, I was more interested in the farmer’s son who goes off the rails than the tale of the farmer himself. The horror level in this one is awesome though.

Big Driver didn’t move me as much as it should have, and the messy revenge didn’t feel like it worked at all.

Fair Extension felt like a story fragment expanded past its novelty. King is clearly having fun with the genre-savvy main character talking to the Devil, but doesn’t know what to do with it after that. It’s also oddly unsatisfying to have a character make a deal with the devil and not be punished for it somehow.

A Good Marriage was the strongest of the set. The depth of characterisation is better than the others, and the pacing is excellent. There’s even an emotional third act epilogue which works very well and brings the only sense of closure in the set.

A disappointing collection on the whole. I’ve read a lot better from King.

What do you think King’s short stories and novella collections? Let me know!

Review: Fahrenheit 451

1/5

 

 

Guy Montag burns books for a living, those heretical, contradictory, awful things that encourage people to think…

The thing with the Ray Bradbury’s I’ve come across: They aren’t really novels, or stories. Bradbury writes dense, metaphorical blank prose, and the story and everything else is dragged along behind it.

There really isn’t any characterisation to speak of and world building is slender. No one is physically described beyond a metaphorical level. The city and country where Montag works isn’t named. When you’ve read a few, you just accept this and move on.

Some of it is quite beautiful:

The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward.

And Guy’s phallic relationship with his fire hose and fire department (“With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world”). He also slides and grips the firemans pole a few times.

And, then, some of it doesn’t work at all. Be warned: Bradbury never uses a metaphor when he can use six.

He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact.

Starts off fine, but then he pushes it too far. Are her eyes bright water or violet amber? His writing is like this throughout the story: metaphors and similes pushed until they break, then another and another. His dialogue is more of the same.

Bradbury isn’t someone I’m ever going to enjoy reading, I don’t think. He’s a dessert that’s far too sickly to stomach a large serving.

Luckily, this only took me a few hours to read. Without the dense paragraphs of metaphor, this would be a short story fleshed out to novella length. Curiously enough, in the afterword that’s exactly what Bradbury says happened.

Have you read any Ray Bradbury? Did you enjoy it? Let me know!

Movies: Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)

Whoopi’s dentist advised brushing at least three hundred times a day.

It’s been a good few years for women in movies. There was Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel for a start, and the super-smart Shuri from The Black Panther films. I liked her!

Wonder Woman was especially praised for having that rarest of things – a female director in a mainstream movie.

But back in 1986, before those billion-dollar box offices and about a month or so after Ripley wiped out some Aliens, something else happened.

Not many people noticed, but I think it’s worth looking at again…

Whoopi Goldberg plays a woman who works at an electronic funds transfer terminal in a bank. She stumbles into an online conversation with a British agent named Jack, trapped behind the Iron Curtain. She decides to save him.

Sounds simple? Take that second sentence for a start: She stumbles into an online conversation. In 1986, Whoopi is online dating, and he’s not even in the same country. She’s never seen Jack or heard his voice (In a nice scene later in the movie, she hears his phone messages: From then on, all his messages are in his accent).

Whoopi is way out of her league chasing spies and helping him. But that doesn’t stop her from trying to help Jack out, despite people being shot and disappearing around her. She knows she’s out of her depth, and it doesn’t slow her down one bit.

She’s a capable and resourceful woman.

She doesn’t need to go to anyone for help on this. She’s a capable and resourceful woman, strong and independent. She improvises, she comes up with strategies and plans to help Jack out. She kicks ass when she needs to.

No men needed. I like that in a movie.

You know the other good things about this movie?

black woman saves the life of a white guy. When was the last time you saw that happen anywhere in fiction? And the least interesting thing to any of the characters is the colour of their skins.

And when Jack appears, he’s not classically handsome (That’s Jonathan Pryce, who you might recognise from the Pirates of the Caribbean films). Whoopi fell in love with the voice and the character before she met him. That’s all that matters.

There’s still more…

You know who directed this film?

Yep. A woman named Penny Marshall.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash sits in bargain bins and cheap rate movie rentals, lumped under the genre of “comedy”. But look again, and you can see how many fences it kicked over. How different our movies today might be if anyone had noticed.

Do you know any under-appreciated movies? Let me know!

A tale of two movies: You’ve got mail (1998)

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Just for fun, I thought I’d review an old favourite of mine today: You’ve got mail.

Along with disaster movies, I have a soft spot for rom-coms. You’ve got mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan is one that resonates with me, because I met my wife online through an AOL chatroom (as the characters do), and it’s one of the first movies we watched together.

But the last time I watched it, something occurred to me that changed everything…

The Nice

The story is that our Meg lives a quiet life running a quiet bookshop in New York. She’s never wandered close to the cliff edges of her life and looked down, and she’s never thought about what would happen if the cliff ever gave way…

She talks online to a man she’s never met, spilling her innermost thoughts and desires to this man without even knowing his name. Unfortunately for her, the man is our Tom, who owns a mega-bookstore around the corner from Meg’s bookshop. It pushes our Meg over the edge of one of those cliffs.

Since Tom doesn’t know who Meg is either, much mis-understanding results until they all get it sorted out at the end. About halfway through, Tom figures it out, but realises he needs to change before Meg will go near him. He starts a project to win her over by getting to know her in real life.

And the ending where Meg is standing there figuring it all out as Tom walks towards her makes me tear up every time.

No, that’s just something in my eye, I’m not crying. You’re crying.

The Nasty

I work in a school, in IT, and one of the things we have to be aware of (and not just me, everyone who works here) is something called “safeguarding”. The internet, for all its wonders, is a dangerous place. There are people out there who want to groom our pupils for their own malicious ends.

So let’s look at You’ve got mail again:

Meg talks online to a man she’s never met, spilling her innermost thoughts and desires to this man without even knowing his name. They’ve agreed anonymity. Meg has no idea who she’s talking to, or what he’s doing with that information. She doesn’t even know if it’s one man or several sharing the same account. Some major red flags right there!

About halfway through, Tom figures it out. He doesn’t tell Meg this. He blatantly manipulates her throughout the rest of the movie, pulling her along. His online knowledge of her allows him to twist Meg into the shape he wants until she is convinced she’s in love with him.

At the same time, his online persona continues to tease her interest for the eventual meeting. Tom even says towards the end, “He waited until you were primed. Until you knew there was no other man you could ever love.”

Ted Bundy was charming too!

This is textbook grooming. Tom has cut Meg off from her boyfriend and isolated her from her business and her friends. He’s spun her and confused her enough that she can’t help fall in love with him. It’s like a manual of how to manipulate someone.

The second interpretation isn’t one I like to see when I watch this movie. But the subtext is there, never the less, and makes the outcome of the movie all the more disturbing because of it.

Not so cute now, huh?

Have you ever seen You’ve got mail? Do you think Tom is a sociopath or a good guy? Let me know!

Review: The Last

 

2/5

 

 

Civilisation blows itself apart in a nuclear war, and a small party of survivors begin their new life in an isolated Swiss hotel. Only one of them may be a murderer…

Reading a premise like that, you’d think this was a murder-mystery. Reading reviews on the back that say this is like “Ten Little Indians” you’d think the twenty guests would drop like murdered flies every night. You’d think the other guests would flitter and scurry about the hotel in fear of their lives.

There’s more of a Lord of The Flies feel to what’s going on.

But no…there’s actually only one murder, and the only person who cares is the narrator. There’s more of a Lord of The Flies feel to what’s going on. How do you construct a civilisation in miniature? Who decides: death penalty or exile for a crime when there are no police or courts to take the burden? There are also existential conversations on the nature of religion, both as a source of comfort and as a source of antagonism.

There are conversations about what happens when every single thing you love and work for has disappeared in a nuclear fire…who do you become after that? Some good explorations on the different natures of shock and trauma. Some guests give up, some hoard and prepare, while others obsess to the point of mania.

So most certainly not a murder-mystery, and I find it odd it was ever advertised as such. In a typical rolling-eyes-give-me-a-break murder mystery move though, the murder is resolved in the last five pages with information we didn’t have. The main drive of the story feels like a casually thrown in afterthought.

Stereotypes fill the hotel: A Japanese woman is described as delicate and graceful, speaking with a calm voice; the black security guard is aggressive and the dominant male; the beautiful woman is a loner and a bitch.

Character dialogues became indistinguishable from each other.

Towards the last thirty pages, the plot became unravelled and started to break. Character dialogues became indistinguishable from each other as it hurried towards a weak anti-climax.

What started out as a solid and intriguing idea ran out of steam in the second act and rolled to a complete stop by the end. There’s a curious note added to the end as potentially a sequel hook, but I won’t be looking out for it.

Have you ever read a book advertised as one genre when it’s not? Let me know!

The Book Thief

2/5

 

 

The place is a suburb of Munich and the time is World War Two. Watching the small life of young girl Liesel Meminger is Death, but it’s not her he’s here to collect…

This was a re-read from 2012, and I’m confused as to why I rated it four stars last time. Death cannot keep himself from interrupting this story and robs it of all momentum.

*** A Small Note ***

Momentum: noun; plural noun: momenta

1. Physics: The quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity.

2. The impetus gained by a moving object.

3. The impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events.

Yeah, kind of like that. Except those inter-textual notes are every other page. Just when you’re feeling like you’re digging into the story and relaxing, one of those notes pops up and throws you back out again. It’s like a book full of footnotes, destroying the flow of the story. Or like someone blowing one of those party poppers into your face every page or two. It did the story no favours whatsoever.

There’s little character development or story arc.

Not that there was much story to start with. It’s more like a series of vignettes of Liesel’s life, most of which was simple repetition: She would get shouted at by her mother (The author also seems to have learnt one German swear word, saumensch and the masculine saukerl and is determined to use it five times a page), she would go somewhere with her friend Rudy. Repeat this for three hundred pages or so. There’s little character development or story arc for Liesel or anyone else, and what there is becomes fractured by the annoying asides of Death.

Death also has no idea what a metaphor or a simile is either, coming out with some absurd images: “He watched the parade with the blinds drawn across his face.” – “Liesel sat with her hands between her knees in the long legs of the day.” The metaphors aren’t effective, and only make the prose pretentious.

Did anything work for me? Only the last thirty pages or so had any emotion woven into them and I teared up as I read them. Tellingly, those are the same pages where Death shuts up for a change.

Have you ever rated a book lower on a re-read? Let me know!

Review: The Girl on the Train

 

1/5

 

 

Commuting to and from a fictional workplace on the same train every day, Rachel gets to know the backs of the homes she passes and has time to imagine the people who live in them. She even names them and gives them lives…but then reality comes back with a crash when one of them is murdered…

Ugh. That was deeply unpleasant. Hawkins seems to have decided that “thriller” means “plot from East Enders soap opera”. So we have a woman slipping into alcoholism; lots and lots of vomit (Seriously: Hawkins loves the word and loves the grossness of it); women being serially unfaithful – every one of them; men being abusive physically and psychologically just for fun; screaming and crying all around and generally unpleasant behaviour.

There isn’t anyone with a moral standing or a fibre of decency.

There isn’t a character in here I was rooting for. There isn’t anyone with a moral standing or a fibre of decency. We have a man whose wife died and he’s sleeping with another woman inside of a week. We have a therapist who sleeps with his patient.

Everyone seems fine with this, by the way: The therapist is still seeing patients after this is discovered, rather than…gosh, I don’t know…being suspended and struck off. We have a man with a very small child sleeping with the babysitter while his wife is asleep upstairs.

Ugh and ugh again.

There are quite a few points I wanted to scream at the people in this book. Rachel is our girl on the train. Not woman on the train, girl.

No woman in this book is defined in any other terms than their relationship to the men in it. Rachel is defined by her abandonment by her husband (Tom) for another woman. Anna, Rachel’s replacement, is a weak and feeble shadow of a woman who can’t put her foot down and does nothing about Rachel’s semi-stalking. And by nothing, I mean nothing. Rachel sometimes phones Tom when she’s drunk. Anna and Tom tolerate this rather than…gosh, I don’t know…changing their phone number.

I figured out who the killer was on page ninety (nothing really happened for the first eighty pages or so), so it came as no surprise at all when the reveal rolled around.

Grimly unpleasant characters with no morality, lots of running mascara and emasculated women only defined by the men in their lives. I could go on, but this book has taken up too much of my life already.

How disappointing does a book have to be to rate one star from you? Let me know!

Review: The Hobbit

4/5

 

 

Coerced into accompanying thirteen dwarves on an adventure to kill a dragon and grab some treasure, the home-loving Hobbit Bilbo Baggins eventually has the adventure of his life…

I’m forty-six right now and just picked it up for the first time.

Well, it’s taken me a while to get around to this one, hasn’t it? Most people read this as children, and I’m forty-six right now and just picked it up for the first time. What took me so long?

Mostly, I really don’t do stories where they name swords, just on principle. It’s just one of those things, alongside avoiding books where muscular men don’t wear shirts on the cover. It’s just not my bag, baby. I tried Lord of The Rings once and got halfway down the first page before I gave up.

Fortunately, there were only three swords named.

I also think if you’re naming a sword, you might want to think about your fictional life a little more. Having said that, I read all of Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series, and there’s lots of sword and axe naming in there. Fortunately, there were only three swords named in here, so I’ll give that one a pass.

If you know The Hobbit, as most people seem to, you really don’t need much of a plot recap than the title. What kept me interested was the blistering pace that Tolkien sets: Only a chapter for each creature – goblin, elf, man-bear, whatever, before he was moving on to the next.

I suspect Tolkien didn’t know how to kill off the dragon.

It wasn’t until Bilbo and company reach Smaug that it started to drag for me. I suspect Tolkien didn’t know how to kill off the dragon once he got there.

There’s not much to fault it. It’s a clever mixing of the everyday and the fantastic, something Harry Potter learned well. It touches our childhood imaginings of creatures under bridges and hiding in holes in the ground, just out of sight.

The story is charming and funny and very entertaining, and I can see why people develop a lifelong bond with Tolkien, Middle Earth and fantasy after they read it.

How old were you when you first read this? Let me know!

Review: The Shadow of The Wind

3/5

 

 

At the age of ten, Daniel Sempero is taken to a “forgotten cemetery of books” in Barcelona and told to choose one. It starts him on a quest that comes to determine the rest of his life…

I believe Stephen King said somewhere that he considers a story a promise to the reader: I’m promising you a good time, and I’m going to try my hardest to keep that promise when I write. If I fail, I know I tried my best.

I don’t think Zafon gave us his best. He gave us a first draft, full of hard turns that needed smoothing into corners. There were a lot of tangents we didn’t need to read because the story was strong enough without them.

In one instance, an aged nanny of an off-screen, never seen, character relates how her long-ago husband put a bag over her head when they had sex. Did that matter to the plot? No. Was it important? No. Was it in the story? Yes. Yes it was. For no reason whatsoever.

And that tangent was straight on the heels of another chapter of filler about an insane asylum where the nanny was detained. It didn’t do a thing except show Zafon had done his research, and by Harry, we were going to read it!

What it reminded me of…beginning writing guides mostly say the same thing: Compose a little backstory for every character, where they were born, who they fell in love with, etc, before you start writing. Then they go on to say leave it out of the story. The same with research. We don’t need to hear 99% of it.

The main story is set in the 1950s, but I also had trouble believing it. Characters relate details from the 1920s and 30s as though it were a few years ago, not twenty and thirty. It’s off putting as well, the fact that each of them has such perfect recall. One remembers that Carax’s father couldn’t sleep after a revelation. How would they know this?

And: How would someone know how a character smiled to the prostitutes who lived across the hall from him in 1948 or whenever? How would someone relating a story third hand know that a voice on the phone was asthmatic? It strained the narrative to a breaking point at times.

There were a lot of genres thrown into the story: Coming of age, tragedy, comedy, Victorian melodrama, Gothic horror, murder mystery. Some of it even felt like a YA story. It lent the whole thing an unfocused quality that didn’t help the narrative.

It’s difficult to separate the characters from the writer sometimes. I sincerely hope that Zafon doesn’t consider women as objects to be smashed and knocked around, or that all he can see in them is sex or purity, with nothing in between. That’s all the women in this story are. It was set in the 1950s, but that doesn’t make the degradation of women easy to read.

And they have no internal lives except as mirrors that reflect the men around them. For example, a woman goes to Paris. She doesn’t marvel at the Metro, or visit the Eiffel Tower. She’s only complete there because a man is with her, and when she leaves, she’s incomplete. And remains so until, again, a man fills her life. Another ends up a desolate aging divorcee who has no life without a man in it. The woman who becomes Dan’s wife is the only one who seems to have a mind of her own.

Every character is torn apart from loneliness and isolation, pushing them to melodrama and desperate acts. It’s fine for the story, but everyone seemed to have their dials up to eleven all the time. Almost every motion and scene felt like the characters were chewing the scenery.

Dan remained the shallowest character throughout the story, a passive player…there wasn’t much depth to him beyond a horny teenager. Comic relief Fermin and the villain Fumero were the strongest. In fact, I was as terrified of psychopathic Fumero as the characters were. Whenever he appeared, he’d invoke a physical reaction of dread.

Counter balancing all this are moments of great beauty, powerful writing and wonderful descriptive passages. Zafon knows how to write weather so well that you feel it on your skin. In the last pages, a character opens a new book and “inhales the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books”. Beautiful. “Books are mirrors that reflect what we already are.” Someone says (Significant, then, that Fumero the villain has so few).

There are three more of these Forgotten Cemetery books, but I suspect they might all be essentially the same narrative voice and tangents, so I won’t be adding them to my TBR any time soon. Run them through an editor first, and then let me know when you have.

 

This was my second buddy read with my good friend Becky. She also hangs out a lot these days on Instagram.

(She’s still not a pancake, by the way!)

She’s always fun to read with, and I’m proud to call her my friend. She spots things I never notice, and vice-versa! It’s like reading a book with someone else’s brain.

And I don’t mean that in a trivial way.

She saw things I completely missed, like the sexism and the degradation of women throughout the story. I think that says a lot about how densenitised I am to it that I didn’t notice. But once she pointed it out, I realised how prevalent it was.

I’ve walked in Becky’s shoes for a while and caught a glimpse of the red flags she must see every day, flags I never realised were waving.

Because I’m a male, I don’t have to live in a world where every gesture I make or clothes I pick at random can be construed as something sexual or provocative. I’m sorry the women of the world have to live in a world like that. I’m sorry that I’ve let things like that pass without noticing them.

What particularly stuck with me was a rape scene she mentioned that I (and the story) just breezed over…but it caught in her mind.

Seeing the world through her eyes with this buddy read has been a learning experience for me and one I’m going to be considering for a long time.