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: 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.

Review: Brother in the Land

3/5

 

 

Danny Lodge is one of the unlucky ones when World War Three breaks out – he’s one of the survivors…

First up: I don’t usually mention covers of books, which change from edition to edition, but this one was particularly hideous. I feel like someone let their kid play with Photoshop for ten minutes. Small wonder YA was so unappreciated for so long…

 I would have been reading this when I was twelve when it came out.

The book was written in 1984, so it falls right into the middle of my demographic – I would have been reading this when I was twelve when it came out, right in the middle of my watching Threads and The Day After and I have no doubt it would have left a permanent impact on me if I had come across it.

And since it was published in 1984, it’s an interesting experience to see how much YA has matured since. Characterisation is non-existent and the events are sanitised and far more cosmetic than they would be today. Radiation sickness, third degree burns and nuclear winter are all off page or non-existent.

The last YA I read was Dry by Neal / Jarrod Shusterman, published in 2019, and what a difference that was…

I don’t mean this as a criticism of 80s YA. This is simply how it worked for a long time. There was no perception that teenagers could handle anything more than the slim thirty thousand words this book contains, no perception they could handle more than cardboard characters.

One plus for that shortness is that the book zooms along, event after event, with little pause for reflection or for the characters to catch up.

Swindells decides to really go for it.

Then something happens roughly three quarters of the way through: Swindells decides to really go for it. He pours on the bleakness and desperation and ramps it up. This is the book we should have been reading from the first pages, and it’s grim and sobering stuff.

Even sanitised and cleaned, it’s a brutal exploration of a war that might still happen.

Have you ever found a great book hiding behind a hideous cover? Let me know!

Review: Bird Box

3/5

 

 

 

No one has seen them and survived. No one knows what they look like – or even if they exist as more than mass hysteria. All people know is the result when they do see one: psychotic rage and suicide. Malorie doesn’t believe it until her sister becomes another victim…

Despite there being moments of absolute and complete cold terror in this story, it all felt flat to me. There’s far too much telling and not enough showing going on. I can understand it when the characters are blindfolded (“Tom sounded happy.”), but not when the blindfolds are off.

I’d rate it a lot higher if I felt for these people.

Because of that, there’s a distance between the characters and their fates that left the apocalyptic climax empty and hollow. Which is a shame; I’d rate it a lot higher if I felt for these people rather than had them described to me.

There are other structural problems as well: Malerman also tells most of the story through flashback, and when flashbacks happen inside that flashback, it’s time to look at that structure again. In one instance, a flash forward takes place inside a flashback. There’s a relationship implied between Malorie and another character, but there’s no evidence of it going on in the story.

We only hear the world, not smell it or feel it.

It’s not easy to take a visual medium like a book and turn it into a world of sounds, and for the most part, Malerman pulls that off very well. But again, there are problems: Malerman focuses on sounds, not smells or textures. We only hear the world, not smell it or feel it.

When the characters are outside in the absolute darkness of their blindfolds, we are as blind as they are, and the mere snap of a twig sends them into a fear for their lives and sends a shock from us. It’s a terrifying feeling, and it stems from a very primal fear: One day, we might wake up blind.

As an extra note, I haven’t seen the movie. But I bet this is one instance where it works better than the book.

Have you seen Bird Box? Is it better than the book? Let me know!

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!

Movies: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Everything you need to know about this movie in one frame!

“Hey, could somebody please pass me the ketchup?”

When this film came through the post, my wife said, “I can’t believe you rented that. It’s a turkey of a movie!”

Once again, she underestimates my tolerance for bad films…and I’ve sat through a lot worse than Killer Tomatoes. At least AotKT isn’t going for high art and falling laughably short. No one making this was expecting anything but to have a blast and maybe make some cash on the side.

And let’s face it, you call a movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, it’s a bet you’re not going for an Oscar.

I’d mention the budget, but there was none. I’d mention the acting, but it was awfully, terribly, wonderfully bad. When the first scene has a woman doing a bad acting job while she’s washing dishes, you know this is going to be a laugh a minute.

The dancing military men was the strangest part.

That it wasn’t, but it had me genuinely laughing at some parts and just scratching my head in others. The dancing military men was the strangest part. To quote Penny from The Big Bang Theory, “The only way I could explain it would be to a therapist…with dolls.”

There are moments of genius humour though: A very cleverly edited phone call between a reporter, her boss, the man she’s following and his boss was a real standout. Brilliant! (Also, that’s pretty much the whole cast!). There was a hilariously badly dubbed Japanese scientist that cracked me up every time “he” spoke.

And kudos to the guy who did the entire film while dragging a parachute. That sucker looked heavy, and he’s getting some very physical stuff done while he’s hauling it around.

Aghhh! My eyes! My eyes!

However, I realised the real horror of this film about halfway through: It was made in the 1970s. Yes, the decade that taste forgot. And it shows.

Item! Check out that lovely dark blue sofa. With those burnt orange curtains, and the pumpkin carpeting. Colours that just scream to be together, huh? Aghhh, my eyes, my eyes!

Oh, that quilt cover! Restrained and subtle colouring there. Matches the puke green walls perfectly though, huh?

Proof that at least some of this movie was shot on grass. Or maybe that’s the carpet?

One last warning: AotK is not a film to be consumed while sober. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery immediately during, between or after consumption.

It won’t be worth watching again…but just turn your brain off and roll with it. I’ve seen worse!

Have you watched any movies so bad they end up being good? Let me know!

Movies: The Fog (1980)

Dave and his friends really need to look after that conjunctivitis.
“To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.”

 

I’m not a fan of horror movies. I really don’t like gore or excessive violence in a horror film (or any other, for that matter: I tend to hit fast-forward if it goes on for too long). But there are two movies I love that are classed as “horror”.

One of them is John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the other is this one – The Fog from 1980, the second film Carpenter made after Halloween.

There’s no gore anywhere in the film. The six deaths all happen off screen. There’s not much budget. The Fog itself is a smoke machine pouring over the set. The undead inhabitants of The Fog aren’t seen except in brief moments, and then mostly as silhouettes and shapes.

In short: there’s nothing in this film that should make it any more than a tame B-Movie.

But here’s the genius of it: None of that matters. Carpenter takes what he has and ratchets up the tension and isolation of the characters until you’re locked into the movie and it carries you right to the (literal) killer of an ending.

There’s a haunting (that’s the best word for it) sense of utter emptiness that fills the landscape of the film. The movie feels post-apocalyptic, like these people are the last remnants of humanity, cut off from the world by the enveloping Fog. There’s no help for them coming anytime soon.

Our movie watching experiences tells us that California shouldn’t look like this.  Something is wrong about these solitary beaches and deserted skies and landscapes. They should be filled with beautiful people and happy sunbathers, but instead Carpenter fills the screen with emptiness and a sense of foreboding with his eerie soundtrack.

In one scene, the main character drives from her home to the lighthouse where she broadcasts her radio programme. There’s no dialogue but a radio announcer and a voice on a tape. There’s nothing but the keening sound of the wind and the empty, empty landscape. And always, always, the sea is there, almost seeming to watch and wait for the night and The Fog we know is coming.

In another, a young boy walks along a completely deserted beach. There’s nothing there but the sense of an ocean watching him and waiting for him. It is eerie and somehow unsettling, and it works wonderfully well.

It’s left to our imaginations that fill in the blanks of what’s going on, and that’s what works best for me in a horror film. Like The Woman in Black, it’s what we’re expecting that keeps us watching for The Fog to come rolling towards us.

So rent it for Halloween, turn the lights down low, curl up under a blanket and wait for midnight…

…and if you hear an odd knocking at your door…probably best not to answer it.