Thursday, October 31, 2013

Doctor Sleep (The Shining #2) by Stephen King

Honestly, I don't know how to write a review for this book. I could just say last night was the most awesome reading experience of my life. The last time I stayed up the whole night reading horror was when I read The Shining, which was my (mind-blowing) introduction to Stephen King and all things horror. The thing is, no one is probably going to read this anyway, because all my Stephen King reviews ending up sounding almost exactly the same. But this book was different and in a way, I think King scrapped all his usual tricks. 

Summary: The Overlook wasn't done with him. That could be the theme of Danny's life up to the events of this book. Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.” Meanwhile, on highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. The True Knot, who look harmless, are in fact quasi-immortals, who torture and kill children with 'the shining' to feed on their 'steam'. When Dan meets the little Abra Stone, through her gift, the brightest shining ever seen, he finds a student, much in the way Dick Halloran had found him. The danger she faces from the True reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival.
Of course, that is not all. But it never is, with Stephen King, is it?

My thoughts: Despite being the biggest King fan you'd find, I don't think I ever used the word 'unique' to describe any of his books; but Doctor Sleep was - wholly unique in its concepts, themes, even characters, and so so unique in the way it scared the hell out of me. Stephen King's books have always been more than just "boo! i scared you!" for me, and I've hardly ever had to go searching for meaning. Even The Shining was not just about those scary special effects and Doctor Sleep is quite the same in that respect. It would be disappointing to people who read horror for the gore, the adrenaline rush and nothing more; who distinguish good horror from bad simply as scarier from not-so-scary. Well, you can't impress everybody; except that, after reading 11.22.63, Misery, Under the Dome, Joyland, it should be plenty clear that King can be amazingly genre-defying.

Doctor Sleep is a much more grown-up book. Whereas The Shining could be interpreted as a straightforward haunting, Doctor Sleep is anything but. For one, in The Shining, Jack Torrance is manipulated by the presences in The Overlook, Danny is scared by them. In Doctor Sleep, our characters have already been through so much; they're a lot more resilient, not quite as vulnerable. Basically, they don't lose control, they fight back. So while the focus in most Stephen King books is the psychological breakdown of the characters, the demons in them and the 'getting inside their heads and screwing things up', which affects the reader too; Doctor Sleep is more about concepts - scary, freaky concepts of life and death, the after and the in between, souls, 'ghosties' and most importantly, the shining. The idea of the True Knot, our undead villains, their strange tongue, is incredibly imaginative. That Danny uses his ability to help people die is both disturbing and nice. The big and little ideas strewn over the book, of protecting family, of locking ghosts away inside your mind, the death flies that swarm on people who are about to die and using the 'wheel' to swap minds are well crafted. And if you ever wondered just what the shining was, other than a convenient goosebump-inducing plot device, this book will make things much clearer. 

Abra Stone is a wonderful character; with much more personality than the little Danny of The Shining. I like her family too and the way it adds a human element to a book that is otherwise full of characters with special abilities or outright monsters. And I like grown-up Dan a lot more than little Danny, too. While he closely mirrors his father's life, more than you'd want a protagonist to, there is a key difference between him and Jack. While Jack Torrance was the victim of The Overlook (and himself), while I felt less hatred and more pity towards him, while we can say he tried desperately to stop himself (he did one redeeming thing at the end), he was never the hero Dan turns into. Dan Torrance is a good guy, when all I can say for Jack was that he tried to be good. But I like that Dan can admit he loved his father, with all his goods and bads (and there were many bads) and I like how easily Dan takes on the role of uncle/teacher/protector for Abra. Also, it doesn't hurt that he looks like Jax Teller. (Which reminds me, all the pop culture references are so entertaining! There were allusions to Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, Hamlet, Moby Dick, Dickens, Oscar Wilde, The Beatles, hell, even Twilight.)

Basically, Doctor Sleep isn't just one story like The Shining was. It isn't an 'epic', either, as the Goodreads summary calls it, because it might just be a bit simple to be one. It is definitely a combination of many stories; of the recovering alcoholic, the little girl with more abilities than a little girl should have to handle, a doctor who helps people die (assisted by a cat with the eerie ability to predict people's death.) On their own, these can seem to be borrowed from many of King's own books; but that doesn't mean they don't fit perfectly together and create something intriguing, complex. And finally, the book is the true ending to what started all those years ago in The Shining. Having read Doctor Sleep, I can't imagine how I found The Shining complete.

I am so glad I could finish this book just in time to close the R.I.P. Challenge. Happy Halloween! Now let me leave you with this little quote: "Life was a wheel, its only job was to turn, and it always came back to where it started."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collection of short stories about the intermingling of two very different cultures, and the challenges faced, issues of identity, religion and love. The certain exotic charm of this book was not lost on me. That being said, not all stories left an impression on me, and only a couple deeply affected me in this Pulitzer Prize winning collection of nine. While I didn't love every story, they had their moments. Even The Blessed House, my least favourite, for instance, starred the most delightfully annoying characters. But here are the details and themes that really stood out;

In the story When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine, a little Indian girl living in America follows the news of India and Pakistan coming closer to war, a war which for her is a mystery; something entirely irrelevant and impersonal. That is, until, she notices the effect it has on their family friend, whose family resides still in Dacca. The story strongly portrays the identity crises faced by the immigrant parents and their Muslim friend; and the innocent obliviousness to it of the little American girl.

The story A Real Durwan, though not dealing with Lahiri's apparently quintessential theme of immigrants, does capture a key aspect of the Indian society perfectly; one, it should be noted, that is often covered up. In this collection, there is a story called Mrs. Sen's, about 11-year-old Eliot, who spends his days at his Indian sitter's house. At one point, referring to the cultural adjustments she has had to do, Mrs. Sen asks Eliot if the neighbours would answer if she screamed out loud right then. Eliot replies that they might, but they'd probably only do so to tell her to stop! Many stories of immigrants adjusting to the life in America (even apart from this collection) talk of the crowds in India, the feeling of belonging and the love-thy-neighbour attitude followed oh-so-sincerely, of people getting together every evening and coolly hooliganing around in the streets. A Real Durwan, in an amazing contrast, brings out the loneliness of the people in India, those who live as outsiders among their own people, with whom they share language and religion. It is the story of Boori Ma, who sleeps in the stairwell of a small housing society, telling anyone who cares to listen the story of her tragic deportation to Calcutta after Partition.

I have little to say about the title story, Interpreter of Maladies, except perhaps that I adored its premise (the power of interpretation.) The idea of building the story around a tourist guide for an American-Indian family, whose day job is as a language interpreter at the local doctor's is ingenious, but not its execution. It wasn't long before the story became a bit too contrived for my taste.

Sexy was your typical story about a love affair. But it had that nicely delicate moment towards the end; with the little boy, whose father left his mother for a woman he met on a plane defining the word 'sexy' as loving someone you didn't know.

This is not a book to rush through. I enjoyed reading it over a number of days, letting each story sink in. I would recommend reading the stories in the intended order. While the book starts on a disappointingly pessimistic note, the ending is essentially a positive, romantic one. The final story titled The Third and Final Continent neatly wraps up the collection.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

The Small Hand by Susan Hill is a long short story written as a short novel. It's a ghost story. Our narrator is a rare book collector and dealer, who is returning home to London after having visited an elite client near the coast. He loses his way and in the dark, stumbles upon an old house called The White House. There is a little sign next to is that says, "Garden Closed." The narrator walks towards the gate, hoping to get directions from the owners, but through the undergrowth, he realizes that the house is deserted and quite possibly, derelict. What had once been, it seems, a grand garden is now just wild brambles and bushes. But something keeps the narrator there, wanting to find out more about the place, and as he waits in the moonlight, something strange happens. A small hand, a child's, slips into his and holds him. It is comforting; only, invisible. And though he leaves then, our ever-so-curious narrator is drawn to the The White House, digging into its past and the fate of its owners, as the invisible force haunts his mind.

The writing meanders along and keeps going off at tangents: of course, if you enjoy history, travel and the world of libraries and rare books as much as I do, you won't mind them. It's an A. S. Byatt meets Sarah Waters story with vivid imagery and an unmistakably gothic setting. The story moves at a slow pace and the end is quite abrupt. It is not a very well plotted book, in that nothing much really happens.

The Small Hand is not a ghost story, really, even if the cover claims it is. It doesn't star pale-slimy-skinned-creatures. This is a psychological haunting, which may seem bland to some readers. But, I don't see why. For me, a terrible inexplicable fear, a frightening urge to end your own life, insanity and voices in your head, when written so well, are almost as scary as rotting bodies in bathtubs and freaky apparitions. In fact, they are a lot more tangible; while I could simply dismiss a monster as 'fiction', while reading The Small Hand, I was able to put myself in the narrator's place and it was creepy.

While on the whole, this story was little more than okay, it had its moments. If not anything else, the beautiful artsy narration makes me want to read the other ghost stories by Susan Hill (The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror, The Man in the Picture and Dolly.)
I read this for the R.I.P. Challenge.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Random Number Survey (Or, A Stroll Through My Bookshelf)

I saw this survey on book musings. I usually don't do this sort of thing on the blog (especially since I decided to have 'no-memes-in-2013') But this blog has been oddly stagnant this whole month and I hardly have time to read, let alone review. Plus the idea is kind of interesting, and it also gave me the chance to contentedly relive all the books on the awesomeness that is my (relatively) new bookshelf.

Here's what you do:

1. Pick a number. (I picked 12.)
2. Go to your bookshelf and count that many books until you reach your number. Answer the question with that book.
3. Count the same number of books from where you left off and answer the next question.
4. Repeat until you finish the survey.

1. Joyland by Stephen King: 

What do you think of the cover?

I love it, especially how it totally brings out the 70s carny noirish feel of the book. I love that it's painted, instead of a photo and that pulp novel font looks awesome, so do the typically vivid colours. The tagline reads "Who dares enter the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR?" It's all very Stephen King.

2. This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

Write a review in 140 characters or less.

A charming, thrilling, tragic history of Charles Darwin and Capt. Robert Fitzroy and their life-altering expedition to Tierra del Fuego.

The blurb's better: A story of a deep friendship between two men, and the twin obsessions that tore it apart, leading one to triumph and the other to disaster. This is my actual review of the book.

3. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

How or where did you get this book?

I bought it in time for one of the readalongs for the R.I.P. Challenge, I don't remember exactly when. I ordered it online, of course, and almost regretted my decision when I noticed it at the library. But it's a good read to own!

4. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Who's your favourite character in this book and why?

You can't really side with someone in an allegory, but I'd choose the narrator, Utterson; the sort of rational view in the book - who exposes Hyde's evil and Jekyll's two-facedness (see what I did there?) Or Poole, the ever faithful butler. I don't like Jekyll as much as I didn't like Victor Frankenstein, which, I know, was the point.

5. Papillon by Henri Charriere

Recommend the book to a fellow blogger you think would like it.

I remember loving the book when I read it, but that was way, way back then. I'd have to to re-read it to really recommend it. As the story of a convicted murderer and his attempts to escape, the book is thrilling, harrowing and it's true (or not, there's a whole controversy) and there was a time I'd have recommended to all fellow bloggers. So why not just try it, right?

6. Love on the Rocks by Ismita Tandon Dhankher

How long ago did you read this book?

Funny story, this was the very first book I got for review on this blog. The naive review I wrote for it and the long list of pending reviews on my e-reader right now, makes it seem like an awfully long time has passed since. Turns out I read it in May 2011, though. Go figure.

7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Name a favourite scene from this book. (NO SPOILERS)

With way this book dives right into the action, there is little chance of avoiding spoilers. But I remember this scene, among the narrator's many musing recollections, because the very description pops into my head ever since, every time I feel a cat purr.

"The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr, and, very soon, I slept."

8. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Open to Page 87 and pick a random quote to share. (NO SPOILERS)

"She looked at him in the exact moment when he turned to look at her. They stood very close to each other. She saw, in his eyes, that he felt as she did. If joy is the aim and the core of existence, she thought, and if that which has the power to give one joy is always guarded as one's deepest secret, then they had seen each other naked in that moment."

Oh, how typically Ayn Rand. I did adore Hank Rearden.

9. Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

How did you hear about or discover this book?

I was an unapologetic John Grisham fangirl. I still am! And I'd already read the bunch of legal thrillers at the store, so I got this. Playing for Pizza, a book about an NFL blah-blah quarterback, no less. And even though almost everything in it about football whooshed right over my head, I almost enjoyed this strange, inconsequential little book. The descriptions of Italy, the culture and the oh-so-delicious food made it worth the while.

10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

If you could redesign the cover, what would you do?

I hate all the covers of my Harry Potter books, except maybe The Order of the Phoenix. All the rest have weird-looking Harrys on them. The adult covers are so much better. But the fact is, I'd have loved it if it was either a close up of the Hungarian Horntail, like her eye and scaly face or something, with no Harry in the picutre. Or a beautiful shimmering Goblet. Or, or, a creepy graveyard, without letting it be a spoiler.

11. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Name your least favourite character in this book and why.

The Witch of the Waste is the villain of the book; she wants revenge on Howl for not loving her back (even though she disguised herself as a beautiful woman for him.) But it was Sophie Hatter, the 'heroine', who spent most of the book as a withered old woman because of the witch's curse, who most often irritated me. She is a much stronger character in the rest of the Moving Castle series.

12. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

If you like (fill in the blank), then you should try (your book.)

Well. If you like bizarre, inane, often oddly lewd, albeit biting social satire, disguised as fiction, then you should read Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.

I have to add, in nonsense is strength.

13. Born Free by Joy Adamson

Name one cool thing about this book (under the dust jacket, map, font, photograph, etc.)

I pretty much grew up listening to the story of the 'lioness of two worlds' from my grandma, who loved the movie. Elsa was an orphaned lion cub who was successfully set free in wild Kenya (for the most part, anyway, she later died; but this story ends earlier, and so, on a happy note.) The book gets bogged down by the details in some places, but the evocative photos make up for it. The photos show Elsa the lion cub, with her cub sisters and the rock-hyrax Pati-pati and later, the lioness all grown up, and still acting like a house cat. She is adorable and the pictures are really cool.

14. The Ghost of Flight 401 by John Fuller

Where is it set, and would you ever want to visit that world / place?

Would I like to be on the Eastern Airlines jumbo jet flight 401, which crashed, killing 101 people? No. Nor would I like on the ships which are haunted by the dead pilot and crew. The writer does mention a cozy writer's retreat-ey place, where works on his books and it seems like the most pleasantly calm place. I'd love to go there!

15. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A. S. Byatt

Who is it dedicated to?

"For my mother,

K.M. Drabble,

Who gave me Asgard and the Gods."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Black Dog by Stephen Booth

The book opens with a note telling us what 'black dog', aside from the obvious, means: melancholy, depression of spirits; ill humour. In some country places, if a child is sulking, it is said 'the black dog is on his back.'

Summary: As helicopters search Northern England's Peak District for fifteen year-old Laura Vernon, Detective Constable Ben Cooper quietly dreads the worst. When her body is found in the woods, Cooper's investigation begins with a short list of very uncooperative suspects: retired miner Harry Dickinson, whose black Labrador discovered Laura's body, and Laura's wealthy parents. Uneasily teamed with ambitious newcomer Detective Constable Diane Fry, Cooper tests a town's family ties, friendships, and loyalties - and finds that in order to understand the present, they must unearth the past.

My thoughts: Wow. This is a fantastic read. Not only am I going to wholeheartedly recommend Black Dog to everyone, I'm going to go ahead and read the rest of the Ben Cooper & Diane Fry series; if the twelve books that follow are anything like this one, I know I'll love them. It is a unique story, with all the pieces of the intricately crafted puzzle falling smoothly in place at the end.

You know, in most popular mysteries (the few that I have read, anyway) the whole plot has an increasing frenzy and is the build up to a fabulous, thrilling ending. If that is the kind of conclusion you like to your reads, this might seem disappointing, a let down. Because the ending is too simple. It is so simple, that it would sound far fetched to people who are used to that grand climax. It reminded me of Stephen King's Under the Dome, for no reason other than how it made me feel; surprised and convinced, not to mention, wholly awed. It was impossible for me to have guessed it, but I know the answer had been right there all along, staring me in the face. The only disappointment I felt was for not having thought of it! 

But even if not the ending, there is so much to appreciate and be impressed by in this book. While still being a swift mystery, Black Dog is like a laid back character sketch of all sorts of people in your usual small town. I loved the quirky ones, of course, like Harry Dickinson. And I also liked Gwen, his wife, about whom Cooper was so right - some people just get miserably tangled in messes they don't deserve to be in. Most of all, I liked Diane Fry; because she was so realistic. I liked how, as an outsider, she provided a neatly contrasting perspective on the rest of the team; one which I couldn't easily dismiss as she was also one of the good guys. The drama in Cooper's life was overwhelming and effectively justified the few character flaws in my mind (which made him much better than a conventional Lee Child-ish detective!) The book is wonderfully written, with hilarious comments at the most unexpected times and apt vivid descriptions that bring the setting to life. Mostly, I found Black Dog by Stephen Booth to be a perfect start to a series; which is something I hardly ever get to say. And Diane Fry and Ben Cooper do seem to make, possibly in spite of themselves, a pretty good team.

This Witness Impulse book counts as another R.I.P. Challenge read.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Darkness First by James Hayman

Darkness First by James Hayman is an entertaining read. The plot picks up right from the prologue and hurls you straight into a gruesome mystery involving a bunch of gory murders and drug thefts committed by an intelligent, merciless villain. 

Summary: The book opens with an elaborate drug theft, by a man who calls himself Conor Riordan. He is the man who never was. No one knows who he really is and he doesn't hesitate to tie up loose ends, killing off anyone who could reveal his identity. Detective Maggie Savage of Portland PD gives her father, Sheriff John Savage a visit, when the mutilated body of Tina Stoddard is found in her hometown and her best friend is severely injured in the same attack. Back home, as the case progresses, Maggie learns that her wayward ex-Army younger brother, being the victim's boyfriend, is one of the prime suspects. As her colleagues seemingly fight over who gets to bag the case, Maggie seeks help from her partner in Portland, Detective Michael McCabe. Together they try to save the one person who has seen the killer: eleven year old Tabitha Stoddard.

My thoughts: The book has everything it needs to be a popular whodunit: a badass heroine with a unique name, a mostly attractive cast (one of them looks like McNulty, except with blue eyes), partners with that sexual tension and a swift pace. I like how the book develops quickly, but there aren't too many action scenes and entirely unexpected plot turns. It makes a rare combination of fast and realistic. The story is pretty much straightforward but there is never a dull moment, either. Unfortunately, that means the red herrings are easy to spot and the climax isn't quite as climactic as one would hope. And I suppose the book could have done without the crimes from the killer's point of view: they are far too sadistic for my taste and don't really tell anything that we don't find out from the crime scene descriptions. 

Can there be well written stereotypes? Because that is what these characters are. Their lives, though predictable, are very engaging, I have to admit. I liked Maggie Savage. McCabe, who apparently has a series in his name, didn't make much of an impression on me. He is clearly an all-round good guy, but I can make out little about him from this book. It is only when it comes to the rapport between Maggie and McCabe that I realize I'm missing something: the book doesn't work as a standalone if you focus on these two. The rest of the series might tell me more about them. I like Harlan Savage too, and I am curious about his character in the rest of the Maggie Savage-series. My favourite, most wonderfully portrayed character from Darkness First is Tabitha, the determined little girl who is so much more innocent than she lets on. 

I appreciate that the book doesn't end abruptly, right after the mystery is solved. The clarifications and follow-ups in the final chapter, which you'd call the denouement if you were pretentious and boring, work well. They certainly give you more to think about than the rest of the book. But the fact is, there is no real message to the book, nothing seems to have left a lasting impression on me. It's great, not amazing. It is an engrossing read, but I am not going to rush off to buy more. Read this if you love mysteries unconditionally!

Another R.I.P. Challenge read (another mystery; I haven't read enough horror this year!)

I received this book in exchange for an honest review from the publisher. Impulse is an exciting new imprint from William Morrow/HarperCollins publishing suspense and thriller digital originals. Get your hands on all Witness Impulse books here!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Thing in the Forest by A.S. Byatt

Little Black Book of Stories tells five tales, which blend the ordinary with the absurd. The collection opens with a perfectly intriguing story, about the blurred edges of reality, called The Thing in the Forest.

It is the story of two girls, Penny and Primrose. It is set during the WWII, when children are evacuated from London to the country. The girls, who have nothing in common, other than this shared exclusion from the world, meet on the train and deciding to stick together, become friends.

At the estate, when the children are free to do as they please, Penny and Primrose decide to explore the forest. In it, they see, or think they see, a thing. A huge slimy worm-like creature right out of a nightmare. It doesn't harm them and they never speak of it again. But this sudden exposure to the uncanny, the evil changes the girls forever. Each finds her own way to deal with the loss of childhood innocence till their paths cross again, and the women meet in the very forest years later.

"They remembered the thing they had seen in the forest in the way you remember those very few dreams - almost all nightmares - which have the quality of life itself, not of fantasm, or shifting provisional scene-set. (Though what are dreams if not life itself?) In the memory, as in such a dream, they felt, I cannot get out, this is a real thing in a real place."

"I think, I think there are things that are real - more real than we are - but mostly we don't cross their paths, or they don't cross ours. Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they are doing in ours."

Ever since I read Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, I've been in awe of A.S. Byatt's wordsmithery. Even in this story, she paints vivid pictures with her prose. Her writing prods each of our senses. She has a way with colours, describing darkness as nothing but the colour of ink and elephant; contrasting the golden and darkly shadowed light in the woods with the light in city terraces, and naming toadstools, some scarlet, some ghostly-pale and some a dead-flesh purple. With a delightfully rich imagination, Byatt describes feelings that run over our skin, pricking and twitching; primroses that smell of thin, clear, spring honey without the buzz of summer; and Penny, in the woods, hearing a tremulous shiver in the darkness, and her own heartbeat in the thickening brown air. But the vivid detailing is, appropriately, only part of the charm.

Like in Ragnarok, in this story, Byatt portrays children just as they are: naughty and innocent, with more understanding than any adult could fathom, imaginative, curious and daring and having their own personal reality. The story weaves together themes of war, innocence, dreams, faith, dealing with loss, grief and finding our place in the world. It's a coming-of-age story; slightly too abstract, perhaps, to appeal to all; but worth reading.

Byatt's works are categorized as fantasy, but seem to me to be a genre-defying combination of magic realism, naturalism and gothic horror. The Thing in the Forest and two other stories from the collection, The Stone Woman and The Pink Ribbon, have a blatantly mythic, supernatural element. The Stone Woman is a bit too vague for my taste, but will be adored by geology and Icelandic mythology enthusiasts. The Pink Ribbon is about a man who is haunted by a sort of memory of his wife, who now has Alzheimer's. The other two stories, Body Art and Raw Material, not fantasy nor horror, portray the tragic mundane of our lives with overwhelming honestly. Together, the five stories form another great read by (and, possibly, a nice introduction to) my favourite short story writer.

Reviewed for Peril of the Short Story - the R.I.P. Challenge.