Review: 11/22/63

Hellooooo friends, fans, and visitors. I hope you’re as excited as I am that January is almost over. One thing that’s great about this freezing weather though is that it gives me an extra excuse to curl up with a good book while I’m avoiding winter. Plenty of time to hide under the blankets with a novel is exactly what I needed to reach the finish line of:

11/22/63 by Stephen King.

First of all, let me start of with a warning: this book is a marathon, not a sprint. My copy is a whopping 842 pages long, which is no record for Stephen King, but it’s not a short book by any means. That said, I didn’t feel as though chunks of the story were superfluous, as I have with other long King novels. This writer is a master of characterization, and while the details of each person in his stories (and many locations which are also “characterized,” especially the places in this book) create a full and colorful image of each person and place, they can feel a little overdone and overwhelming at times. However, while I’ve felt that other King novels would be just as good in shorter versions (I’m looking at you, Under the Dome), 11/22/63 was not one of those. I thought it had a bit of a slow start, but there was not a single page I would’ve changed.

“Coincidences happen, but I’ve come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, okay? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning it’s fabulous gears.”

About the story: Jake Epping begins as an ordinary high school teacher, frustrated about the state of his love life after his divorce, and about how uninspired most of his students seem to be. One GED student writes an essay that stands out, however, and Jake becomes mildly obsessed with the massacre this student has described from his own family history. When a local friend, who appears to have aged significantly and suffered through several stages of cancer overnight, approaches Jake about a time portal and asks for his help in completing a mission, Jake decides there’s nothing holding him back from seeing for himself and agreeing to help. The mission: preventing JFK’s assassination. The catch: the portal only leads to September 9, 1958, and Jake also harbors some doubt about who JFK’s killer is–or rather, if there’s more than one. While he’s waiting for the right year to roll around, Jake renames himself George, attempts to stop the massacre he read an essay about in 2011 and an accidental shooting that his local friend had become similarly obsessed with. Then he moves from the vicinity of the portal in Maine to Texas, to research Oswald and his buddies and earn some money teaching, all while writing a secret book about his experiences with time travel and battling a past that doesn’t want to be changed. It’s his teaching job that leads George to Sadie, his perfect woman, but it’s far from a perfect romance. George is afraid to tell Sadie about his mission and his “past”, which is a divisive issue for the couple. On top of that, he knows Sadie doesn’t belong in the future anymore than George belongs in the past, no matter how desperately they’d like to make their relationship work, and these problems don’t even come close to the physical difficulties they’ll face as the time to save Kennedy approaches and the past fights tooth and nail to balance itself in true Stephen-King-novel fashion.

What sets this book apart from other King novels: there are certainly other King books I love, but this is one of the few (including The Dead Zone) in which I really liked the main character throughout the entire book. The sci-fi elements were well done and not over-the-top crazy or dark (Pet Sematary). Furthermore, the length was not too extreme for me (Under the Dome), and with all the details about life in the 60’s there were times it felt more like historical fiction–which i prefer–than sci-fi. If book size doesn’t scare you and you’re looking for an easy entrance into the science fiction genre, or to Stephen King’s works, this is it. I give 5/5 stars.

Further recommendations:

  1. For those who like the idea of time travel but want something lighter: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is a great romance (more adult), as is My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares (more YA).
  2. For those who want something a little farther into the realm of sci-fi: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is a great classic that involves traveling through time and place, and also has some elements of historical fiction.
  3. For those looking for another great Stephen King book: Lisey’s Story is another one of my personal favorites, but focuses on traveling through dream space rather than time. If you like the protagonist of 11/22/63, try The Dead Zone next.

Further incentive: If you finish 11/22/63 in time, I believe there’s a TV mini-series based on this book being released in February. But we have to read the book first, right guys? Or is that just me?

Coming Next: I’m torn. I wanted to talk about James Dashner’s YA Maze Runner series, which I’ve been dabbling in for a few months, but I also just read Sarah Gruen’s new  romantic historical fiction book, At the Water’s Edge, which I really want to share with you guys. Do you have a preference?

As always, I’m open to any recommendations you have for me! Any author, any genre, any length. If there’s a review you’re looking for, let me know. I’ll keep the reviews and recommendations coming!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Girl on the Train

Welcome back, fellow book lovers! As promised, I have for you today my review of:

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.

 

Although I bought this book at the end of the summer and read a few pages right away, I was soon too busy with books for school and this became the first book that I read in 2016 instead. I’d read lots of recommendations for this book in conjunction with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and since I had loved some aspects of that one, I felt that The Girl on the Train was a necessary follow-up.

“Before I have time to move, his hand shoots out, he grabs my forearm and pulls me towards him. His mouth is a grim line, his eyes wild. He is desperate. Flooded with dread and adrenaline, I see darkness coming. I open my mouth to cry out, but I’m too late, he yanks me into the house and slams the door behind me.” (Hawkins, 130).

The Girl on the Train is a thrilling ride across suburban London with a tricky character web. The story is told primarily from the vantage points of Megan, before she has gone missing, and Rachel, in the aftermath, who has been observing Megan and her home from the train every day. Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, also gives a little insight into both women and acts as the glue that keeps Rachel connected to a mystery that doesn’t necessarily involve her–or so the police think. When Rachel comes forward with information she hopes will help clear Megan’s husband from suspicion (because after watching him and Megan from the train for months she feels that she knows them, and is certain Scott had nothing to do with the disappearance), the lead investigators on the case are quick to dismiss her on the grounds of unreliability due to her heavy drinking habit. Anna, however, is tired of Rachel’s constant presence and is quick to alert the police that Rachel was on the street the night of Megan’s disappearance, that she was obscenely drunk, and that she believes Rachel to be dangerous. Rachel knows her drinking is a problem, and has been told of horrendous things she’s done while blackout drunk, and admits she can’t remember what happened to her on the night of Megan’s disappearance. She tries several times to cut the alcohol out of her life, but she’s the kind of heroine who slips and lies; her intentions are good, but sometimes she fails in the struggle.

The fact that the characters occasionally succumb to their vices and lead relatively ordinary lives–worrying about their babies, battling unemployment, and paying a little too much attention to other people’s lives–make the story seem plausible and close, like something that could happen in your own town, or the next one over.

Some technical aspects I enjoyed include: firstly, the time and character shifts.  This story is certainly strengthened by the use of multiple narrators, and although I had to work harder in the beginning to make sense of all the dates, the jumps in time helped build a rich timeline that explained the events leading to Megan’s disappearance from all sides of the event without giving too much away inopportunely. Secondly, the use of misleading evidence. This goes beyond the assumptions of an unreliable narrator; Hawkins allows Rachel to speculate, but then provides pointed reasoning from multiple characters supporting each alternative. It feels like foreshadowing, but each idea is turned around by some other theory in the next chapter. It’s precisely this well-done misdirection that keeps the reader guessing as to what’s really happened until the characters finally work together to make sense of what they couldn’t individually.

There are fun psychological aspects to the story, but as shown in the excerpt above, there are some great scenes of suspense, as well. This, as well as the fact that a girl has vanished under mysterious circumstances, is the only real tie I saw between Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Flynn’s Gone Girl. That said, if you’ve read either one of these books and enjoyed it, you’ll probably like the other. Although I found the characters of The Girl on the Train to be a little less psychotic, both are captivating, addicting reads. I give 5/5 stars.

A further recommendation: for readers who’ve enjoyed either of these novels, check out Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, a dystopian thriller that, although there has been no murder or mysterious disappearance, does involve a lot of jail time and a similar display of couples who’ve been pitted against each other by suspicion. (I hope to provide a review of this book sometime in the next few weeks, as well, because it was one of my favorites from 2015.)

But in the meantime, although I’ve got more reviews for great thrillers by strong female writers, I’m going to shift into sci-fi mode for…

Coming up: next week I’ll be reviewing Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a fictional account of a man who travels back in time to stop the assassination of JFK. Will he succeed? Will he fail? Will he fall in love along the way? Will he create too many time threads and destroy the world as we know it? Check in next week (or read the book in the meantime) to hear more about my current favorite Stephen King book.

Please submit any recommendations you my have for me!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Luckiest Girl Alive

Happy Thursday from The Literary Elephant! Today I’m bringing to you my first book review of 2016, which I hope is only the beginning of a long and fruitful journey through this year’s reading endeavors. This week I want to talk about:

The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

To be honest, this one hovered for months on the list of books I might want to read before I actually came around to it. I was a little put off by the fact that about half of the book focused on the main character’s high school experience. I new before I started that this would be the case, and I thought I wasn’t in the mood for a high school story at the time, but I’m glad I finally gave in and checked out Knoll’s debut novel. Although some of the story is told from a teenager’s perspective, the book is more mature than a YA novel, which I mistakenly assumed it may be.

On the layout of the book: The Luckiest Girl Alive is presented in two time frames, with chapters that alternate between main character Ani’s present adult life as an engaged New York socialite on the rise with a powerful literary career, and her past struggles with relationships, unpopularity, and horrendous crimes. Far from the overly dramatic narration of a young adolescent, Ani’s story is engaging because she doesn’t realize the inescapability  of her intense past until she’s reflecting on it several years later.

As the layers of the story build on each other, the events become more shocking, the characters seem less predictable, and it all culminates in an emotional scene at Ani’s wedding. About that ending…

After all the buildup and the craziness some of the characters have exhibited at that point, I was incredibly surprised that Ani’s final action of the novel seemed so tame. It was a move that any woman who is confident about the person she has become could be proud of, but it did seem to fall a little flat after reading about some of the illegal and deadly events in her past. Once I had finished the book and let the ending settle a little, it grew on me.

Although I would have been willing to accept (and indeed, I expected) a more dramatic finale, the ending seemed to bring the story back into the realm of realistic fiction for me. I would certainly call this book a thriller first, but it didn’t seem as implausible to me as some other books in that category. The prose is witty, somewhat cynical, and fast-paced, overall very enjoyable and amusing to read, which helped me soldier through a few points in the story when I found myself strongly disliking the opinionated and self-centered main character. There is definitely something to be said for a book that can be interesting and fun to read when the main character is, at times, unlikable.

Additionally, there were a few times I was annoyed by obvious foreshadowing, but more often than not the payoff was worth the blatant nod that something important was coming. While I would’ve been happier with a more subtle approach, the foreshadowing helped keep the pace of the story quick and the pages turning.

Now that I’ve had a week to think about it, I’d give The Luckiest Girl Alive 4/5 stars. What are your thoughts on this book? Please comment below if you’ve read it and want to share an opinion with me, or haven’t read it yet and are looking for more information. If you’re looking for something new to read based on this book, I’ll give two recommendations:

  1. For those who like over-the-top drama with foreshadowing and intricate ties, like Ani’s high school experiences include, try Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. It’s a little lesser-known than Gone Girl, and has a higher maturity level for those looking for something firmly outside of YA, but deliciously dark and suspenseful.
  2. For those who like the tamer drama with more relatable challenges and a realistically imperfect heroine, like Ani’s adult experiences feature, try Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train. This one is also more mature than a YA book, but less creepy and more mysterious.

Alternatively, if you’ve read either of these two suggestions and haven’t picked up The Luckiest Girl Alive yet, I think you’d be interested in giving it a go. Also, if you’ve read any of these and have a recommendation for me to review or just to read, please include it in a comment below.

Coming up: Next week I’ll be reviewing The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. If you want to keep up with me on my literary journey this year, you can pick it up now, or wait and see how it’ll rank after my review next week. I realize I’ve been reading more female authors lately, but I’d like a good mix of books to review. If you have a good suggestion for books by male authors you’d like to see in the upcoming weeks, please let me know! I’m planning a nice book haul soon 🙂

I hope you’ve found this review helpful as you’re making your lists of books to read in 2016!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Hello!

Hello all, and welcome to my new blog, The Literary Elephant. Do you like new book recommendations based on titles you’ve already read? Do you wonder whether that new book you’ve been eyeing at the library is worth your time? Do you want to step outside of your literary comfort zone? Then you’ve come to the right place. I’m excited to use this site both to give and take requests, and I have a few ideas already for some lists I’d like to create, a long list of books I’ll endeavor to peruse, and high hopes that this will be a fun and interactive experience. Please please please feel free to provide me with feedback!

I plan to post mainly book reviews and recommendations, but I would greatly appreciate any questions, comments or suggestions you may have for me in moving forward. My initial goal is to post something new at least once each week, an update on what I’ve been reading and my impressions, for a six-month trial period. At that point I’ll decide whether to continue, upgrade and make changes, or break from this project for a while. But why worry about ending a good thing that’s barely even started? It’s time to dive in.

A little about myself: I am currently located in northern Iowa, where I pretend that the snow outside my window is a mirage and hope for the summer sun to return sooner rather than later. In addition to books, I love puzzles, painting, cats with strange names, and dark chocolate. I read some of everything, but lately I’ve been enjoying mysterious thrillers, magical realism, and realistic fiction. I’m always looking for something that will surprise me, unique and unexpected. I hope that’s what you’ll find here.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my first review, which will be coming up tomorrow!