Review: Church of Marvels

Greetings and salutations to all of you book lovers (and Spring!). If you’re looking for a new book to take outside and enjoy in this lovely March weather, this may be it. I’m talking about Leslie Parry’s novel, Church of Marvels.

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I stumbled across this treasure in a great little bookstore, and with only a moment’s consideration, bought a book I’d never heard of. Sometimes the best books are the ones that catch my eye unexpectedly and are bought on a whim, and this one did not disappoint.

About the story: Three seemingly unrelated lives (plus a mysterious baby and one twin sister) converge in this epic tale that takes place in turn-of-the (20th) century New York. Church of Marvels is the name of a Coney Island sideshow that struggles to keep its footing after a tragic fire. The characters of this historical fiction thriller show the reader what it’s like behind the scenes at the sideshow, but also along the darkest streets of New York at the darkest hours of night, and inside an insane asylum. Everyone has unspeakable secrets that tie them together, and anything is possible in this world of illusion and disenchantment.

“The boatman saw a figure on the landing. He squinted and shielded his eyes from the sun, which rose above the fog and turned everything white. There was a commotion on the grounds beyond–cracks and shouts, the thunder of horses. He would have mistaken it all for a picnic race if he hadn’t known exactly where he was heading, and if he hadn’t seen the women, wrangled and dog-bitten, bleeding on the shore. Christ, he thought–the fools were having another one of their fits…He looped the bowline around the horn, then looked up at his passenger. ‘Ready to go, chap?’ The young man nodded and lifted his trunk, turning his face toward Manhattan. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ve never been readier in my life.'”

On format: The narration follows each of the three main characters individually, which feels a little disjointed at first before the stories connect, but they’re all riveting, even while they’re separate. There are also a few snippets here and there of nearby characters, like the boatman from the passage I’ve quoted above; these characters are less important to the story overall, but share bits of insight and impressions that pertain to the main characters and add a wonderful depth to the narrative. The prose is similarly descriptive and blunt throughout the book, no matter which character is in focus (by which I mean that the narration is a consistent third person, not that each character has the same voice) so it’s important to pay attention to names and character details in the beginning while everyone is being established. That said, I didn’t have much difficulty keeping the characters straight, and I loved how real they seemed even though they were all so different from myself.

Content details: Although this book is set in 1895, some of the subject matter was definitely interesting to read in comparison with more modern practices and attitudes. Rules of society were different then, but it was great to think about how far we’ve come while reading about the horrifying treatment of “lunatics” at the asylum, the fates of unwanted babies, the behaviors of and reactions to transgender persons, and the struggle of extreme poverty in a large city. I think Parry did a great job writing about the past in light of more modern views on difficult subjects, so that her captivating plot was combined in Church of Marvels with strong writing that make every page of this book uniquely interesting. I give 5 out of 5 stars.

Further recommendations:

  1. If the sideshow aspect of Church of Marvels appeals to you, try Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which is primarily set around the train cars of a traveling circus that crosses America in the 1920’s-30’s. Both of these novels depict behind-the-scenes details and a wide array of diverse characters, as well as an addicting plot.
  2. Although it’s nonfiction, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City reads as easily as a fictional tale. Set in Chicago in the 1890’s as the World’s Fair was being constructed, details of the fair and general life around the turn of the century are mixed with the story of American murderer H. H. Holmes, who took advantage of the influx of people to the city to commit a multitude of crimes. This is a great read for anyone who’s interested in historical fiction, and I actually did read it around the same time as Church of Marvels and thought they were a great fit.

Do you have comments or recommendations for me? Please leave them below!

Coming up next: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, a historical fiction novel set in Stalinist Russia. This is the most intense murder mystery I’ve ever read, and I’m not even sure calling it a murder mystery accurately describes what’s going on in this book. Tune in later this week to find out why I found this book so compelling!

Happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Outlander

Hello, rapacious and reluctant readers alike! Today I’m sharing my take on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. I’ll talk a little about my take on the series in general, but I’ll mostly be focusing on the first book for this review.

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Although this is not a new series, it recently experienced a resurgence in popularity, and I first heard about it this winter through another interested friend. After having read the synopsis (I usually prefer not to even read the back covers of books before I read them so that I start with as few preconceptions as possible), my first impression of Outlander (and it’s sequel, Dragonfly in Amber) was that it was slow about getting started. However, I also knew before reading that people commonly have difficulty categorizing this book, which was an anomaly I had to experience for myself, so I stuck with it and I’m glad I did.

About this book: I must admit, it is practically impossible to categorize, as far as genre goes. It could fit under thriller, science fiction, romance, historical fiction (and probably more, but those would be my top choices), but the book wouldn’t be accurately represented by any single genre. Why?

Outlander opens in Scotland in 1945, just after the end of the war. The main character, Claire, worked as a field nurse on the front lines, and is visiting Scotland with her husband, Frank, on a second honeymoon/vacation to get reacquainted with a man she’s hardly seen in years. While she’s there, she visits a circle of standing stones where she is pulled through time. (Slight pet peeve: the time gap is frequently referred to as a 200 year difference, but it’s actually 202 years that Claire goes back, landing in 1743. Since the years are historically important, the rounding of those 202 years was a bit confusing at first.) Claire immediately wanders away from the stones because she doesn’t realize what’s happened, and then makes a whole slew of new friends and enemies as she fights for survival and concocts various schemes to get back to 1945, and Frank.

“In truth, [Roger] had no idea whether Claire Randall w0uld ever be all right. She was alive, at least, and that was all he could vouch for. They had found her, senseless in the grass near the edge of the circle, white as the rising moon above, with nothing but the slow, dark seep of blood from her abraded palms to testify that her heart still beat. Of the hellish journey down the path to the car, her dead weight slung across his shoulder, bumping awkwardly as stones rolled under his feet and twigs snatched at his clothing, he preferred to remember nothing.”

This quote is actually from book 2 in this series, but I think it sums up the emotions of time travel in this series perfectly.

Notes on the layout: The main reason I thought Outlander started slowly was because the premise of the book is time travel, but Claire spends a good bit of time with Frank in 1945 before the sci-fi elements of the book come into play. Later on, when Claire is struggling back to Frank, it’s nice to have some context of their lives to understand her motivation, and I didn’t really have any complaint about the pages dedicated to 1945 once I understood their significance. Another technical aspect of this book that stood out to me was the constantly shifting plot. Every hundred pages or so (there are almost 700 in the first book, and as the series goes on the books grow) seemed to have an entirely different focus than the last hundred pages. This is part of what makes the book so difficult to classify, and also why it makes such a great TV series; for those wondering, the episodes of the Outlander show follow the book very closely, and are rated R for good reason. Both the book and the TV show feature some pretty gruesome details of injury and torture in the 1700s, as well as a plethora of sexual scenes. Both of these aspects surprised me, but they ended up fitting into the novel rather well, and they were definitely easier to read about than watch on screen.

Further miscellaneous thoughts: Outlander reads like a soap opera. Old characters come back to pop up at the most convenient/inconvenient times, every time one problem is solved another one arises that takes the whole story in a new direction, and each situation is more intense than the last. Death is a constant threat in the 1700’s, but Claire uses her medical training to keep her friends alive and keep herself occupied while she’s stuck in old-time Scotland. It sounds like a beautiful and wonderful place, no matter what time you visit; that said, there’s very little leisure time for the characters to enjoy their surroundings. Claire and her companions are always doing something extreme, whether it’s running for their lives, falling in love, fighting to the death, or outsmarting ill-meaning leaders. I have to admit that as crazy as Claire’s journey seems at times, I loved and hated the good and evil characters (respectively) of this series more strongly than I have cared about any other characters in a while. It’s also interesting that an ancestor Frank was researching during their vacation turns up repeatedly in Claire’s adventures through the past, and although he looks identical to Claire’s husband, his personality is subpar, to put it mildly.

Is it a favorite? I’m currently in the third book of the series, and Outlander did take a spot on my list of top books for the last year, but I suspect the obsession will be short lived. By the time I create my list of favorites next year, Outlander will probably be out of my system. Although I am very attached to a few of the characters, I wasn’t overly impressed with the writing itself. There are some great one-or-two-line quotes throughout, but I know my reading preferences well enough to see that it’s the intense plot and love story that’s holding my attention, and once the mystery of what happens next is gone, my excitement for this series will probably have been exhausted. However, I am giving 4 out of 5 stars, and pointing out that I’m determined to making it through this series even though each book I’ve picked up so far has been around 700 pages. That’s no small commitment, and even though I’m not sure this book is a forever love for me, it’s definitely a series I can’t get enough of right now and am eager to suggest.

Further recommendations:

  1. I was strongly reminded of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones while reading Outlander, and I would definitely recommend these two series together. If you like sword fights, political power struggles, and a big cast of characters you never know whether to trust, both of these hit the mark.
  2. Time travel and romance make Audrey Niffinegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife an obvious comparison here. There’s not much of a historical aspect to Niffenegger’s book, so don’t expect any sword fights, but if it’s Claire’s epic romance you enjoy most about Outlander, you’ll probably enjoy the other Claire’s love story in The Time Traveler’s Wife as well.
  3. If you’re looking for something a little more YA, you might want to check out Kami Garcia’s and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures series.There’re more fantasy elements and less focus on time travel, but if you’re looking for something a little more PG, I think there are some similarities between genres and themes here that make these a good fit if you’re not so thrilled about the sex and violence of Outlander.

What’s next: I’ll be reviewing Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels, a novel about the convergence of seemingly unrelated lives when a beloved member of a Coney Island carnival/sideshow goes missing after a tragic fire.

Questions or comments? Feel free to let me know what you think about my Outlander impressions, and include any recommendations you may have for me!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

P.S. click here for a review of the next book in this series, Dragonfly in Amber.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Welcome, book lovers and aspiring readers! If you’re looking for novels, you’ve come to the right place. Today I want to tell you about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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This book had been on my list of books to read for a few years, and I actually read another Margaret Atwood book I’d never heard of before I finally got around to picking this one up, but once I did I read The Handmaid’s Tale from cover to cover in two days. Not a record for me, but it stood out from the leisurely pace I’ve been taking through books lately. What was so great about it? Well…

About this book: Offred, the “Handmaid” of Fred, is the narrator of this futuristic dystopia. Under the reorganized government, Offred’s family was torn apart as they attempted to escape the country–her husband has all but vanished, assumed by Offred to be dead or placed in a new family, while their young daughter was sent to another government-sanctioned family and encouraged to forget her birth parents. Offred herself spent a few months under training of the nun-like Aunts to learn the new rules of propriety and find her place in society as a Handmaid. The Handmaids are a class of fertile women who are paired with childless families and employed for several months with the task of producing offspring for the prominent government husbands to raise with their infertile wives as the Handmaid is swept away to a new household. Failure to support the new government in every possible way results in either death or banishment to the Colonies, where citizens die slowly and with disgrace, removed from society and subject to hard work and poor accommodations. Offred is not allowed to grieve for her past. She is not allowed to use her old name. She is barely allowed to interact with other people, let along make friends or fall in love. But Atwood’s characters never fail to do the unthinkable, the unallowable, and Offred is no exception. She learns inside information from a strange, secret arrangement with Fred, stumbles across an underground network of Handmaid friendships and anti-government efforts, and finds companionship in unlikely places. Anything could go wrong, and if it did, Offred would never be heard from again.

The writing itself: Margaret Atwood is a master of the English language. Although this novel takes place in a future that has little in common with our present systems, Offred’s memories and astute observations give the prose a witty, sarcastic, and occasionally morbid tone, and the commentary on everyday objects and actions is easily relatable and intriguing. With very little knowledge of the contents of The Handmaid’s Tale, I picked up this book primarily because I was interesting in Atwood’s writing style in another book, and I was pleased to find the same quippy remarks from new and distinct characters.I would’ve enjoyed this book even if the plot hadn’t been so fascinating. It certainly had the feel of a modern classic; I have no doubt that The Handmaid’s Tale will persevere through the test of time.

On ambiguity: without giving away any spoilers, I’d like to mention that the ending of this book is possibly the most ambiguous finale I’ve ever read. I’ve grown to love stories with a bit of wiggle room at the end, but I usually don’t have much difficulty in stacking up the evidence and choosing a side.In this book, however, I had absolutely no idea who could be trusted, an it took me days to decide whether I believed Offred was being saved or whisked away to a torturous death.

“The Commander puts his hand to his head. What have I been saying, and to whom, and which one of his enemies has found out? Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking. There have already been purges among them, there will be more…The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in…I have given myself over to the hand of strangers, because it can’t be helped.”

I would never give away the last sentence, but this passage is near the end of the book, and hopefully encourages you to pick up this book to judge for yourself whether Offred’s fate will be favorable…or not. I give 5 of 5 stars for this one, due to the combination of fantastic writing and incredible plot.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you already know you like Margaret Atwood, or are interested in seeing her writing style but don’t like the sound of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s plot, check out Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last. This one is also futuristic, but the world is entirely different and focuses on members of a society that voluntarily spend half of each year in prison.
  2. If you like reading about crazy dystopian governments and the citizens’ attempts to retain their old identities and freedoms, try George Orwell’s classic, 1984. I was strongly reminded of 1984 while reading The Handmaid’s Tale, although thankfully there were no vicious rats in the Atwood book. If you’ve already read either of these, you’ll probably enjoy the other.

If you have any recommendations for me, I love receiving them! I also appreciate hearing your thoughts on the books I’ve reviewed, whether you’ve already read them, or I’ve helped you decide on a book to add to or cross off you must-read list. Let me know how I’m doing, and in the meantime, I’ll keep the reviews and recommendations coming.

What’s next: I recently discovered the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, and I’m so excited to share with you this intense sci-fi/historical fiction/thriller masterpiece that keeps trying to take over my life. Stay tuned to find out why I’m so conflicted on whether or not to count this series as one of my all-time favorites!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Hello, book lovers! If you’re searching for your next great read, you’ve come to the right place. Today I’m talking about The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, who is actually J.  K. Rowling via pseudonym.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling is actually the first book of Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, of which I believe there are three now. I wasn’t aware that it was a series when I picked up the first book, but I did like it enough to recently pick up a copy of the second book, The Silkworm. I love discovering at the end of a great story that there’s more.

About the book: Private detective Cormoran Strike is struggling to keep his business afloat despite creditors calling daily for repayments on loans and a new secretary lined up by the temp agency to add to the costs, when the brother of his dead childhood friend approaches, asking for help in proving his celebrity sister’s death was not a suicide.The investigation into the girl’s death is told from the perspectives of both Cormoran and his  resourceful secretary, Robin.

I usually need a little romance to get fully invested in new characters, but not every book needs a love story. I had a lot of respect for this one, in fact, in which a man and woman could work together with mutual appreciation for each other, without a romantic entanglement getting in the way of the main plot line. Both Cormoran and Robin have their own separate and complicated love lives, and they’re real, gritty characters. By which I mean, they have their faults and make mistakes, giving them a very real feel. One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is characters who feel obviously fabricated–a little too perfect or convenient–so I almost always need to remark on my impression of the characters.

“She consulted her watch. Having allowed her usual margin of time for getting lost, she was a quarter of an hour early. The nondescript black-painted doorway of the office she sought stood to the left of the 12 Bar Cafe; the name of the occupant of the office was written on a scrappy piece of lined paper taped beside the buzzer for the second floor. She checked her watch again, then decided, in a burst of euphoria, to go up early and show herself keen for a job that did not matter in the slightest.”

But it does prove to matter, and turns into an exciting job for Robin after all. Not only does she dive in to help with the single, practically-hopeless open case, but she stays on at the small detective agency longer than she planned or needed to. Together, Robin and Cormoran create and eliminate a list of suspects, encounter danger as they discover even more truth than they sought, and unearth a murderer’s long-buried secrets. To add to the fascination, there’s an interesting contrast between the lives of the celebrity victim and her famous acquaintances in comparison with the lives of the willingly underpaid secretary and the detective who finds himself virtually homeless for the duration of this book. The characters are diverse, interesting, and suspicious, but rarely predictable, which is a great feature for a murder mystery. The tension in this one is also more psychological than gory, which I would also consider a plus.

On Robert Galbraith: although I completely understand a writer’s desire to use a pseudonym and have no complaint whatsoever about that practice, this is one series that J. K. Rowling should be proud to put her own name on. Although the similarities between Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter are basically nonexistent, the same high-caliber writing is in play, and the story, while notably more adult than that of our beloved wizarding world, is equally captivating. I read Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy a couple of years ago, but my first impression of that book was nowhere near as favorable as my opinion of The Cuckoo’s Calling. I’m giving 5 stars, and I’m excited to see what the second Cormoran Strike book has in store for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. Obviously, if The Cuckoo’s Calling creates any new Rowling fans, check out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry Potter is such a staple of modern literature at this point that I have to recommend the series at some point, and this seems like a great opportunity.
  2. For more murders and mysterious surprises, as well as a little more gore, try my current favorite mystery series, The Women’s Murder Club, the first of which is 1st to Die, by James Patterson. These books are fast-paced, with tiny chapters, strong female characters, inevitable crazies, and unique crimes.

Coming up next: I’ve been trying so hard to choose between two Margaret Atwood novels. Because I read it most recently, I’m going to review The Handmaid’s Tale next, which is a dystopian novel that I’d consider a modern classic.

As usual, please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions for me! I need great new books to keep me motivated to meet my reading goal for 2016, and I’m determined not to fall behind so early in the year. Are any of you still holding strong to a reading challenge this year? Or just reading insatiably for fun? Both? Regardless, happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: find my thoughts on the second book in this series, The Silkworm, here.

Review: At the Water’s Edge

It’s a beautiful day to make up some missed blog posts! I wanted to post every week, mostly to keep myself on track with my reading goal for the year, but it turns out it’s not the reading schedule I’m having a hard time keeping up with. I hate to abandon a challenge though, so after a brief hiatus, I’m back to catch up with my reviews. Today I’m going to be talking about At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen.

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I like a good historical fiction novel every now and then, but Gruen’s books are more than that. The plots are fast-paced and addicting, the characters–both good and evil–are fascinating, and the settings are vivid and exciting, even when circumstances are dismal. In fact, there’s only one aspect of Gruen’s books that I have a consistent complaint about; more on that in a minute.

A little about this story: Maddie, her husband, Ellis, and his ubiquitous best friend, Hank, begin the novel in 1944 as nothing more than spoiled rich kids without much sense of the world beyond their endless parties until Ellis’ father cuts them off and kicks them out. Bankrolled by the omnipresent Hank, Ellis decides the three must best his father by setting out to discover what his father tried and failed to prove years ago–the existence of the Loch Ness monster.

” “Look!” Hank screamed, and his voice was so guttural, so uncontrolled, we couldn’t help ourselves. He was filming furiously. He stuck his other arm out from under the raincoat just long enough to point…Ellis’s expression shifted and he twisted in his seat. I grabbed the edge of the boat and leaned over to look. Something large, dark, and rounded was moving quickly beneath the water. By the time I realized it was rising, it had rammed the bottom of the bow and flipped me into the air. My mouth and nose filled with water before i fully comprehended that I was beneath the surface. The cold was shocking…I looked up at the surface and, as though through thick, wavy glass, saw Ellis standing in the boat holding an oar. It sliced through the surface and came to a stop against my chest. With an enormous force of will, I managed to bring my hands back in front of me and locked my fingers around its shaft, just above the blade. I kept hold of it, and after what seemed like an eternity, wondered why I wasn’t moving toward the boat…He wasn’t saving me. He was making sure I stayed under.”

Maddie develops immensely throughout the narrative, and the true nature of her friends and acquaintances are unveiled as the story progresses. In the middle of the war, Maddie finds herself stranded in Scotland on a trip she’d rather abandon, stuck between building relationships with good people she meets there and trying to extricate herself from under the controlling thumb of her ignorant and self-centered husband. There’s romance, travel, a little mystery, and a lot of adventure between the covers of At the Water’s Edge, and once I started, I didn’t want to put it down.

But. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I do have something to say about it. The ending was a relief, in that I generally want things to work out well for the characters I’ve grown attached to in a book, but there’s just something about a neatly wrapped-up conclusion that leaves me a little unsatisfied. It feels less realistic for nothing to have gone irrevocably wrong. This is my one complaint about Gruen’s books generally, although I was more willing to accept the end of Water for Elephants than the end of this new novel.

More mild disappointments: It was moderately difficult to connect with the characters at first. There was a lot more context about the characters’ lives before the trip to Scotland than I thought strictly necessary, and at that point none of them were particularly likable. I was propelled onward by my intrigue with high society activity in the 1940’s more than the characters, which made the first several chapters feel rather slow and distant. The actual opening of the story, in contrast, was particularly interesting and the characters immediately likable, but they vanish completely for quite a few chapters, and when they return, the romance that will unfold becomes obvious and inevitable, despite Maddie’s hesitancy to put the pieces together.

This isn’t to say that I disliked the story, however. Despite the transparency of the romance and the tidy ending, this book made me long to visit Scotland myself, and I was undeniably happy about the good guys joining forces and overcoming their obstacles. I was saddened at first by Maddie’s apparent lack of agency in the novel, but as her character grows she does become more active and vocal, in which case her habit of following orders and doing what she’s expected to turned into a character win that I was happy with by the end. Furthermore, even the more predictable aspects of the book didn’t deter me from wanting to find out how the story would reach point B from A. If the destination was clear, the journey remained a twisted mystery that kept me turning pages. Overall, I give At the Water’s Edge 3.5/5 stars.

Further recommendations: whether you like At the Water’s Edge or not, I’ve got two books for you that struck me as similar, but rated higher on my list of favorites:

  1. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. This one focuses on the lives of traveling circus employees. The gloriously amusing main character is a man narrating his past with the circus and his present at a nursing home, which the circus is visiting. This book is a magical must-read with the same great setting, character, and plot elements that Gruen handled well in At the Water’s Edge.
  2. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read this around the same time as At the Water’s Edge, and enjoyed the irony of having unintentionally picked up two historical fiction books set in Scotland around the same time. Well, Outlander starts in the 1940’s, but turns into a sci-fi time-travel novel. It’s got the captivating setting, the expectedly unexpected romance, and so much action and adventure that I almost felt like I was getting a workout just reading about it. I’m currently forging my way onward through this intriguing series, so I’ll probably have a review of at least the first book up soon. But first:

Coming up next: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling). I loved murder mysteries so much a few years ago that a good detective story feels like a palate cleanser when I’ve been reading a lot and need a break without actually stepping away from the bookshelves. This one’s nothing like Harry Potter, but J. K. Rowling’s a great writer and it really shows in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as well. Stay tuned for my full review later this week!

Please share your thoughts on At the Water’s Edge with me; I’d love to hear your opinions or feedback. Also, drop any recommendations/requests you have for me in the comments below! Happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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