Posted in Adult Fiction

“Midnight Crossroad”

Midnight Crossroad
Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher: Ace Hardcover
Publication Date: May 2014
ISBN: 978-0425263150
Lexile Level: n/a

Charlaine Harris’s newest series kicks off with Midnight Crossroad. The story takes place in the small town of Midnight, Texas. The story begins with the newest resident, Manfred Bernardo, moving to town. Manfred is a self-proclaimed psychic, working mostly through the internet in various personas. However, he does possess some genuine talent. Harris actually introduced Manfred (and his grandmother) in another series–the Harper Connelly series. He gradually meets the town’s residents, from Bobo, pawn shop owner who is also his landlord, to Fiji, the “New Age” witch who lives across the street. Dinner at the local diner brings more residents into his life, and he begins to learn that he might not be the only person in Midnight with something to hide.

The mysterious disappearance of Bobo’s girlfriend, Aubrey, keeps coming back to haunt various members of the Midnight community. When remains are discovered at a nearby river, a whole new mystery emerges, as they realize Aubrey didn’t simply leave town, but was murdered. Bobo’s other tenants, Olivia and Lemuel, cause more trouble trying to protect their friend, and the local police begin to get involved. Her involvement with a local hate group brings trouble for the entire community, and they find themselves pulling together to attempt to solve the mystery and protect each other.

The tension in the book builds as the community tries to protect itself, while being certain that they know who killed Aubrey but being unable to prove it. The biker hate-group have issues with Bobo, believing him to have a stash of artillery that his grandfather is rumored to have built up on the group’s behalf. Aubrey is revealed to have initiated contact with Bobo on behalf of the group, though her developing feelings for him were genuine. The town believes the hate-group’s leader is responsible for her death―until he captures Fiji, because he thinks Bobo killed Aubrey. When the true culprit is finally revealed, it is not who anyone expects.

I liked Midnight Crossroad. I have been a fan of Harris’s work for several years, having read both her Sookie Sackhouse novels and the Harper Connelly series. While the book is a little bland in terms of plot, it is a valuable novel in terms of world building. The characters are established in such a way that I look forward to seeing them in future books. There are supernatural elements hinted at throughout the book, but they are on the fringes of the story which feels very much based in reality. This is one element of Harris’s that I’ve always enjoyed–her fantasy stories do not feel like the stereotypical setup where the inclusion of supernatural creatures into a modern world is never explained (usually for favor of a romantic plot).

SPOILER ALERT―I’m going to give away the culprit of the story. STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED!

My biggest criticism of the book is that I didn’t feel the “twist” was set up well. Throughout the story, we are given nothing to indicate there is anything wrong with Conner. He’s a nice, polite boy, whose biggest flaw seems to be that he is bored with living in the tiny town of Midnight. There are hints that something is wrong with the Lovells―they are even more private than normal, and Shawn seems overly protective of his children. But what we see of Conner indicates that he’s perfectly normal. There’s nothing to indicate there is a serial killer living in the town (with the exception of Lemuel and Olivia). Personally, I think it would have been more effective if we saw animals disappearing, or if there was some other sign that the trouble with the Lovells was coming from within their house. I would have had an easier time believing Shawn was the killer, or possibly even Creek. The motive was just a bit weak.

Still, I look forward to seeing what Harris might do with this setup. Her series have a reputation of getting better as they go along. Her world building skills are a strength, and it will be interesting to see where she takes these characters.

If you like Midnight Crossroad, I highly recommend Charlaine Harris’s other books, especially the Harper Connelly series, which takes place in the same universe. If you want more in terms of urban fantasy, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files is another great series that blends the real world and the supernatural.

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Posted in Adult Fiction

“Damned”

Damned
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Publisher: Anchor
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-224-09115-2

This week we’re looking at Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk. You might know him as the creator of Fight Club, among other things. I was introduced to Palahniuk with his novel/collection of short stories, Haunted, which I absolutely loved. The framework is a group of writers in a secluded “writer’s retreat” where they deliberately bring suffering upon themselves to improve their craft. All the while they exchange stories–while being knocked off, one by one. It’s an amazing book, and I highly recommend it.

Sadly, nothing of Palahniuk’s work has hit me with the same level of greatness since. And Damned is no exception. This book is problematic at best, and takes far too long to hit its stride.

Our protagonist is Maddie Spencer, a 13-year old child of Hollywood starlets who has recently died and awakened in Hell. Maddie is one of my biggest issues with the book. She’s more like a collection of catchphrases and character traits rather than an actual character. Early in the book she talks about her theory that girls lose their intelligence when they gain breasts–how they suddenly become superficial and all about boys when puberty hits. She then goes on to be completely enamored with a boy, and is revealed to be surprisingly sexual for a thirteen year old. She’s only virginal when Palahniuk wants her to be, and it’s usually mentioned in a context that is actually sexual. Some of this is pretty uncomfortable, and rather leads one to wonder if Palahniuk has some unsavory views towards prepubescent girls.

Most of this could have been solved with a simple fix–make Maddie a few years older. I would totally buy a sixteen year old having these feelings and desires. But thirteen just feels terribly young for some of the things that are revealed about Maddie, and it makes me wonder what kinds of teenage girls Palahniuk know. It honestly reeks of how creepy old guys think teenage girls are–Lolita-esque flowers of forbidden sexuality, wanting to tantalize and tempt these older gents–as opposed to how they actually are.

While I like Maddie’s snark and affinity for “The Breakfast Club”, she comes across as entirely too cynical and jaded for one so young. Still, the novel starts off on a good note, with Maddie’s core group of friends being assembled early, much in the vein of The Breakfast Club.

Sadly, Palahniuk fails to keep up this pace. Our teens travel through the landscape of Hell, made of areas of grotesque shock value. This is a staple of Palahniuk’s writing, and I advise you–don’t make the mistake I did in reading this book on your lunch break.

There is an out of place, intensely explicit sexual scene involving the pleasuring of a female giantess. I almost gave up on the book here, and it left a sour taste in my mouth throughout the story. For me, there’s a fine line in what sort of content is appropriate if you’re not going to market your story as explicit. Talk of sex and the less blatant actions are okay, but once you start throwing around terms like ‘clit’ and talking about juices, you’ve crossed that line.

After that horribly uncomfortable scene (whose only purpose was to provide the kids with transportation, and said giantess is never seen or heard of again) the kids embark on the paperwork division of Hell, to look up Maddie’s file. This is one of the more clever ideas of the story, and I wish we’d had more build-up to it. Babette, one of our side characters, unexpectedly goes from bimbo to useful as she reveals that she knows the ends and outs of bureaucratic Hell.

All of this is intercut with random facts or scenes from Maddie’s previous life. Afterwards, our side characters (the members of Maddie’s posse) all but disappear. With the exception of a rare appearance by Archer or Babette, we rarely see or hear anything else out of our Breakfast Club until the end of the book.

The story doesn’t start to pick up steam until after the halfway mark. As Maddie remembers the truth about her death, she takes Archer’s advise that, here in Hell, she can be whoever she wants to be.

The second half of the book has the best ideas in it, but it ends up feeling rushed compared to the beginning. Several good and interesting things happen, which I won’t spoil here. The second half of the book feels more like the book I wanted to read when I picked up this title. It’s just a shame it took Palahniuk so long to get there.

Damned is a relatively quick read, though the first half trudges quite a bit. Our side characters are all archetypes, and our protagonist–for all her “quirky” traits–comes off feeling a bit bland and off-putting.

Again, I think the major failing of the book is Maddie’s age. While it’s more interesting to think about a 13 year old girl taking over Hell, overall, it just doesn’t work. Maddie question’s her parents’ ideologies with far more conviction than I’d expect of someone that young. Yes, her parents are crazy, but Maddie clearly tells us that all of their friends are like this too. When you’ve been raised in crazy, surrounded by it, you don’t question it. It simply is. It’s usually not until one is much closer to adulthood that they begin to think differently on such things.

If Maddie had been sixteen instead of thirteen, I’d be able to accept a lot of aspects of this book better. But for me, in light of the sexual nature of the book, her age is something of a deal breaker.

Final thoughts: I’m not sure if I’m going to read the sequel or not. I might, since the second half of the book was better than the first. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but I feel they get mired down in Palahniuk’s desire for shock value. I feel like this book would have benefited from a good edit and notes of the ideas that deserved more time and could have been a lot funnier.

Trigger Warnings: Explicit sexual acts; mentions of necrophilia; gross and violent imagery

Posted in Adult Fiction

“Different Seasons”

Different Seasons
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Viking Press
Publication Date: August 1982
ISBN: 978-0-670-27266-2

Let’s talk about novellas.

This isn’t a term that’s used so much anymore, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, novellas were growing in popularity. A novella is basically a story that is longer than the traditional short story but not as long as a novel. Stephen King gives the word count between 25,000-40,000 words.

King explains in the Afterward of this collection about the publication status of novellas, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But basically, there’s not much of a market for novellas. In recent years, this has been changing somewhat, mostly thanks to ebooks. It’s becoming more common (particularly in young adult series) for authors to publish stories that fall between books or are prequels. Most of these are not the length of a full novel, and fall into the realm of novellas.

At any rate, in 1986, Stephen King had a few stories that he wanted to publish, but weren’t long enough for novel status. The result was a collection of four novellas called Different Seasons.

One thing of note about this collection is that three of the four stories have been adapted into film. The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, and Apt Pupil were all turned into feature films, with the first two being two of the highest regarded adaptations of King’s work.

“Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is the first story of the collection. It tells the story of Andy Dufresne and his time (and escape) from Shawshank Prison. After being unfairly convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, Andy spends his time collecting rocks and polishing them into gems. After all other attempts fail, and it is made clear that officials are against him, Andy tries something radical.

This is a great story, and a unique gem from King. There’s no real horror beyond the horrific behavior of some of the prison officials. In my opinion, King is at his strongest when he delves into the realm of human behavior. Even better is the overall message–one of hope, even in darkness. I would love to see more of this type of work from King. It proves he is capable of more than just horror.

“Apt Pupil” is the second story of the collection, and in my opinion, the most chilling. All-American boy Todd Bowden discovers that a man in his town is actually a Nazi war criminal. In exchange for not turning him in, Todd bargains for Dussander to tell him stories of the concentration camps and the atrocities he committed.

As they spend more time together, darkness grows in each of their hearts. Dussander resents Todd for bringing back his demons, and Todd becomes more and more enthralled by the horrors committed in the war.

This story is really good, but about 20 pages overwritten. It carries on long enough that the tension breaks, and I was left disappointed by the ending. This is a problem in a lot of King’s works, where he takes the scenario too far, and the story becomes a trudge to read.

“The Body” is the third story of the collection, and is a coming of age story about four friends. Gordie, Vern, Chris, and Teddy set off to see the dead body of a boy who’s been missing from a few towns over. Their adventure starts off as a way of claiming fame, but ends with a lesson about life. It was turned into the award winning movie Stand by Me in 1986, and personally, I like the movie a lot better.

While not as overwritten as “Apt Pupil”, “The Body” suffers from a lot of superfluous material. The movie cuts this and streamlines the story, adding scenes that better emphasize the overall themes of the story. It is a real improvement on the source material. That said, the story isn’t bad, and there’s some heavy stuff in it.

Finally, we have “The Breathing Method,” the shortest story of the book. This is the story with the closest resemblance to King’s trademark horror. At a mysterious club, the narrator hears a number of odd stories, culminating in the titular tale about the Breathing Method.

King’s somewhat sexist bent rears it’s head in this one–the woman in the story is unique because she’s able to respond to her situation of having a child out of wedlock with cool-headedness and logic. The doctor in the story is rather, well…male, when it comes to his response to the pain of childbirth. Mainly, that it is all in the woman’s head, and that if she can just stay calm, it’s nothing. Every now and then King happens into this attitude where the women in his stories are either saints or horrible lazy wastes of space. It can be a bit distracting.

“The Breathing Method” tends to waste time despite being short. There are several passages that are pointless to the story. If King has a weakness as a writer, it’s that he needs a better editor. I would love to just strike entire chunks from his works.

As a collection, these stories do succeed in showing another side to King’s talent. For people who only know him for his horror, I do recommend this collection. But tread lightly–the stories are not perfect (with the possible exception of “Shawshank”) and they are certainly different.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Trigger warnings: Holocaust imagery (“Apt Pupil”), occasional gruesome imagery

Posted in Adult Fiction

“The Help”

The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: February 2009
ISBN: 978-0425232200
Lexile Level: 730

The Help tells the story of three women living in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Aibileen and Minny are African-American women who work as maids in white households. Eugenia, nicknamed Skeeter, is a white woman who’s recently graduated from college, and is trying to establish herself as a writer. The book alternates between their points of view–which isn’t something I usually like. But their voices are unique enough that it works.

We open with Aibileen, as she recounts part of her history and her current position taking care of the house and child of Elizabeth Leefolt. She is the primary caretaker of Mae Mobley, Elizabeth’s toddler, as Elizabeth supposedly has postpartum depression and pays no attention to her. I say supposedly, because Mae Mobley is two years old (she turns three over the course of the book) and is talking. I don’t know how long postpartum can last, but the way Elizabeth treats Mae Mobley when she does pay attention to her is nothing short of abusive. Also, her treatment of her son (once he’s born later in the book) and continued mistreatment of Mae Mobley seems to signal that this is not simply the “baby blues.”

Aibileen and Skeeter interact at Elizabeth’s weekly bridge club. Skeeter, having recently returned from college, is uncomfortable with some of the prejudice talk that her friends (specifically Holly Holbrook) throw around. She later asks Aibileen if she wishes things were different. The question rather baffles Aibileen–mostly because she’s used to how the world works. Her thoughts and reply implies that this is an incredibly naive act on Skeeter’s part–which, of course, it is.

Skeeter’s narration introduces her as a rather insecure young woman trying to find her place in the world. She’s mostly insecure about her looks, due to the constant criticisms of her mother. Her character is changed the most in the film adaptation, instead turning her into a Strong Independent Woman. In the novel, Skeeter is much more unsure of herself, and hesitant to speak out. It takes her awhile to find her voice.

Minny’s story is, in some ways, skimpy compared to the other two. It just never feels like there’s as much going on. We pick up with her after she’s been fired from working for Mrs. Walters, Hilly Holbrook’s mother. This is one area in which the film far exceeds the book. The film establishes the relationship between Minny, Mrs. Walters, and Hilly. It makes her firing, and everything that comes later, more meaningful.

Minny is blacklisted as a maid after being fired, as Hilly has spread the rumor that she stole from the household. She finally lands a job with Celia Foote, a white trash woman who has married a very successful man named Johnny. Because of her background, and the fact that Johnny used to date Hilly, Celia is an outcast among the white society women. She hires Minny to teach her to cook, as she wants her husband to think she is capable of keeping the house herself.

Skeeter, having gotten a job writing a cleaning column for the local paper, begins to meet with Aibileen for advice on how to answer the letters. In talking to Aibileen, she learns of her son Treelore, and his desire to be a writer. Aibileen even shares an idea for a book that he had, about showing the point of view of colored people in the South. Skeeter ponders on it for awhile, having been encouraged by an editor in New York to write something that she feels passionately about.

She decides that she wants to write a book from the perspective of “The Help”–the colored women who raise white children only to have them become their bosses. Gaining the trust of the black maids is not easy, however, as they fear repercussions should it be discovered who they are. Aibileen eventually agrees to talk to Skeeter, but no one else wants to.

Eventually, due to crimes against a civil rights leader and the arrest of Hilly Holbrook’s new maid (who stole from her to pay for her boy to go to college), several other maids in the area agree to be interviewed by Skeeter. Minny is one of them–though she is typically outspoken about how dangerous and preposterous the whole idea is.

The book moves between the three women, with Aibileen and Skeeter’s chapters focusing mostly on the interviews and the creation of the book. Meanwhile, Minny is dealing with Celia, who she eventually learns has miscarried several children, and is desperate to have them. Minny also deals with the escalating violence from her husband, and trying to care for her children.

While the plot is always moving forward, I confess there are parts where it felt a bit repetitive. The women are constantly afraid of being discovered, which makes sense and sets the stage. 1960s Mississippi was a dangerous place, and they ought to be afraid. There is a particularly good passage, where Aibileen talks about the difference in how white women will come after them, as opposed to the white men. However, there are places where I found myself wishing we could just get on with it.

Their book is eventually published, and slowly becomes an unexpected success. There are, however consequences, as several people in Jackson begin to suspect the true identities of those talked about in the book. At least one maid is fired, and our protagonists begin to fear that they’ve made a terrible mistake. But their gamble pays off, and they are soon able to start new lives for themselves, in their own way. Skeeter accepts a job in New York, Aibileen retires, and Minny leaves her husband.

To touch briefly on the film adaptation: there are a number of things the movie does very well. We get to see a number of scenes that are only referred to in the book as having had happened, which creates a more dynamic story. I feel Minny’s character and storyline are strengthened–though the violence she faces is downplayed. Some of the relationships are not as well portrayed (such as the one between Skeeter and her mother) but in other ways, we get more interaction (such as Aibileen and Minny working the bridge club together).

I liked the movie, though if anyone suffered from the adaptation, it’s Skeeter. She’s turned into the atypical Strong Independent Woman, and her romantic subplot–which actually takes up a great deal of her part of the book–is reduced to four scenes. She literally only meets her man, dates him, and is left by him. The character has about ten minutes of screen time total. It would have been better if they had cut him completely.

However, the performances made the movie shine. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone are simply amazing. There’s really not a bad cast member in the lot. The movie has received as much acclaim as the book, and it is well deserved.

Despite its size, this book was a quick read. It is incredibly engaging, and the alternating voices keep it moving at a swift pace. I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the film (there’s some added bits that are just priceless) as well as anyone who enjoys realistic fiction.

While there have been some criticisms of the book (mostly that it downplayed too much of the experiences of black women at the time) I feel it is a realistic portrayal. The sad fact is, in mainstream entertainment, you’re not going to be able to show a lot of history’s cruelties without losing a large part of your audience. The book and film may have their flaws, but they are still enjoyable and worth the time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Racism, domestic violence

Posted in Adult Fiction

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Authors: J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
Publisher: Pottermore from J.K. Rowling; Special Rehearsal ed. edition
Publication Date: July 2016
ISBN: 9780751565355

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’d read a plot summary about the play, but I didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other. Fortunately, that allowed me to be pleasantly surprised upon actually reading it.

Added to my enjoyment was getting to go to a midnight release party with my sister. Because of how and when I really got into HP, I missed most of the releases the first go around. But we had a ton of fun.

So anywho, the book. Well, as most of you know, it’s actually the script to the play. But to be honest, that doesn’t detract from the story itself. The format makes itself known in two major ways: one, the condensed passage of time. Two, the lack of exposition and expansion on various plot points. For example, one of the major conflicts of the book is the relationship between Albus and Harry. But we never really know why their relationship is so strained other than basic teenage angst.

But really, that’s a nitpick. The plot of the story trucks along just fine, and the tension of what’s happening kept me invested the whole way through. It was a fast read (the first time I’ve read a book all the way through in ages) in part because of the format.

We open with the epilogue of Deathly Hallows, with Harry and Ginny sending their younger son off to Hogwarts for the first time. Albus makes friends with Scorpius Malfoy (Draco’s son) on the train, much to the consternation of Rose Weasley. We then see him sorted into Slytherin, and a condensed version of his first two years. This time is mostly used to highlight the differences between Albus and his father.

The main plot revolves around Albus and Scorpius deciding to use a time turner to attempt to save Cedric Diggory from death. It’s a good time travel plot–we see a few alternate timelines, which make sense. The solutions for fixing the mistakes that result from the time travel also make sense. The authors were wise enough to not try to over-complicate the premise.

There’s a rumor in the wizarding world that Voldemort had a child (many believing that Scorpius is that child). Through the story, we get hints that Voldemort might be coming back, via the child. I won’t reveal the payoff, but I didn’t see it coming.

My favorite part of the book was easily Scorpius Malfoy. I wasn’t expecting to like this character, but damn, does he surprise you. He’s sweet, funny, and awkward, and honestly, miles more likable than Albus. It’s a nice mirror to Harry and Draco’s relationship.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a great follow-up to the series. Hardcore fans may be disappointed, just because the characters aren’t like we remember them. But they shouldn’t be. Harry, Ron, Hermione…they’ve all grown up. And I thought that they were very believable. When you take into account Harry’s childhood, his parenting missteps are perfectly understandable.

Is this a perfect story? No. There are certainly flaws. But it was enjoyable, and a little bit heartbreaking. As much as I would like to see the play, I’m a little glad I was reading this–it allowed me to hear the characters like Harry in the voices of Danial Radcliffe and the rest.

Final Verdict: If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, I highly recommend reading the eighth book. Ignore the negative reviews you may have heard, and go in with an open mind.