Posted in Adult Fiction

“The Life We Bury”

The Life We Bury
Author: Allen Eskens
ISBN: 978-1616149987

*Warning: this review may be a little triggering for people*

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens is about a college student named Joe who’s just trying to finish an English assignment. To do so, he has to interview someone and get their life story. He goes to a local nursing home, finds an old man named Carl, and starts down the road of mystery and intrigue.

Our introduction to Joe is nothing truly special–he’s a “the world is stacked against me” everyman who we’re supposed to sympathize with due to his hard life. And yes, Joe does not have it easy. His alcoholic mother takes advantage of him, he has to worry about his autistic brother, and he’s trying to make ends meet and go to college. I can sympathize with Joe on many things. It is not easy standing up to a toxic family member, and I understand the struggle of wanting to live your own life and not feel beholden to those you’re related to.

However, I would argue that Joe is, at his core, a terrible person. And many times throughout the book, I wanted to smack him and tell him to grow up.

We learn that his autistic brother is abused and neglected at his mother’s, yet Joe feels comfortable doing the bare minimum to check in with him and monitor the situation. He gets his brother a cell phone for emergencies, and then seemingly doesn’t check in with for weeks. Joe is comfortable putting the burden of reaching out for help on the victim. We know that Jeremy is mentally about seven years old. Joe is putting the burden on a seven year old to reach out to him if he’s in trouble and needs help. So…yeah. I have issues with Joe.

And then there’s Lila. Oh, Lila. Poor, dear Lila, I just want to take you out of this book and tell you to run.

Here’s the thing: Joe’s story is the classic “Nice Guy” narrative. He’s a “Nice Guy” who just wants a nice relationship. He’s not like those other guys who are only in it for sex. No, he’s one of the good ones. Just look at how he deals with his mother and brother and all the horrible things he’s gone through! Yes, Joe is a “Nice Guy,” so surely we should have no qualms about how he pursues his neighbor Lila.

Except for the fact that, from the very beginning, it is clear that Lila wants nothing to do with him. Joe tells us how she gives him the bare minimum of small talk in the hall, never stopping to chat. She avoids eye contact and does everything in her power to send the message that she’s NOT INTERESTED. And what does Joe do? He uses her kindness against her. When she helps Jeremy (who Joe left alone in his strange apartment) Joe brow-beats her into accepting a dinner invitation as thanks. He goes so far as to block her from leaving the apartment until she says yes.

He talks about how her “leave-me-the-fuck-alone attitude…hooked me.” Instead of accepting that his neighbor wants nothing to do with him, Joe continues to pursue her, using Carl’s case as a “my lure, the key to getting Lila into my apartment.” As a woman, it’s hard to read, because all I see are the thousands of stories other women have shared. How men just don’t listen, don’t take no for an answer. And how isn’t that the way so much trouble happens?

Here’s a passage that just highlights his obsessiveness: “I’d been dancing around Lila ever since I first saw her in the hallway, trying to get past the wall she had put up, the wall that kept me at arm’s length, the one she tore down for Jeremy the first day they met. I wanted to see her laugh and have fun with me like she did with Jeremy. But all my subtle complements and attempts at humor fizzled like wet firecrackers. I had been contemplating a more direct approach, one that would ensure a response one way or another; I was going to ask Lila out on a date. As I joked about her being pretty, it dawned on me that now would be as good a time as any. I stood and walked to the kitchen, having no reason to do so other than to execute a cowardly delay tactic.”

Lila tries so hard to let him down easy. He simply doesn’t let up until she comes up with a compromise of a date. And then, of course, things go really badly.

To contrast with Joe’s “Nice Guy” persona, we see the jerks that Lila used to run around with. We find out that she used to have a lot of sex with guys. That she used to get drunk a lot, and party. All behaviors that wouldn’t really be a black mark against a guy, but of course, it makes her a whore. And when she gets drugged and raped, it’s painted as being her fault for being so loose. Joe stands up to the guy who gives Lila a hard time (after she’s run away, so she doesn’t even witness his “heroic” act).

He “headed for the footbridge and Lila’s apartment, where, hopefully, she would be waiting for me.” He expects his reward for being the “Nice Guy”. She owes him now. Let’s face it–our Nice Guy Joe takes advantage of Lila in a vulnerable state. Sure, nothing sexual happens, but there’s plenty here that hurts to read. It’s all about HIS happiness, in the end. “And although my presence in her bed came about because of her pain and sadness, it filled me with an odd sense of happiness, a sense of belonging, a feeling I had never felt before, a feeling so exquisite that it bordered on agony.” WTF is wrong with this guy?

And, like every “Nice Guy” narrative, she repays him for his kindness. She kisses him, whereas the night before she would barely hold his hand. Lila is now grateful for him, and sees him for the wonderful guy that he is. Her walls have been broken down. All for Joe’s happiness.

Believe it or not…this is not the major plot of the novel. No, the major plot has to do with the mystery of Carl, and the girl he was convicted of murdering. As Joe interviews Carl, who has been released from prison due to the whole dying of cancer thing, he begins to investigate the case. Lila’s interest in the case is how he keeps getting access to her. They uncover facts that don’t match, and begin to figure out that maybe Carl really is innocent.

And I have to say…the mystery side of things is handled well. I enjoy the mystery and Carl, and everything about his tragic story. If the subplot with Lila had been cut, I would be able to say that I really enjoyed this book. But I can’t. I hate this protagonist. I hate his stupid, stupid face. I want to shake him and tell him that men like him are what’s wrong with the world. Not just the men who will outright assault a woman. But the ones who wear us down, and refuse to take no for an answer. In many ways, they are more poisonous than the others.

I can’t recommend this book. There are other mysteries that are just as good that don’t have a protagonist who is, again, completely terrible. The ending is also a cliched mess, neatly tying up the loose ends. There are no consequences for Joe’s life choices–he won’t have to sacrifice to do what needs to be done–namely, taking care of his brother. Everything is neat and tidy at the end, good things happening to a “good” guy. The hero gets the girl, gets a reward, and all is right with the world.

Except it isn’t.

These kind of narratives perpetuate terrible ideas in our society. They are why so many guys feel that they are “owed” something by women. How many stories have been in the news, where a man acts out violently, and it comes out that he was “rejected” by a woman? As if that excuses everything. It is the dark side to modern masculinity–that Prince Charming deserves the girl because he’s the good guy, and so what if the girl says no.

I’m sorry if this review was less focused on plot and more soapboxy than others. But this is something that I feel strongly about. And too many reviews ignore this issue altogether to simply praise the parts that are good.

Until next time, folks.

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Posted in Adult Fiction

“Misery”

Misery
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: 1987
ISBN: 978-0-670-81364-3
Lexile Level: 860

 

This harrowing thriller has been one of King’s most popular works for years. Its movie adaptation is one of the best of any of his works, winning Kathy Bates the 1990 Academy Award for Best Actress. Even people who have never seen the film know clips from it, in particular the infamous “hobbling” scene. Even though I’ve never seen the film, I could hear Bates’s voice clearly as I read the book.

Overall, I’ve never been much of a fan of King’s novels. The only one I’ve truly enjoyed before Misery was Carrie. I prefer King’s short stories, as I find he is at his best win he’s forced to cut down. Many of his novels could, in my opinion, be greatly improved with a good edit. Misery is one of his shorter novels, clocking in at 310 pages. The average page length (over the 59 novels that he’s written to date) is 470 pages.

Not to say that Misery couldn’t use a little bit of editing. My biggest complaint about the book are the parts of the story that Paul is writing–the bits from the new Misery novel he is writing for Annie. While a short passage is interesting by adding a little extra context to this thing that Annie loves so much, it generally adds nothing to the story. We never even see Misery in the context of the book–she appears briefly, but does not speak or act. The passages could easily be cut and nothing would be lost.

My second complaint is the ending. Personally, I feel the book should have ended with Paul’s rescue. Annie coming back like Jason Vorhees or Freddy Krueger to finish him off was cartoonish, only made worse by the cliched “it was all a dream” moment that follows. While it’s interesting to see the aftermath of his ordeal, overall it felt beneath King’s talent. If the story really couldn’t end at the farmhouse, then a short passage showing Paul, having replaced one addiction for another, jumping at shadows, and suffering from PTSD would have been sufficient. Or, make him go full bananas. The novel deals a lot with the themes of madness, and we do see Paul circling the drain. Seeing him in a mental institution, or a recluse who refuses to come out of his house, would have worked too. Maybe he embraces the strict routines that he had grown accustomed to, picking up Annie’s habits. At one point he marvels at his output while in the farmhouse, and how he’s lost his cravings for some of his vices. If the story had ended with Paul carrying on some form of Annie’s madness, it would have given the novel a more circular feel.

The book excels at dealing with a human’s ability to endure. Paul is not a perfect hero–he breaks several times over the course of the novel. He does not suck up his pain with a manly grimace and outlast his capture. He appeases, begs, and grovels, to get what he needs. He becomes addicted to the pain meds she gives him, making his situation even harder to escape. He is prone to the falicies of his body, and at many points, simply wants to die. But he always has just enough will to live that he makes it through.

It is a very realistic portrayal of torture and what a body can take. The imagery King uses to describe things like Paul’s Norvin high, his varying states of consciousness is simple but effective. We feel Paul’s every struggle to push forward. His agony never feels over the top.

King has a habit of writing women in less than flattering ways, so I was a little worried about what we were going to get with Annie. Granted, she is the antagonist, and batshit crazy to boot. But I was afraid she would come across as even more grotesque than necessary. One point for King’s favor is how realistic he made her. We’ve all heard stories about medical professionals killing people, sometimes for years, using their abilities to cover the deaths as accidents. A large part of the horror Annie portrays is the very real, chilling horror of real life. She’s not a monster or supernatural being; she’s just a person who has done terrible things.

Since the story is mostly limited to the farmhouse and our two characters, I wasn’t as annoyed by Annie as I’ve been by other King characters. There was nothing else to compare her to. She also has the excuse of mentally unwell, and not just lazy or abusive.

Much like Carrie, Misery pulses with an underlying tension that amplifies as the novel builds. Like Paul, we’re never quite sure what to expect. If you like King, definitely give it a read. If you’ve been on the fence about him, read it anyway. And if you feel like most of his novels are too long, try this or Carrie. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Rating: 4 out of 5

 

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.

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.