Saturday, February 26, 2011

Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
Joe Hill
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (December 22, 2009)
4/5 Stars

The hero of Heart-Shaped Box is Jude Coyne, a middle-aged metal-rock star with a fascination for the morbid which shows itself, not only in his music, but also in his collection of creepy curios. When he sees a ghost being auctioned on the internet, he knows he has to have it for his collection. If it's a real ghost, cool; if it's not, it's still good press.

The seller states that she will send the buyer her stepdad's suit, because that is what the ghost seems to be clinging to, in the expectation that the ghost will follow the suit.

The suit arrives.

All hell breaks loose.

Hill's supernatural thriller is intense and frightening in the first section as the ghost makes his plans known to Jude--so much so that I often felt the pound of my heart. In the second part, as Jude begins to formulate a plan to survive the ghost, it feels like an action thriller, with car chases and gun standoffs and physical danger. As the story winds up to the climax, it returns to pure preternatural terror and then, thankfully, the storm is over and the final sections pull it all together with fine prose.

Hill's writing is excellent. He displays emotions so well, layers upon layers of emotion, that the characters actions and reactions are fully believable. The emotional depth of this story was surprising at times, and there were some very beautiful moments in the midst of all the thrills.

The characters are well developed, with back stories being fleshed out in a natural way, through memories and conversation. The only flaw I found in the book was that the hero suffered from Dan Brown Syndrome--Jude was able to keeping going an unnaturally long amount of time while injured. That said, Hill explained Jude's relationship to pain earlier in the book, and Jude often passed out, slept, hurt and was cranky. So, while he had way more pain tolerance that was probably possible, Hill covered all his bases with that one and it isn't a serious problem.

The importance of music in the story was a nice angle. I particularly enjoyed all the references to classic metal-rock bands, musicians and songs, some obvious and some very subtle.

Overall I was very impressed with Hill's prose, style and plot development. Heart-Shaped Box is more than just a "horror" novel. It is a well crafted novel that is certainly worth reading.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Book to Movie Adaptations

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is "book to movie adaptations".

I had to give this some thought. In general, I truly hate book-to-movies, I can't help it. I am a plot purist. I figure, why buy the rights to something and then change it? If you think it needs to be changed, then you don't really want to make IT into a movie, you want something else as a movie. . .

So, with all that in mind, my first thought was to pass up this week's topic, or to post a snarky "none!" and be done.

I even considered writing a list of the top ten worst adaptations (viewed prior to 5-6 years ago when I quit trying to watch them), which would include the few Harry Potter movies I did watch, The Birds, and A&E's atrocious attempt at Frenchman's Creek (just to name three).

After musing over it, though, I find that there are some good adaptations out there. None of which, I note, are Hollywood films. Furthermore, all but one of them are miniseries, which has the luxury to take the time to stick to the book, and therefore are usually much closer to the novel than movie versions.

1-7 are all BBC adaptations of Jane Austen novels, and all of them well done:
1. The 1972 BBC adaptation of Emma.
2. The 1983 BBC adaptation of Mansfield Park.
3. The 1981 BBC adaption of Sense and Sensibility.
4. The 1980 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
5. The 1995 BBC adaptation of Persuasion (and one of my all time favorite movie versions of anything).
6. The 1971 BBC adaptation of Persuasion.
7. The 1986 BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey.

8. A&E did a good adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as well, in 1995, which brought Austen, Darcy and Colin Firth to the spotlight. This miniseries, and Firth's brooding good looks, probably did more for the Austen revival than anything.

9. The 1997 British/German miniseries adaptation of Rebecca. Again, a miniseries can spend so much more time telling the story, and this one did well. Plus, casting Diana Rigg as Mrs. Danvers was a stroke of genius!

10. The 1981 BBC miniseries of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; some excellent casting and pretty darn close to the book. I've watched this through many times.

Maybe some time they'll do a worst list so I can vent spleen on some of the horrid adaptations I've seen. In the meantime, read these books!!! They are all excellent. Oh, and watch the miniseries sometime, if you'd like.

Edit: Oh! I can't believe I left this one off my list! Thanks to the Bookzilla post, I am reminded of the 1982 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, with a youngish Ian McKellan as the villain. It's another fantastic two-parter that I have watched again and again and sticks rather faithfully to one of my favorite novels. It was a "made for TV" British version, but I'm not sure who produced it. Dashedly good, though!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Two More "Did Not Finish" Books

Wow!  This February has not been the most profitable reading month for me.  Here are two more that I tried to read but didn't complete.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 21. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol 2 by Alan Moore (author) and Kevin O'Neill (illustrator).
Despite not being thrilled by the plot execution and the artwork of the first volume, I decided to go ahead and give this one a try. Half of the first issue contains conversation only in Arabic (TEN PAGES!) which necessitated searching for an annotation site from the beginning. This entire first issue shows the League for two pages, after setting up a particularly ridiculous desert battle against "Sorns" and mollusks and cannons and "tripods". . . I didn't continue to the second issue in this volume. This time I have given up the series for good.

2.Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A NovelSnow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.
I was, and still am, quite interested in the history being shared by this novel. It prompted me to do my own research on foot binding and the "secret language" of nu shu. I really wanted to like this, and expected I would, but the voice of Lily just wasn't convincing, was too lacking in personality, too stiff, too cardboard. Also, the reader knows from the beginning that the friendship is going to end unhappily and I didn't want to read that, for some reason. It could just be this season of my life, and I may give it another try sometime later. For now, though, despite reading 37% of it (according to my Kindle), I just can't go any further.

I hope my February readings are more successful, or at least that the March book choices will be!

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein

It's a true classic from the Grand Master of SF.

Heinlein was my introduction to the genre thirty-some years ago, and I read all I could get my hands on back then. Even with the political speeches, Heinlein remains the most approachable of writers. He's not beating the reader about the head with libertarianism - the politics is integral to the story, in some cases, it is the story.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress introduced the concept of "rational anarchism", which had existed but had no name up to that point. Briefly, the rational anarchist realizes that some government is necessary, but any government is dangerous, and must be watched as closely as a rabid dog.

The plot follows the citizens of Earth's Moon, as they attempt to avoid a looming food shortage by throwing off the shackles of the World Government that keeps them enslaved and exiled. Manuel, a computer technician, joins up with Wyoming ( a professional surrogate mother turned political agitator) and Professor de la Paz as the first cell of a revolutionary movement. The story of Luna's revolution is told with the terrible costs of war in mind, but also with the type of detail that makes a compelling read. We know from the first page that the 'Loonies' are successful, but getting there is all the fun.

The Loonies, mostly miners and farmers, speak in a mixture of 'Strine' and 'authentic frontier gibberish', heavily influenced by Soviet and Russian speech patterns and idioms. This makes it a little hard to follow the narrator until the reader hits his stride. Also, the novel was written in the Sixties, so you're not going to see a lot of sex and violence - though the depictions of polygamy were very shocking back then!

Many Science Fiction writers have an appreciation for liberty - David Weber, Orson Scott Card, and El Neil spring to mind. It must be that longing for the freedom of space, (the final frontier, as some wag put it) awakens the yearning for pure, God-given freedom. Possibly, it's the other way around.

For pure SF fun with a good dose of 'classical liberal' thought and economics, Robert Anson Heinlein can't be beat, and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is one of his best.

Weekly Geeks: Time Capsule

This week's Weekly Geeks is to make a virtual time capsule:
Choose a time of your life--childhood, middle school, high school, college, etc--and create a time-capsule post to share with your readers. Include anything you like--favorite books, favorite authors, favorite series, favorite genres, favorite songs, favorite albums, favorite musicians, favorite movies, favorite tv shows, favorite toys, favorite games, favorite styles, etc. You can make it as general--or as personal--as you like. If you're brave, you might even include personal pictures! (Though that is NOT a requirement!)

Me, one Saturday, not studying.

Being bookish, I choose to focus only on books and to use those college years (undergrad and postbach) when I found the classics and discovered so many of my, now, favorites. See, I was fortunate enough to go to a smallish Liberal Arts school, where literature was taught in just about all disciplines and the humanities were required and encouraged and well taught. Thanks to so many wonderful classes, most of which were NOT lit, I discovered some fantastic authors.

John Donne

I couldn't have a time capsule from this age without a book of John Donne's poems. I absolutely fell in love with him (wish I'd remembered him for my Literary Crushes post!) at first reading--fantastic poet! We only read a few; I went out and bought a "complete" volume which is well worn and marked up now. His unusual imagery and metaphors are often quite erotic and always fantastically well penned. His later religious poems are no less fantastic. (A selection of his poems can be found online here.)

Virginia Woolf

"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."

A copy of Mrs. Dalloway would also have to be in this time capsule. This was my first experience with Woolf, and oh how I dreaded reading it. I remember sitting down with it, opening it up with a sigh and hours later having to force myself to stop reading and go to sleep, a converted Woolf fan after one evening's reading. I still rank her as one of my top favorites and am the only person I know that reads Woolf for pleasure.

Edmund Spenser

Ah, Spenser's Faerie Queene! How many hours have I spent rereading that for pleasure?! That's another one I owe to the college years, and another one looked on with dread. I turned out to be a very readable, lovely worded (and beautiful to listen to read out loud, even if only reading it out loud by oneself) epic adventure of knights and ladies and dragons, all allegorical if you care to figure it out and just good fun if you don't. (Now that I've looked it up on Amazon, though, and seen just how expensive it is to get a complete volume, I don't think I'll be tossing my copy in a time capsule anytime soon!)

Waugh, portrait by Lamb

This is also the time in my life when I found Evelyn Waugh, though I can't credit college with that, as it was due to the Brideshead Revisited miniseries that his works caught my interest. I've read and reread Brideshead (my copy is much marked and noted) and all Waugh's other novels as well. He has become one of my favorites as well, and no time capsule of this time would be fully representational without a copy of Brideshead.

Wilkie Collins
One last book I would have to toss in my time capsule to round off this era would be something by Wilkie Collins, most likely my favorite The Woman in White. It was during this time that I learned that not all Victorian writers are like Dickens, that (as a matter of a fact) many of them are actually easy to read and very entertaining. I can't remember how I was introduced to Collins' "sensationalism", but I fell for it and the entire genre of Victorian sensationalism as a whole. Since then, I've devoured every one I could get my hands on, from Alcott's short stories to Collins' dramas to the highly popular thrillers of M. E. Braddon. Their contemporaries considered them vulgar and scandalous, their public clamored for more and I consider them my one bad literary habit. I generally enjoy all Victorian novels (with the exception of Dickens; I've never found him enjoyable despite years of attempts) but the more sensational, the more dramatic, the more scandalous the better in my eyes.

Louisa May Alcott

As an aside, if you've only read Alcott's Little Women, allow me to suggest a selection of her short stories, or her "shocking" novella. It will give you a completely different view of this writer of juvenile classics.

So there you have it. . . A bit of a time capsule of what books where so very important, and continue to be, to me at that very influential time in my reading life.


Emma Donoghue
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (September 13, 2010)
5/5 Stars

Room is told in the first person point of view by Jack, who just turned five years old on the day the book opened.
Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra.
Jack lives alone with his mother, and as he is her only companion and source of conversation, he has an advanced vocabulary and conversation skills which are obvious from his narration. Also because his mother ("Ma") is his only source of information about the world, except for minimal television, his is unusually naive and at times backward for his age. Donoghue does an excellent job giving Jack a voice that is at once believable and emotionally stirring.

Through Jack's eyes we view his world: one room and Ma. He narrates an average day (though a bit different as it's his birthday) for the reader, not realizing that there is anything unusual about the way his days play out. The reader however, sees what Jack doesn't: that Ma is making enormous sacrifices to keep Jack's world as "normal" as possible.

I don't want to spoil it by telling much of the plot, beyond what might be read on the blurb, but I will say that reading this I am reminded of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, in that a parent is making enormous sacrifices that the child never sees, and is able to live somewhat normally and happily as a result.

Room is five chapters, but essentially three parts. First, Jack gives a picture of daily life. Heartbreaking for the reader, matter of fact for him, as he tells about the things he and Ma do during an average day. Without realizing it, he shows Ma as a woman struggling with mental illness, doing the best she can to hold it together for her son, while he is an exuberant, generally happy, nearly typical five year old, doing five year old things.

The second part of the book is when Jack and Ma leave Room for Outside. This is very traumatic for them both, in differing ways. Jack has never been Outside or seen other people and the sensory overload is well told in his voice, as is Ma's attempts to stay mentally strong while suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome--though through his eyes the experience looks quite different.

The last part of the book is the triumphant finale. It is again beautifully told through Jack's voice as he and Ma succeed in being "scrave" (brave even though scared) and life begins fresh for them.

I have seen many negative comments, written about such trifling things, that I was shocked. Room is the most fantastic book I have read in some time; definitely the best I've read in 2011, but possibly the best I've read in 2010 as well. It is heartbreaking at times, yes, but it is also such a hopeful book, a book of triumph and love. I highly recommend this stirring and powerful novel.

~~Read for the Take a Chance Challenge.~~

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Sunday Salon: Recommending Books

Recommending a book is serious business. There are times when I just say, "no, I can't think of anything right now" rather than recommending (or loaning) one only to have that person not like it. If I've liked it enough to recommend it, that book has moved from "just a book" to "friend" and it kinda hurts if I suggest it and the other reader doesn't love it like I did. So, I'm a hesitant recommender.

Sometimes, though, I've just gotta put that all aside. There are some books out there that are just to good to not share. Here are some that I always recommend. Always.

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Don't look so shocked. . . this book is a feast of beautifully written language. I've never read a novel whose subject was so unappealing and yet whose prose was so drawing. Nabokov skyrocketed into my top five favorite authors after I read this.

City of Light2. City of Light by Lauren Belfer. A friend read it and raved about it, prompting me to try it. It sounded then, and still sounds now, dull and dry from the description, but it is one of the most engrossing novels I have ever read.

3. Sonny's House of Spies by George Ella Lyon. Here's another one that sounds like a yawner but was so beautifully written as to be unforgettable. For a more detailed review by me, you can pop over to it's page on Amazon, but here are a few fantastic lines from this book, many of which are like poetry, others of which capture the flavor of Southern small town life to a T!
"It was a sleepy kind of morning, the air like bathwater."

"Like some reversible cloth, Mama's laughter flipped over into sobs."

"We just stood by the shiny gray coffin with its handles like fancy toilet-paper holders and said "Yes" and "No" and "Thank you" and breathed whatever breaths came by: mint, onion, tobacco, whiskey, and bad."

Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Plus)"All the windows had been propped open, but it was one of those afternoons when the air lay on top of you like a big cat, and no waving of cardboard Jesus-at-the-door fans could make it get up and move."

4. Standing Alone by Asra Nomani. I read the ARC of this, when it had a slightly different title and a very different cover, and was awed by it. The message she has to tell is so timely and so important.

5. A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer. Don't be fooled by the title or even the blurb; this is not a Harry Potter type novel! It is a fantasy, but delicately and deliberately written with a complex story and characters. I have recommended it to even non-fantasy readers and thus far haven't found anyone who disliked it.

6. Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin. This one is just a gem! I read the ARC and have shared it what many people since. It's a sweet, funny, moving book with a wonderful story. Just a gem, I tell you!

7. Nation by Terry Pratchett. A lot of people are afraid to try Pratchett, afraid he'll be "too fantasy" for them. This is a stand alone book, only lightly fantasy in that it is in an alternate history, and is one of the most powerful books I've read. It breaks the walls of gender and race and age, gives a moving message about love and about prejudice. It is just SO wonderful. I can't recommend it highly enough!

One last one. . .
Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father8. Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father by Roy Lewis. I'm really not sure how to describe this book. It's witty, it's intelligent, it's a great read. Other than to say, "give it a try", I don't know what else to say about it!

So, what do YOU recommend?