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11/22/63 by Stephen King

8 Jul

 

 

 

 

I was truly surprised by King’s new novel. And I didn’t have high hopes for it.

After finishing (and greatly disliking) Under the Dome, I debated whether I was done with King. After reading the disappointing Mile 81, I was sure I was done with King. But decided to give him one more change.

Boy am I ever glad I did!

Jake Epping, an English teacher from 2011, is given the chance to go back in time. His friend Al Templeton has a supply closet in his diner that also happens to be a rabbit hole to September of 1958. Al is dying and leaves Jake with an important task: go back in time and stop the assassination of JFK.

This is easy feat. Because the past is obdurate; it moves against Jake and doesn’t want to be changed. But there are also other distractions.

One is: Did Oswald do the deed alone? Jake must determine this before he acts. The second? A woman named Sadie who Jake falls in love with. Will he risk everything, even the love of his past life, to save another?

At 850 pages, my meagre summary of the plot doesn’t come close to covering everything that happens in 11/22/63. But that’s okay. No plot summary would come close because there is so much life in this novel. The parts where Jake is living through the fifties and sixties really come to life in King’s writing and the stories contained within are ones that are at once timeless and essential.

It’s a novel that you want to live in. Rarely have I been so affected by a novel. It really wasn’t about the assassination, but about the characters and that is where King really shines. He made an 850 page novel seem like it was 300 pages; that is how good the writing is.

There are no supernatural elements to the novel, but that isn’t a downside. King has tried something different by writing what could be loosely described as historical romantic fiction. The good thing is that he succeeds on every level.

I loved this book so much that I didn’t want it to end. When I did finish it, I was left breathless, teary eyed and wanting more. That is the mark of a great book and this is Stephen King’s best work to date, hands down.

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There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff

8 Jul

The premise is a simple one: What if God were a teenage boy?

In the hands of any other author, the book would have been gimmicky, silly and slapstickish. But There Is No Dog is by the amazing, surprising and delightful Meg Rosoff, so we know that we’re in for a treat.

In There Is No Dog, God is indeed a teenage boy. He watches over Earth with the help of Mr. B, his tired and somewhat frustrated by his assistant. Mr. B. Has reason to be frustrated, for there are many things wrong with the way God has been running things.

After winning Earth in a poker game, Mona (a Goddess of some renown) hands the job of God over to her son who is insolent, spoiled and not all that brilliant. He created the earth in six days because he was too tired and lazy to take any longer with it.

Mr. B has been left to clean up the mess, one prayer at a time. But there is only so much he can do. For answering one prayer might affect the schism of things in another way. Cure one child of rabies and perhaps the stock markets crash? Help one girl’s dying mother and maybe the polar ice caps dry up? And the fact that God (whose name is Bob) created mortals in his own image is most troubling to Mr. B. How can a planet filled with insolent, greedy, intolerant boobs like Bob possibly survive?

However survive it must, even if God doesn’t want anything to do with it. He is currently obsessed with a young mortal girl named Lucy, an assistant at the zoo. He loves her. He wants to marry her. He wants to have sex with her; and preferably not in the form of a swan this time. God isn’t too sure what he was thinking when he did that.

When their courtship begins, strange things begin to happen. Driven by the lusts and feelings of a teenage boy, the weather starts to be affected by Bob’s wants and desires. Snow falls one day to be replaced by floods the next only to be replaced by sunshine. And then the rain begins to fall.

Earth is under siege by the weather and by Gods emotions. Mr. B is desperate. As floods begin to sweep across Earth, he begins to wonder, if he doesn’t fix this mess, who will? While God is off following is pecker to prettier pastures, who will look after those that are on Earth?

Told with a deft hand and a keen eye for detail, Meg Rosoff has written her best book yet. It is also her funniest. I never thought a novel about God, religion, the fate of the human race, beliefs, creationism and love could be funny, but There Is No Dog is downright hilarious.

The joy of a Meg Rosoff novel is that you never really know what kind of story you’re going to get. In How I Live Now, three young children must survive an apocalyptic world. In Just In Case, a young boy creates a new image and changes his name from David to Justin but is deterred by Fate. What I Was, we are treated to a love story of sorts that takes place at a boys boarding school where no one and nothing is as it seems. In The Bride’s Farewell, a historical novel, Pell leaves on the day of her wedding to discover herself, only to discover that some things about herself she already knew. In Vamoose, a young girl gives birth to a moose baby and has to come to terms with her non-human child.

Rosoff never writes the same thing twice and is constantly surprising and constantly delightful. The surprises and delight are even more so in There Is No Dog. And though the novels that came before it are all gems of particular hues, There Is No Dog shines brightest for me. It’s funny, ingenious, captivating and wonderful.

What is truly captivating about the novel is how human the immortal characters are. Rosoff shows us through plight, clever word play and everyday situations that even the divine can be human. Is it a commentary on religion and spirituality? Is it a commentary on what humans do to the world, the plight of the environment and the animals that live within the world? Perhaps.

But even more so, it is about the faith that we must have in each other and the belief in miracles that keeps us whole and positively brimming with life.

Now that is something worth reading about. All I can say is: Read this book. It is beautiful, witty, funny, delightful and wonderful in every way. Read this book and believe in the possibility of miracles.

Anna’s Tears by Nathalie M. Holmes

8 Jul

 

I’ve been trying for some time to sum up how I reacted to this book. How do you review something when you have a reaction to something so moving and powerful. Someone recently asked me what the literary themes of the novel would be.

My mind drew a blank. Not because Anna’s Teas is a forgettable book. Quite the opposite, in fact; but how do you sum up such a literary jewel in a few words? I had to take a moment to think about that. However, before we begin, here’s the book blurb:

 

How deep do the scars on one family run, and can the wounded dare hope for healing?

Anna’s Tears, the stirring, starkly honest work of fiction by Nathalie M. Holmes, mines the inherited anguish of one family, which spans generations and countries. Throughout, the road to redemption is as hard-won as its matriarch Anna’s painfully absent tears. This elegant, hard-edged work is certain to resonate with readers seeking a masterfully written journey deep into the heart, which illuminates the tender mercies that emerge from the long-hidden damages of life.

In a cold stretch of Canada, Helene desperately tries to both overcome and suppress a childhood of trauma, alcoholism and sexual abuse. Through booze-fueled, foggy nights of high risk and deep regret, Helene leers through her early adulthood, fighting flashes of early memories that are too horrible to bear, and instead inflicting her own fresh pain. Beyond the painful miasma of her childhood, Helene is convinced that there is something even more disturbing in her family’s furtive past.

Helene seeks cold comfort in her paternal grandmother, Anna, whose taciturn, inarticulate sadness offers her a curious refuge. Anna’s tragic story starts before the Second World War in Holland and ends when she moves to Canada after having endured some of the most unimaginable ravages of war. Ernst, who is Helene’s father, is tormented by his own legacy of ghosts, which manifest themselves in a dysfunctional marriage to his wife Jolie, whose blatant narcissism and alcoholism submerge her own self-hatred. The die is cast to propagate an inherited despair, which only the fiercest of reckonings can combat.

A visceral, gripping foray into rough psychological terrain, Anna’s Tears travels to the heart of a family’s darkness to find its way toward the light of hope. With evocative detail of events both past and present, this stunning work guides readers through time and psyche, and ensures they emerge with transformative hope.

 

I should say two things before I forget: The book blurb doesn’t even come CLOSE to describing how amazing this book is; it doesn’t capture the realness of the characters or the beauty of the story. It also describes the story better than I could ever dream possible. I don’t have enough words to describe how incredible this book is.

If I were to come close, I would describe it as a patchwork quilt of time and secrets. However, that doesn’t talk about the depth of the characters, the quality of the novel nor the talent of first time author Nathalie M. Holmes.

I find it difficult to believe that it is her first book; she paints with words, rather than write with them; the result is a lovely kind of liquid poetry that plays with time, shadow and shared grief. Holmes has covered some dark territory in her novel, but ends up writing with an aplomb that many writers achieve. Time flows like water over the page and all you can do is keep reading, needing to know what happens.

I think that’s pretty close, but it does little to encapsulate my emotional response to Anna’s Tears. Anna may have not cried any tears, but I sure did. With grace and stark honesty, Holmes pens a story that will touch everyone that reads it and haunt them long after the last page has been turned.

Though the plights of Anna, Helen, Jolie and Ernst and their connections to each other, are difficult to read at times, it is only because the people that fill these pages are so real. You feel as if you know them (or at least I did) and grow to know them as you fall into their lives.

Anna’s Tears is a moving, emotionally provoking tale that is right up there with Ordinary People by Judith Guest, In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Stark, brilliant and honest, Holmes uses multiple narrators and multiple times to weave her story.

The results are absolutely amazing. I only hope it’s not too long till the release of Holme’s next novel.

I can hardly wait to take another journey with her.

Blockade Billy by Stephen King

4 Jun

 

 

Blockade Billy is a slim little volume by horror master Stephen King. By now, everyone will have heard of the ruckus that the book caused when Cemetery Dance published the first edition amounting to only 10, 000 copies.

It was a surprise in the literary world; no one had heard a thing about Blockade Billy until it was announced, in early March, that it was going to be released. A baseball by Stephen King? Seriously?

Not as odd as you may think. Baseball had been one of the subjects of one of King’s most popular works: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordan. In that book, a little girl imagines her favourite baseball player is with her while she fights to stay alive while alone in a forest. In Blockade Billy, baseball would finally be taking centre stage.

But would it be any good?

King, who is most known for writing horror, is usually at his best when writing non-horror stories; he is able to give us characters that we love, storylines that drive the plot home. His non-horror stories are incredible stories about people, about love, about redemption. I had no doubts that Blockade Billy would succeed on every level.

However, after reading it for the first time on my Sony eReader, I didn’t think the story succeeded at all. In fact, I felt that it fell flat on its face with little pizzazz and little fanfare.

Blockade Billy is the story of the New Jersey Titans and their new catcher, William “Blockade Billy” Blakely.

When a run of bad luck finds the New Jersey Titans without a catcher before the season is about to start, hope arrives in the form of Billy Blakely. “Granny”, the Titan’s second base coach, thinks there’s something off about Billy, but pushes it aside.

Sure, the boy talks to himself in the third person, but the boy can sure play ball.

When a player gets bloodied after colliding with Billy, it only begins to hint at the darkness that is hiding within William “Blockade Billy” Blakely. Though Blockade Billy can sure play ball, he hides within himself a dark secret.

A secret so dark that it could change the face of baseball forever…

Now, when I first read Blockade Billy, I wasn’t impressed. I thought there would be more menace to this book, more darkness, more grit as hinted at in the books blurb. In the end, this is really a baseball story with a good twist ending.

And it really is a baseball story. As someone who doesn’t watch baseball, or sports at all for that matter, a lot of what I read didn’t really make sense. I was reading about how The New Jersey Titans were playing the game but I kept waiting for the darkness I wanted, needed in a Stephen King book.

After finishing the story I was actually quite disappointed. I really felt the whole thing was one huge let down.

Thankfully, I read the story again.

I was still waiting for my copy of the Cemetery Dance limited edition to arrive in the mail. However, since I’m something of a Stephen King fanatic, I picked up the mass market hardcover version of Blockade Billy put out by Scribner. I had no intention of reading it.

However, after finishing a fluffy romance, I was looking for something to cleanse my literary palate. I picked up the mass market version of Blockade Billy and began to read; and was transported.

The second time around, the story within the pages of Blockade Billy grabbed and held me. I realized that the story wasn’t about grit and blood and horror. It was about baseball and about the darkness of the human spirit.

The second time I read Blockade Billy, all the baseball jargon didn’t bother me. In fact, it pulled me into the story and transported me; I felt like I was watching the games they were playing, felt as if I was right there with the players.

Blockade Billy is a baseball story. So if you don’t follow baseball, you might be a little lost. But you know what? It doesn’t matter; the enthusiasm in Granny’s voice is infectious, the story thrilling in its own right, right up until it’s shattering conclusion.

So did I like Blockade Billy?

Not the first time around. But am I ever glad I gave it a second chance as I came away loving this little literary gem.

It may not be Stephen King’s best work, but its one heck of a story.

Like Bees To Honey by Caroline Smailes

31 May

 

What happens when you can’t let go of your grief? What happens when it consumes you? When it becomes all that you have left? What do you do? Where do you go? What do you become?

Nina has left her husband Matt and her daughter Molly. She is going back to Malta with her son Christopher to visit her parents one last time. But she is also going home to Malta to confront the ghosts of her past.

Ostracized and cut out of the family when she became pregnant out of wedlock, Nina seeks to mend her relationship with her parents; and if she is lucky, she will be able to mend her heart.

But Nina carries with her more than just hope and grief over her past. Nina carries with her a secret that, should she choose to acknowledge it, will shatter her world even further.

When she arrives in Malta, there is more than just her past waiting for Nina. There are also the dead.

Malta has always been a stomping ground for spirits; and Nina has always been able to see them. A seer from a young age, she has always seen the dead that come to Malta to heal. But now the dead come to her so that Nina can begin her healing.

Can Nina let go of her past to embrace the future? Or will her grief swallow her completely? With help from the most unlikely of beings, Nina might have a chance at redemption…

There is so much I want to say about this novel, but I don’t have the right words to do the novel justice. Not only the novel a beautiful story about love and loss, grief and circumstance, it is also a haunting reminder to live life to the fullest every single day we can.

Smailes, who is no stranger to delving into the darker side of the human psyche, has given us a multi-faced heroine in Nina. Here is someone we can ache for, someone we grow to care about and grow to know over the course of a novel.

You would think that someone obsessed with her grief would grate on your nerves, but that is not the case here. Smailes juggles Nina’s emotions with a deft and subtle grace that leaves the reader not only empathizing with her but sympathising with her as well.

Everyone has done something they regret. Everyone has lost someone they love. Smailes manages to tap into that vein and give us a novel that is filled with real, true emotion captured on the page. Like Bees To Honey is so good that it took my breath away.

I was surprised by how funny the novel was. You would think a novel about the darkness of grief would be hard going, but that’s not so. The novel is full of emotion, yes, but it is such an incredibly human novel. It reminds us of what matters, of the simple things that bring joy. Like Bees To Honey is beauty captured on the page in words.

Like Bees To Honey is also a novel about language. Much like Smailes earlier novels, language plays a big part in Nina’s unfolding story. Nina feels that she has lost her language, that she has lost her home. She tries to find it again in speaking her mother tongue. Maltese is sprinkled through out the novel with handy translations for those who don’t speak it.

The language is almost like the music of the novel. Each time I found a Maltese word, I found myself repeating it, wondering at is shape and it’s sound. Smailes, who is conscious of every word on her page, has placed these words notes, this word music, through out the novel, giving it perfect pace and perfect pitch.

I think the thing that is so delightful about Like Bees To Honey is that everything about it is so completely unexpected. Nothing is as you think it is and the story will not go at all how you think it will. Surprises wait for you, and for Nina, around the turn of every page. I was surprised by Like Bees To Honey constantly and each surprise was a lovely shock to my system.

It’s been such a long time since I’ve been so emotionally affected by a novel. Like Bees To Honey not only touched my heart and my emotions; it touched my spirit.

And it refuses to let go.

Beautiful, funny, moving and haunting, Like Bees To Honey by Caroline Smailes is no mere novel. It is a gorgeous, life changing experience, just waiting to enthral you with its beauty.

Let Like Bees To Honey cast its spell over you. It will haunt you well after the last page is turned.

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

24 May

“This is a Story…”

 

We’ve already heard The Greatest Story Ever Told right?

We’ve seen it in movies, in books about Jesus Christ, in novels that retell his story again and again. Anne Rice’s recent books Christ the Lord Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord The Road To Cana come to mind.

The Greatest Story Every Told, that of Jesus and his birth and the miracles he performed has been told and retold so many times that there’s no possible way to give it a new spin for a modern age. Or is there?

Philip Pullman is best known for the His Dark Materials trilogy and supplemental books, featuring Lyra Belacqua (or Lyra Silvertongue). The books received a lot of notice when they were first published as they are very anti-religion, very anti-God. This should come as no surprise to fans of Pullmans. Pullman himself as admitted that he is an atheist.

When I first heard that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was being written by Pullman, I wondered why an atheist had chosen to retell The Greatest Story Ever Told. I wondered if Pullman would colour the narrative with his own negative views on Christianity.

Thankfully, he keeps his views to himself. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an incredible new retelling of the life of Jesus…and his brother.

Pullman sets up the story in the very beginning. Mary gives birth to two baby boys, twins. One, she names Jesus, one she names Christ. Christ seems to be a bit sickly and thin whereas Jesus seems strong and thriving.

When the three Wiseman come, following the star, they see two babes in the manger. When they ask Mary which one is the messiah, which one will be their saviour, she points to Christ. He’s a little sickly and can use the attention, she thinks.

This sets in motion events that no one could have foretold, not even the angels. As Jesus becomes more and more well known, and his miracles become more and more exaggerated, Christ begins to receive visits from a stranger who seems very interested in him.

Who is the mysterious stranger? Will Christ ever be out of Jesus’ shadow? And when Christ begins to write down Jesus’ doings and exaggerating them beyond all truth, the consequences for Jesus and for Christ will be dire indeed…

I’ll admit, this book surprised me. I didn’t expect a book about the life of Jesus written by a well known and vocal atheist to be any good. But it wasn’t just good; it was fantastic. Not only did Pullman give us a new retelling of the life of Jesus that seemed entirely plausible, he kept the story historically accurate.

Pullman has obviously done his research and has written a story that is at once historical novel and modern parable. Though a lot of people will and have react badly to the idea that Jesus Christ was actually two children, Jesus and Christ, it makes the reader stop and think about the history of the story.

It makes us stop and remember.

That, in the end, is the true power of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. You remember it long after you’ve turned the last page. Though it is written in very simple language, though it is written in a style much like a fable, it makes you stop and remember.

I found myself remembering pieces of scripture as I read it, remembering the commandments I had been raised on. It also helps to make you remember what it was like when you were a child and the whole world was at your fingertips. All you had to do was reach out and grasp it.

Though this is the greatest story ever retold, you’ve never ever read it this way before. The ending is cataclysmic and the book will leave you breathless. Told in simple, lyrical prose, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is indeed The Greatest Story Every Re-Told.

Briefs: Stories from the Palm of the Mind by John Edgar Wideman

23 May

 

“An unwritten story is one that never happens…”

In recent years, how writers tell a story has begun to change.

When stories began, they were told orally; can you picture voices rising into the air, words floating on the breeze?

Then stories were told with pen and paper, the ink making the paper bleed the story that it wanted to tell. Writers could finally keep their stories, hold on to them, as if they were talismans against the dark.

Today, the way we tell stories has changed once more. No longer are people content to tell tales that are long and rambling. No, story has once again gone through a metamorphosis, changing itself from a caterpillar to a butterfly, shedding words as it would shed its cocoon or a snake sheds its skin.

This shorter than short fiction is called Micro Fiction. Stories can be anywhere between thirty words to three hundred words, from five hundred words to a thousand. Generally, Micro Fiction stories are no longer than two pages or so. Each, though short, has a beginning and an ending. Though it may not be the ending you are looking for.

What is so wonderful about Micro Fiction is that it challenges our ideas of the norm; it goes against what has already been established by a long line of writers and establishes norms of its own.

Like every discipline within the craft of writing, there are some who think they can write Micro Fiction and some who actually can write it.

Thankfully, John Edgar Wideman is one of the latter.

A two time Pen/Faulkner Award winner, Wideman wanted to explore and discover words in a different way. Rather than writing another collection of short stories, Wideman wanted to explore a different side to his writing. To see if he could write even shorter stories. Micro Fiction stories. And he succeeds brilliantly.

From the brief explination behind the title, which serves as the first story in Wideman’s new collection of Micro Fiction, you know that you are in for a treat. The writing is crisp, the words are haunting and there are no stories longer than a page or two; perfect for our fast paced society that is constantly on the move.

The collection is actually a hodge podge of many different genres. Some stories are fiction, some are non-fiction and are indeed about Wideman’s own life such as the short and very private Divorce or the aptly named short story Writing.

Some stories in the collection are dark and haunting like Hit and Run, Haiku and Shadow; they explore the sides of the human heart that none of us want to look at. But at the same time, there are funny stories here too. My favourite called Dear Madonna, a litter to the Queen on of Pop herself.

All through out this collection, Wideman makes sure to use every word to its fullest potential. Some of the stories don’t make sense; but they don’t have to. The rambling stream of consciousness stories are essentially a very private look into Wideman’s mind that leave us wondering, and wanting, once the brief story is finished.

Briefs: Stories From the Palm of the Mind is really like a patchwork quilt. Each story is like a patch in that blanket; all sorts of textures and fabrics and colours blending together to make a whole. Though at first you may be put off by the colour scheme or the use of gold lame next to red corduroy, after a while it doesn’t matter anymore.

Because after a while, you realize that one story would not work without the other.

Since finishing Briefs, I’ve been haunted by Wideman’s words. Especially by the stories I didn’t care for. The words come back to me at moments when I should be thinking or doing something else. That is the true power of story: to take you away from the moment you are in now and take you somewhere else.

Do yourself a favour and take a moment or two to read and enjoy Briefs: Stories from the Palm of the Mind by John Edgar Wideman. He is truly a master of the Micro Fiction short story. You may not understand or like all the stories in the collection.

But you’ll have a hell of a journey going from beginning to end.