Friday, October 30, 2015

The Shining by Stephen King

Reviewed by Ambrea

Jack Torrance has moved to Colorado to make a fresh start as the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel.  A former teacher (and alcoholic), Jack is looking to reconnect with his writing and his family during the winter off-season.  He thinks the Overlook just might be the salvation he needs—but young Danny Torrance knows better.

A five-year-old gifted with the unique ability to read people, Danny knows that the Overlook isn’t what it pretends to be.  He can see the history the hotel is trying to hide, and he has a sinking suspicion he knows what’s going to happen to his dad and his mom.  Because Danny has what Dick Hallornan calls “a shining,” which means he’s the only one who can see the terrible things gathering in the old hotel.

Let me say, first thing, that Stephen King is an excellent writer.  His characters are fleshed out and full-bodied (and, more importantly, interesting), his writing is clear and precise (if a little heavy on wasp imagery), and his story is well formed and intricate.  And The Shining is a triumph of the horror genre.

Like any number of his books, The Shining is a gravely unsettling novel.  It preys upon one’s innate fears of isolation, darkness, doubt and despair—and the unnatural things which creep into the hallways, entirely unseen.   It shows one man’s digression into madness, and one young boy’s desperate fight to survive against a place that’s intent on swallowing him whole.

I found The Shining to be one of the scariest, one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read.  I was frightened by King’s novel, but I was also disturbed and disgusted by the gruesome things lurking in the halls of the Overlook.  Danny has a truly frightening gift, which would have made The Shining eerie no matter the circumstances; however, King takes it a step further and introduces a cast of malevolent spirits, throws in some wasps and a grisly history for a sinister (and sentient) hotel—and a particularly fiendish ghoul in Room 217.

In reading The Shining, I realized that King has a way of making me feel emotions, making me feel what his characters felt in certain situations, and he has a way of unsettling me with his writing.  I often felt squeamish and nervous, a lingering sense of disquiet, as I read The Shining—and it never really went away.  Not even after I finished the novel.

Which, I suppose, is the real point of horror:  it stays with you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Nevermore: Black River, Good Girl, Dept. Q, and Much, Much More!

Reported by Jeanne

Black River by S.M. Hulse is one of those books you shouldn’t judge by the cover, according to our Nevermore reader.  It looks like a Western and is set in Montana, but it’s more about family and relationships.  The story revolves around Wes Carver, a corrections officer, who returns to his old home town after twenty years to scatter his wife’s ashes.  They left after Wes was tortured in a hostage situation which left him unable to play his beloved fiddle.  Now the inmate responsible is up for parole, and Wes may testify.  He’s also dealing with his estranged stepson.  Our reader encouraged others to give the book a try.

Mary Kubica won raves for her first book, The Good Girl, so Nevermore readers were anxious to try her second.  In Pretty Baby, a woman impulsively takes in a disheveled teenage mother with a sickly baby.  Her husband and daughter are shocked and dismayed, especially as they know nothing about this girl.  Soon parts of the young mother’s past begin to surface, and the tensions rise. Our reader said it was just as good as the first book, very suspenseful, and with no wasted pages.

We have several readers who are fans of Jussi Adler-Olson’s  Department Q mysteries, so they were eagerly awaiting the latest entry in the series.  In The Hanging Girl, Detective Carl Morck and the other cold case investigators are drawn into a seventeen year old case in which a teenage girl was found hanging in a tree on the island of Bornholm.  At the time, it was ruled the result of a hit and run, but the Bornholm detective always insisted it was murder.  Now the detective has brought the matter to a head, and the cold case investigators are off to Bornholm to try to uncover the truth.  Our reviewer said that there were a lot of characters in those 500 pages but she still enjoyed it.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr made another appearance at Nevermore.  While most of our readers have enjoyed it, some thought it was over-rated.  One didn’t like the way that the author moved around in time, going forward and then back.  Several people noted that seems to be a trend in books nowadays; some didn’t like it, some didn’t mind or thought it was effective. The story begins with the childhoods of Marie-Laure, a French girl who goes blind at the age of six, and Werner, a German boy who is pressed into the Hitler Youth.  Their lives converge during the War.  As noted, the story moves back and forth in time, from childhood to the War to present day.

My Bookstore, edited by Ronald Rice, is a collection of essays by published authors about their favorite bookstores.  The essays vary from humorous to enthusiastic, and the bookstores themselves sound wonderful. Actually, it’s not the stores so much as the people who own the stores and who are able to connect readers with books. Contributors include Wendell Berry, Fannie Flagg, Lee Smith, and John Grisham.  Our reviewer thought it was a fun book to dip into.

One of our readers recommended Lincoln’s Funeral Train by Robert Reed as being both an important and fascinating book.  It recounts the 1700 mile journal taken by the train on its way to Lincoln’s grave site.  Some seven million people witnessed at least part of the journey as the train went through 440 towns.  It was a pivotal event in our history, and certainly worthy of a book on the topic. Vintage photos and copies of documents enhance the text.

Another reader who had seen The Theory of Everything decided to read the book on which the movie was based.  Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking is an autobiography, detailing the courtship, marriage, and divorce of Jane and Stephen Hawking.  Stephen was diagnosed with ALS before their marriage and before he gained international fame for his work in psychics. Our reviewer thought it was a well done, interesting book about two extraordinary people.

Finally, another fascinating woman was discussed:  Elizabeth Custer.  After her husband George’s death, she devoted the rest of her life to burnishing his reputation.  She wrote books, did the lecture circuit, and published numerous articles about her adored Autie. The subject came up because a member was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand:  Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which covers both sides of the battle, giving thorough coverage to both the Native Americans and to the soldiers. The various personalities are also discussed.  Our reader though it might be a bit too comprehensive at times, but was enjoying it.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

 Reviewed by Ambrea

Seraphina Dombergh is a gifted musician and a talented singer and, as the assistant music mistress in the castle, she is constantly moving in and out of the royal court.  Seraphina, however, has a very dangerous secret she’s trying to conceal:  her mother was a dragon—which makes Seraphina half dragon.

With tensions rising between the dragons and mankind, Seraphina finds herself in a very precarious position.  Caught in the middle of the investigation of the prince’s death and struggling to keep her true nature a secret from everyone she’s ever known, Seraphina will find herself balancing on the precipice of two worlds—the human world of her father, and the dragon world of her mother—and she will soon have to decide where she belongs.

Rachel Hartman’s novel is wonderfully descriptive and detailed.  With her narrator, Seraphina Dombergh, she creates a beautiful and strange world full of dangerous dragons, unique races of people and creatures, martyred saints, and volatile politics. Seraphina is an intriguing piece of work—complex and intricate, but it flows effortlessly—and it’s highly addictive.  (I read Seraphina in less than three days.)

Additionally, I liked that Hartman tinkers with dragon lore.  She turns dragons into more than simply a sentient race, but an entire people:  a community with its own laws, its own systems of belief, its own technological advances and literature and art.  Moreover, she creates a reality in which dragons have managed to take upon themselves a human form.  She offers new qualities, raises new questions about dragons and their capabilities, but, more to the point, she provides readers with a richer mythos.

I also enjoyed Hartman’s narrator, Seraphina, immensely.  She’s wonderfully descriptive and completely candid, having both a scathing wit and a shyness that make her an intelligent, insightful, and enjoyable narrator.  She’s brave, she’s flawed, and she’s startlingly human—and it’s incredibly easy to become emotionally invested (and addicted) to her story.

However, Seraphina delivers an unexpected emotional impact.  Seraphina has many obstacles to face:  her dragon heritage, her fear and self-loathing, her hatred and distrust of her parentage, her fear of discovery and impending war, fear for her own soul and social stigmas as she struggles with her own mortality—or immortality?—and love.  It’s a heady brew of emotional, social, and political conflicts.  And, honestly, I sometimes feared for Seraphina’s safety, keeping my fingers crossed that she would find the happiness she so richly deserves.

(Seraphina is the beginning of a series by Hartman.  Shadow Scale, which was published earlier this year, continues Seraphina’s story.)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Run for Your Lives! Old Horror Movies

By Jeanne

Recently, The Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore in Big Stone Gap offered some 50s B-Movies of the horror genre for sale.  The lurid covers probably prompted many laughs, but for me they prompted memories.

When I was about five, I saw my first horror movie more or less by accident.  The monster was absolutely terrifying and it seemed nothing could stop it.  I cried for hours and had to sleep with a light on for months afterwards.

The movie was The Blob.

 I decided to check out the library’s copy of The Blob to see if it was as silly as people said it was.  For those of you unacquainted with this, the first starring role for a young Steven McQueen, the plot revolves around a meteor that falls to earth with a sort of gelatinous substance inside.  A bit of it gets on the first person to encounter the meteor, and gradually consumes him, leaving no trace behind.  It grows larger and then proceeds to threaten the town, though no one knows this except for some teenagers who try to convince the authorities that there’s danger.

Yes, it was somewhat silly.  Mostly it was the squeaky clean juvenile delinquents (think less menacing versions of the kids in West Side Story) and the earnest performances from everyone.  The Blob itself is, well, a blob but I can see why it terrified me so:  it can ooze through vents as it does at a local theatre or under doors, and then it simply engulfs the person.  Even if it looks like a mass of quivering strawberry gelatin, it meant business. And apparently I'm not the only one who has memories of The BlobPhoenixville, PA, site of some of the filming, has a BlobFest every year.  One highlight is the "Run Out," in which festival goers re-enact the scene where everyone flees the theatre.

So my repeat viewing of The Blob was well worth it.  I still think some of the 50s horror flicks had an innocent charm, for all the inadequate special effects and wooden acting, and occasionally some really neat moments.  Take a look at some of the photography for Creature from the Black Lagoon, for example, or when the Incredible Shrinking Man tries to fight off the spider. (We will not discuss the part with the cat. Just remember, if you are a mouse-sized human, to a cat you are still a mouse.)

Another old movie I’d love to see again was The Monolith Monsters, in which a meteorite falls to Earth yet again, but this time producing stones that grow, then fall and shatter scattering pieces everywhere that then begin to repeat the cycle.  It may not sound that scary, but the idea of these towers of black stone falling and crushing all in their path was definitely unsettling.  

The one that scared me that I’m usually loath to admit is The Head that Wouldn’t Die. A scientist who adores his fiancĂ© is shattered when she’s decapitated in an auto accident, so he takes the head back to his lab where he keeps it alive as he searches for a suitable body.  I don’t know what was wrong with the one left back in the car, but I digress.  The head was able to talk and make her distaste known about the unnatural state in which she was being kept even as her boyfriend courts women with suitable figures.  The lab also came equipped with an earlier experiment which was kept behind a locked door.  Bellows of rage could be heard, and a huge arm would grope from small opening, as well as some pretty heavy pounding as it tried to escape.

Which it does at some point, but I couldn’t tell you what it looked like because I was so terrified of what I thought it might be that I was always too scared to look. 

I was also creeped out by a Japanese movie, Attack of the Mushroom People. My memory of it is hazy, but there was a group of folks who were on a boat near an island.  It was very atmospheric as I recall, with swirling fog and and jungle.  I started watching it to laugh, but it was oddly compelling.

And what childhood would be complete without the terror of Alfred Hitchcock’s  The Birds? In fact, that’s going to be the next oldie but goodie that I check out from the library. 

So there are my guilty frights and pleasures.  I’d love to read about some of yours.

And Wendy at Tales of the Lonesome Pine—if that copy of Carnival of Souls is still there, I’m  interested.  I’ve heard  enough about it to be intrigued, as it’s a title that always seems to pop up on “Bad Movies But We Love ‘Em” lists.  Got a copy of Plan Nine from Outer Space?