Humble Book Review: Hearts In Atlantis

Hearts in Atlantis is quite a unique Stephen King book. It’s not really a standard novel, and not really a collection of novellas or short stories. It’s his first take on something akin to an anthology – four stories of varying length, all loosely linked to the same group of people as they grew up and experienced an important historic moment in American history; Vietnam.

In the first tale called “Low Men in Yellow Coats”, we meet Bobby Garfield, an 11 year old boy growing up in 1960, living with his widowed and “tightwad” mother, and hanging out with his friends Carol and Sully-John. But an elderly newcomer, Ted Brautigan (if you’ve experienced the Dark Tower, that name may seem familiar) moves into the upstairs apartment. The scholarly gentleman is a bit odd – he seems to know more than he should, and he confesses to be in hiding from the titular Low Men. Just who these low men are, and what their purpose is, is something critical to the main Dark Tower narrative.

Hearts are broken, as they often are in King coming of age stories. This then gives a good segue into the next tale called “Hearts in Atlantis”. Set in 1966, tensions are building in Vietnam and at home, where college kids are afraid if they drop out they’ll be shipped overseas to contribute to the war. Peter Riley knows this, yet still lets his grades slip after becoming addicted to playing Hearts for money. During this time, one of his withdrawn classmates discovers a powerful symbol to aid protesting the war.

In the next two tales, “Blind Willie” and “Why We’re in Vietnam”, it follows two characters we met in 1960, and their troubles with life after their experiences in Vietnam, each with different methods of coping.

Finally, we revisit Bobby Garfield again in 1999 with “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling” in a brief epilogue.

I loved this book for two major reasons. Firstly, showing the inextricable fates of all those characters we met in 1960 and 1966 is an incredible storytelling method. The first tale could exist as it’s own novel, it’s that long. But to continue on with other tales years after these events is great in having this emotional investment – you truly want to know the fates of these people as you follow them. Really, the central character that ties each of these tales is Carol Gerber – the girl with the heart of a lion. To see how she had affected so many people from their own points of view was amazing.

Secondly, it’s hard to look past the very strong tie-in with The Dark Tower in “Low Men in Yellow Coats”. The vivid detail of these low men, the disgust and pure terror they induce in Bobby is something not as well detailed in the Dark Tower series itself, so it is a shame I hadn’t read this first. But knowing the history of a pivotal Dark Tower character made me only more eager to re-read the series.

I believe this book is greatly underrated – there is some terrifying horror aspects at the beginning, but mellows out into dealing with the human condition with respect to traumatic experiences. Also, there is a beautiful scene towards the end of “Why We’re in Vietnam” that I wont forget easily, with vivid imagery of a man coming to terms with his guilt.

A must-read for DT fans, and Stephen King fans in general. There is also a 2001 movie of the same name, starring Anthony Hopkins and a young Anton Yelchin, focused on stories related to Bobby Garfield. Well worth the watch.

Advertisements

Humble Book Review: Rose Madder

From the late 80’s to early 90’s, King ventured away from his modern twists on classic supernatural tales and claustrophobic encounters with psychotic individuals, to explore the dark and hidden horrors lurking within the walls of the unassuming home. Rose Madder marks the end of this informal “domestic horror” era which included Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, and arguably also Needful Things.

With this final entry, King really drives home the message in a very blatant way, within the realm of an engaging cat-and-mouse story.

At the beginning, we see Rosie Daniels suffering from a horrifying case of domestic abuse, brought upon by her psychotic police detective husband, Norman. Flash forward another nine years, and Rose is still married to this beast, while turning more submissive from his continuous abuse. However, one day she discovers one small drop of blood which causes her to mentally snap. She then leaves the house with nothing but her husband’s ATM card.

What follows is a dangerous escape into an unknown world, one she has felt disconnected from for 14 long years. As Rose loses herself in a new city and is taken in by the kindness of strangers, Norman slowly loses his sanity while trying to locate his lost “possession” in utter disbelief that he didn’t see it coming.

Initially, I regarded this as a standard thriller, with the usual high stakes of death if Rose was caught. And there are some very close calls to keep you hooked. However, there was a certain point which brought a fresh twist, marked by Rose’s discovery of a particularly alluring painting, aptly namedRose Madder. The other-worldly properties of it created a very interesting sub-plot, which I found myself far more interested in.

Then came a moment that all Stephen King followers love; the allusion to one of the other books in his multiverse. This wasn’t just any reference, but a direct reference to the ideology of the centrepoint of all universes – Midworld. Ka is a wheel.

Through strange means, you get to know the main figure in this strange painting, and she alludes to herself as being even more mysterious and dangerous as any other King character I’ve met. I believe there are strong connections between Rose Madder and the Crimson King, but I haven’t been able to find anyone else’s thoughts on the matter. She seems like too big of a player to only appear in this one novel.

Once Rose is established in her new city, and Norman reaches it to look for her, you can quite easily draw upon the metaphor of the Minotaur in the maze, blindly hunting down the victim. Well, King doesn’t mistake upon this, as towards the end of the novel, the metaphor slowly but surely becomes so blatant that it almost mimics the ancient Greek mythological story to the point of absurdity.

Perhaps the only drawback, and it is a quite major one, is that the psychotic husband Norman has absolutely no redeemable traits at all. As a character, he was very one-dimensional, trying to get back what is his. Although he does slowly slip into insanity, and you can gradually follow it, I did not care for him at all. Rosie, on the other hand, does transform quite well into an independent woman. You can’t help but also feel excited when she’s happy to do the things we disregard as routine or mundane.

I’d call this one of King’s hidden gems, depending on whether you care for those King cross-references to the larger multiverse or not.

Humble Book Review: Battle Royale

I’ll just get this out of the way from the beginning – yes, I had read the Hunger Games trilogy before this, and yes, there are similarities that run so deep, it’s almost impossible that Suzanne Collins had not at least subconsciously borrowed elements from Battle Royale.

Although you might think the similarities are endless, many of them are smaller details in comparison to the overall narrative. Each book has it’s own style and target audience. Personally, I found Battle Royale to be a fast-paced and thrilling read, more aligned to what I really wanted in a totalitarian-run free-for-all.

Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami, is the story of a class of 42 Japanese high school students who, as part of the totalitarian government’s terrifying program, have been kidnapped and shipped to a small island against their will. It is this setting where they will be each given a map, food, a random weapon, and an explosive collar attached to their necks. They have been told to kill their classmates – and friends – in order to survive. If they choose not to, those explosive collars could detonate. In the end, only one student can be the sole survivor and deemed the winner, allowed to return to society.

Upon frantically running away from the starting point into every direction, the students are faced with an ethical dilemma beyond their years: do they “play the game” and increase their individual chances of survival? Do they attempt to trust their classmates and band together to increase their odds of finding a way out of the system? Or do they choose not to participate in killing at all?

Each choice; constantly moving or hiding, becoming a killer or a pacifist, to trust or to distrust; these are crucial decisions each of the 42 students need to answer quickly.

First of all, it must be said that with 42 students in the mix, a potential reader might be dissuaded with trying to juggle so many characters. However, the author had chosen to stick with 2 major protagonists, and around 3 or 4 major groups to check in with from time to time. Your head won’t be spinning with trying to remember names, but what this novel does extremely well, is flesh out each of the characters adequately. None of the characters are clones of each other, they are all unique and interesting with their personalities and actions.

Unfortunately, because of the nature of the game, the more you get to know the characters, the sadder you’ll become since according to the rules, there can be only one survivor. These high stakes urge you to fly through the pages to see how your favourites fare against the more cruel students.

Secondly, George R R Martin ain’t got nothing on the death count per page here. You need to be aware that not all of the students will make it out alive. Hell, two students don’t even make it out of the briefing room due to the overzealous and egotistical program manager Sakamochi. It is because of these reasons that you’ll find yourself heavily invested in the outcome – will the students either escape, or defeat the program itself?

Perhaps the only let-down for me is the writing style. Due to it being a translation from a Japanese author, the novel suffers from an inevitable sense of awkwardness. Metaphorical language is practically non-existent, and it sometimes reads as an objective journalist’s recounting of the events from a distance.

However, I think the incredibly engaging plot and fast-paced action more than makes up for elements lost in translation. If you’re looking for a book of what the Hunger Games should have been, this is for you.

Humble Book Review: Dolores Claiborne

What would you do if you were stuck in a loveless and violent relationship? Would you sit idly by, paralyzed by fear, or would you make a stand and reach a level ground? And after a long time together, with a growing family, if you found out a dark and sinister secret, would things change?

Dolores Claiborne, in the novel of her namesake, reminisces about her past and her struggle to remain on top, not to be fooled by her abusive husband. She opens up about her history only days after her employer, Vera Donovan, passes away in suspicious circumstances. Suspicious because Dolores, at 65 years old, was Vera’s head housekeeper, and also because on the small island they lived on, Dolores had developed a reputation warranting wariness.

Throughout the novel we only delve into Dolores’s memories, which is told in the way of a casual interview between the accused, an officer and a stenographer. There are several key moments in Dolores’s life which are worth knowing for Vera’s death, and for the protagonists’s character in general; her relationship to her husband, and to her children, particularly her eldest daughter.

There are a few great moments of suspense peppered throughout, and its all told from her very casual style of storytelling. It works quite well, since King normally gives us that corner-of-the-diner type casual vibe with his novels. This is at it’s best a character novel, and you do want to know what had happened to made her so hardened in spirit and sharp of tongue.

But, this is one of King’s lesser known works for a reason. There is some writing style experimentation going on here, with the pure singular retelling of a life, and also no chapter breaks at all can make it seem like a tiring stream of consciousness. After finishing the book, I found it wasn’t overly bad, but it didn’t really captivate me either. It’s as if this was really meant to be a novella, but it was padded out just a bit, so it could be a standalone novel.

In fact, due to the somewhat significant connection it has with Gerald’s Game, I’d have thought they’d go well together in some sort of collection.

Either way, not a bad read, but there are many King novels that rank higher. But if you’re mad on King novel cross-references like me, at least you’ll get that excited feeling of recognition.

Humble Book Review: End of Watch

Well, this is it. End of Watch is an end to the Bill Hodges trilogy that started in 2014 with Mr Mercedes, and was followed up with Finders Keepers in 2015. If this tells us anything, it’s that King writes like the devil. This whole trilogy was completed in only three years, and that’s not mentioning the small fact that he published Revival and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams in between. The man is on fire, perhaps trying to get as much done as he can before that robed skeletal figure pays him a more final visit than in 1999.

In the novel, Bill Hodges is still running his private detective agency alongside Holly Gibney, you’ll recall from the first two novels. While battling his own life-threatening issues, he gets drawn into a string of suicide cases, all somehow linking back to his nemesis from Mr Mercedes, Brady Hartsfield. A seemingly impossible notion, as he was left in a vegetative state after their first major encounter.

So, what role, if any, does Brady have with these suicides connected to him and his past? Is everything as it seems, or are there extraordinary abilities at play? And what do the pink fish and the numbers have to do with all of it?

What we get with End of Watch is precisely what we expect from the prior two novels; a fun, thrilling piece of ‘quicktion’ (yes, I’ve been known to portmanteau the line from time to time). A great, fast-paced chase to catch a horrible entity before some cataclysmic event occurs. Considering this, I think it comes out on par with the first two books. A formidable antagonist, high stakes, and a satisfying conclusion. Also, it does wrap up the trilogy pretty well.

However, there’s a little something in King’s style here that I can’t get over. There’s a not-so-subtle criticism of current world events and technology that peppers its way through the pages, and it comes across as that ‘crusty old uncle that complains about how the world used’a be without all the gahd-darn computers and slimy politicians’. I don’t mean through dialogue or the thoughts of the protagonist, since he is old and sometimes salty about the world, so it’d make sense. I mean the seemingly out of place metaphors from the author’s voice that creep in. There’s even a reference to Trump, who people reading this in one year’s time won’t remember, because he’ll be a relative nobody once more.

Immersion-breaking metaphoric rants aside, this book gives you exactly what you want from the series. A thrilling hunt with a satisfying conclusion.

Humble Book Review: Gerald’s Game

I think many of us wonder at any given moment what the worst possible situation is, giving rise to anxiety. What if that car speeding down the road veered into me? What if a random stranger just pulled down my pants and everyone laughed? What if, while i’m handcuffed to the bed for some kinky sexy fun time in a cabin away from anyone else, my partner dies of a heart attack?

Well, you’re in luck if you’ve pondered over the last one, because so has Stephen King, with Gerald’s Game.

Jessie and Gerald Burlingame decide to spend a weekend at their lakeside cabin for said kinky sexy fun time. After a heated argument and two swift kicks, Gerald finds himself dead, leaving Jessie stranded in handcuffs with only the voices in her head and the sounds of isolation. Only through her inner voices combating one another do we find out the kind of spirited woman Jessie is, and the shocking childhood memory she had skirted around most of her life.

There is quite a serious theme here, regarding her painful memory involving her father and the day the sky turned dark. It’s a real issue that affects many people, and kudos goes to King for handling it with care, and not trivialising it. I found that when these memories unfolded, at the behest of the “Jessie” voice in her head, I couldn’t put the book down. It was disturbing, much in the same way that you can’t turn away when you witness a car accident. This, and when Jessie was going through realistic situations of survival in that room, were the most compelling chapters.

However, as is par for the King course, after a while there might be a dabble into the supernatural. While usually I don’t mind, it doesn’t work when the first two thirds of the novel sets it up to be nothing but natural. Horrible, but not abnormal. I find it difficult to suspend disbelief when after 200 pages I’ve mostly established the world these events are taking place. Not to spoil the ending – which felt like it overstayed its welcome – but a certain rectification was a little tacked on.

Gerald’s Game shines in character development, though, with much of the book taking place in Jessie’s head. You really begin to understand her hardships and relationships with former friends though the multiple voices not letting her be. As this Saw-like trap bears down on her mentally and physically, you watch her transform into someone else, someone powerful.

A good book, with striking imagery, though it’s a shame some themes felt unnecessary.

And with finishing Gerald’s Game, I think I’m finally over the halfway mark with King’s backlog! That is, until he just released his new book, End of Watch. Well, better get to reading it. I’ll never catch up at the rate he pumps out books.

Humble Book Review: The Dark Half

Rest in peace, Richard Bachman. He passed away tragically in 1985 by a “cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia”.

Perhaps, after reading The Dark Half, Stephen King had more involvement in Richard’s passing than we first thought.

It’s relatively well known that for some time in the 80’s, King was writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. He published great – and sometimes controversial – novels such as Rage, The Running Man, and Thinner. After the alternate pen-name was outed, King had to put Richard to rest.

It’s crystal clear where King found inspiration for The Dark Half, then. He lived the premise himself – although hopefully not the chilling paranormal elements. In this novel, we find a clumsy yet well meaning author, Thad Beaumont, trying to readjust his life after putting his pseudonym, George Stark, to rest. He and his wife even agreed to a theatrical burial, with a fake tombstone, for an article in People magazine. Thad was outed as Stark by a “creepazoid”, but he didn’t mind terribly much. It was a relief to him and his wife, since although Stark’s run of books was much more successful, the tone was much darker, and Thad became a different, colder man when writing as Stark.

As is King fashion, things put to rest never stay that way. In this case, even something which arguably didn’t exist in the first place – a pseudonym – comes back to haunt Thad, and hunts down those that contributed to his “death”.

There are some incredible moments of tension here with Stark. A cold-blooded killer with nothing to lose, he performed some chilling actions. Posing as a blind man to execute two cops and a victim. Wielding his straight razor as if it’s his talisman, slicing at innocent throats. In particular, when Stark is coddling a baby and tickling it with the muzzle of his loaded gun to intimidate the baby’s parents – horrific images come to mind of worst case scenarios.

Some themes, while initially difficult to make connections with the overall novel, come together nicely. What do the sparrows mean? What is the significance of Thad’s childhood surgery? Why do his baby twins act in sync at times? These concepts do tie in together quite nicely at the end. Although King tried to play on the theme of non-acceptance of paranormal events, I felt that the incremental leaps of faith were too large. If you’re dead-set against things that can’t be explained, why allow yourself to follow the thread, assuming they are right?

Regardless, a great thriller, even if it is yet another notch in the “King protagonist is a struggling author” trope. You know what they say; write what you know.