Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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4/5 Stars.

If you ever wondered what happened to young Danny Torrance after his fateful winter at the Overlook Hotel, this book is for you.

We meet Dan again in his 30s. Haunted by his childhood, he finds himself following in his father’s footsteps and turns to the bottle. Finally, after hitting rock bottom, he seeks the help he needs and joins AA. 

Dan’s special ability—his shining—links him to a 12-year-old girl named Abra who possesses this same talent. But Abra is in danger. There’s a group of powerful vampires called the True Knot traveling the country, feeding off of the essence of children who shine—and they’re coming for her next.

As always, King weaves a masterful story rooted in the strength of its characters. While the True Knot itself is a fascinating creation that propels the story forward, Doctor Sleep is really about Dan and his personal demons as he attempts to evade the legacy of his father and create a healthy, meaningful life for himself. We can’t escape our past (or our genes, for that matter), but we can overcome them if we’re willing to put up a hell of a fight.

I loved most of this book, though I did find the epic showdown that it gradually led to a bit muddled and abrupt when it finally arrived.

Nevertheless, fans of The Shining will likely appreciate this anticipated follow-up.

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

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4/5 Stars.

The Shining has been one of my favorite movies for as far back as I can remember, and yet somehow I made it this far without ever reading it. Well, it was finally time to change that.

This story about the Torrance family and the haunted Overlook Hotel where they spend a secluded winter is truly chilling. As always, King’s character development is what stands out and makes it so successful.

Jack, the patriarch of the family, is by far the strongest and most well-developed character. He’s an abusive alcoholic whose anger issues have recently cost him his prestigious teaching job, leaving him no choice but to take a gig as the winter caretaker of a secluded resort in the Colorado mountains. As the hotel begins to takes hold of him, it’s hard to discern if it’s just Jack’s own inner demons or something much more malevolent.

This, to me, is the most interesting aspect of the book. I loved seeing how the hotel manipulated Jack by preying on his insecurities. And when his wife, Wendy, begins to fear him, it’s Jack-her-husband, not Jack-the-possessed, whom she initially fears—and we can’t really blame her.

The paranoia and dread mount quickly, encompassing Jack, Wendy and their son Danny—gifted with a sixth sense that’s both a blessing and a curse—in a sinister plot to trap them in the hotel forever.

This was a powerful, creepy read that kept me captivated, though I was hoping for a bit more cohesion to the sinister backstory. Also worth noting: once you’ve seen the movie, it’s impossible to picture anyone but Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. This is one of the rare instances (yes, I’m going there!) where I liked the movie more than the book. I mean…Nicholson, Kubrick? Come on!

Book Review: Pet Sematary by Stephen King

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4.5/5 Stars.

Pet Sematary has always been one of my favorite Stephen King stories. I’m still terrified just thinking about certain scenes from the movie. I hadn’t read the book since I was a kid so I figured I was long overdue for a re-read.

This is, famously, the book that King himself considers the most frightening he has ever written. He has expressed regret over publishing it, claiming that it’s too dark, too bleak, that it goes too far.

I understand why he feels that way. Reading Pet Sematary as an adult has been a horrifying experience. I’m now at a point in my life where I have an acute fear of mortality—both my own and that of those I love. Pet Sematary exploits that very fear.

We all know what it’s like to lose a loved one. What if there was a way to bring them back? Would you do it, even if it meant opening a door into the depths of darkness and terror? We all want to feel like we have some semblance of control, like we’re not at the whim of an indifferent universe where death can strike at any time. But at what cost?

As Pet Sematary’s Louis Creed grapples with these very questions, we feel an overwhelming sense of dread. We know tragedy and horror await he and his family, and all we can do is sit back and watch it unfold, secretly hoping that if given the chance, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes. After all, as Louis’s neighbor Jud warns, “sometimes dead is better.”

Pet Sematary had me in its grip from the first few pages and never let up. It’s a masterful story about death, love, grief and the hopelessness of trying to escape the will of the universe.

Book Review: I Will Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

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3.5/5 Stars.

This atmospheric ghost story wasn’t quite as scary as I expected, but it had an undeniably creepy vibe to it and a solid mystery at its core.

The chapters switch back and forth between two concurrent storylines. The first storyline focuses on three friends who venture out to an abandoned village in Northern Iceland to renovate a rundown house—only to find out that they’re not alone. The alternating chapters follow a psychiatrist investigating a series of unusual deaths that are seemingly connected to his missing son.

The most interesting part of reading this book is trying to figure out how the two storylines intersect. While I was able to piece together small parts of it as I was reading, there were other parts that kept me guessing until the very end. Personally, I enjoyed this mix of gradual reveals. Sigurdardottir does an impressive job overall crafting an intricate mystery that never feels forced or ridiculous.

There were certain aspects that didn’t work for me quite as well though. Possibly due to the translation from Icelandic to English, there was some clunky dialogue and times when the characters acted in ways that didn’t seem entirely consistent. Also—and this may just be a personal pet peeve—one thing I noticed throughout was that the paragraphs are long and dense, which isn’t my preference (particularly for a horror-mystery).

If ghost stories and mysteries are your thing, give this one a try. The Icelandic setting helps set it apart from typical books in its genre.

Book Review: The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

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2.5/5 Stars.

I think I came into this book expecting something different: I wanted something scarier, something more surreal and thought-provoking. What I got was a fairly unoriginal story about a mental institution, relying on common—and at times, frankly offensive—tropes and stereotypes.

When Pepper is admitted to the New Hyde mental hospital in Queens, New York, he’s knows he doesn’t belong there. But as he soon finds out, convincing those around him that he isn’t crazy is the least of his problems. There’s something lurking in the shadows of New Hyde: a creature with the body of an old man and the head of a beast, and it’s slowly killing the patients who live there. Is it the Devil—as they’ve all come to believe—or is it something else? A manifestation of their own inner demons? A sinister conspiracy to produce dead bodies?

In spite of himself, Pepper befriends some of the other patients at New Hyde, and together they plot to take down the Devil once and for all.

It’s an interesting concept, and the plot moves along at a swift pace with some interesting commentary about mental illness and the inhumanity with which our society approaches it. The characters are well-developed (albeit cliche), likable and worthy of our sympathy. But ultimately it’s just not compelling enough. LaValle takes his sweet time building to a climax that’s utterly predictable and underwhelming—and while he’s at it he drags the plot in too many directions.

I enjoyed Lavalle’s earlier novel, Big Machine, when I read it several  years ago. I’m not quite done with him as an author, and I think he has an interesting mind. But this one was disappointing.

Book Review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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2/5 Stars.

Being a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction means also having to face the uncomfortable truth that Lovecraft the man was an unabashed racist and xenophobe. Needless to say, I was thrilled to come across Lovecraft Country, which promised to confront this head on, employing Lovecraftian tropes as a vehicle for examining race and racism in 1950s America.

It’s such an exciting premise, but it just didn’t deliver in quite the way that I had hoped. The story follows 22-year-old Atticus Turner and his family, who discover that they are inextricably linked to a secret organization that harnesses occult powers.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time ever finding a rhythm. The book hops around to different narratives without enough focus on character development, which left me feeling disconnected and uninvested. Rather than fully exploring the many moral complexities at his disposal, Ruff instead delivers a convoluted plot that’s arguably more of an homage to Scooby Doo or The DaVinci Code than Lovecraft.

I loved his idea of applying the cosmic existential dread at the heart of Lovecraft’s stories to the terror of being black in Jim Crow America, but the story lacked the awe and atmospheric tension  that one would expect from a Lovecraft tribute. If I’m being honest, there really wasn’t any narrative tension at all.

Such a great concept, but such lackluster execution. If I were rating it purely on the premise alone (and for that AMAZING cover art), it would be a 5-star book, but alas, a stellar premise does not make a great book.

Book Review: Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

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4.5/5 Stars.

Mongrels is a hilarious, brutal and tender coming of age story that happens to be about werewolves. This isn’t mindless genre fiction here, this is complex and imaginative literary fiction.

Born into a family of a werewolves, the unnamed narrator is approaching the age of puberty, at which point he’ll know once and for all if he’s going to “wolf out” like the rest of his family or live the rest of his life without this coveted ability. For now, he lives with his aunt and uncle — but they can never stay in one place for too long. That’s just the way life is for werewolves: they’re constantly on the move, living on the outskirts of a world in which they don’t really belong.

Another thing about werewolves is they love to tell stories, which means that we, as readers, are given tons of insight into how they live. This is especially fun. There’s so much imaginative werewolf lore in this book that I would have never expected to find so interesting. For example, did you know that werewolves who are about to change can’t wear pantyhose? Yep, that’s a thing. And the reason behind it is as funny as it is gruesome.

One of my favorite things about the book — something that really stood out to me — is that each chapter feels as if it could be its own complete, standalone short story or vignette. This makes for a truly satisfying reading experience.

Of course, if you Mongrels from a certain perspective, it becomes an allegory for any group of immigrants or minorities whose culture and lifestyle differ from that of the community around them. And that’s what’s so special about a book like this: Whether you’re in the mood for an engaging story about werewolves or something much deeper, you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Book Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

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4/5 Stars.

Joe Hill is a hell of a storyteller.

In this post-apocalyptic novel, civilization is on the brink of collapse as a deadly, highly contagious pandemic called Dragonscale spreads throughout the world. Those who contract the plague are doomed to spontaneously combust at any moment, resulting in an agonizing death.

Harper Grayson, a good-natured nurse, cares for the sick and dying until she becomes infected herself. Determined to live until the fetus she is carrying comes to term, Harper escapes her abusive, panic-stricken husband. She’s rescued by a mysterious stranger known as the Fireman, who leads her to a camp hidden in the nearby woods where a cult-like group of infected individuals have learned to control the Dragonscale — for better or worse.

As far as post-apocalyptic stories go, there’s nothing too groundbreaking here: Hill relies on the traditional Hobbesian trope wherein the protagonist inevitably comes to learn that the dark aspects of humanity that arise in the face of widespread panic are more dangerous than the original threat.

What sets The Fireman apart is Hill’s ability to write interesting, fully developed characters worthy of our sympathy (okay, so some of the dialogue is a little too sassy, but it’s a small gripe), not to mention his knack for making 750 pages go by with lightning speed. His imagination is boundless, and with it he brings to life not only his characters, but the fascinating details of the plague that infects them.

While The Fireman doesn’t quite reach the level of imaginativeness and ingenuity as NOS4A2, it’s a thrilling read from an immensely talented writer. Fans of post-apocalypse fiction won’t want to miss it.

Book Review: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

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2.5/5 Stars.

“The truth isn’t always set in stone. In fact it never is. There are just versions of it. And sometimes it’s prudent to be selective about the version you choose to give to people.”

How do you rate a book when you struggle through the first 270 pages of it and then love the last 30? Because that’s what Im dealing with here.

I went into this with high expectations, but damn is it slow. Really, really slow. I enjoy haunting, moody, atmospheric, gothic stories, and there’s no doubt that this one was well-written, but I quickly grew bored reading page after page about the English coastal landscape and waiting for something exciting to happen.

The ending is excellent, and truly keeps you on your toes until the very last page. It’s eerie and haunting. And thematically, Hurley’s approach is pretty brilliant: he exposes the insidiousness of fervent, blind faith while suggesting that perception is, in many ways, reality. His storytelling and character development are skilled enough that the denouement is truly unsettling. I just wish that I had enjoyed getting there.

Book Review: HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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2.5/5 Stars.

Do you ever read one of those books that you feel like you should love because it has all the ingredients of something you usually enjoy, but for some reason something just isn’t clicking? That was HEX for me.

A rural New York town haunted by the physical presence of a creepy witch from the 1600s whose eyes and mouth have been sewn shut. A town whose inhabitants can never leave because they are part of this centuries old curse. The fear that grips the townspeople in knowing that if her eyes are ever opened, they’ll be doomed to unfathomable terror. And at the heart of the story, a 17-year-old boy who dreams of releasing the town from this curse, but is too naive to understand that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

I love sinister occult horror, so I was really excited about this one, but it just didn’t work for me. There are too many characters who are hastily introduced and given too little background and development. Parts of the story are written in such a convoluted and confusing way that it’s hard to keep up — and not in a fun way. And there just isn’t really a whole lot of genuine tension, mystery or suspense.

Thematically, Heuvelt is onto something good: in a town governed by fear, human nature may prove to be worse than anything supernatural. In the book’s denouement, this and other themes finally coalesce in a way that’s more or less satisfying, but for me it wasn’t enough to make up for everything that it took to get there.

From what I’ve read of other reviews, I may very well be alone in my feelings about HEX, so don’t necessarily take my word for it. Like I said, there are some books that for whatever reason just don’t work for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. I’m curious to hear how other readers felt about this one.