Tag Archives: book review

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

I received this book as a giveaway by William Morrow in exchange for an honest review.
The book left an ambiguous impression. On one hand, not many books nowadays tackle the subject of war with grace, patience, and poise. On the other hand, it was somewhat of a disappointing novel.
The plot line mostly moves forward with occasional flashback to the pre-war and early WWII Germany. The surviving wives of German conspirators against Hitler are grappling with their lives, survival, necessary sacrifices, and guilt.

Guilt should be and is the leading theme of the novel, but somehow the existential circumstances the characters faced did not move me. Believe me, I am not immune to the topic of war, senseless violence, and guilt, but Jessica Shattuck is not Dostoevsky.

I know – it is a hefty goal to strive to be, but there is one thing I see as a trend. American writers can do thrillers and suspense books, espionage and conspiracy novels very well ( it might be a part of literary tradition) , and, to be fair, Russian writers fail miserably at it, but when it comes to emotional anguish and self-devouring guilt, inner monologues and soul-searching, no one does it better that Russian writers.
It does not mean American writers should not try, though. A nice try …

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Filed under Book Review, Historical Fiction

Station Eleven by St. John Mandel

Something went awry! The reviews are raving, and even the friends’ reviews (goodread friends whose literary tastes I trust) are very affirmative and positive, but as I said something went awry and the book did not resonate with me. I was discussing the novel with my husband, and we both unanimously agreed that the writing was superb with very precise and insightful language, but it never reached our hearts. The metaphors and the imagery did not reach our hearts immediately, but as an aftertaste, as a reflection, as a post-reading analysis, but never instantaneously, never immediately, always forcefully, always analytically, never by intuition, never by heart, but by brain.

I am sad to say it was a novel about the human fatigue, the burden of civilization we do not want to support, and we are unwilling to share.

It is also about the history of a comic book …. Is our life a plot in a simple comic book … not even a novel, a comic book?

At least, it was not a zombie survival novel, and that’s something!

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Filed under Book Review, fantasy, Literary Fiction, Postapocalyptic

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

First off, I have a small version of the bigger anthology that was given to me as a part of the gift – soup bowls and a pack of soup. I have not tried the soup as I usually prefer to make mine from scratch, but the bowls are very useful and attractive, and I will possibly use them quite often.
The other thing of the gift set is a book. The idea is great, and I know that there are a number of thematic editions. I used the ISBN to find the one I have, and the GR site took me to this edition with the same title, but definitely more substantial than the one I have. I wish the editors of the books were competent enough to give it a proper and individual ISBN.

I know the purpose of this book is to console and to inspire, but why can’t the editors choose more substantial stories for a small pocket edition, or if these are the best, what about the other ones?
I am painfully aware that the contributors allegedly are not the established writers and merely bloggers, but then the note about the authors seems to be saying kudos for their published articles and stories, blogs and books.

Personally, the devotional nature of a seemingly secular book aggravated me a lot. People were mentioning their faith for no justifiable reason. Most of them are telling the stories of country cooking that usually requires some canned ingredients and frozen, even if they were home-made, dinners. Some of them focused on broken families with the brood of children from different marriages, stay-at home moms, and farms. Basically, very southern, in the meaning that I do not like it. I really enjoy Southern Gothic, but not the farm cooking with all its accouterments.

There was only one story that featured a hipster-like story-teller whose idea of the meal actully stirred the pleasant feeling of hunger.

All the above and the quality of writing are the main things that only made me give the book two stars. English graduate majors or other published others who use the phrases like ‘fixing dinners’ are not the examples of literary accomplishment, but I am sure the book reaches its target audience if one considers the five and four-star reviews.

I rebuke and reproach myself for trying to read something and then judge it by its literary accomplishments or the the lack thereof when I am NOT a part of its potential target audience. Oh, well, it will serve me as a lesson to read the books that have a potential to provide emotional and intellectual nourishment. Mea culpa!

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Filed under Book Review, chicken soup for the soul, Uncategorized

Revival by Stephen King

There is an opinion among Stephen King’s fans that he has become soft and his novels can hardly be classified as horror novels any more. However, in my opinion, it is unjustified. He has become wiser and more insightful, and if it means fewer gory scenes in his novels, this is the compromise I am more than willing to accept. Sometimes the insight into the mind of an individual can stir more trouble and disquietude than the bloodshed of the visual description.
This is exactly what Stephen King did in his latest novel. One can hardly compartmentalize the novel, and many literary tags can be easily applied to it – it is a coming-of-age story that lasts for decades; it is the story of addiction and the price we have to pay for easy solutions. It is also a parable about what is modern faith and how one would define a spiritual person.
I can see how both evangelicals and staunchest atheists could be mad at Stephen King. The reasoning of the second group is easier to pinpoint. Stephen King is using science to show us through the eyes of his character that there is another world after the death that we are not aware of, an ugly world, a world of human privation and misery, a world we can not explain or see from here and now.
The possible condemnation of the opposing group would be more complex and, I am afraid, more poignant. Prior to this novel, the religious people in King’s novels were of two types – either quiet, truly spiritual people, usually Methodists, who actually were loyal to all the doctrines of the religion they aspire to belong to – loving, forgiving, supportive, nonjudgmental – and let us be honest, they were NOT numerous at all. The other group is the group of loud-mouthed evangelicals, who are in facts haters, who used the religion to plant seeds of hatred, alienation, judgment, supremacy, violence, and bigotry (and their name is legion, and personally – rightly so).

This novel offers a much trickier concept of a man of faith. Charles Jacob is originally a loving and supporting man who quickly wins the hearts and minds of his congregation, but the horrendous drama turns him into a non-believer (although his fascination with electromagnetic science always offered this potential). His sermon after the death of his wife and son is the one where many free-thinkers would like to cheer him.

In fact, King was right again, saying that this man was possibly the most indoctrinated ever, and indeed he was. Charles Jacob lived and died with the thought that faith (spiritual or very worldly) is a thing that can turn many ugly things into beautiful ones, but most importantly it can also turn many beautiful things into ugly and self-seeking.
As a secularist and humanist, the power of faith is a mystery to me, but King is unmistakably bashing at the commercial evangelicals whose main religion is money and delusion of others. His main target is TV evangelicals – people who make money duping others by sending false messages of hope.

The character of Charles Jacob is quite complex, whose existence is driven by two opposing forces – help without strings attached and help with strings attached. Sometimes, his desire to see more, to know more, to understand more is so overwhelming that this urge cannot be even stopped by human losses. He is equally a mad scientist and a mad believer. Maybe, Stephen King is telling us that it is one and the same thing. Human lives cannot fall victims to one’s desire to see what is behind this life. Save lives and treat others without ulterior motives of salvation and curiosity seems to be a correct answer, but King is a wise story teller because he knows we would be nowhere without it, even if it is the saddest fact of our existence.

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Filed under Book Review, fantasy, Horror, Stephen King

Fall of Giants by Follett

This massive (page-wise) book is the opening novel of the eponymous trilogy. With all the move and hassle of buying a new home, I did not physically read it, but I listened to the Audible audio book. Due to the impossibility of past cross-references, I was not able to page back and verify some information, but the book was easy to follow. This is the case when some drawbacks of the book eventually became its strengths in its audio version.

It is obvious that the book that is so massively popular would not be the high-brow, elegant, and elitist fiction, but it was still very enjoyable. Yes, the characters were often too straightforward and slightly predictable, but there were scores of them, and because of their easy-to-decode nature and theatricality of their features, they were easy to remember, too; it is especially important if you are listening to the audio book.

The plot lines were occasionally too predictable and slightly soap-operish (like in the case with numeral pregnancies), but it was also easy to remember, and it is highly important when there are several plot-lines that intertwine and crisscross the fabric of the text.

On the other hand, Follett allows his characters to be politically active even if I or maybe he does not share the same ideas and beliefs. I am not happy with Fitz’s opinion about the role of women, aristocracy, and democracy, but I still appreciate that Follett lets him be and does not try to change his opinion, neither is he trying to make him truly evil. Surprisingly, despite the slightly formulaic nature of his characters, all of them have redeeming features, and I do not hate any of them. Besides, closer to the end of the novel, even the most straightforward characters become more subtle and complex. Some might say that final chapters is not exactly the place in the novel when and where one develops his or characters, but it is only the first novel of his trilogy, so with the other two in mind, Follett is allowed to take his time to develop his characters and make them more literary complex.

Overall, I do not mind reading the other two books. It is not the special literary treat for the language and literature lovers, but it is likable, entertaining, relatively well researched, and delivers complex political ideas without boring its readers.

P.S. The description of the military episodes is one of the most important achievement of this novel – it is utterly believable, convincing, memorable, touching, realistic, gritty, and very disturbing as any description of war should be.

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Filed under Book Review, Historical Fiction

The Black Bird by R.L. McCallum

Being mired in my chunky and long novels, I have nearly forgotten the pleasures of reading a novella, especially a novella so masterfully written. This novel was again my foray into the world of indie and self-published authors, and overall, I am happy with my choice.

The novella is a stylish compilation of recognizable moves in the horror genre and allusions to the very foundations of this genre. It is also a deftly written Victorian period piece with the language imitating the famous early ghost stories. The imitation goes beyond the level of wording and vocabulary, but rather successfully attempts to follow the syntax and even ideas and values of this epoch. Some fans of the splatterpunk might consider this a softie, a sub par performance, BUT I FOR ONE really enjoyed its deftly linguistic fabric of the text.

The author also masterfully used recognizable allusions (allusions to Poe, the crimes committed by Jack the Ripper, and definitely the image of the raven). Ravens conventionally are used to create the unpleasant murky feeling of something sinister but hardly tangible. This raven gains even more power and turns not only into the harbinger of disaster but also the extension of something immeasurably darker.

Allusions to Jack the Ripper are key if you want to create this dark, Gothic world of Victorian England. The ever-used mystery of the serial killer is also given a new supernatural explanation in this novella. The Gothic setting of the novel is another commendable point. The aura of an old, ramshackle, dilapidated, haunting place perfectly recreates the chilling atmosphere of the Wuthering Heights.

The most important thing is that the horror, experienced by Mr. James, the protagonist, and a famous poet, could have a logical explanation of him being addicted to the laudanum with the subsequent hallucinations and gradual descent into madness. It could be explained, but who would settle for the banal explanation of hallucinations caused by this drug. It is indeed much more exciting to entertain a darker idea of the raven as the embodiment of evil, of a beautiful woman, who is THE killer and whose skin is as cold and cadaverous as of a corpse.

Dreams and nightmares in this novella are very visionary in their nature, but also very Victorianesque when they were interpreted as a certain affinity bond with the inexplicable part of our nature, our subconscious mind, and our dangerous potential to cross the line of normalcy and madness. I really enjoyed the Victorian interpretation of madness as a dangerous and a dark gift into which Mr. James tapped to create his poems with the eerie and otherworldly feeling.

Overall, a novella that deserves four stars for its stylish intertextual literary content and a really spooky and eerie atmosphere. A job very well done!

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Filed under Book Review, Classic, Gothic, Historical Fiction, Horror, Indie, Victorian

The Light at the End by John Skipp and Craig Spector

As a voracious reader, I always try to explore fringe genres, but my heart is always with the well-written books with believable and fleshed-out characters, human drama and serious choices both characters and readers have to make.

Horror is one of those borderline cases when an exceptionally well-written novel with flawed but interesting characters and an insight into the psyche of a human mind cam enthrall me. Unfortunately, I believe this is not a case. I gave this novel three stars, but this rating is only valid within the frame of splatterpunk fiction (a literary genre characterized by the explicit description of horrific or violent scenes). In the bigger frame of fiction, this novel deserves only two stars.

The novel is definitely abundant in scenes of violence and gore, and some of them are truly repulsive if you look at them objectively. On the other hand, everyone knows, objectivity in portrayal is not the most laudable adjective. The subjective perception is everything in fiction. The more you can relate to it, the more memorable the writing is. This is what this book lack. Despite the gory and grisly scenes, they did not stir any feelings of fear or repulsion. The setting was a traditional one for a vampire story. I am very well aware that we do not have many choices when it comes to the time of the events in a horror novel, but the nights in the novel, although they harbor ugly scenes of murder, do not create the natural spooky, creepy feeling. Night is just a time when most of the events took place in this novel, and the dark enigma of the wee hours till dawn is totally non-existent.

The other thing that is only attributable to the zeitgeist, but still quite unpleasant is homophobia. The evolving values of today’s world warp my interpretation and leave the tangy, bitter and unpleasant sediment in the wake of the book.

To counterbalance my negative arguments, I still want to justify my choice for three stars (again only within the frame of this genre). First and foremost, the vampire Rudy is a nasty, ugly being from the very beginning. He does not suffer from the complex of modern vampirism – I am a vampire, but I want to be a good guy, and I am conflicted, and my soul is torn apart by my intentions and true identity. He is rotten through and through. There is not a morsel of goodness in him. This is how monsters should look like.

Surprisingly, the books also provides an interesting insight into the philosophy of nihilism. Although the premise for this view is interesting and appealing (our world is non-cognizant, and we will never learn what is good and what is evil, and justice is not inherent in our universe; thus there is no point in trying to better the world around us), but the development of this idea leads to acts of terrorism and extremism as well as to the utmost egotism and gratification. This is clearly manifested in Rudy, the human being and the vampire. It is rarely a case when such a complex idea could be clearly explained and put into the appropriate context.

The most memorable moment in the novel has nothing to do with the imaginary horror, but with our human history. The character with the Holocaust past narrates the story of his experience, and this is the most disturbing moment in the whole books. I find it both enlightening and nonsensical. It is a story that is harrowing in its nature due to our own ability to acquiesce to the dogma and doctrine of ethnic cleansing; a reminder of that kind even in the most grotesque context is always a necessary reading experience. Conversely, the setting for the Holocaust survival story is the most bizarre one – who would anticipate this story in a horror novel about vampires? Consequently, it does contribute to the jarring discrepancy of ideas within the book. 

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Filed under Book Review, Holocaust, Horror, Splatterpunk, Uncategorized, Vampire