The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shirley Jackson's definitive haunted house novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is the literary equivalent of a James Whale monster movie: though rudimentary by today's standards, there are striking archetypal qualities that solidify the piece's legacy. Of course, I also can't help but recall Mark Twain's famous quote that a "classic" is "something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." For better or worse, Jackson's novel is a classic in the horror genre - and while I'm glad that I've read Haunting of Hill House, I won't begrudge anyone who wants to skip the book and jump straight into the film adaptation(s) of this story. To be clear, this is not Halloween Horror Nights, with jump scares and visceral thrills; rather, it's a subtle, atmospheric sense of dread, like walking through a graveyard at midnight. Jackson is the queen of the "slow burn" novel, though her literary fires feel more like flickering shadows than flames. Sometimes, though, that "slow burn" is waaaaaayyyy too slow - even for a nerdy librarian/English teacher like yours truly.
In Jackson's original version of the story, a professor with a passion for the supernatural, Dr. John Montague, recruits three layman to spend the summer in the (supposedly) haunted Hill House. Those three recruits - Eleanor Vance, Luke Sanderson, and Theodora (whose last name is never revealed) - encounter phenomenon both strange and mundane, with Eleanor most affected by the house's cruel tricks. Spookiness ensues, with most of the horror embedded in the psyche of Eleanor rather than in the eerie artifice of the building. I won't reveal much more, because many of the novel's key plot points are too spoiler-y for general consumption. Let's just say that houses aren't the only things haunted by ghosts in this novel.
I recently re-watched Mike Flanagan's Netflix Hill House adaptation with my teenage daughter, and I was thrilled by all of the Easter eggs Flanagan worked into each episode. Whether it's the "cup of stars" monologue, Theo's sexual orientation, the marble statues on the ground floor, the "cold spot" that Theo encounters, or the psychiatrist named after Dr. Montague (portrayed by the same actor who played Dr. Jacoby on Twin Peaks, to boot!), the show tips its hat to Jackson's novel in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways. To engage with both the original novel and the Netflix adaptation is an absolute treat: Flanagan rewards readers of the novel with his carefully crafted allusions.
As much as I hold fast to the general rule that "the book was better," there are some circumstances in which the film adaptation surpasses the quality of its source material. In this circumstance, The Haunting of Hill House fits snugly in that category. Mike Flanagan's Netflix adaptation of Jackson's novel is a stone-cold classic, and it is compulsively engaging in a way that the novel is not. That's not to say that the original novel is meritless; it's just aged in a way that diminishes its impact on the horror genre. It's more quaint than horrifying, in that regard.
Still, though, Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House is just that: haunting. It's not scary or exhilarating or or terrifying. It simply haunts its readers after they turn the final page. Even if there isn't a "Bent-Neck Lady" in sight, there are still bristling themes that are more chilling than a shadowy October night. And that might be enough to entice future generations of readers to enter the doors of Hill House for a spell... and maybe stay forever.
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The Search for Sasquatch by Laura Krantz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Over the summer, while my daughter and I were browsing through the children's section of Powell's City of Books, I stumbled across The Search for Sasquatch. My curiosity piqued, I leafed through the pages, recognized it would be age-appropriate for my eight-year-old, and bought the book on a whim. I'm not a cryptozoologist by any means, but I figured that The Search for Sasquatch would be a fun, thematically appropriate book to read while we were visiting family in Oregon. Needless to say, I lucked out.
At the time, I didn't know anything about Laura Krantz or the Wild Thing podcast that she's been producing for a few years now. However, while reading The Search for Sasquatch, I was delighted by the author's conversational tone and the wide variety of scientific topics that she addresses. A kid's book that tackles DNA, evolution, the scientific method, and the taxonomic system in easy-to-understand terms? I was sold.
Krantz starts her book with a brief anecdote about how and why she started her sasquatch journey: it turns out that a long-dead distant relative (second cousin, twice removed?), Grover Krantz, was once the world's foremost scientific expert on Bigfoot. As Laura plunges down the rabbit hole of sasquatch-obsession, she encounters a colorful cast of characters: park rangers sharing eyewitness accounts, skeptical scientists intent on debunking Bigfoot as a hoax, accommodating experts who explain complex scientific issues, and even one of the men who filmed the infamous "Patterson-Gimlin" video in 1967. Along the way, she also learns about "squatching," "blob-squatches," and the "Woo" (if you read the book, it will all make sense). It's a deep dive into a unique, quirky American subculture - and the journey is exquisitely enjoyable.
As an "optimistic skeptic," I was delighted to find that Laura Krantz is (like me) someone who requires scientific proof before wholeheartedly supporting the existence of mythical creatures. However, Krantz never lets her doubts supersede her curiosity; rather, she excitedly hurdles every roadblock and muddy footprint that she finds in her path. Throughout the book, Krantz's earnest enthusiasm is absolutely contagious, and her fanatical fascination emanates from each and every page.
After finishing The Search for Sasquatch], I downloaded all three seasons of Krantz's podcast, Wild Thing, and listened attentively to every single episode. If you haven't tried the podcast yet, you won't regret it: the show is absolutely addicting. Even if my doubts about sasquatch remain, I firmly believe that Laura Krantz is a true treasure.
Does Bigfoot really exist? Probably not.
But Laura Krantz really hopes so. And so do I.
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Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Scooby-Doo vs. Cthulhu? Ruh-roh! Better grab that stash of Scooby Snacks and start reading!
Edgar Cantero's Meddling Kids presents an intriguing concept: what if grown-up versions of the Scooby-Doo super-sleuths had to reunite and battle H.P. Lovecraft's menagerie of monsters?
Cue the theme song: "Cthulhu-voodoo-doo, where are you?"
With Cantero's sometimes-clever twist on Scooby-Doo, the "Mystery Incorporated" gang of amateur sleuths grow up and grow apart, but must reconvene years after disbanding to solve a truly supernatural case. And it's just as crazy as you might expect. Although the novel doesn't always live up to the promise of its premise, Meddling Kids showcases Cantero's deep reverence for pop culture and his self-aware perspective as an irreverent storyteller. How can an author be reverent and irreverent at the same time? It's quite a balancing act, but Cantero gives it his best shot. Easter eggs abound in this fun, frivolous celebration of nostalgia, with Cantero employing a wide variety of literary tricks and tactics to entertain his readers. Although Meddling Kids has the potential to go down in flames like the foiled plans of a rubber-mask-wearing villain, Cantero's witty twist on the tried-and-true tropes of Scooby-Doo works... most of the time.
In Cantero's novel, we have a cast of characters that (mostly) match their Hanna-Barbera counterparts. We have Peter (an arrogant incarnation of Fred Jones), Kerri (a nerdier version of Daphne Blake), Andy (a butch Velma Dinkley), Nate (a literally haunted Shaggy Rogers), and Tim the Weimaraner (the avatar for everyone's favorite crime-solving Great Dane). The Mystery Machine gets a makeover, replaced with a Chevrolet Vega - a vehicle that bears no small resemblance to the Winchester Brothers' 1967 Chevy Impala. Even "Red Herring" (that bullyish antagonist from A Pup Named Scooby-Doo) gets the avatar treatment with the "Joey" character. My favorite allusion? The fictional Blyton Hills is adjacent to the Zoinx River. Zoinks! Clearly, Cantero embraces the tongue-in-cheek qualities of his story - and throws in everything but the kitchen sink.
As a whole, though, Meddling Kids is an uneven exercise in what-if storytelling. The novel begins with a slam-bang start and concludes with a potent powder keg of plot twists; along the way, however, the reader encounters hit-or-miss slumps in the narrative. At times, it does feel like well-crafted fan fiction:
*A lesbian Velma pining after Daphne? Check.
*A Scooby-Doo adventure with real supernatural creatures, instead of just old men in rubber masks? Check.
*Shaggy living in a lunatic asylum? Check.
Despite its best moments, however, Meddling Kids is more a middling novel - hence this reviewer only awarding the novel three (and a half) stars. That's not to say that Cantero's novel is a waste of time. Part of the allure (for me at least) in reading Meddling Kids is the exploration of "has-been" characters - something I also wrote about in Incomplete and A Different Slant of Light. Sure, it's exciting to revel in the exploits of famous characters... but what about after the spotlight fades? That plot point is one of the most compelling aspects for me. Unfortunately, Cantero sometimes sacrifices these earnest moments for pithy one-liners and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever descriptions.
Though Meddling Kids doesn't always deliver on its "Scooby-Doo meets H.P. Lovecraft" promise, it's still a fun, engaging read for sentimental fans of Saturday-morning cartoons. In Cantero's tribute, Scooby-Doo is elevated to the canonical realm of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. It's just a shame that the goofy genre writer who tackles this novel can't completely deliver the goods. Still, though, Cantero enjoyably explores some quirky territory with the adventurous spirit of teenage detectives. While there are always red herrings lurking around every corner in Scooby-Doo, the biggest surprise here is that Meddling Kids is as enjoyable as it is. Jinkies!
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The Donut Legion by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I want to love Joe R. Lansdale. I really do. The fact that Lansdale essentially invented the modern "Weird Western" genre with Dead in the West makes him a true visionary - albeit one with a pension for the brazenly bizarre. Plus, he wrote Bubba Ho-Tep, the source material for one of the more fascinating entries in Bruce Campbell's filmography. Despite his plethora of creative ideas, however, I find myself routinely disappointed in his execution. Alas, The Donut Legion is no exception.
When I stumbled across The Donut Legion on cloudLibrary, I was thrilled. After all, this book has three of my favorite topics: donuts, cults, and aliens. What's not to love? Before reading the first page, I had visions of Lansdale bending the rules and blending genres like he's done so many times before. Much to my disappointment, the book that I envisioned in my mind was infinitely more memorable than what the author ultimately crafted. Bummer.
The general gist of the novel is as follows: Charlie Garner, a moderately successful writer with prior experience in law enforcement, searches for his MIA ex-wife after a ghostly visit in the middle of the night. Charlie's ex-wife, Meg, has become mixed up in the goings-on of a local doomsday cult known as the "Saucer People" - an organization that operates a chain of donut stores while waiting for salvation via the imminent return of space aliens. Imagine Krispy Kreme run by L. Ron Hubbard, and you've got a pretty good idea of Lansdale's premise. As Charlie delves deeper into the Saucer People, he recruits a colorful cast of characters for assistance: his bodybuilding P.I. brother, Felix; Felix's brilliant lawyer girlfriend, Cherry; and a would-be investigative reporter, Amelia Moon (who goes by the nickname "Scrappy"). The main villain of the novel is a preternaturally tall murderer known as "Cowboy," who parades around town accompanied by a leashed pet chimpanzee (which, Charlie frequently reminds us, is not a monkey). True to type, Lansdale once again walks the fine line between bold and bizarre, conjuring characters that are truly unique to his oeuvre. If nothing else, at least the author has that going for him.
While Lansdale does retain his irreverent humor throughout The Donut Legion, the book is decidedly less supernatural/otherworldly than I had hoped. Doomsday cults have been addressed in a variety of novels (Eden West, Agnes at the End of the World, and Lovecraft Country are among my favorites), but the genre is ripe with possibilities. The cult at the heart of The Donut Legion is a mashup of Heaven's Gate and the Church of Scientology; however, Lansdale fails to imbue the Saucer People with the earnest devotion of the former or the political power of the latter.
Even if The Donut Legion doesn't live up to expectations, I'm confident that this entry into Lansdale's catalogue will satisfy his quirky fanbase. It's just a shame that Lansdale didn't embrace his inner X-Files aficionado and let loose with his supernatural stylings. If he had done so, The Donut Legion might have elevated its status to a more uniquely satisfying treat - something akin to Voodoo Doughnut, rather than the generic sweetness of Krispy Kreme.
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Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman--Including 10 More Years of Business Unusual by Yvon Chouinard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Yvon Chouinard's Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman is a powerful - but challenging - examination of humanity's complex relationship with the environment. Though I'm not a Patagonia fanboy (I own exactly one piece of Patagonia apparel), I'm incredibly proud that this forward-thinking organization was founded (and still has its headquarters) in my hometown of Ventura, California. Regardless of my biased hometown pride, I'm still massively impressed by the unique and "unusual" business practices discussed in Let My People Go Surfing: Yvon Chouinard has created a successful business model that simultaneously maintains exceptional profit margins while keeping its promise to heal the environment.
Throughout the book, Chouinard recounts his personal exploits and adventures, going to great lengths to examine his failures as well as his successes. Though his writing lacks the poetry of Rachel Carson or John Muir, Chouinard's personal history is fascinating enough to drive the narrative forward like trout in a raucous river. I admit that I'm a layman when it comes to the private sector (and to the magnitude of humanity's destruction of the environment), so this book was absolutely revelatory for me. Hopefully, Let My People Go Surfing will inspire others to examine the global economy's environmental impacts - and to make the kinds of dramatic changes necessary for the Earth to survive.
Recently, well after the publication of Let My People Go Surfing, Chouinard made the bold move to transfer ownership of Patagonia to non-profit organizations that are designed to preserve the environment. As the company's website now proclaims, "Earth Is Now Our Only Shareholder." While it's easy to dismiss the pie-in-the-sky goals of a rich entrepreneur who has more money than 99% of the population, this dramatic action illustrates just how much Chouinard practices what he preaches. Chouinard's integrity is on full display now, adding further credence to the environmental visions outlined in Let My People Go Surfing.
This hybrid biography/business textbook, while not for everyone, is a true catalyst for change. I might not have enjoyed Chouinard's writing as much as my usual literary fare, but I feel like the life lessons in Let My People Go Surfing might be among some of the most important pieces of wisdom I have culled from my reading in recent years. Even if the Earth isn't the "only shareholder" in my own life, I have a better understanding now of how my own actions affect our fragile world. Sometimes, those little ripples of knowledge can swell into something more profound and powerful, creating a force for change that will have a major impact on the future of our planet.
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Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nick Hornby's newest book, Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius is a compelling examination of two seemingly disparate figures of pop culture - icons whose lives share more similarities than one might assume at first glance. I should preface this review by stating that I would NOT have read Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius if it had been written by anyone other than Nick Hornby. While I appreciate and admire Charles Dickens, I've only read a handful of his many, many novels. As for Prince... well, let's just say that I haven't spent much time engrossed in the catalog of his many, many recordings. So, while I respect Boz and the Purple One, I wouldn't pick up a biography on either artist - let alone one that compares the two figures. However, since I am a super-fan of Nick Hornby, I thought that I would give this unique book (about an even more unique pairing) a shot. And I am sooooooo glad that I did.
Hornby has a daunting task ahead of him: he attempts to raise Dickens from the soggy soil of musty English classrooms, while simultaneously trying to lasso Prince from the starry stratosphere. Somehow, Hornby succeeds in both endeavors, proving himself to be a talented artist in his own right. In his usual earnest, humorous, and self-deprecating fashion, Hornby plunges into the histories and masterpieces of these two inimitable artists - and the author's enthusiasm is absolutely contagious. Even readers with only a casual, passing interest in Dickens and/or Prince will find something to enjoy in A Particular Kind of Genius: both of Hornby's titular subjects led intriguing, heartbreaking, and (ultimately) inspiring lives, with triumphs, tragedies, and setbacks galore. Throughout his treatise, Hornby does everything in his power to celebrate the artistry of these two fascinating figures, organizing his book around central themes (including "childhood," "the movies," and "death"). At times, the book comes across as the most casual, conversational history textbook you've ever encountered; at others, Hornby uses his topics as springboards for more profound discussions about the nature of humanity and art.
Well-researched and eloquently crafted, A Particular Kind of Genius covers everything from The Pickwick Papers to Purple Rain, and treats A Tale of Two Cities and Sign o' the Times (as well more obscure titles from the back catalogue of each artist) with the same reverential respect. While this might sound like a tedious undertaking, Hornby's enthusiasm washes away any cynicism with a deluge of (purple) rain. Though I have a strong aversion to 80's music and stuffy British literature, I appreciate Hornby's honesty about the good, the bad, and the ugly creations of his two subjects. At one point, Hornby describes the 1980s as "the decade that taste forgot" - and that admission alone establishes his ethos and credibility (in my humble opinion, at least).
In the same way that Dickinson, Apple TV's hip genre-bending series, humanizes Emily Dickinson , so, too, does Nick Hornby elevate the status of his two subjects. Sparing no gory (or sexy) detail, Hornby's examination is everything that a music-obsessed English teacher (like yours truly) adores. And, while both the prodigious Prince and dutiful Dickens have celebrated, monumental back catalogues of material, it's Hornby's writing that steals the show this time. In the end, it's the author's enthusiasm that leaves readers feeling inspired - as if his readers can create their own future masterpieces. After all, if Hornby can make the author of Great Expectations and the singer-songwriter behind Purple Rain into relatable figures, anything is possible.
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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In turns brilliant, bloody, and bold, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates should be mandatory reading for all high school and college students. The book, written in the form of a letter from Coates to his adolescent son, touches upon a variety of topics, both subtle and not-so-subtle: racism, police brutality, racial profiling, historical inequity, and a variety of other sociological phenomenon. Is this an easy read? No, not by any means. Is it vitally important for understanding racism and race relations in modern America? The answer is a resounding YES.
With obvious similarities to other revelatory books like Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and the Jason Reynolds/Ibram X. Kendi collaboration, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You , Between the World and Me is an eye-opening examination of what it means to be black in modern America. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a bold, eloquent storyteller, relating his own personal experiences as a Gen-X American and tying those life events into the broader tapestry of American history. As comes with the territory, the subject matter is heavy and heartbreaking. Coates is not concerned with sugarcoating trauma for the Fox News crowd: his observations are blunt and brutally honest. In fact, the book begins with Coates relating an experience being interviewed by "the host of a popular news show" whose cynical perspective on race inspires Coates to write that "no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak." That division - between races, between perspectives, between worlds - is a recurring theme in the book: an intellectual, psychological, and emotional gap that Coates describes as nearly insurmountable. It might seem bleak or nihilistic, but Coates refuses to embrace the fallacy of a post-racial "happily ever after." Alas, the real world is not a fairy tale.
Much of Between the World and Me focuses on "black bodies" - that is, to say, the physical and physiological suffering of black Americans. Frequently, his book returns to this theme, examining the ways in which the African-American community has suffered at the hands of "the Dreamers" (a.k.a. "those who would call themselves white"). Periodically, his prose incorporates corporeal metaphors and symbolism. As he writes, “racism is a visceral experience... it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” Additionally, Coates rejects the tenets of religious institutions, presenting himself as an atheist: “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” This existential view of the world disavows the promise of a postmortem paradise, and reminds the reader that "Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious." All we have is here and now, Coates explains, which means we can't wait for others to save us from the perils of a cruel world.
Coates is undoubtedly an eloquent, artful writer, capable of conjuring timeless truths with his poetic prose. There are far too many "golden lines" in this book to include in one simple review; suffice to say, Coates is an incredibly talented writer with thought-provoking reflections embedded in every single page. Selfishly, I loved his perspective on libraries: “I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.” At another point, Coates writes, “I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” Although it's impossible to extricate his subject matter from his writing style, Coates is a poet whose words are more potent than any superhero's secret powers.
Racism is always a challenging, maddening, and overwhelming subject to discuss with your children. Still, though, Coates desires a better world for his son. As he writes at one point, “You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” Regardless of how far America has come in the last 100 years, we still have lifetimes of growth ahead of us. It's fitting that Coates uses a personal metaphor to discuss the interlocking concepts of race and racial disparity: "race is the child of racism, not the father." As a father himself, Ta-Nehisi Coates understand the importance of loving guidance. Let's hope that our own childrearing produces a new, wiser generation that fights against the evils of racism and prejudice. Only then can we break down the barriers between the world and its children.
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Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was definitely a cynic when I first heard about Shelby Van Pelt's novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures . A talking octopus and the little old lady who befriends this hyper-intelligent sea creature?
"What is this?" I wondered aloud. "the literary version of Finding Dory?"
Fortunately for me, Remarkably Bright Creatures is a refreshing, heartfelt entry into the modern "literary fiction" canon. Although I was initially skeptical about reading Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel, the book grew on me as I worked my way through its 368 pages. I couldn't help but think about Anxious People during my reading of Remarkably Bright Creatures. In many ways, Remarkably Bright Creatures feels like a lost Fredrik Backman book: Backman's hallmark blend of humor, tragedy, and bizarre circumstances are equally encapsulated in Van Pelt's novel. As with Backman's style, the use of intertwining narratives and alternating perspectives helps foster some wonderful dramatic irony and facilitates clever plot points. However, whereas Backman tends to use an omniscient third-person narrator with a misanthropic perspective, Van Pelt reserves a similarly cynical bent for one very unique character: Marcellus the Octopus. Yes, ladies and gents and non-binary folks, the inner monologue of a hyper-intelligent cephalopod is threaded throughout this novel. Needless to say, this is not your mother's dramedy.
Despite its slow start, Remarkably Bright Creatures picks up steam about 1/3 of the way in. Van Pelt alternates chapters with a few intertwining stories: Tova Sullivan, a widowed woman whose son vanished the summer after his high school graduation (and who serves as the cleaning crew at the Sowell Bay Aquarium in Washington); Cameron Cassmore, a thirty-year-old underachiever with a photographic memory and underutilized intelligence; Ethan Mack, a transplanted Scotsman with a fondness for classic rock (and a deeper fondness for Tova Sullivan); Avery, a single mother who runs her own business; and, of course, the aforementioned octopus, Marcellus.
Who is the most memorable, insightful, and endearing character in this terrific tomb? Undoubtedly, that award goes to Marcellus the Octopus.
As the various stories intertwine and weave their way towards a somewhat-predictable moment of serendipitous reunion, the reader is privy to a flurry of witticisms from Marcellus and a bountiful bevy of grief from the human characters. Every mammal in Van Pelt's novel is deeply flawed and scarred from traumatic life experiences; however, the depth of that pain is redeemed (or at least alleviated) in the end by the bonds of the novel's characters. Like suction cups on a tentacle, these various plotlines are all interconnected in (occasionally) surprising ways, making for a cohesive novel with a relatively tidy conclusion.
The audiobook version of the novel (which I utilized back-and-forth while reading the print version) utilizes two voice actors: Marin Ireland and Michael Urie. While Ireland is in fine form (as always), it's Urie's tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Marcellus that really steals the show. Marin capably utilizes a variety of voices, tones, and accents during her portions of the novel, but Urie's spin on our favorite cephalopod elevates the audiobook to grander aspirations. Once again, Marcellus the Octopus wins the hearts of Van Pelt's readers - in print and audio incarnations.
Whether or not you're a fan of aquatic lifeforms, you'll find something powerful and enjoyable in the pages of Remarkably Bright Creatures. And, if you're a misanthropic grump who spies on the world with a critical lens, Marcellus the Octopus might be your new favorite character.
P.S. - Shelby Van Pelt scores some major coolness points (in my eyes, at least) for including some choice references to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Deadheads of the literary world, rejoice!
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The Waste Lands by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book three of Stephen King's Dark Tower series is where the King of Horror embraces his inner Tolkien nerd and creates the darkest fantasy world this side of Mordor. In The Waste Lands , King's boundless imagination is on full display: we encounter warring tribes, subterranean societies, monstrous mutants, a sentient monorail train, and a full Stephen King multiverse (decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe made the concept ubiquitous). If you cross The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with Stranger Things and Westworld you might end up in the general proximity of The Waste Lands. It's a wild ride.
The Waste Lands begins shortly after The Drawing of the Three , with Roland, Eddie, and Susannah (formerly Detta/Odetta) journeying through the wilderness. In short order, our trio enters a sci-fi electronic way station, helps deliver the inter-dimensional "birth" of a tween-ager from a parallel universe, and even crosses paths with a cyborg bear. Did I just write "cyborg bear" in a book review? Yes, I did. The new film Cocaine Bear has got nothing on Stephen King.
As in "Right Hand Man" from Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton," our peerless protagonists are "Outgunned / Outmanned / Outnumbered, outplanned / We gotta make an all out stand / Ayo, I'm gonna need a right-hand man." In The Dark Tower, however, Roland ends up with more than just one "right hand man" - he has a trio of humans and a canine/rodent/raccoon hybrid creature (a "billybumbler") by his side. While these makeshift gunslingers are, indeed, outgunned and outmanned, they have their wits and courage to carry them through the arduous journey ahead. And, since Stephen King is playing the "Dungeon Master" for this story, you know it's going to be a horrific, heartfelt, and humorous adventure.
I find it fascinating how The Dark Tower series evolved so quickly after its first installment. The gritty, grim tone of The Gunslinger made way for humorous observations, absurd "fish out of water" scenarios, and comical monstrosities (or lobstrosities, as it were). As much as the author is best know as the "King of Horror," he's also the "King of Quips and One-Liners." Much of King's humorous side is delivered through the mouthpiece of Eddie Dean, a crafty New Yorker with a tongue as sharp and piercing as any blade. Although the figure of Eddie felt obnoxious when he was introduced as a struggling addict with a twisted worldview in The Drawing of the Three, King redeems this character with a nobler, conflicted, three-dimensional depiction in the sequel. Likewise, Susannah's evolution from her initial portrayal as a disabled woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder to a more nuanced representation reflects King's growth as a writer and wordsmith from 1982 to 1991. As for Jake... Well, it feels at times like Jake's story is one of the most convoluted RETCONs in literary history (paradox and pondering and parallel universes, oh my!); however, his resurrection from The Gunslinger offers Roland a much-needed redemption and victory that he - and the reader - desperately crave. I'll just have to see how Jake plays into the remaining novels in the series.
The Waste Lands is - for lack of a better term - batshit crazy... but in the best way possible. King is clearly indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien: here we have a ragtag group of misfit underdogs inexplicably drawn to a mysterious destination to save the world(s). However, whereas Frodo and company cross from the Shire into Rivendell and beyond, King's Ka-Tet (group of banded travelers) crosses into parallel universes through mysterious portals. That being said, I don't remember Gandalf the Gray or Bilbo Baggins ever engaging in an *ahem* intimate *ahem* encounter a succubus demon. Regardless of R-rated components, it's still an engaging experience to read about a ragtag group of adventurers who have been tasked with an impossible task.
On to Wizard and Glass I go! Wish me luck, fellow "Constant Readers" - I have a feeling I might need it...
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How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Grady Hendrix has heart. And not just the bloody kind that makes for a tasty zombie meal. Like his idol, Stephen King, Hendrix balances the wholesome and the horrific in equal measure, tackling trauma and terror with a tender hand and humorous quips. At the core of every one of his novels, the author's central focus is on dysfunctional human relationships - relationships, of course, set amid the backdrop of the spooky, surreal, and supernatural. Hendrix's newest novel, How to Sell a Haunted House , is no different: at the center of the story is a family on rocky terrain, with the titular haunted house amplifying the fractured familial relationships... And what a fractured family this is.
How to Sell a Haunted House begins with a pregnancy, but death follows only a few pages later. Our protagonist, Louise Joyner, receives a phone call from her estranged brother, Mark, who delivers heartbreaking news: their parents, Eric and Nancy, have been killed in a car accident. Ever the dutiful daughter, Louise flies from San Francisco to Charleston, ready to take on her seemingly good-for-nothing sibling. Once she arrives in South Carolina, creepy things start happening in her childhood home: TVs flicker on in empty rooms, immobile dolls seem to move about, and inanimate objects attack with a furry vengeance. Nancy's favorite childhood doll, Pupkin, plays a prominent role in terrifying the Joyner household - in multiple generations, nonetheless. This particular puppet, which gives Chucky and Annabelle a run for their macabre money, acts out in grotesque and gory ways; there are some terrifically terrifying sequences (the eyeball and tablesaw scenes are particularly gruesome), providing some ghastly images that will stay with the reader long after the final pages of the story. As the novel progresses, we discover the origins of Pupkin and his link to the Joyner family, with a carefully crafted reveal that brings the story full circle. Needless to say, I'll never look at The Velveteen Rabbit the same way ever again.
In many ways, How to Sell a Haunted House is classic ghost story fare, with dark multigenerational secrets and supernatural artifacts galore. However, Hendrix is more interested in the dynamics of a fractured family than he is in blood and bodily harm (though there is some of that, as well). While there are a few plot holes in the story (wait until you meet "Spider"), the majority of Haunted House is impressively evocative. At times, the novel reminded me of Ari Aster's Hereditary - albeit with fewer beheadings. Like that uber-disturbing film, Hendrix intertwines the horrors of the supernatural with the trauma of familial dysfunction. For me, the most haunting moment of Haunted House involves Louise's daughter, Poppy; while her fate is much less ghastly than that of Charlie in Hereditary, both writers tap into the nightmares of every doting parent. Nothing is worse than watching a child suffer, and Hendrix truly knows how to play upon those fears.
Previous entries in the Hendrix canon have addressed exorcisms, vampires, slasher films, and portals to hell. This time, the author examines two other classic horror tropes: haunted houses and devilish dolls. After reading Hendrix's brilliant Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction , I was deeply impressed by his breadth of knowledge about historical trends in the world of horror. Clearly, the man has done his homework. In some ways, How to Sell a Haunted House reads like a long-lost pulp fiction bestseller from the 1980s - with 21st-century sensibilities, of course. You have killer dolls, possessed realia, and even imaginary animals come to life... and, yes, it's as wild as it sounds. It's plain to see that Hendrix enjoys subverting expectations, even as he pays homage to not-so-classic horror novels of yesteryear. And, as usual, he balances horror and humor with heart.
After reading How to Sell a Haunted House, I can honestly say that Grady Hendrix is hitting his stride. Despite a few flawed entries in his early oeuvre, Mr. Hendrix has successfully evolved into a reliable vendor of amusingly insightful horror. Like Stephen King and Mike Flanagan, Grady Hendrix is a purveyor of "wholesome horror" - spooky stories that ultimately provide catharsis and exorcism (sometimes literally). After all, grief is like emotional calculus. No matter how much work you put into working out the problem, it's far too complex to solve in a short period of time. Hendrix understands this phenomenon, and he brings it to life (like The Velveteen Rabbit, come to think of it) in the cleverly crafted pages of How to Sell a Haunted House.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.