Monday, April 29, 2013

REVIEW: Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

"When I first proved unable to keep the tone light, Ozzie suggested that I be an unreliable narrator... 
Understand, I am not a murderer. I have done nothing evil that I am concealing from you. My unreliability as a narrator has to do largely with the tense of certain verbs.
Don't worry about it. You'll know the truth soon enough.
Anyway, I am getting ahead of my story. Little Ozzie and Terrible Chester do not enter the picture until after the cow explodes. 
This story began on a Tuesday.
For you, that is the day after Monday. For me, it is a day that, like the other six, brims with the potential for mystery, adventure, and terror.
You should not take this to mean that my life is romantic and magical. Too much mystery is mearly an annoyance. Too much adventure is exhausting. And a little terror goes a long way."
Odd Thomas sees dead people. They come to him for help, or just wave at him with their severed arm as he passes by. Odd lives a quiet life as a consummate fry cook in the small town of Pico Mundo (the dead of a large city would overwhelm him). Then, a man comes to town, surrounded by bodachs, dark spirits that feed on pain and destruction like vultures. He has a host of hundreds, hovering, waiting for tragedy. Only Odd can see them. With only this man and a ripped out calendar page (August 15th, tomorrow) as his guides, Odd must try to avert the worst catastrophe the town has ever seen.

This book blew my mind. It has such great characters! Good-hearted, troubled Odd, and his steadfast, strong girlfriend, Stormy Llewellyn. Little Ozzie, the 400 pound Oscar-Wilde-like author who is Odd's mentor, and his huge cat, Terrible Chester. The chief of police and the head of the diner who are Odd's father and mother figures. Rosalia Sanchez, Odd's landlady, who is afraid of becoming invisible. You fall in love with them. And that is part of the problem.

With the impending doom of August 15th approaching, you know you love each of these characters too much. Something will happen to them. Their is a freight train coming, and not all of them will survive.

Yet halfway through the book, you look up and the freight train is not there anymore. You hear the noise, you know it is coming, but it is not on the track you expected it to be and you have no idea where it is coming from. Everything you were certain of, all the clues you gathered, mean something else entirely.

The tension and impending doom (and deeply disturbing sequences) are both broken up an enhanced by casual conversations that happen in between crises. The event approaches, but Odd finds the time to have a picnic with Stormy in the bell tower, or casually ask about someone's family and how they are doing. They are beautiful moments of normalcy and humanity, while at the same time, you are screaming "WHAT ARE YOU DOING, EVERYONE IS ABOUT TO DIE!" By the end of the book, though, you realize how important those moments were.

The ending is beautiful and it broke my heart.  It is set up so perfectly, and still it is a surprise. You go back and look, and see that Koontz has dropped clues through the entire narrative, and it could have only lead to this. And some mysteries still remain, which makes me excited to pick up the next Odd Thomas mystery.

That is not to say that the book is perfect. There are moments that I felt should have paid off somehow, or were building to something that never quite exploded. But they are threads that kept the suspense high and me on my toes.

I will end it with a sentence from the back of the book which sums up the experience perfectly: "[Odd's] account of two shattering days when past and present, fate and destiny converge is the stuff of our worst nightmares -- and a testament by which to live: sanely if not safely, with courage, humor, and a full heart that even in darkness must persevere."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

REVIEW: After the Snow by S.D. Crockett

After the Snow
by S.D. Crockett
[Willo is wielding a torch made of a chair leg and pages he ripped out of a book. The first sentence of the book was "This is the book of the generations of Adam."]
"Down on my knees surrounded by the pack.
Aint today though. Aint gonna get me today...
The she-dog take a lunge but this time I got angry inside from somewhere-- and the anger make me strong, and I rise up from the ground as the slathering bitch leap up and when she do I hold the torch high and bring it down.
This is the book of the generations of Adam."
Willo and his family live in the mountains, hiding from the government, in a future where the land is covered in an eternal winter. Willo's dad remembers the old world and is passionate about books and ideas, but his son is only focused on survival and the present moment. When Willo's family get taken, it is up to him to rescue them. Forced out of his comfort zone, Willo confronts new people, environments and ideas. He struggles to cling to his old way of thinking as the world challenges him at every turn.

This book gripped me from the beginning. Willo had such a strong and unique voice. He is part of the first generation born after the world changed. His father and stepmother still live in the old world, quoting Star Wars and dreaming of a better life. They tell Willo stories of the world before, and declare that they are a "beacon of hope" to those under government control. Willo doesn't listen. He sees no point in the dream, the romance, the ideas, the past or the future. He dwells in the now. He sees the world in black and white: everyone is either an ant or a grasshopper from the fable. You work, or you die. He survives. He creates a hat out of a dead dog skull out of respect for the creature, and he takes advice from what he imagines to be the dog's voice. He lives almost a Native American lifestyle, saying his words over his prey and thanking them for what they give.

When he is forced out on his own, his focus and hard work are a blessing, saving himself, and a timid and starving girl he discovers (Mary) many times over from the cold, wild dogs, and cannibals. But when Mary and Willo enter the city, the tables turn and Mary is the one who knows how to survive. Willo is out of his element and helpless.

This is where the book went a little off the rails for me. When Willo enters the city, the story shifts from post-apocalyptic survival story to dystopia. Willo doesn't do much after a point and the story looses focus. Even after the story picks up again, and Willo takes his destiny into his own hands, the solutions seem almost too convenient, and Willo's final decision comes across as cyclical and cowardly. You wonder why this time his plan will succeed when it didn't before, and his other option seems to have so much change and forward momentum. I don't want to give too much away.

I would be interested to see this as a trilogy: Part I: Willo in the Woods; Part II: Willo in the City, Part III: Willo and the Resistance. That way, Crockett would have had room to flesh out the story, create more minor conflicts, develop characters other than Willo, and generate more complex solutions.

Still, it is an entertaining read, and a unique voice.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

REVIEW: Let's Pretend this Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend this Never Happened 
(A Mostly True Memoir)
by Jenny Lawson

“You should just accept who you are, flaws and all, because if you try to be someone you aren't, then eventually some turkey is going to shit all over your well-crafted facade, so you might as well save yourself the effort and enjoy your zombie books.” 

It is difficult to discribe this book, so I will give you the Goodreads description: "For fans of Tina Fey and David Sedaris—Internet star Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, makes her literary debut. Jenny Lawson realized that the most mortifying moments of our lives—the ones we’d like to pretend never happened—are in fact the ones that define us. In the #1 New York Times bestseller, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson takes readers on a hilarious journey recalling her bizarre upbringing in rural Texas, her devastatingly awkward high school years, and her relationship with her long-suffering husband, Victor. Chapters include: “Stanley the Magical, Talking Squirrel”; “A Series of Angry Post-It Notes to My Husband”; “My Vagina Is Fine. Thanks for Asking”; “And Then I Snuck a Dead Cuban Alligator on an Airplane.” Pictures with captions (no one would believe these things without proof) accompany the text."

This. Book. Is. Insane. I loved it. It was like listening to your crazy best friend tell weird stories for hours and hours. Jenny's misadventures include a bathtub of raccoons, getting her hand stuck up a cow's vagina, the day her family's pet turkeys followed her to school and got in the cafeteria, having her father throw a bobcat at her boyfriend as a joke, and hundreds more stories you have to read to believe. All of them are highly entertaining.

It sometimes goes off the rails. She has arguments with her editor in the text, and tangents upon tangents (much like talking with your friends!) Sometimes I wanted her to get on with it, and sometimes it was part of the charm. And while initially I was frustrated with the "mostly true" warning in the title, I ended up being incredibly grateful for it, because I was able to choose which of her stories or actions to believe (see the chapter "A Series of Angry Post-It Notes to my Husband" and you will see what I mean). 

And it is not all fluff and hyjinks. Jenny struggles with generalized anxiety disorder (which does not mean that she has a vague sense of anxiety; it means she has anxiety about everything.) Her chapters describing her panic attacks, hiding in the bathroom (and in wooden chests) and her stress-induced word vomit are both hilarious and strangely comforting for those of us who suffer similar ailments. 

In the end, after the dust has settled and the mischief is managed, it is a book about the crazy people and events in our life that make us who we are. And more often than not, we are better off for it. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

REVIEW: Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Some Kind of Fairy Tale
by Graham Joyce

"You were here on Christmas Day. I saw you. Sat outside. Too scared to come in."
Richie drained his glass and gave himself a refill. Almost as an afterthought he got up and carried the bottle over to Peter, splashing another measure into Peter's glass. He put his cropped, bony grey head dangerously close to Peter and jabbed an angry finger. "You're a fucker! A fucker! You hear that? A fucker, not speaking to me all this time. Fucker." He went back to his own seat, crashing back into the leather upholstery.
Peter wanted to say that it takes two to make a silence work. Instead he said, "You feel better now?"
Richie offered him a carnivorous smile. "Yeh, I do actually. I feel much better. I'm quite relaxed now.'
'Well that's good, 'cos I have something to tell you.'
Richie blinked.
'Tara came back.'
One day, Tara disappeared  into the Outwoods. Her family and the police searched for months and suspicion landed on her boyfriend. No body was ever found. Twenty years have past, and suddenly Tara reappears, looking barely older than when she left, and claiming she was stolen away by fairies. Old wounds break open as those she left behind struggle to accept her story and reintegrate her back into their lives.

This was a wild card book for me. No idea what to expect, no idea if it would be any good. Luckily, I really enjoyed it! The style shifts from chapter to chapter as the story is filtered through each character's perspective: the dad, the brother, the boyfriend, Tara, the shrink, the nephew, the sister-in-law. It moves from 1st person to 3rd person as the story's needs dictate. The post-modern lack of quotation marks at random intervals is a pet peeve of mine, but it certainly dictated tone and pace.

The family's stories are meaty and intricate, especially through the eyes of the brother and the boyfriend. Peter struggles with reconnecting with a sister who may be crazy, who still acts like a teenager while he has grown up. Richie, the boyfriend, was abused by the police and abandoned by Tara's family, almost convinced that he had murdered Tara and buried it in his unconscious. When Tara re-emerges, Peter and Richie, once best friends, struggle to re-find their friendship after so much pain. This is where the real heart of the story lies, I think, and where the author shines.

Peter's family is messy and poor and full of love. His wife, Genevieve is an amazing mother (almost super-humanly so) as she deals with the chaos matter-of-factly and selflessly.

However, the story falls apart with Tara. For one thing, I did not like her as a character. I felt she was reckless and flighty. Granted, she is a teenager, but I feel even a teenager should know not to get on a strange man's horse. Also, the story would work if fairy land was a desirable place to live. If you honestly felt you might be drawn to it. But nope. It is a weird hippy commune where they have orgies and gain strange knowledge of time and there are trippy bug flowers. It sounds awful. And yet Tara is drawn to it.

I did enjoy the overarching use of fairy tales and fairy tale imagery, though. The story is chock full of symbols: a bar called The White Horse, Jack (the son)'s e-mail as jackthegiantkiller, etc. The psychologist analyses Tara's story as if it is a fairy tale, finding archetypes and symbols that will hopefully unlock her subconscious to reveal what really happened to her. It is an interesting exploration of fairy tale analysis and if we can apply it to real life, or if that is absolutely absurd.

Despite it's flaws, I do recommend it for it's unique perspective. We usually hear the story of the girl who goes into fairy land. Very rarely do we get to hear the story of those she left behind.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

REVIEW: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed

“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.” 

Ever since she lost her mom, Cheryl's life had fallen apart. Divorce, drugs and sex to fill the void, family members pulling away, giving up on college. And that is just the beginning. She hits rock bottom, and on an impulse, decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail which spans from Mexico to Canada. She is unprepared for the rigors and dangers of the trail, but through tenacity, luck, stubbornness, and sheer will, the trail turns from enemy to old friend. It breaks her down and builds her back up again as she tries to remember the child she once was and the woman she wants to be.

I always have a hard time reviewing memoirs. How do you review a person's life? I have never had something as devastating as Cheryl's mother dying make my life implode. I stand on the outside looking in, wondering if the same thing would happen to me. Part of me scoffs at the thought of me falling so irreparably apart that I destroy every other good thing in my life. Part of me fears that I would. 

This is what makes the first half of Cheryl's memoir so bafflingly heart-wrenching. When yet another mistake or tragedy rears it's ugly head, you don't know whether to laugh in disbelief or cry. The sequence with her mother's sick horse captures that feeling perfectly. It just gets more and more painful and you go right through "morbidly humorous" and right out the other side into sickeningly awful again. 

The trail starts the same way. Cheryl is woefully unprepared (or over-prepared, judging by her overstocked backpack) for the trek. She overestimates her walking stamina. She encounters bears, rattlesnakes, skeevy skeevy men, dangerous snow and ice, looses her shoes, misses her supply packages, and runs out of money several times. She looses 6 toenails and gets cuts and bruises and blisters all over. And yet, through it all, she perseveres. She learns from her mistakes. She builds muscle, and confidence. She makes friends with strangers. She navigates the wilderness. She braves hostile animals and humans. She rediscovers the strength within herself. She learns to forgive, and she is finally able to let her mother go. 

Cheryl's transformation was a joy to read. She goes from flailing about to fill the hole in her heart to finding peace in simplicity. It is written by an older Cheryl Strayed, looking back at this time in her life when she was 26. As a 28 year old, I had to keep remembering that this was not a mid life crisis book. This was someone younger than me who had experienced this huge upheaval and forced herself through a crucible of transformation. 

Many people have criticized this book for two things: 1) her seemingly horrible life choices and 2) her blind naivete on the trail which could have lead to her death, and now she is encouraging others to do the same thing. To those people, I say 1) Walk two moons, people. 2) Cheryl made no bones about the dangers of the trail, and how most of her survival was shear luck and the kindness of strangers. 

Cheryl learns. She changes. She overcomes. Regardless of the decisions she made in her time of trouble, she comes out transformed. 

An inspiring read!

Books like this:
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Maushart
Hamlet's Dresser by Bob Smith
The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin