Monthly Archives: October 2011

A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness -Review

“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”

I read A Monster Calls and Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck back-to-back, and they seemed eerily similar in more ways than one.  My original plan was to review them together, but after writing my review for Wonderstruck, I realized that although A Monster Calls is also a children’s book and is also heavily illustrated, and is also about a young boy experiencing loss, it deserves its own review.

Based on an idea by the late author Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer in 2007, Patrick Ness was asked to complete the story along with illustrator Jim Kay.  Conor, a typical thirteen-year-old boy, awakens one night from a recurring nightmare at 12:07 a.m. and hears someone, something, calling his name.  As he fearfully peers out his bedroom window, across the yard to the nearby graveyard, he realizes the giant yew tree that usually stands guard over the headstones has appeared in his backyard, and it has sprouted monstrous features.  A monster has come calling, and it’s there for a reason: he has come to tell Conor three stories.  In return, Conor must tell the monster a fourth story, and “it will be the truth.”

The driving emotional element of the story is that Conor’s mother is sick, very sick, and has been in and out of the hospital for various treatments.  It’s not too hard to figure out what’s wrong, although Ness, in good writerly fashion, never comes out and names the disease.  His mother gamely assures Conor throughout the story that she’s getting better.  On a deeper level, we know that Conor is not convinced by these assurances, and so the monster arrives to help him deal with the truth.

In between the monster’s parables and Conor’s nightmares, he deals with his waking life: being bullied at school, taking care of the house while his mother lies in bed, and enduring his bossy grandmother who comes to help out. It is implied that Conor will live with her when, well, when all this is over.  And he doesn’t like that idea one bit.

Jim Kay’s illustrations fit the tone of the story perfectly. In a black and white, smudged inky style he draws from Conor’s point of view: a small boy looking up at the giant yew monster who lurks above him. Conor’s surroundings mirror his gloomy existence:  the solitary graveyard near his house in moonlight, the monster with his human yet tree-like attributes, a garden of tangled thorns.  Conor’s recurring dream of his mother falling over a cliff is rendered with angry, dark strokes, yet his mother is a white silhouette.  All of the illustrations let the reader know that something bad is going to happen.

But as Conor’s mother continues her inexorable slide into death, the monster does what he has come to do: to help Conor face and deal with the inevitable.  Yes, the bad thing is coming and he can’t escape it. But he can, and does, learn how to accept it. Even though the ending was no surprise, and I figured out the significance of “12:07″ long before the end, I was still caught off guard by the powerful emotional impact of the final pages.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in tears.

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY – Countdown to Halloween

This week, instead of featuring a “Read Me!” book, I am enthusiastically recommending the new FX show American Horror Story.  Although it has already been on for a month, this Monday on Halloween you have the chance to play catch up and watch the first four episodes back-to-back if you haven’t seen it.

American Horror Story is not only a terrifying haunted house story, but it’s got creepy characters, cheating husbands, dead maids that appear differently to different people, and a weird guy in a black fetish suit.  Some of the characters are alive, and some are dead, and it’s not always easy to tell which is which.  The house in question has an endless supply of back-stories, and each episode reveals the terrible fate of one of its former residents. Enter the Harmon family, Ben, Vivien, and their daughter Violet.  They have just moved from Boston to Los Angeles to escape some family trauma (Ben cheated on Vivien, Vivien had a miscarriage) and are hoping to start over.  But it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is something dreadfully wrong with the house.

American Horror Story is co-written and produced by Ryan Murphy (Glee, Nip-Tuck) and Brad Falchuk. It is immaculately written, acted, and produced, and it has one of the best, if not the best, main title sequences I’ve ever seen (think Six Feet Under or True Blood).  So get your DVRs ready: if you like your horror smart, scary, and bloody, this is the show for you. Note: for mature audiences only! It’s pretty disturbing…

Here’s a video of the opening sequence of the first episode. Enjoy!

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WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick – Review

The wonderfully inventive Brian Selznick broke new ground in 2007 with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a “children’s” book that combined text and illustrations in a way that had never really been done before.  In fact, half the book is text and the other half full-spread illustrations, and the illustrated passages tell just as much of the story as the text.  His latest is Wonderstruck, which is done in much the same style as Hugo Cabret, but has a completely different twist to it. Set in two time periods and locations, the story alternates between Ben, a boy who lives in 1977 Minnesota, and Rose, a girl in 1927 New York.  Ben’s story is told with words, and Rose’s with pictures.  Ben’s mother has recently died, and he is living with his aunt and uncle just down the road from his old house.  Ben was born deaf in one ear and uses this to his advantage as he is now forced to share a room with his noisy cousin Robby. One night he escapes to the house where he and his mother lived to comfort himself, and is trapped there when a thunderstorm hits. In his mother’s bedroom he finds an old book called Wonderstruck, a history of museums.  In it is a bookmark with a message to his mother from someone named “Danny,” and a phone number.  Thinking this might be a clue to his long-lost father’s identity, Ben decides to call the number, but as fate would have it, lighting strikes the house just as Ben puts the phone to his ear, and he is knocked unconscious. He awakens deaf in both ears. Thus begins Ben’s journey to New York City to figure out the puzzle of who Danny is.

Meanwhile, Rose’s story unfolds in illustrations, an appropriately silent narrative since Rose is deaf. Rose lives across the river from New York City in Hoboken, New Jersey, and spends her days gazing out her window at the skyscrapers of New York and making models of the buildings out of cut-up newspapers. Her mother is a famous silent screen actor and spends most of her time working in the city.  Lonely and missing her mother, Rose runs away from home one day to visit her mother at work.  She winds up in the American Museum of Natural History where her older brother Walter works.

It is at this point that the two stories start to merge, and the reader learns not only the mystery of Ben’s father, but the very important relationship between Ben and Rose.  Selznick has done an amazing amount of research to create this book. It is filled with details about museums, in particular the Cabinet of Wonders, the earliest examples of museums, where objects were gathered together and put on display in a cabinet.  Since both of the main characters are deaf, he researched the Deaf culture extensively before writing the book. The New York World’s Fair of 1964 also plays an important and fascinating role in the book, as we find out when the two stories converge in the present and Ben experiences the wonder of the scale model Panorama of New York City that was created especially for the Fair.  Make sure to read Selznick’s Acknowledgements at the end, where he describes every detail about how the book was created.

Wonderstruck is a wonder of a book.  Its pieces all fit together like a puzzle, and the experience of reading both words and illustrations intertwined will have you flipping through the pages as fast as you can to get to the end.  But savor the experience.  And when you’ve arrived at the last page, go back and read it again. You may discover something new.

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Read Me! ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead – Recommended Reading

As promised last week, I am featuring Colson Whitehead’s newest, Zone One, in bookstores and online today.  Arriving on the heals of season two of The Walking Dead (AMC), Zone One is a Zombie Novel, one I am very excited to read. Yes folks, zombies are everywhere.  The trend is alive and well and not slowing down that I can see, and I’m glad.  Despite the fact that I watch The Walking Dead with one hand over my eyes, I love zombies.  Zone One has been described as “a zombie novel with brains” (Justin Cronin), and I don’t think he’s talking about the gooey kind. The story starts out with a typical post-apocalyptic premise: a plague has struck, and the population is either affected (and has become the living dead) or not.  The narrative takes place over the course of three days, as Mark Spitz (yes, that’s his name!), an unaffected civilian worker, helps reclaim an area in Manhattan known as Zone One.  His story moves back and forth from the present to the beginning days of the plague when he was fighting for his life.

Here are some great reviews:

“The kind of smart, funny, pop culture-filled tale that would make George Romero proud…[Whitehead] succeeds brilliantly with a fresh take on survival, grief, 9/11, AIDS, global warming, nuclear holocaust, Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Pol Pot’s Year Zero, Missouri tornadoes, and the many other disasters both natural and not that keep a stranglehold on our fears.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“This diabolically smart, covertly sensitive, ruminative, and witty zombie nightmare prods us to think about how we dehumanize others, how society tramples and consumes individuals, how flimsy our notions of law and order are, and how easily deluded and profoundly vulnerable humankind is. A deft, wily, and unnerving blend of pulse-elevating action and sniper-precise satire.”
Booklist, starred review

“[Whitehead] sinks his teeth into a popular format and emerges with a literary feast, producing his most compulsively readable work to date…Whitehead transforms the zombie novel into an allegory of contemporary Manhattan (and, by extension, America).”
Kirkus, starred review

As we get closer to Halloween, I have more zombie recommendations to share, so keep reading…

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Curse of the Bestsellers

I love Entertainment Weekly. I even subscribe to it.  But I’ve noticed something disturbing lately, and I want to explain myself.

Entertainment Weekly covers the Big Four of entertainment: Movies, TV, Music and Books.  I love movies and TV. And if you’ve read any of this blog before, you know I love books.  (I love music too, but I don’t really follow the music industry. I just don’t have time for everything, you know?)  As far as “popular” entertainment magazines go, EW has a fantastic book review staff.  I am always eager to see what the hot books are for the week. But as I am a pretty busy person, I usually get around to reading my EW about a week after it comes out, and by that time, it’s too late.

You see, many of my “Read Me!” selections seem to wind up on EW‘s list as well.  And I want to set the record straight: I am not culling my list of recommended books from EW.  Coincidentally, I happen to have the same sensibility about books that their book review editors have.  For example, in the latest issue, the one pictured here, they mention not one, not two, but three books that have appeared, or will appear, on this blog.  Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot was my recommendation this week. I recently listed Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor as “Currently Reading.”  And much to my chagrin, my pick for next week also appears here: Zone One by Colson Whitehead.  Colson Whitehead isn’t even a bestselling author, and yet here he is, getting the number two spot in “Books” for the week of October 14th.  I’m baffled. I’m pissed. I’ve known about Zone One for months!  EW is scooping me.

Go back a week to the previous issue and you’ll see the “main pick” of the week is The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman.  Need I remind you that I recommended The Dovekeepers last week?  And last month I reviewed The Night Circus, which, yes, appeared larger than life in a recent edition of EW.

So what does this tell us about Tammy, you ask?  Is she hung up on bestsellers?  Is she going for the popular book pick?  The answer is a resounding “NO!”  My goal when I started this blog was to expose readers to books and authors that I love.  To introduce you to writers you may never have heard of before.  To share magical reading moments with you.  If some of the books I love turn out to be bestsellers, well, there’s not much I can do about that. Although the word “bestseller” leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, I can’t help but be pleased when good writers who write good books get the credit they deserve.

So if you’ve never heard of Colson Whitehead, chances are you soon will.  And not because Entertainment Weekly has featured his new book, but because you, loyal reader, will read about him here. Next week. Stay tuned.

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Read Me! THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides – Recommended Reading

Jeffrey Eugenides is one of those writers who takes his time writing books, and it shows.  His first book was The Virgin Suicides, a creepy and sad little story set in the 70’s that was made into an extremely creepy and sad movie.  His second book, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003, and is still one of my favorite books.  The Marriage Plot is only his third book in eighteen years, and although I want to rush right out and buy it so I can start reading right away, I also want to delay the moment, because I suspect it will be awhile before his next book is ready to publish. 

Here’s a short description from Amazon:  “Even among authors, Jeffrey Eugenides possesses a rare talent for being able to inhabit his characters. In The Marriage Plot, his third novel and first in ten years, Eugenides describes a year or so in the lives of three college seniors at Brown in the early 80s. There is Madeleine, a self-described “incurable romantic” who is slightly embarrassed at being so normal. There is Leonard, a brilliant, temperamental student from the Pacific Northwest. And completing the triangle is Mitchell, a Religious Studies major from Eugenides’ own Detroit. What follows is a book delivered in sincere and genuine prose, tracing the end of the students’ college days and continuing into those first, tentative steps toward true adulthood. This is a thoughtful and at times disarming novel about life, love, and discovery, set during a time when so much of life seems filled with deep portent.” –Chris Schluep

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What Keeps Me Up At Night

October is the perfect month to talk about scary stories. It’s also the perfect time to mention Stephen King, without doubt one of America’s modern masters of horror. (I’m pretty sure someone else came up with that title.) Say what you will about Steve (yes, I am claiming the right to call him “Steve”), he has had a major impact on the world of publishing, and if I hadn’t discovered The Shining back in highschool (I vividly remember trying to read it during choir practice – choir practice of all places!! – I could not put it down. Sorry Mr. Parker!), I would not be the person I am today.  When I was sixteen and finally had a steady, though tiny, income from working at McDonald’s, I purchased my very first hardcover, The Stand, and my future was set.  Many years later I own over three thousand books, and I have Stephen King to thank for it.

Now like most writers, Steve has had his ups and downs. His hits and misses. His classics and flops.  I am not so blinded by his brilliance that I can’t admit to being disappointed once in a while (Cell, anyone?).  But today I want to focus on one flash of brilliance, in particular a smallish book that was originally published back in 1982 by Donald M. Grant.  The Gunslinger was a mere 216 pages long (Compare that to Under the Dome, which clocks in at 1,072 pages.)  The first book of The Dark Tower, The Gunslinger was different from Steve’s other books: it was fantasy.  Not only was it fantasy and a puzzlement to many of his loyal fans, but the book was hard to find.  Donald M. Grant was (and is) a publisher of fine, limited edition books.  The Gunslinger was released with a print run of 500 limited edition copies (meaning signed by the author and artist) and  10,000 first edition trade hardcover copies.  After those had sold out, Grant released another print-run of 10,000 second edition trade hardcovers (one of which I am proud to say I own.)  20,500 copies may seem like a lot, but compare that to the first print-run of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which was 12 million copies!  Grant’s edition was gorgeously illustrated by Michael Whelan, and a precedent was set for future volumes.  In fact, the covers you see above are the original editions published by Donald M. Grant, each with its own illustrator (Phil Hale, Ned Dameron, Dave McKean, Bernie Wrightson, Darrel Anderson, and Michael Whelan, who bookended the series by illustrating the first and last books.)  A paperback edition was not published until 1988, about the same time that The Drawing of the Three, the second book in the series, was released.  It wasn’t until 2004 that Roland’s story finally came to an end in The Dark Tower, and I realized that I could now read the entire series the way it was meant to be read: one book after another, from start to finish, without years between books trying to remember where one book left off and the next began.  Instead of losing the threads of the story (and believe me, there are lots of threads), I had the best reading experience of my life.  I remember tracking down reading copies of all the books except for The Dark Tower.  I did not want to wait another year for it to come out in paperback. (An aside: the term “reading copy” usually refers to a paperback edition of a book.  To a book collector, it’s a copy of a book that can be read: you can fold down its pages, spill coffee on it, and generally put it through  hell if you want to.  I did read my second printing of The Gunslinger when I purchased it, but I assure you I probably read it with gloves on.)  So I got my reading copies together and put them in a big stack, and I started to read.  It took me three months to read all seven books.

All this is a roundabout way of getting to the point of this post: What does keep me up at night? It may not be what you think. The Dark Tower is not horror, really.  There are horrific elements to be sure, but most people would categorize these books as fantasy.  What keeps me up at night is the fact that there are probably loads of people out there who have never even heard of The Dark Tower, let alone read it.  The single experience I had of immersing myself in Roland’s story for three months was life-changing, and I can’t imagine not having read these books.  If you are reading this, and you have read The Dark Tower books, perhaps you understand. (Of course, maybe you read them and didn’t like them. And if that’s the case, you probably won’t be coming back to this blog…)  If however, you have not read about Roland and his friends, and you have some time to spare (about three months, I’d say), I urge you to take the time and jump in.  All seven books are now available in any number of affordable editions (including digital and audio), or can be found at the library, or can be borrowed from a friend.  They may not keep you up at night, in the scary/horror sort of way, but they will make you think, and dream, and imagine.  And I will sleep better knowing you are reading them.

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is:  The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, The Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower.

Special thanks to Goodreads for being so helpful with book covers and publishing dates.  You guys are awesome!

Learn more about Donald M. Grant Publishers.

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Read Me! THE CAT’S TABLE & THE DOVEKEEPERS – Recommended Reading

Fall is always a busy time for publishing, it seems.  Best-selling authors oftentimes release their latest and greatest in the fall. I mean, when was the last time Stephen King didn’t release a novel in October or November? (And yes, he has a new novel coming out this fall. More on that later.)  This week two favorites of mine are back and I hope you’ll check them out as well.  The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje follows an eleven-year-old boy in the 1950’s who takes a sea voyage to England. Here’s what some reviewers are saying:

The Cat’s Table is an exquisite example of the richness that can   flourish in the gaps between fact and fiction…. It is an adventure story, it is a meditation on power, memory, art, childhood, love and loss. It displays a technique so formidable as to seem almost playful. It is one of those rare books that one could reread an infinite number of times, and always find something new within its pages.”
London Evening Standard

 
“[Ondaatje] is justly recognised as a master of literary craft….As we read into The Cat’s Table the story becomes more complex, more deadly, with an increasing sense of lives twisted awry, of misplaced devotion….The novel tells of a journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country…. All that was seen and experienced, is carried ashore by the passengers in memories, damaged psyches, degrees of loss, evanescent joy and reordered lives.”
—Annie Proulx, The Guardian

I have been reading Alice Hoffman since a friend gave me a paperback copy of Turtle Moon many years ago.  I love her lyricism and the dreamlike quality she brings to her writing.  I don’t think I have ever been disappointed in an Alice Hoffman book, and I doubt I ever will be.  Her latest, The Dovekeepers, is out today. Goodreads can describe it better than I can: “In 70 CE, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on a mountain in the Judean desert, Masada. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic historical event, Hoffman weaves a spellbinding tale of four extraordinary, bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her twin grandsons, rendered mute by their own witness. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman, who finds passion with another soldier. Shirah is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power. The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege, as the Romans draw near. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love.”

And a few glowing reviews:

“Beautiful, harrowing, a major contribution to twenty-first century literature.”—Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate in Literature

“In her remarkable new novel, Alice Hoffman holds a mirror to our ancient past as she explores the contemporary themes of sexual desire, women’s solidarity in the face of strife, and the magic that’s quietly present in our day-to-day living. Put The Dovekeepers at the pinnacle of Hoffman’s extraordinary body of work. I was blown away.” —Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed

Better start reading! There are a lot more recommendations coming this fall…

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