R.I.P. Challenge 2019: Mr. Mercedes and The Halloween Tree

91RNQ-dZlhLMr. Mercedes by Stephen King (2014)

Hodges has read there are wells in Iceland so deep you can drop a stone down them and never hear the splash. He thinks some human souls are like that.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. Having only read King’s On Writing and part of The Dark Tower series, I was anxious that this might be too much for me to handle. And it came right up to the very edge of my comfort zone in terms of darkness. The villain here is 100% depravity. Even though King relays the circumstances of his childhood (rough) and his mother being a total psycho, it wasn’t enough to make me feel any sympathy towards him. But what kept me turning pages was the superb pacing and the protagonist, retired police detective Bill Hodges. He’s not adjusting well at all to retirement. He’s depressed and isolated , possibly suicidal. But when the perpetrator of the grisly case that went unsolved before his retirement taunts him in a letter, he finds new purpose in life, teaming with new friends to hunt him down before he strikes again. I liked Hodges – he reminded me a bit of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, maybe a little less hot-shot-y. There are two more in the series and I’ll try the second one. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

81AWUvql-CLThe Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (1972)

They banged doors, they shouted Trick or Treat and their brown paper bags began to fill with incredible sweets. They galloped with their teeth glued shut with pink gum. They ran with red wax lips bedazzling their faces. But all the people who met them at doors looked like candy factory duplicates of their own mothers and fathers. It was like never leaving home. Too much kindness flashed from every window and every portal. What they wanted was to hear dragons belch in basements and banged castle doors.

And so, still looking for Pipkin, they reached the edge of town and the place where civilization fell away in darkness.

The Ravine.

I don’t remember where I heard about this one but it’s the perfect read for October! It’s a book for kids but it’s just as enjoyable for adults – lyrical and imaginative. A group of boys excited for Halloween set out for adventure only to find that one of their group, Joe Pipkin, is sick. He tells them to go on ahead and he’ll catch up, only to find that Death has “borrowed” him and his holding him for ransom. The creepy Mr. Moundshroud, resident of the haunted house in The Ravine, cajoles the boys into looking for Pipkin and “solving” Halloween simultaneously. It’s a race through time and space, discovering the origins of Halloween through the ages. I thoroughly enjoyed it. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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Have you read these? Are you reading anything creepy for Halloween?

Dear Martin and Shadowshaper (20 Books of Summer #4 and #5)

Regular readers of my blog know I don’t read a whole lot of books aimed at teens. I’ve tried some in the past, with middling success. The ones I tend to like are either books with a social justice angle (think Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give) or something totally out of left field (for me) like a paranormal mystery or fantasy (like Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series.) I often think most of these books just aren’t aimed at me, a middle-aged woman. And that’s totally fine! But I do continue to want to give YA a try, if only so that I can recommend a few every now and then to a library patron. I have recently read two for my 20 Books of Summer list that I enjoyed and wanted to share a few brief thoughts.

Dear Martin by debut author Nic Stone was a fast-paced, engaging story that I read quickly (just over 200 pages.) High school senior Justyce McAllister is near the top of his mostly-white private school student body and heading to Yale University next year. The book opens with an incident where he is trying to help his drunk girlfriend get home from a party and ends up handcuffed for hours by a cop who mistakenly sized up the situation. The incident rattles Justyce and he starts to write “letters” to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way to process his emotions and thoughts.

Last night changed me. I don’t wanna walk around all pissed off and looking for problems, but I know I can’t continue to pretend nothing’s wrong. Yeah, there are no more “colored” water fountains, and it’s supposed to be illegal to discriminate, but if I can be forced to sit on the concrete in too-tight cuffs when I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s clear there’s an issue. That things aren’t as equal as folks say they are.

24974996The novel alternates these letters with every day conversations in Justyce’s classes and his regular high school life. Some of his white friends and classmates demonstrate an appalling lack of sensitivity, and some do things that are out-right racist. However, when Justyce and his white classmate SJ start becoming more than friends, Stone doesn’t shy away from writing about how Justyce’s mother would be uncomfortable with him dating a white girl. Later there is another incident with an off-duty police officer that it even more traumatic and serious for Justyce and one of his friends, and it really makes him question everything, including the value of following Dr. King’s non-violent teachings. While I was engaged by the story, I didn’t love it because I found the writing to be lacking in complexity, but perhaps that’s the thing that might make it sing to a 13 or 14 year-old. Stone has delivered a highly relevant and emotionally affecting story that will speak to a lot of young people today. (3 stars.) 

22295304Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older is a bit of a departure for me as I don’t normally read much fantasy. But I’m here to say I really liked it! When I do read fantasy I prefer it to be set in a world that’s similar to the real one, with maybe just a few wacky things different. In Shadowshaper, you’ll recognize Older’s portrayal of current-day Brooklyn, NY – except maybe for the murals on buildings that move as if alive and the corpses that become reanimated with evil spirits!

From Goodreads: Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future.

The writing was lively and vibrant, sometimes funny, and Sierra felt like a believable character to me. I loved this exchange when she worried over her belly to her best friends before a date:

“What if he doesn’t like my ponch?”

“Your what now?”

“My little belly ponch.” Sierra patted her tummy.

“Oh lord, Sierra, really? Everybody has a little gut, and plenty a’ dudes go crazy for ’em. Stop fretting.”

  I also appreciated Older’s handling of the gentrification of Sierra’s friend’s neighborhood:

The place Sierra and Bennie used to get their hair done had turned into a fancy bakery of some kind, and yes, the coffee was good, but you couldn’t get a cup for less than three dollars. Plus, every time Sierra went in, the hip, young white kid behind the counter gave her either the don’t-cause-no-trouble look or the I-want-to-adopt-you look. The Takeover (as Bennie dubbed it once) had been going on for a few years now, but tonight its pace seemed to have accelerated tenfold. Sierra couldn’t find a single brown face on the block. It looked like a late-night frat party had just let out; she was getting funny stares from all sides – as if she was the out-of-place one, she thought. 

And then, sadly, she realized she was the out-of-place one.

This was an exciting, original adventure full of magic, art, and mystery. I ordered the second book in the series, Shadowhouse Fall, from the library and hope to read it in the next few weeks. (4 stars.)

Do you read YA books? If so, have you got some recommendations for ones I shouldn’t miss?

(These are the fourth and fifth books I’ve featured from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

 

Mini-reviews: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff and The Temporary Bride by Jennifer Klinec (#20BooksofSummer 10 & 11)

So I’ve been needing to write these two reviews foreva.  What have I been doing so far tonight instead?  Watching videos of the band Cheap Trick on YouTube!  😀 It seems that my mom has hoodwinked me into going with her to see them play live in September at our area County Fair!  Before my YouTube explorations, I knew three Cheap Trick songs:  “I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender,” and “The Flame.”  So I guess I’m going to continue educating myself in preparation.  I just didn’t want her going by herself, you know?  And mercifully, it’s on a night that my husband has off, so he can care for our son.

25109947Now that I’ve had some caffeine and made myself sit down in front of my computer, let me tell you about Books 10 and 11 from my 20 Books of Summer List.  (Actually, Book 11 wasn’t on either of my lists, so shhhh!  Don’t tell anybody!)  Book 10 is Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.  It was a pick chosen by my book group last month.  I voted for it too, because it sounded promisingly weird and my fellow book group member who proposed it said that she loved it and no one else she knew had read it and she was dying to talk about it with people.  How could we refuse?

Goodreads Blurb: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.       

Verdict:  Three Stars.  (Maybe 2.75, honestly.)  I wanted to know why my book group mate liked this book so much, and oddly enough she praised the one thing that bothered me the most about this book:  character development.  I just didn’t really connect to or feel the authenticity of most of the characters in this novel.  I like weird, fantastical story lines, and I am open to supernatural and creepy plot developments, which this book has in abundance.  But I want my characters to feel real; I want to know enough about the inner workings of their minds to understand them.  And I just didn’t get that from this book.

What I did like about this book was the use of fantasy and horror to illustrate historical (and current) racial injustice in America.  For example, in one of the stories (oh yeah, this book is really a bunch of interrelated stories about a group of African Americans around Chicago in the 1950’s, not one long narrative, like I was anticipating…)  a black woman named Ruby drinks a potion that transforms her into a white woman temporarily.  As she inhabits this white body (which also happens to be beautiful) I loved reading her thoughts about the difference in how people treat her.

There was no side-eyeing, no pretending not to see her while wondering what she was up to; she didn’t require attention.  She was free to browse, not just individual establishments, but the world.

What else comes with being you?

All in all, I’m glad I read it.  It wasn’t something I was likely to seek out on my own, but I think I learned something about the sad, sometimes horrifying realities of daily life for African Americans in the 1950’s, even with all the supernatural story elements.  I think that Ruff did the subject matter justice, even as I was a bit conflicted about this not being an Own Voices book. Our book group had a very fruitful discussion about it, and I think it’s a good choice for any group.

34296946Book 11 is The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m half Persian, but I’ve never been to Iran and my father really didn’t talk very much about his (and my) heritage when I was growing up.  So naturally I’m attracted to a book like this, which combines my interest in travel memoirs, food memoirs, and Iran.  This was a quick read for me and I really enjoyed it.  I loved getting a glimpse of other areas of Iran besides Tehran, a city that, understandably, seems to dominate books set in that country.  But let me back up.  Here’s the Goodreads blurb.

In her thirties, Jennifer Klinec abandons a corporate job to launch a cooking school from her London flat. Raised in Canada to Hungarian-Croatian parents, she has already travelled to countries most people are fearful of, in search of ancient recipes. Her quest leads her to Iran where, hair discreetly covered and eyes modest, she is introduced to a local woman who will teach her the secrets of the Persian kitchen.

Vahid is suspicious of the strange foreigner who turns up in his mother’s kitchen; he is unused to seeing an independent woman. But a compelling attraction pulls them together and then pits them against harsh Iranian laws and customs. 

Getting under the skin of one of the most complex and fascinating nations on earth, The Temporary Bride is a soaring story of being loved, being fed, and the struggle to belong.

Verdict:  Four Stars.  This was a lovely book.  The food writing is lush and evocative, but the real center of the book is the unlikely romance between Klinec and the son of a woman who is teaching her how to cook Persian dishes.  It’s a fascinating glimpse of a romantic relationship trying to develop in a country with strict and overbearing rules (both cultural and legal) governing contact between unrelated members of the opposite sex.

Every day Vahid wrote to me.  Brief e-mails, sometimes two or three in one day.  In between short sentences of concern for my well-being and expressions of tenderness, he put the craving for foods in my mouth.  He urged me to wait in the long lines outside the Mahdi ice-cream parlor, to eat their chewy ice cream made with orchid root and mastic that can stretch for several feet without breaking. He described the torshi shops in Bistodoh Bahman Square where vegetables, roots, even young pinecones are pickled, swimming in buckets of caraway seeds and vinegar.  I bought cauliflower, caper shoots and tiny turnips scooped into clear plastic bags and topped with a ladleful of sour brine.  He made it so that when I ate I heard his voice in my head, missing his presence from every meal.  I felt him beside me adding lemon juice and salt, or tapping sugar or crushing sumac between his fingers. 

If you’re a fan of food memoirs or an armchair traveler like me, you’ll probably enjoy this compelling story.  My only slight criticism is that the events happen in such a compressed time frame (just a few months total, I think) that I wanted a bit more on exactly why Klinec fell so hard for Vahid, when everything in her logical mind and in the Iranian society was telling her that they shouldn’t be a couple.  I also wanted more at the end of the book – it felt a bit rushed.  Minor quibbles, though.

So, have you read any H.P. Lovecraft?  Have you read any good books about Iran?  Are you a fan of Cheap Trick?  Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Thoughts on The Waste Lands (Dark Tower Book 3) by Stephen King

I continue to be entertained and ensnared by Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  A somewhat slow start snowballed into a tension-filled, exciting conclusion with a heck of a cliffhanger.  (Sidenote:  I have absolutely NO idea how one would adapt this series into a movie.  It will be very interesting to see what the filmmakers do with this.)  In the third installment, our three gunslingers from The Drawing of the Three, Roland, Eddie, and Susannah, are joined by a familiar face and a billy-bumbler, an adorable dog-like raccoonish creature named Oy, who is smart and sweet and loyal AND IF OY DIES IN LATER INSTALLMENTS I WILL LOSE IT.  (But don’t tell me, please, if you’ve read this series.)

34084Man, this series is hard to write about without revealing major plot points.  The Waste Lands opens with the three slowly making their way in the direction of The Dark Tower. Roland is not feeling so hot, and Eddie and Susannah (who’ve fallen in love) are worried about his mental state.  Enter a giant sentient bear (!) named Mir who is going insane and suffering from some sort of gross disease.  He rampages through their camp and (mild spoiler, but not really because it happens pretty early on) unsuccessfully tries to kill one of the three.  When Mir is killed they find out that he’s got some kind of machine attached to his head, and it’s gone haywire.  Roland tells Eddie and Susannah about the legends of the Twelve Guardians who stand guard at twelve different portals in and out of the world. At the center is the Dark Tower.  Mir was apparently one of the guardians. So they just have to find the door it was guarding, and they’ll be that much closer to the Dark Tower. This all happens in the first 70 pages or so, and my edition was 590 pages, so there’s a lot of stuff I’m not writing about!  There’s some shifting back-and-forth in the narrative between Mid-World and our world (late 1970’s era.)  The gunslingers (plus the familiar face and the billy-bumbler) eventually end up in a seriously scary dystopian nightmare of a city for the thrilling conclusion of the book.

What I like about this series so far, aside from the inventiveness of Mid-World and the compelling overarching mythology, is the camaraderie of our gang.  Eddie and Susannah’s relationship is sweet and feels natural.  Roland is assessing his companions in a new light given their growth since being pulled into Mid-World.  They are now fully capable and on equal footing; Roland has learned to trust them.  I am becoming attached to these characters, which I have a feeling is a dangerous thing to do and I quite possibly will be shedding some tears in future installments.  I am really intrigued as to how King will resolve this series, so I definitely plan to keep reading.

I’ve read that the fourth book in the series, Wizard and Glass, goes back and fills in more of Roland’s backstory, and doesn’t pick up immediately where this one ends.  If I’d been reading this as they were being published I would have been like What the heck, Stephen King?  Six years later and you didn’t even tell me what happened to our gang?!? But I have the privilege of being late to the party on this one.  So I’m not in a super hurry to read the next one. I’m taking a little break, at least until #20BooksofSummer is over in September.  I’m kind of surprised by how much I like this series.  As I’ve mentioned before, fantasy is not a genre I’ve read a lot in, and I had previously pegged Stephen King as a writer of “scary stuff” that I was too much of a wimp to read.  But I guess it’s just another example of how, in life, we are only limited by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  I like being surprised by reading.

(This is book #6 of my 20 Books of Summer.  I’m wavering on sticking to the rest of my list.  In fact, I’m fairly confident that I’ll be substituting a whole lot of my original list with picks based on my mood for the rest of the summer.)

So what was the last “pleasant surprise” read for you, or a book or series outside of your reading comfort zone that you ended up really enjoying?

The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower Series #2) by Stephen King (#20BooksofSummer book #1)

Confession:  before last month, I’d never read a novel by Stephen King.  I’d read his book On Writing some years ago (very good,) and I’d enjoyed his regular columns about pop culture in Entertainment Weekly when he was doing that.  But the farthest I’d ever gotten with one of his novels was my attempt to read The Stand when I was about 14 years old.  I’d seen the TV miniseries with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald and was totally taken by it (scared witless by it too – pandemic stuff always totally freaks me out.) But it was just too terrifying and gory for me to stomach.

418T3GHQAQLLeave it to another movie adaptation to get me interested in reading King again.  When I heard that Idris Elba and Matthew McConoughey were going to star in the upcoming Dark Tower movie, I knew I wanted to see it – but I wanted to read it first.  I’ve always had a thing for Matthew McConoughey ever since I saw him in A Time To Kill back when I was in college.  I now think he might not be that awesome IRL, but on screen he is magnetic and fascinating.

So last month I read the first book in the series, The Gunslinger.  I didn’t review it because I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL I READ.  Honestly, I was as confused as I was entertained.  If you’ve not read it, all I can tell you is that there’s this Gunslinger named Roland, and he’s SUPER talented with guns, and he’s on a quest to find The Man in Black. Finding The Man in Black is the first step towards getting to The Dark Tower, which is Roland’s obsession.  He’s traveling through a desert area that resembles the American Old West, but it’s not our universe – it’s like a parallel universe with some echoes of things we’d recognize.  His language is a weird mix of archaic English and modern-day English.  He meets up with a boy named Jake, who is from our world and time, and we find out that in his world Jake was pushed into oncoming traffic and died crushed by a car.  They go through these ridiculous mountains pursuing The Man in Black, and then bad stuff happens, and then Roland and The Man in Black have this weird, trippy talk where TMIB takes Roland on this tour of the universe and reads his tarot cards…  yeah, it’s bizarre.  But I had read and heard that the first book in the series is the weakest, and that the second book is much better and more compelling.

I liked The Gunslinger enough to continue with the second book, The Drawing of the Three.  And people were right – the second book really delivers.  It’s just as hard to describe as the first book, but not as confusing. Roland wakes up on a beach, and he immediately encounters these terrifying lobster-like creatures that are as big as dogs that he calls “lobstrosities.”  One of them gets his hand and chops off two of his fingers.  Infection ensues. Short plot summary:  He sees these doors on the beach, totally unsupported by anything, which are portals into our universe at different times.  Three doors.  Each one leads him to a person who is vital to his quest for reaching The Dark Tower.  We have Eddie, a young heroin addict in modern time; Odetta, an African American woman in a wheelchair in the 1950s; and Jack Mort, a psychopath sadist with a connection to Odetta. Roland can go through these doors and into the minds of the three while his physical body is left behind on the beach in his universe.  It’s weird, I know.

But I couldn’t stop turning the pages.  King has this way of leaving you wanting more with every chapter’s end.  I was totally immersed in this strange tale – would Roland make it before the infection killed him? Would the three people he inhabited help him, or would they turn on him? Why does Odetta seem to be schizophrenic?  Would they ever get off the damn beach??  If you couldn’t tell, I’m hooked.  I have to continue with the next book, The Waste Lands.  I’m really regretting not putting the rest of these on my #20BooksofSummer list.  I may have to switch out one or two of the books for the third and fourth in the series!  We’ll see.  (Oh, and I just remembered that I have my book group books for June and July to consider and fit in as well. Ugh, I STINK at planning my reading!)

So have you read this series?  Are you interested in the movie?  Have you read any Stephen King before?  What’s your favorite Matthew McConoughey role?  I’d love to know your thoughts.