Sunday, March 28, 2010

Genre-Defying Joe Hill

Joe Hill's Horns

I have a confession to make: I secretly think people who talk about how bad Stephen King's writing is are being snobby. Another confession: I can be unbearably snobby about books. Final, obvious confession: I can occasionally be a hypocrite.

Stephen King has written some pretty bad novels: Needful Things, Desperation, that awful one about aliens that infest people's intestines and whose title I am too lazy to look up...but the man has also written some amazing books: The Stand and The Shining, for example. It can be argued that Stephen King revolutionized the horror genre. He also seems like a genuinely good guy and never fails to write flattering reviews for new authors.

"Wait a minute," you're thinking; "This Horns book wasn't even written by Stephen King. Why is Elizabeth babbling on about him?" Aha, savvy reader! Stephen King is Joe Hill's father. Joe Hill has decided to follow in his father's literary footsteps, and, in my opinion, both complements and improves upon his father's work.

Hill's first work, 20th Century Ghosts, a collection of short stories, and his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, both debuted to critical acclaim. Horns was similarly lauded and may be Hill's best work yet:

"Hill has emerged as one of America's finest horror writers....That empathy with the Devil — taking a despicable character and slowly bringing us around to his side — is the sort of thing Hill does best. It's also what's missing from so much of the girl-meets-vampire gruel that dominates the genre these days." Time Magazine

Horns is the tale of Iggie Perrish, who wakes up one morning with a terrible hangover and horns sprouting from his temples. He had spent the night before visiting his murdered girlfriend Merrin's memorial and vaguely recollects doing "terrible things," so the horns don't come as much of a surprise. Iggie assumes that they are a hallucination brought on by the year of rage and grief he's experienced after Merrin's brutal death and the blame his small town has mistakenly placed upon him as her murderer. The horns, however, are something else entirely: a conduit to people's innermost and often inappropriate desires...and the key to solving Merrin's murder.

A story of redemption, revenge, love, and a surprising take on what makes a man a devil and a devil a man, Horns is a genre-defying novel not to missed.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Kerry's BookShelf, Part the First

I'll kick off my inaugural BookShelf post with a pan and a recommendation. I know these are supposed to be our "currently reading" posts, but I'm playing catch up, so I'm going with the first two books I dug off my floor that don't feel quite right for standalone reviews. I was going to include my latest guilty pleasure series, but I've decided they're getting a post all of their own (plus they're buried somewhere under a pile of clothes), so I will include just the tiniest of shout outs.

Book 1:

Soulless. This book pained me. The premise sounded quite promising - Victorian lady born without a soul uses her unique condition to deal with otherwordly complications accompanied by an umbrella and healthy dose of snark. I heard good buzz in the blogosphere and the cover was kind of cool (I hereby confess, I totally judge books by their covers), so I picked it up at the bookstore. Then I started it. And realized I'd rather be watching The Cutting Edge 4: Fire and Ice (surprisingly good by the way). Or watching paint dry. Or reading anything else.

Short story? The prose felt jerky and strained. That may have been a deliberate authorial choice, but I found the word choice jarring, the dialogue unnatural, and the heroine's perspective offputting. Reading it felt like wearing an ostensibly cute shirt that turns out to be a size too small and made of itchy material. So I stuck it back on the shelf and have since tried to pawn it off on Elizabeth no less than three times. So far no dice, but I'm sure this post will convince her she needs to at least try it.

Book 2:

Let the Great World Spin. This was a book club choice and it reminds me why I do adore my book club. The deadline makes me finish books I might otherwise dawdle over and the discussion makes me think about them more seriously than I would on my own. And Let the Great World Spin is a book that rewards serious thinking (and, you know, finishing it).

Set in New York in the 1970s, it tells a story of interlacing characters, all set against a tightrope walker's journey from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other. Impossible to read without thinking about what happens 20 or so years later and McCann doesn't shy away from the emotional implications of that image of the towers.

The best way I found to describing it to friends was a "humanist Cloud Atlas", but that's more a comment on the structure of the novel. The story itself is really is a hymn to New York in all of its glorious, and sometimes painful, complications. My favorite section, the second chapter, packed enough of a punch that I found myself crying on the bus when reading it. Which may sound like an odd reason for an enthusiastic recommendation, but if you can bring me to tears on the way to bowling, you are doing something very right.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

When You Reach Me

My sincere apologies for the long blog silence. I've been busy and my laptop has been...well distracted would be one word. The others would all be spelled with asterisks. It spent some quality time thinking it was 1969 and then decided to only allow me to type with the right-hand part of the keyboard. Fun times! But now (knocking firmly on wood), it seems to be in much better spirits and I'm determined to be a much better blogger. So enough technology woes, let's get back to books.

Since my last post, When You Reach Me finally reached me. I know, horrible joke. I really can't help myself. However I hope my sense of humor (or lack thereof) doesn't deter you from picking up this delightful book.

Elizabeth has already posted a more full review, but I had to add my two cents. First of all, bravo to the Newbery committee for picking this book. It's super and winning the Newbery Medal means more people will read it and (I assume, Elizabeth can confirm) more libraries will stock it. And this feels like the kind of book you should stumble over in a library and finish in one go on a summer afternoon.

It's an overt homage to Madeline L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle in Time, but it also reminds me of many children's books set in New York in the 1960s: The Young Unicorns, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Harriet the Spy.

In fact, heroine Miranda reminds me a bit of Louise Fitzhugh's immortal (I accidentally typed immoral first and that works too) Harriet Welsch, as she struggles to navigate friendships, family, and school, while caught up in her own particular mysteries. But while Harriet's mysteries were largely self-created, Miranda's come in the form of mysterious notes from an unknown sender.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, as its slow reveal is part of this book's charm, but its complexity is a sign of Rebecca Stead's respect for her readers. She introduces challenging concepts, both academic and emotional, and trusts readers to keep up with Miranda as she works to unravel them. This trust, more than the overt mentions of A Wrinkle in Time in the text, is what makes When You Reach Me a true heir to L'Engle's beloved books and such a pleasure to read.

And finally, given my own long-running obsession with Jeopardy!, how could I not love a book in which a major sub-plot is centered around Miranda's mother's shot at appearing on The $20,000 Pyramid? Game show geeks unite!