Book Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden (2019)

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Review 2.11

 

Note: I highly recommend reading The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower before reading this review.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen. [Source]

The Winter of the Witch has all of the ingredients necessarily for a dark, mature fairy tale. There is a twisted villain, a mysterious king, an enchanted forest. There are swordfights, helpful sprites, and magic horses. Front and center of it all is the courageous heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna. Vasya is a marvel, at once vulnerable and indomitable. Her journey from a scared girl in the snow to a crusading warrior-witch has made the Winternight trilogy one of my favorite finds in recent years.

Of course, all these elements would amount to nothing without the beautiful and poetic writing of Katherine Arden. She has constructed a world that feels simultaneously ancient and immediate. The best fairy tales exist in a world of misty morals, and The Winter of the Witch is no exception. No one, no matter how seemingly good or evil, is ever quite what they seem. This comes as a natural development rather than a sudden cheat, and I never felt as though Arden had sacrificed her characters for the sake of a easy ending.

After the climatic events of The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has just risked everything to save Moscow from the flames. Her secrets are now exposed, and the obsessed priest Konstantin has her cornered. After suffering a devastating loss, she flees into the realm of Midnight, a land of eternal darkness. Weakened and grieving, Vasya must search the midnight lands for Morozko, the king of winter.

I won’t say anything more, for fear of spoiling the surprise. I am definitely looking forward to buying the entire Winternight trilogy on hardcover once it’s released. These books swept me away.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Winter of the Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

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Review 2.4

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, a party of moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild. [Source]

 “I now walk into the wild.” – Christopher McCandless

The story of Christopher McCandless has become something of an urban legend crossed with a cautionary tale. I’m sure parents have warned their children that if they aren’t careful they’ll end up “dying in a bus somewhere in Alaska”. When I mentioned to my husband that I was reading this book, he scoffed and muttered something about idiot kids and white privilege. For some, McCandless is a cultural admonition about the foolishness of youth. For others, he is a symbol of wanderlust, that powerful urge to explore the wild places of the world and reconnect with nature that exists somewhere within all men.

It’s easy to write McCandless off as just a spoiled boy from an affluent background who got what he deserved when he walked into the Alaskan wilderness with no supplies. It’s easy to say that he was mentally ill, or suicidal, or just plain crazy. What Krakauer has done with Into the Wild is to tell the harder story, one of a charismatic and talented young man whose obsessive desire to connect with nature ended up costing his life.

“At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.”

Last year I read Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which chronicles the violent history of the Mormon faith and how it led to the death of an innocent woman and child. Krakauer has the remarkable ability to write nonfiction as if it were fiction. He weaves his plot and characters together with meticulous attention to detail and exhaustive research. Reading Into the Wild, it is obvious that Krakauer was profoundly moved by the death of McCandless. The book represents an homage of sorts, a chance to tell Christopher’s story in a way that makes him look brave but naive instead of just incredibly stupid. Krakauer brings a sense of tragic nobility to Christopher’s life and death while trying to explain what drove him to venture alone into the wilderness. He looks at journals, interviews friends and family members, and ultimately journeys to the hollowed out bus where McCandless’ body was found.

I am writing this review more than five days after finishing it, and I can’t get Christopher McCandless out of my head. At random times of the day, when I’m washing dishes or marking homework, the image of a lonely boy dying in a lonely bus in a cold, lonely forest comes into my mind. I had before heard the story of the idiot kid who died in the wilds of Alaska. Now I feel like I actually know the story of McCandless’ life. This book was amazing.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Into the Wild here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2007 it was adapted into a film starring Emile Hirsch and directed by Sean Penn.

Happy reading everyone!

My Favorite Books of 2018

Now that the holidays are winding down, I find myself in that weird limbo period that exists between Christmas and New Years. I’ve had way too more food and wine than was good for me, got to spent Christmas with my family for the first time in seven years, and spent roughly twenty-seven hours in a car in order to do it. Now I’m back in Toronto and enjoying a few more lazy days before returning back to work and the real world.

Before the second official oneyearonehundredbooks challenge kicks off next week, let’s take a look back at some of the best books I read this year. It was so hard to narrow this list down to only twelve novels, but I finally picked my favorites. Beginning with the honorable mentions:

 

Honorable Mention: The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

Image result for wolves of winter book Post-apocalyptic novels are always fun, and this novel really benefits from its strong heroine. I definitely recommend this one for a cold winter’s day.

Honorable Mention: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Image result for glass castle bookThis memoir, about a girl growing up with a highly unusual family, is equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. It will make you see the value of family in a new light.

10) Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Image result for night film bookThis was a very hit-and-miss year for thrillers, but Night Film was one of those novels that kept me turning pages late into the night. The creative formatting and captivating plot line all work together to create a genuinely suspenseful experience.

9) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Image result for through the woods emily carroll Horror novels and graphic novels are two of my very favorite genres, so it comes as no surprise that I was blown away by the five short stories presented in Through the Woods. This is a book that I am determined to add to my own library someday.

8) Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Image result for dead mountain book The true story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident has fascinated me since I first learned about it more than five years ago. This nonfiction novel fleshes out the final days of the doomed hikers and offers up a new and interesting theory as to what may have caused the deaths of the nine hikers in 1952.

7) You by Caroline Kepnes

Image result for you caroline kepnes This novel wins this year’s “Creeper” award hands-down. The twisted narrator who becomes obsessed with a young woman could give Patrick Bateman a run for his money. This book grabbed me from page one and didn’t let up for a second.

6) The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Image result for great alone by kristin hannah Kristin Hannah is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. This historical fiction novel, set in the Alaskan wilderness of the 1970’s, deals with the dysfunctional love that often exists in a family. I definitely looked into Alaskan cruises after reading this book.

5) The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Image result for tea girl of hummingbird lane I lived in China for almost three years, but never managed to visit the tea hills in the southern part of the country. Lisa See has been one of my favorite authors for years. I love her focus on female relationships and the bonds between mothers and daughters.

4) everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun

Image result for everyone's an alien when you're an alien too Earlier this year, I was battling a depression I didn’t even know I felt. This graphic novel, about a aliebn who travels to Earth to learn about its inhabitants, helped me find a release I wasn’t aware I needed. Another book I need to add to my personal library.

3) Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Image result for into the drowning deep book I will always drop whatever I’m doing to read the latest novel by Mira Grant. She expertly blends science with fiction with horror and this book, about a research expedition to the bottom of the Marina Trench, was a masterpiece of claustrophobia.

2) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Image result for guernsey literary and potato peel pie book This novel, about the Nazi occupation of the British Isles during World War II, deals with some rather bleak subject material. Despite that, or perhaps because of it is, TGLAPPPS has a cheerful tone and a dry sense of humor that left me feeling optimistic and full of hope. I also reviewed the film, which was released earlier this year.

1.) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Image result for bear and the nightingale This dark fairy tale set in medieval Russia is the perfect book to read on a winter’s night. Katherine Arden’s writing style is hypnotic, she paints a version of the Russian forests that is somehow comforting and threatening at the same time. I also reviewed the sequel to this novel, The Girl in the Tower. The third and final installment, The Winter of the Witch, is scheduled for release on January 9, 2019.

The second year of oneyearonehundredbooks will kick off on January 1st.

Happy new year everyone!

 

 

 

Book vs Film: The Shining

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Fittingly enough for October, I spent a last weekend at a cabin in the woods. And while there were more loons and squirrels than ghosts and ghouls, I took the opportunity to re-read one of my all-time favorite horror novels, The Shining by Stephen King. It is considered by many to be one of his best works, which is saying a lot considering he is one of the most popular and prolific authors still writing today.

While King’s The Shining has definitely earned its place in the higher echelons of the horror genre, I have never quite understood the esteem given to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the novel. While I was re-reading the book over the weekend, it only served to remind me how utterly superior it is to the movie version.

In no specific order, here are my thoughts on The Shining novel version the film. Spoilers abound for both.

1.) The film is horribly miscast. I might be in the unpopular opinion crowd here but I absolutely hate Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of Jack Torrance. He plays Jack as a mentally unstable semi-psychopath straight from the beginning. The novel version of Jack is a flawed individual who loves his family and is eventually worn down by the dark forces of the Overlook. Nicholson instead chose to glower and menace from the very first scene, and spends the entire running length of the film chewing the scenery.

Shelley Duvall, as Wendy Torrance, is almost unbearable to watch. She is meek and whiny and shrill. Book Wendy is certainly submissive to her husband, but she fights for the safety of her son and it is her fierce love that has kept her family together. Wendy fights her own demons throughout the course of King’s novel, but she is never reduced to a mewling puddle on the floor.

2.) Kubrick basically tortured Shelley Duvall throughout the course of filming. It could be that part of my dislike for Shelley Duvall in Kubrick’s film is the fact that he put her through such psychological strain that she would frequently collapse from mental exhaustion. She was kept isolated from much of the cast and made to perform takes hundreds of times all while Kubrick was screaming at her. Apparently the stress was so great that her hair began to fall out. Kubrick’s interpretation of Wendy Torrance is utterly misogynistic. She is just there to make stupid decisions and scream a lot.

3.) Jack Torrance is supposed to be an imperfect but dedicated husband and father. In my opinion, one reason why Stephen King’s work is so difficult to translate onto film is that so much of the tension takes place in the minds of his characters. The reader spends so much time sharing headspace with the Torrance family that we grow to understand and appreciate their various strengths and flaws. So when I’m reading The Shining, I identify with Jack’s struggle with alcoholism as much as I respect his fervent desire to better himself for his wife and son. The reader feels that mixture of guilt, pain, sadness, and love. But because the battle for the soul of Jack Torrance takes place within the mind of Jack Torrance, it’s difficult to convey without resorting to voice-over narration which would have been equally ineffective. So instead, we’re left with Jack Nicholson who tried to convey that inner turmoil by acting like an overly toothy nutjob.

4.) Points must be given for setting and cinematography. I personally do not believe Stanley Kubrick deserves his place in the higher rankings of film directors. However, I will say that he was capable of delivering some truly stunning visuals. Horror films in the last decade rely too heavily on quick edits, jump scares, and screechy music to ramp up suspense. Kubrick understands the creepiness of the long shot, and his use of twisty hallways, looming staircases, and the general grandeur of the hotel set are all gorgeous to look at. His use of bright, primary colors contrasted with the gloominess of other set pieces is another reason why this film is mentioned so often in conversations about amazing visual effects.

5) THE ENDING Stephen King himself has tried to distance himself from Kubrick’s film, citing many of the same reasons I’ve mentioned in this post. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance has almost no character arc whatsoever, and even the final sacrifice of “book” Jack is left out of the film. In the novel, Jack Torrance manages to fight off the evil spirits that have consumed him long enough to say goodbye to his son and allow him a chance to escape. He then smashes his own face in with a roque mallet, destroying himself but saving his son. In the film, Jack Nicholson’s character basically becomes Michael Myers, a maniac with an axe who gleefully attempts to murder his entire family. In the end, he gets lost in a hedge maze and freezes to death.

Where’s the sacrifice? Where are the last words of a broken man to his son? It’s as if Kubrick didn’t see Jack Torrance as a person with a conscience of his own, but merely as an empty receptacle for the evil spirits that inhabited the Overlook. So the ending consists of one drawn-out chase scene, complete with an idiotic woman who runs up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. Even in 1980 this was beginning to become a cliche. Kubrick had the opportunity to show his audiences a truly unique monster, the monster that lives within all of us waiting for the chance to take over. Instead, we were given yet another soulless psychopath. What a shame.

What are your thoughts? Are there any other film to book comparisons you’d like to see? Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake (2018)

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Review #65

Owen and Mara are bonded as only twins can be. They share everything, and have no secrets from one another. So when Owen is accused of rape by Mara’s good friend Hannah, her world and everything she knows to be true is called into question. As lines are drawn between “Team Owen” and “Team Hannah”, Mara must face the choice between supporting the brother she loves or following her conscience.

This book left me feeling devastated. Author Ashley Herring Blake immerses her readers in a state of nearly desperate melancholy. No matter what choices Mara makes, she is turning her back on someone she loves. An eighteen year old girl is not emotionally mature enough to handle the situation that Mara finds herself in. Blake does a fantastic job of treating her characters like real people. Mara’s confusion, anger, and grief are real and visceral. I felt my heart breaking again and again along with hers.

Mara is utterly shattered when her twin brother is accused of raping her friend. Her emotional annihilation continues as Owen defends himself by saying that Hannah was willing at the time but is “crying rape” after an argument. Mara is an outspoken feminist who has been raised by her mother to rebel against gender stereotypes and fight for what she believes is right.Her faith is further weakened as she sees her mother side with Owen and dismiss Hannah’s claims as an “overreaction”.

This novel feels particularly relevant for where we currently are as a society. The #MeToo movement is making great strides at raising awareness of the sexual assault and abuse that women experience throughout their lives. But there are still instances every day where this sexually abusive behavior by men is shrugged off or normalized. There was a particularly crushing scene in Girl Made of Stars where Mara wears an outfit to school that is deemed inappropriate by her male principal, and she is promptly suspended for “not dressing like a lady”. This incident occurs while her brother, who has been accused of rape, enjoys the support and solidarity of his family and friends.

I could go on about the myriad of instances both small and large that Blake illustrates in her novel and how each one resonated with me and my experiences as a woman. Several of her character’s are also dealing with issues of sexuality and gender nonconformity which helps to paint a more inclusive portrait of a modern day teenager’s experience in high school.

By the time I finished the last page and closed the covers on Girl Made of Stars, I felt wrung out. I was equal parts despairing and hopeful, enraged and uplifted. I would absolutely recommend this novel.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Girl Made of Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

 

Ten Amazing Books to Take on a Camping Trip

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I absolutely love camping. Every year I await the chance to get away from all the noise and crowds of the city and just drive into the middle of nowhere for a week. My husband and I are avid campers who are both from “indoor” families. Growing up, my mother’s idea of camping would have been a night at the Motel 8. I think part of that may have been because we already lived in the country, where open space, fresh air, and solitude were readily available. As much as I adore living in the Toronto area, I feel more at home in the country.

My husband and I generally go camping rather early in the season, around the end of June. This means that the temperatures average in the low twenties (70*F). For comparison, today it was 33* (93*F) in my Midwestern hometown.  There are numerous benefits to camping at the start of summer in Canada. First of all, schools are still in session so we don’t have to deal with hoards of families crowding the area. We’re both teachers, so our vacations generally mean trying to avoid small children as much as possible. Also, the insects haven’t had the chance to truly come out in force. And my remarkably Day-Glo pale skin has a better chance of avoiding a blistering sunburn. There are a myriad of benefits to camping in cool weather.

Nevertheless, it does have its drawbacks, mainly in that it isn’t exactly bathing suit season yet. This year we are headed to the Bruce Peninsula, near Lake Huron. If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Dawson felt when he went into the waters with the Titanic, take a quick dip in Lake Huron in June. Due to the cooler temperatures, recreational swimming isn’t really an option. Instead, we spend our time kayaking, naming the squirrels that invade our campsite, drinking beer, and reading.

The reading is what has most likely brought you to this post. As I would hate to become one of those horrid cooking blogs which feel the need to bore you with two thousand words of personal nonsense before giving you what you came for, let’s get to the books!

I’ve put together a list of ten books that would be perfect for reading around a campfire or while relaxing in a tent on a rainy day. The first five are all horror novels, because being scared in the woods is fun for everyone. The next five are more family-friendly, in case you don’t want your children waking up at three in the morning because a stick cracked in the darkness and they’re certain it was a beast from the depths of hell.

1) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

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Nine year old Trisha is separated from her family while hiking in the woods of northern New England. Lost for days, dehydrated and scared, Trisha relies on her small radio for solace, tuning into the Boston Red Sox and her hero, pitcher Tom Gordon. But hunger and insects aren’t Trisha’s only problems. Something is stalking the small girl as she wanders through the forest. Something hungry and unnatural.

No list of horror novels is complete without at least one addition from Stephen King . This book is short (for King), atmospheric, and draws on the readers’ fear of the small noises that seem huge when you’re alone in the dark woods.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Keep on the path!

2) The Ritual by Adam Nevill

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A group of four middle-aged men reunite for a hiking trip in the wilds of northern Sweden. When they attempt to take a shortcut through a patch of untouched forest, they find more than they bargained for.

This novel was on my list of favorite books that I read last year. It is a masterpiece of suspense and dread as the four men realize that their formerly fit bodies are beginning to betray them, and they are unable to outrun that which is hunting them.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: If you see a creepy cabin in the middle of the woods, keep walking!

3) The Ruins by Scott Smith

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Hoping to find a lost friend in the jungles of Mexico, four friends stumble upon an ancient ruin and a creeping horror instead. As they become increasingly hungry and panicked, paranoia and hysteria begin to set in.

This novel is also a really great horror film by the same name. It is a creepy combination of psychological and physical horror. What is more dangerous, the jungle or each other?

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Don’t touch unidentified plants! 

4) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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Five short stories centered around the woods and the horrors within, combined with truly disturbing illustrations.

I wrote a review for this graphic novel just a few weeks ago, and I still can’t get it out of my head. The haunting prose and unsettling drawings come together to create a really creepy reading experience.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Curiosity killed the camper!

5) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

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A collection of short folktakes from around the world. This is still a favorite with older and braver children, and continues to send shivers up the spine of many an adult. Make sure you get an edition with the original artwork by Stephen Gammell, as they are an integral part of this reading experience!

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Close your eyes and hope for the best.

 

6) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

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The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and is a bucket-list item for any avid hiker. Bill Bryson is not an avid hiker, yet he and an equally unfit companion set off to complete the AT in the course of one summer. Bryson details the ecology and history of the area as well as his encounters with the local people and wildlife.

Not so long ago, the Appalachian Trail was a relatively unknown area of the United States, favored only by experienced backpackers and campers. From what I hear, it is now overridden by idiot hipsters who think a hiking GPS makes them an expert. This book is a fun expedition through the woods from someone who knows the does not belong there.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: A sense of humor is essential.

7) Hatchet by Gary Paulson

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This ever-popular children’s novella centers on a boy named Brian who finds himself stranded in the wilderness of Northern Canada after his bush-plane crashes. Armed with only a small hatchet, Brian must find a way to survive until he can be rescued.

Hatchet has been a hit with people of all ages for more than thirty years because we as readers identify so strongly with Brian. His early cluelessness and mistakes are the results of a boy growing up away from nature, as so many of us do. This would be a fun novel to read with children.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Never give up.

8) The Call of the Wild by Jack London

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Buck the dog is kidnapped from his easygoing life in Santa Clara and forced into work as a sled dog in the unforgiving winter of the Yukon. Faced with constant danger from the climate, the wildlife, and the cruelty of both his fellow dogs and man, Buck must struggle to survive and reclaim his position as master.

Another book that is very popular with young readers, The Call of the Wild is an enduring story of survival and spirit. Because the main character is a dog, he is easy to root for and we celebrate Buck’s victories as much as we weep for his setbacks.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Be kind to animals.

9) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Laura Ingalls and her family live in a small wood cabin in the forests of Wisconsin in the mid 18th century. This book describes the struggle and successes of the Ingalls family as they work hard to make a life for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Eternally beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder as captured the imaginations of generations of children with her Little House books. They are a good reminder of how much the world has changed, and yet how many things remain the same.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Your family is there to love and protect you.

10) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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In the dense forests of medieval Russia, a small village is buried in snow for eight months out of the year. Vasilisa Petrovna grows up wild in the woods, giving offerings to the various sprites and spirits that inhabit the wilderness. When a Catholic priest begins to interfere with village life, Vasilisa must make a choice that will affect her entire future.

I reviewed this novel earlier in the year and I absolutely adored it. A dark fairy tale with religious undertones, The Bear and the Nightingale features a wonderful protagonist who never behaves quite as expected.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Well there you have it, folks! I hope that you enjoy some of these books on your next venture into the forests. Whether you are looking for a scare or for more tame entertainment, you can’t go wrong with a good book! I’ll be on hiatus next week while I am on a camping trip. I hope to return with more recommendations for our readers who love the woods.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (2014)

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Review #53

 

This graphic novel consists of five eerie short stories, all centered in some way around the woods and the terrors that lie within. Written and illustrated by Emily Carroll, she invites us to take a walk through the woods, but beware of what we may find in the darkness.

I have a strange love affair with the macabre. From the time I was very young, I’ve been drawn to the dark and scary things in life. I’m well versed in the world of horror films, novels, and podcasts, but Through the Woods represents my first foray into the world of horror-themed graphic novels. Needless to say, I’ve been thoroughly hooked. I’m already on the prowl for more graphic novels like this one.

Part of what makes Emily Carroll’s collection of short stories so mesmerizing is that she uses very simple language to convey a sense of dread and suspense. I always feel that horror writers have a tendency to go into too much detail about their various dreadful creatures. This bogs the narrative down and doesn’t leave enough room for that feeling of unease to creep in. Carroll takes inspiration from the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson. She keeps her sentences short and to the point, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, understanding that a person will always draw the conclusion which they fear the most.

Then there are the illustrations. While the narrative structure of the story was haunting in a subtle and lyrical way, the pictures are genuinely unsettling. I found myself staring at each individual panel for long moments, trying to soak in every single aspect. As a newcomer to the horror genre of graphic novels, I was surprised by how powerful the graphics were at provoking a reaction. I would not have pictured the events of Through the Woods in the same way that there are depicted in Carroll’s illustrations. Reading these stories in graphic novel form was like crawling inside of someone else’s brain for a few hours. The brain of a brilliant and disturbing individual.

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Source

 

If you’re a fan of the horror genre, I would absolutely recommend this book. I am already sad that I had to return it to the library, as I wanted the chance to re-read it and look more closely at the illustrated panels. In the future, I’m going to keep my eye out for more graphic novels like this one.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Through the Woods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book vs Film: Ready Player One

 

Last week I sat down in my living room to watch Ready Player One. Twenty minutes in I was ready to throw in the towel, but decided to stick out the two-hour running time in the hopes that things might improve.

 

Things did not improve.

 

As soon as the credits rolled, I picked up my copy of Ernest Cline’s novel and began to read it for the third time in the hopes of scrubbing the events of the evening out of my mind. I began taking notes as I read, trying to pinpoint the exact reasons why I found myself so enraged by Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the book. In no specific order, here are my thoughts on Ready Player One the film vs the novel. I would recommend either watching the film or reading the book before viewing this review. Spoilers abound.

1. It was like watching  a completely different story. Prior to watching, I had been told by several people that the movie was relatively enjoyable as long as you didn’t expect it to follow the book too closely. I took that to mean that there would be minor plot points that varied from the books in order to make the film flow a bit smoother. For example, in the Harry Potter films, it makes sense that they chose to omit certain characters and most of the Quidditch games; if they hadn’t every movie would be a long rambling mess. However, Spielberg seems to have taken the original source material for Cline’s novel, ripped out approximately thirty pages of it and used that to build his narrative. The heart of Ready Player One was completely lost in translation.

2. The opening scene did not instill me with confidence. During the exposition of the film, instead of a series of puzzles that require the characters to rely on their intelligence and problem-solving skills, we are treated to a twenty minute action sequence. There are giant dinosaurs, King Kong, and countless CGI explosions that must be navigated for the heroes in order to make it through the first gate. Right away, I could see that something had gone horribly wrong. The film leaves out the equal playing field that James Halliday set up for all the users of OASIS. In the novel, he placed the Copper Key on a planet where a) everyone had free and unlimited access to travel and b) violence was not permitted. This essentially meant that no matter how strong and high-ranking your avatar , the only thing that would allow you to reach the first key was your wit and your obsessive knowledge of obscure pop culture. In the film, all of that has been replaced with yet another generic car chase.

3. Spielberg missed the point of the Easter Egg hunt. Speaking of obscure pop culture, let’s talk about that. Ernest Cline’s novel delved so deeply into the realm of 1980’s music, television, film, and video games that one would need a submersible to follow after him. While reading the book, I found myself having to Google Japanese anime from the 1970’s. I had to familiarize myself with the fundamentals of text-based video games. When Wade or one of his fellow gunters finally solved one of the riddles, it was  genuinely impressive, because who the has the energy to devote their time and energy so completely to learning about this stuff? How many people can read a limerick and understand that it is referencing the limited edition cover of a thirty year old video game? In the novel, the difficulties that Parzival, Art3mis, and Aech face are actually difficult. When watching the film, all I saw was the growing trend of referencing things in a nostalgic way so that viewers will feel smart when they understand the references. Literally everyone watching the film knows the Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park. Or the Iron Giant. Or a DeLorean. There’s no challenge there. Spielberg dumbed down the pop culture references to the point where my six year old nephew could have found Halliday’s egg. It seems like he was so afraid of alienating any part of his audience, perhaps specifically the overseas audience, that he was unwilling to take even the smallest risk. Instead he chose to pander to the lowest common denominator.

4. He also missed the point of all the pop culture references. Let’s keep talking about pop culture. As I mentioned earlier, it takes a certain kind of individual to commit themselves so entirely towards one goal. In the novel, Parzival notes that he has seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail something like 178 times. He’s beaten every classic video game. He’s watched every episode of every season of every series that was even remotely popular in the 1980’s. Multiple times. Who does that? Answer – a person who has become mentally unhinged. What Ready Player One fails to truly depict is that the people searching for Halliday’s Egg are deeply unhealthy individuals. Outside of the OASIS, where your avatar can be as handsome, fit, and powerful as the you wish, the actual people are described as overweight, sallow, and anti-social. Ernest Cline’s novel can be seen as a cautionary tale against people living their entire lives in a virtual reality. The film does attempt to address this by having the main characters interact in the real world far sooner than in the book, but at the end of the day this is still Hollywood. Wade isn’t exactly a fashion model, but he’s reasonably healthy and good-looking, and does not seem to be crippled by the type of shyness that exists when you never interact with a person in a real environment. Same goes for the other characters. For a group of people who live their entire lives in isolation, they’re remarkably well-rounded.

5. He missed the point of the entire book. My biggest problem with Spielberg’s interpretation of Ready Player One is that the stakes just don’t seem that high. Parzival and his fellow gunters are searching for the egg so they can get rich. There’s also the situation with the “Sixers” who are trying to find the egg so that they can use the OASIS to make a lot of money by selling advertising space and charging fees for users. This is all very sad and capitalistic and greedy. But also, so what? It would be like if everyone who was currently online went to digital war over net neutrality. If we won, awesome. But if we lost, it’s shitty but it’s not the end of the world. The film fails to convey the novel’s premise that the global society we now know and enjoy has fallen apart. Global warming is causing widespread famine. The rural parts of America are lawless Mad Max style wastelands. People are being sold into indentured servitude for failing to pay their bills. And in the midst of all this poverty, hunger, and destitution is an escape from reality in the land of the OASIS. Not only that, but it offers free school for the entire nation. Let me repeat that. It offers free school for the entire nation. So in Cline’s novel when Parzival and the others explain that if the Sixers get the egg it will have a drastic and negative impact on society as a whole, we as readers understand the stakes. In the film it comes across more like a millennial wet dream of sticking it to the man. To be fair, Spielberg includes the scene where Sorrento and his cronies blow up Wade’s housing unit and kill hundreds of people. But the scene has absolutely zero emotional weight because not five minutes later we are introduced to Samantha and the resistance and no one stops for even a moment to grieve for the lives lost. The romantic subplot of the novel becomes the driving force of the film. Other significant deaths from the book are omitted entirely, which only underlines the fact that Spielberg was willing to take absolutely no risks with his nice, safe, family-friendly motion picture. The final battle has all the urgency and intensity of a boss-fight in a video game. It’s frustrating if you lose, but it’s not the end of the world.

6. On a lighter note… I’ve ragged a lot on the film, so I need to take just a second to talk about the few aspects that didn’t piss me off. The scene that took place in The Shining was visually amazing. Implausible, since Aech would most definitely have been aware of the the film’s plot-line, but it looked really cool. Crap, turns out I can’t even give a compliment without unintentionally back-handing it. The movie looked very…expensive? I did like the gravity-free dance sequence. Okay I give up.

A friend recommended Ready Player One to me a few years ago, and I became an overnight fan. The book is fun, inventive, smart, and exciting. When I heard that the film was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, I immediately felt uneasy. To be honest, I haven’t trusted Spielberg or his artistic vision since he Crystal Skull-fucked the Indiana Jones series. So there was definitely an element of bias when I sat down to watch Ready Player One last week. At the same time, I did try to give it a fair shot. In the end, I was remarkably disappointed. I do not think I will be re-watching that film any time soon. And to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, I cannot recommend the novel highly enough.

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

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Review #45

London: 1946. The war is finally over, and Britain is trying to put herself back together after the horrors of the blitz. Journalist Juliet Ashton begins exchanging letters with the residents of Guernsey, who are enjoying communication with the wider world after five years of German occupation. As she learns more about them, she begins to be drawn into their lives. Beginning as a mutual love of books, she soon learns all about their island, their relationships, and the impact that the war has left on each of them.

There are so many historical fiction novels that center on World War II and its aftermath. Most of them focus on the horrors of the time period, and the grimBook Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017) determination of the people who struggled to survive its ravages. Given the scarring that World War II left on the collective consciousness of humanity, this does not come as any surprise. What does surprise is when I stumble across a novel like Guernsey Literary Society, which has the potential to be just another look at the bleak circumstances faced by the residents of the occupied Channel Islands but instead manages to be funny, uplifting, and utterly charming.

Mary Ann Shaffer’s epistolary novel does not shy away from describing in detail the hardships undergone by the people of Guernsey. The constant fear and hunger of German occupation are given full attention, and the reader is never in doubt as to the difficulties that these people have had to overcome during the course of the war. However, Shaffer writes her characters with an irrepressible sense of humor that shines through the pages of the book. Small things, such as discovering how the group chose the highly unusual name for their book club cannot help but bring a chuckle even though the characters are in very real danger at the time.  Shaffer details the small victories, triumphs, and friendships that allowed the residents of Guernsey to survive the presence of the soldiers on their island. In a lesser novel these characters may have been described as “plucky” or “quirky”. But Shaffer fleshes them out and gives them distinct personalities which blend together seamlessly to create the picture of a group of people who banded together during a dark time and are sticking together as they rebuild.

If I had to point out one small flaw in this novel, it would be that Shaffer treats the writing of letters rather like the sending of text messages. I cannot envision that someone would send letters back and forth to friends and colleagues multiple times a day, or that these messages would consist of only one or two sentences. How are these messages winging through London or across the English Channel with such speed?

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

This is a book for book lovers, and as a lifelong book lover I found myself completely delighted and enthralled by The Guernsey Literary Society. The main plot of the story begins as two strangers discuss the works of English poet Charles Lamb. Although I haven’t read any of Lamb’s work, I immediately felt comfortable with the two characters who find themselves drawn to one another in order to discuss their favorite section and passages of a book. I have made lifelong friends in much the same way.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy Reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2) by Katherine Arden (2017)

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Review #36

 

Orphaned and ostracized by her community after her encounter with the Bear, Vasilisa Petrovna flees her village. She is now faced with the only two options available to a Russian maiden, allowing her sister to arrange a marriage to a strange noblemen or retiring to a convent. Scorning either, Vasilisa dresses as a boy in the hopes of traveling outside of Russia and seeing the world. But a chance encounter with a group of bandits in the forest finds her in the service of the Crown Prince of Moscow. Now she must carefully guard her secret even as a larger threat begins to loom over the kingdom.

I reviewed the first installment in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, last month and absolutely loved it. Author Katherine Arden created a stunning world of deep winter and deep magic. The heroine Vasilisa was a lovely mixture of vulnerability and defiance. Overall, I was enchanted by the world that Arden wrote and eagerly awaited the second novel in her Winternight trilogy. I was definitely not disappointed.

While The Bear and the Nightingale was a dark and lyrical fairy tale, The Girl in the Tower is a little more plot-driven. Vasilisa Petrovna exits the cold and cloistered village of her childhood and bursts into the wider world with equal parts determination and naivety. This is a girl who considers a tiny mountain town to be a “city” because it has wooden walls. You can imagine her surprise when she is finally presented to the city of Moscow. There are numerous action sequences in this novel, all of which unfold in a straightforward and easy to follow manner. Too many fantasy and fairy tales rely heavily on deux ex machina and surprise plot twists. Katherine Arden avoids all of this.

But Arden also does not stray far what made Nightingale so enchanting. The numerous Russian spirits still play a major role in the proceedings, as do ghosts, frost demons, and one very opinionated horse. Together they form a world that I was excited to revisit and reluctant to leave.

Also, major props go to illustrator Robert Hunt for yet another gorgeous cover design.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Girl in the Tower here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.