Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #26: Danse Macabre by Stephen King

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I’ll keep this one succinct. Danse Macabre is 300 pages of Stephen King rambling on aimlessly about the genre he works almost exclusively in, horror. Naturally, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to draw his own work into the larger discussion he’s attempting to have, a habit which can border on the narcissistic at times.

He also succumbs to long bouts of summary, recounting the events of books and movies in excruciating enough detail that I hardly feel the need to indulge him and read/watch them myself. These are not without shreds of analysis here and there, but nothing that’s said hits me as especially thoughtful.

Still, King as always writes with a conversational tone that I find hard not to get wrapped up in, and there are some salient points to be had. Honestly, though, it’s dependent upon your stance on King. I like to say he’s my favorite author, and even I found my eyes glazing over at times. So if you find his style off-putting, or even if the jury’s still out, approach with extreme caution. To everyone else I just say, don’t expect another On Writing.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #25: The Sandman, Vol. 4: The Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman

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In my exploration of Neil Gaiman, I’d let The Sandman slip by the wayside despite the series being three-for-three. So at the start of this, the fourth volume, I felt noticeably out of touch with the world he had so carefully constructed.

Yet while I couldn’t tell you how we’d arrived at this point in the story, I found it didn’t much matter. Gaiman has invented a band of characters who work with or without prior knowledge and the context that comes along with.

Each volume could serve as the first, with readers getting an unobtrusive refresher on who the main players are at one point or another in all of them.

Except that’s not his only means of fleshing them out. The images his band of artists have produced for him tell you as much as the words he’s written to go alongside.

Furthermore, The Season of Mists functions just as well as a stand-alone. Yes, knowing the back story, namely how Morpheus’ former lover came to be imprisoned by him in Hell, helps matters, but Gaiman slips in all of the most pertinent details in case you’ve forgotten or are a newcomer to the series.

Also, when looked at as a stand-alone, it is rather alluring; Lucifer abandons Hell, gives Morpheus the key, and he then has to entertain a bevy of supernatural beings, most of them gods, all of whom want that key (and Hell) for themselves.

If they were ever to adapt the series and could film only one, The Season of Mists would be my choice of the ones I’ve read. Bring on Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins to reprise their roles as Thor, Loki, and Odin and you would think that marketing it would be an easy proposition.

You also would have to think the breadth of material the series encompasses is all that’s stalled it from making the jump to film. That and budgetary concerns; with so wide an array of characters, and the supernatural nature of the series, it would likely require a budget on par with The Avengers.

A Tales of the Black Freighter-esque adaptation is more realistic, and I hope we’ll at least be allowed that much. But the art on display in The Season of Mists is satiating enough for me to not be too concerned either way. And I’m speaking of the writing as well as the illustrated panels.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #28: Prodigy by Marie Lu

ProdigyI was a bit disappointed by this one. Not that it was bad necessarily, just not what I wanted. It fell into a bunch of traps I was so happy Lu avoided in book one.

Prodigy is the second novel in the Legend trilogy by Marie Lu (yes, yet another YA trilogy — the entire universe will apparently collapse on itself if a YA author were to publish a stand-alone). She started writing it after wondering what a modern day Les Miserables might look like — specifically the bit with a supposed criminal being chased by a noble law enforcer – but it went to a way different place after that. Her world is set in the future, not sure how far yet, but apparently long enough for global warming to have caused massive flooding in the US, which in turn caused a social upheaval that ended with the county split in two. Our two heroes live in the Western half of the country, which is essentially a military superstate called the Republic. June is the titular prodigy, a military wunderkind who graduated college at the age of fifteen and who was being groomed for greatness in the Republic’s upper echelons. Day is also a prodigy of a sort: a prodigious thief and troublemaker. When the series started, Day was an anonymous Robin Hood sort of figure the state (and thus June) was bent on identifying.

But that was book one. If you read any further in this review, please note that I am going to hardcore spoil Legend for you.

Legend saw June and Day meet unbeknownst to each other’s true identities, fall in lurrrve, betray one another, and then get back together again when June inevitably realized the State is not the beautiful idealistic machine she thought it was. It was fun and fast and didn’t take itself too seriously. Prodigy picks up right where Legend left off, with June and Day on the run, heading to Las Vegas to meet up with the Patriots, a rebel group supposedly out to unite the two halves of the former United States once again. They would head for the border if it weren’t for Day’s little brother being captive in the hands of the Republic. So they strike a deal with The Patriots. In exchange for their, er, services, The Patriots will help Day find and save his little brother. Things go pear-shaped from there.

I originally gave this book four stars but it’s since lost a little bit of its luster in my memory. It took a pretty serious turn, which was a problem for me as part of the appeal of the first one was how fun it was. It also introduced a damn love triangle. Actually, wait. Love QUADRANGLE. On top of the quadrangling, Lu made both Day and June think those dumb thoughts only really hackneyed writers make their characters think: Oh, why does he/she love me? I’m not good enough! How can I ever compare! He/she would be better off without me! I hate that so much. And because of all that, the cliched storytelling that I pretty much ignored in the first one because of the pace and how fun it was caught up to me this time. It was a significantly less fun reading experience.

Still, it was pretty neat how fast Lu races through her story, so at least the parts that were predictable or cliche didn’t linger long. Prodigy ends in a place I thought it wouldn’t hit maybe until the middle of book three. Parts of the story were even surprising and moving (unfortunately not the majority). Plus half a star for having prose that doesn’t sound like it was written by a ten year old, and for distinguishing stylistically between the voices of her two narrators.

[3.5 stars]

Fancypants42′s #CBRV Review #11: Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett

ImageThings the Grandchildren Should Know is the memoir of the lead singer of The Eels, Mark Oliver Everett, or more colloquially known as E. I’ve been a fan of the band for a long time so I was excited to read about his life and journey. The Eels are really less a band and more just a name for E and his collaborators, as those change frequently.

The tone of the book was really conversational. I felt like E was hanging out and telling me stories about his life, like we go way back and he was confiding in me all of these things that had happened to him. It’s really surreal when a singer/songwriter you revere slowly becomes this real person as his personal life story unfolds via audiobook.

Speaking of the audiobook, his bandmate/guitarist The Chet was the narrator of the audiobook. E also incorporated song lyrics into various sections of the book, and The Chet played guitar and sang them as they occurred, which was a bonus from the paper version of the book. It was an extra insight into the music and soul of E that I wouldn’t have gotten had I just read the book.

The book was interesting (and devastating) at times, learning about the life events that inspired so many of the songs that I love. Given what inspired more than a few of them, I was curious about my favorites that weren’t mentioned in the book – Manchild, You’ll Be the Scarecrow, etc. If such amazing and sad life events informed all the other songs that I also love, what informed these others? I can’t even imagine.

The book is sad, poignant, funny, full of heart and hope, powerful, depressing, uplifting and above all – inspirational. I don’t think E set out to write an inspirational tale and knowing him from this book would be shocked to be referred to as inspirational. But he was. All of it was. He’s an introvert who figured out how to come into his own, how to both accept himself and express himself in ways that a fellow introvert can only admire. He not only learns how to function in this world but he also thrives and overcomes so much loss. He stayed true to who he really is, without ever sacrificing his own ideals. I envy that. And I respect him so much more than I already did. I can only aspire to be that comfortable in my own skin.

I continue to love E’s music and I worship his lyrics. Now I know where his depth and talent actually come from and why he writes the way he does. I would love a sequel to this book, a next chapter in E’s life, as this was written five years ago. I still haven’t gotten to see E in concert but it is most definitely on my bucket list.

Fancypants42′s #CBRV Review #10: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

4981Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut was only the second Vonnegut book I’ve read. (I read Timequake several years ago.) For some reason I’d always known of this book but never had a clear picture of what it was about. My younger self, having read the sub or alternate title The Children’s Crusade, imagined a group of five kids known as the Slaughterhouse Five, who were up to antics in wartime. Reading the description on the back about a time traveler didn’t really clear things up any. So I essentially went into this book with zero idea of what to expect, and not even a solid idea of what it means to read Vonnegut, having only read him once. I was startled by what I discovered in this book – the story of Billy Pilgrim, time traveler (or crazy person), World War 2 veteran and family man. His was not an easy life, but it was his experience in the bombing of Dresden, while living in the fifth slaughterhouse, that really shaped him. He might tell you it was his abduction by the Tralfamadorians that shaped him, but from an outsider’s perspective, I think it was Dresden.
There was a lot of anti-war sentiment in this book but not in the sense of WAR IS BAD DON’T DO IT. It was more hey, be aware of the effect war has on its soldiers, especially the young ones. Be aware that when you bomb an enemy city, a lot of civilians get in the way. It was interesting the route Vonnegut took to get to these points – via alien abduction and mental instability, but of course both were completely part of his point.
“So it goes” was repeated in the book more times than I could count. Usually after the author was relating yet another sad/bad/upsetting/depressing/that’s life sort of event. It was almost like the author was reminding us that things happen, but life goes on and not to dwell on any one particular tragedy of the many that were conveyed in this book. Vonnegut follows up this sentiment with “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”, as the epitaph Billy wants on his tombstone. It’s an interesting sort of juxtaposition to “So it goes”, because it’s not a metaphorical shrug at life. It’s a phrase that embraces life. It wasn’t that bad, it was good and beautiful and not full of pain, which isn’t really true unless you’re quite the optimist. But it’s thought-provoking just the same. What if we could all look back at life that way from our graves and say that everything WAS beautiful, that pain wasn’t really pain, just life? Would we be that much better for it?
I liked the way the narrative bounced around in Billy’s timeline because I never really had any idea where the book was going to go next – to Billy’s zoo-home on Tralfamadore? To his satisfactory marriage to Valencia? Back to Dresden and the war? Obviously this was not a linear book and there was no way to know where/when/how it would end. How does the life of a self-proclaimed time traveler end? I couldn’t wait to find out, but I didn’t want to rush the journey either. Given that this wasn’t a long book, it didn’t take very long to get to the ending, but I honestly enjoyed every step of the way. This isn’t my favorite of all the books I’ve read, but it was the first one in a while that really had me thinking deep thoughts and wanting to go back and flip through the pages for notes and anecdotes to discuss with friends.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #8: The Story of O by Pauline Réage

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It’s easy to see why the Story of O was controversial and scandalous. It is a sexually graphic, sadomasochistic novel that was published under a pseudonym in the 1950s. For decades readers and critics speculated on the author’s identity and debated the meaning of the novel. And then, in 1994 a British journalist revealed the author’s identity, a French woman named Dominique Aury. That Aury, a refined, professional woman, could write such a novel only fueled the controversy.

Discrediting most theories about the book, Aury claimed the novel was simply a response to a challenge. She wrote the book when Jean Paulhan, her married lover who was a fan of the Marquis de Sade, claimed women couldn’t write erotica. Aury set out to prove him wrong and the result was the Story of O. Aury didn’t intend to publish the book but wanted to write her version of a love letter in which she played on the fantasies of Paulhan and the unfounded beliefs that women didn’t share those fantasies.

In short, the book is about O, a French woman who is brought to Roissy, a chateau-like brothel, by her lover René. There she is trained to sexually serve the members of an elite group of men.

After training that involves gang rape, sodomy, bondage and flagellation, she is reunited with René, who promptly gives her to Sir Stephen. Eventually O falls in love with Sir Stephen and agrees to become his, meaning she consents to being branded (literally) and pierced with his insignia. As his property, she is expected to succumb to him and his friends at any time. When Sir Stephen decides she needs more training he takes her to Samois, where she is sexually and physically abused and mutilated to become a better servant. Despite her complete subservience, she is abandoned by both René and Sir Stephen. In the end O realizes she is about to be abandoned and asks Sir Stephen if she can commit suicide and he consents.

Obviously the Story of O is criticized as misogynistic. It’s true O doesn’t seem empowered. She is never in control of her situations. She is told how to dress, bathe, sit, sleep, eat and talk. She is expected to succumb to anyone her owner chooses. “At the first word or sign from anyone you will drop whatever you are doing and ready yourself for what is really your one and only duty: to lend yourself.” In the end she is abandoned and suicidal because her owners no longer find her valuable.

But ultimately it is O who controls the pleasure of the men she serves. It’s control by servitude. To her, it isn’t abuse, it’s pleasure. She admits the restraint, “which should have bound her deep within herself, which should have smothered her, strangled her, on the contrary freed her from herself.” She finds value and dignity in what most people consider degrading and oppressive. “That she should have been ennobled and gained in dignity through being prostituted was a source of surprise, and yet dignity was indeed the right term.”

At possibly the lowest point of the book, O has an epiphany in which “she has finally come to accept as an undeniable and important verity …. She liked the idea of torture, but when she was being tortured herself she would have betrayed the whole world to escape it, and yet when it was over she was happy to have gone through it, happier still if it had been especially cruel and prolonged.” To her it is no different from Christians serving a vengeful God. She “considered herself fortunate to count enough in his eyes for him to derive pleasure from offending her, as believers give thanks to God for humbling them.”

I found the book alternately repulsive and compelling. It’s graphic but the writing is succinct and graceful, almost elegant. Yes, there are passages that will make you blush. And passages that will make you grimace. If you finish it, you will probably feel a little dirty. It may not be an enjoyable read but it’s certainly an interesting one. Truth be told, it was hard to put down.

If you read the book, I highly recommend the documentary the Writer of O. It uses interviews, film footage and movie clips to give context to the book and its controversy, and I think it fosters a greater appreciation of the book and its author. Its depiction of Aury is sympathetic and favorable, and if the documentary is to be trusted I believe she truly set out to write a passionate story for her lover and was surprised by the fervor that resulted. Even though the interview was many years ago, what she says is provocative and relevant today: “When a woman writes an erotic book, it’s an outright scandal. I feel that, underlying that, this kind of judgment is an absurd esteem for female morality. Women are as immoral as men, period. No one seems to have noticed that.”

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #8: The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

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I had high hopes for this book. I haven’t seen Lawless (despite being so in love with Tom Hardy it keeps me awake at night), but liked the thought of a true story about boot-legging brothers during the prohibition, and it was in the Kindle spring sale. Sadly, I was to be disappointed. I knew I was in trouble straight away when I saw that this was the kind of book that’s too edgy to use speech marks.

The boot-legging Bondurants are three brothers trying to earn a living running liquor in 1920s and 30s Virginia. The third person narrative shifts between their story from 1928 onwards, and the experience of (real-life) writer Sherwood Anderson as he tries to put meat to the bones of the Bondurant legend in 1934. This is a confusing and unnecessary device, which isn’t helped by the lack of dating of some chapters. I imagine it was supposed to build some kind of tension, putting the brothers on a collision course with corrupt law enforcement. It really doesn’t work.

The brothers are one-dimensional characters at best. Jack is a coward who shies away from bloody work on their father’s farm, while the intense Forrest plays with carvings his grandfather made of mutilated Confederate soldiers. They’re hard-drinking tough men, who of course have fantastically beautiful women in love with them. Forrest has his throat cut, is shot and crushed in a logging accident and still he refuses to die, like a hill billy Rasputin.

The writing is clumsy and awkward. At one point Bondurant Senior is described as ‘grinning through his beard’ twice in three pages, at another the tense shifts from present to past in the course of one sentence. The most frustrating thing is that when Bondurant writes in his own voice in the Author’s Note, his style is simple and direct. When he’s not trying (and failing) to be John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy’s bastard love child, his voice is alright. It’s a shame he tried so hard. At one point in the novel, a character’s attention starts to wander, I can only sympathise.

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #6: How To Get Into The Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

Sara reviewed this last year and sent it on to me after I expressed an interest. Given that we live on different continents, that was quite a sweet gesture! Her review is probably a bit more focussed on the literary bit, whereas for me, this hits somewhat closer to home, and I’ll try to make sense of it in this review.
How To Get Into The Twin Palms is the story of Anya, a young woman born in Poland, but raised in America. After a childhood spent furiously trying to be, or at least be perceived as, American, she is now bored with both the restrictive culture of her parents’ home and life in L.A., where she lives in a Russian neighbourhood and struggles to survive on unemployment benefits. Trying to fit in somewhere, she is drawn to the Twin Palms, a club for the better-off Russians of L.A.. In an attempt to gain access to this exclusive club, she starts an affair with Lev, who might or might not be involved in criminal activities.
The story itself is quite depressing in that Anya seems deeply unhappy and barely objects to Lev treating her as a commodity. There isn’t much that excites her (she picks Lev only because he’s Russian and reacts to her attempts at flirtation), and soon it becomes clear that the Twin Palms won’t be the fulfillment she dreams of. It’s a short novel, so Anya doesn’t get much chance to grow or even just be portrayed in a sympathetic way. We never get to know her name, having been told in the beginning that she chooses “Anya” for its Russian vibe. What we get is a short glimpse of the life of a woman unsure of her place in the world, and this is what makes this novel interesting and very touching.
There are many things in this novel that are familiar to me. My husband is from Poland, and from a few visits to the country alone I can relate to Anya’s thoughts about family traditions, local food and – the uncomfortable highlight of any Polish road trip – the sight of prostitutes and grannies selling mushrooms in the forests. But the thing that immediately got me was the start of an early chapter: “What I am is always the first question”. It is. I’m German, I’ve lived in Britain for 8 years, and I’ve made my peace with this question now. It’s almost never a sign of resentment or distrust, it might even be genuine excitement about meeting someone even the tiniest bit exotic, but it still stings. It’s never “What do you do?” or “Do you like [insert topic of discussion]?” Sometimes it’s not even “And what’s your name?” It’s the fact that in some way, I don’t belong. Like Anya, I’m not completely comfortable with my cultural heritage, and I’d gladly masquerade as something else for a while, but like Anya, I lack the language skills. (I will never pass as Polish, even though I’m halfway there by virtue of my marriage, because that language is IMPOSSIBLE! Erhem.) But most days I’m fine. I have become many things; I’ve been made welcome by a lot of people, and I will always rock in quizzes that ask questions about obscure German traditions. My children, I am told again and again, will benefit from their many backgrounds and language skills. But even that worries me. Will my daughter feel like Anya, never truly at home in any of her cultures? She’s only 4, but I’ve heard people comment on her (very slight) German accent more than once. Her German sounds British. Her Polish is that of a toddler. For me, she’s a genius, and these are the things that make her special. Will it still be a positive thing when she’s grown up? At some point in the book, Lev tells Anya she speaks Polish like a child. I felt her pain jumping off the page. These are the things that ocassionally keep me up at night…
There is a lot more going on in How To Get Into The Twin Palms than what actually happens in 190 pages. And while some might argue that the plot is a bit slight, I read a lot more between the lines than I thought I would. And now I need a good Polish vodka.

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #7: The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

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The Folded Leaf tells the story of two boys growing up together in 1920s Chicago. Lymie is successful at school but quiet, shy and physically weak. Spud, on the other hand, is everything Lymie isn’t. Confident and detached, he more than makes up for his struggles in class with his athletic prowess. He’s never met a boy he can’t best in a fight, and more to the point he’s not scared to start one. From the moment their paths cross at a swimming class at school, Lymie is Spud’s devoted acolyte. As the novel charts their progress through high school to university, Lymie’s feelings for Spud deepen into an unnamed love, which manifests itself as an inseparable friendship. When Lymie introduces Spud to Sally Forbes and the two fall in love, almost unbearable strains are placed upon their relationship.

As a modern-day reader, it’s impossible to not to comment on the homo-erotic element of the story, although I understand this wasn’t a consideration when the book was published. While it is possible to read their friendship as just that, the worshipful and physical sides of Lymie and Spud’s relationship are undeniable. Part of Lymie’s routine is watching Spud work out in the college gym, patiently waiting to untie his gloves and unwrap his hands. This is a religious experience for him. They sleep together in their student house, ostensibly to save money and keep warm, but when Spud returns from an absence: ‘Lymie lay back on the wave of happiness and was supported by it. The bed had grown warm all around him. Spud’s breathing deepened and became slower…Lymie, stretched out beside him, wished that it were possible to die, with this fullness in his heart for which there were no words and couldn’t ever be.’

Maxwell’s writing is intelligent, thoughtful and accomplished. His descriptions of the insecurities and obsessions that plague the two young men are funny and pathetic by turns. And while Lymie and Spud are the archetypal Nerd and Jock, their characters never descend into cliché. Spud’s inner life is every bit as rich and complicated as Lymie’s, and part of the tragedy of the book is that as the reader you’re privy to thoughts and feelings you are desperate for them to share with each other. They never do.

The sacrifices Lymie makes in order to make Spud happy, the unquestioning devotion with which he accepts Spuds moods and the unconditional support he gives are revealed to the reader with heart-breaking simplicity. If you have ever been in the grips of an unrequited love, had a crush from afar, or loved and been let down by a friend, this book will make you smile and make you cry. It’s glorious.

Bunnybean’s #CBR5 Review 4: Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Gregor_one-210-exp-2My teacher just finished reading this book to the whole class. Its about a boy named Gregor and his baby sister Boots. They get magically transported to the “underland”, which is sort of an underground world. They get sent on a quest to save their father, who is also missing in the underland. The people and creatures who live in the underland tell Gregor that they knew he would come, there was a prophecy about him coming to fight for them.

They meet a lot of different characters along the way: Luxa, who will someday be queen of the underland; Ripred, a rat who fights along with people; Ares, who is really strong; Henry, Luxa’s cousin; Vikus, Luxa’s grandfather; Temp and Tic, who are talking cockroaches; and Gregor’s Dad who has been kidnapped by rats.

I got kind of confused and jumbled up by all of the different characters, because every time I thought I figured out who was who, then more new characters would come.

Gregor and Boots fight against the rats and finally get their dad back.

I liked Tick, Aurora, and Boots. And my favorite part was when they got attacked by spiders.

There are more books about Gregor, and my teacher is soon going to read the second one to us. But if I could choose myself, I don’t think I’d keep reading this series.

You can read more of Bunnybean’s reviews on her mom’s blog.