ABR’s #CBR5 Review #19: Joyland by Stephen King


joylandI am a fan of Stephen King. I think Carrie and Pet Sematary are horrifying reads. I think Different Seasons is brilliant. That said I haven’t read Stephen King for years. When Joyland was published I thought it was a good time to start again.

My first thought was that if you are a rabid Stephen King fan, you might be disappointed in Joyland. It’s more a tender, nostalgic coming-of-age story than a “typical” Stephen King horror story. But the more I read the more I thought that if you are a King fan, you’ll love this book. And if you’ve never really enjoyed Stephen King, you too might just love this book. While it does contain some of the tried and true Stephen King tropes – horror, suspense, great dialogue, sympathetic characters – the story isn’t so fantastical you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy it.


The story is told in flashback by Devin Jones, now a man in his 60s, who spent the summer of 1973 working in the Joyland amusement park. Years before Devin’s arrival a young girl was murdered on one of the rides, and rumors and legends about her ghost abound. Through a series of serendipitous events, Devin becomes a star performer at Joyland, attracts the attention of a protective single mom and her son, and delves into the murder. 

Joyland won’t get under your skin the way some Stephen King stories can, but it does have a little something for every reader. There is horror, violence, heartbreak, romance and yes, sex. But the heart of the story is quite sentimental and wistful. 

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #18: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Lean InWhen a male friend suggested Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for our couples book club, I immediately went on the defensive. I knew very little about the book, but like a lot of readers, I had my mind made up before the book was even released. Who was Sandberg, a privileged, rich executive, to write about what it’s like to be a working mother?

I was wrong.

I thought this book was insightful, smart, well written, even self-deprecating. I still think Sandberg, by nature of her position and her wealth, can’t completely identify with a typical working parent, but even she admits that. What she can do is present a compelling argument why it’s crucial we address the working parent Catch 22 – the workplace needs to be more accommodating to working parents (not just mothers) so more working parents can remain employed, but more working parents need to stay in the workforce in order to vocalize the need for the flexibility.

I’m not going to critique her proposal in this review. That’s a different story for a different time. And regardless of what you think of her ideas, I think you have to agree the book is well written, thoroughly researched and documented, and provocative. It’s a quick read too.

If one indication of a good book is how much you talk about it with your friends, colleagues or peers, Lean In would surely meet that criterion. Try discussing it with your spouse over a cocktail or bring it up in your next office happy hour and see if it doesn’t get people talking and sharing opinions.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #17: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher

ruthie-leming(This review contains spoilers.)

I have to admit I didn’t read this book, I listened to the audio book while driving to pick up my son from sleepaway camp. I’m typically not a fan of audio books, mostly because I find it harder to carve out the time to listen to a book, but in this case, I think the audio book enhanced the novel. My version was read by the author, Rod Dreher, who has a tendency to fall into a Loo-C-Anna dialect now and then.

At its heart, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming documents the life of Ruthie, Dreher’s sister, before and after she is stricken with lung cancer. While Dreher left his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, during high school, his sister Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, taught at a local high school, built a home across the street from her parents and raised a family there.

With her diagnosis of cancer comes an outpouring of love and support, a showing Dreher laments he wouldn’t find anywhere but home. He left home to find personal, professional and spiritual fulfillment, but his search has left him largely empty. He frequently changes jobs and locales, converts to Catholicism and then to Orthodoxy, and struggles with a God who would allow cancer to happen to his beloved sister.

As you can expect the novel is heartbreaking. I found myself in tears more than once. It’s also inspirational; it is likely it will make you stop to appreciate your family and rethink your priorities.

Or you might think it is overwrought. While even the most hardened reader will be moved by Ruthie and her battle with cancer, a great deal of the book – more than I expected – details Rod’s struggle with his spirituality after Ruthie passes. If you’re not one for philosophizing and proselytizing, this won’t be your cup of sweet tea.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #16: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

shining-girlsThe Shining Girls is about a time-traveling serial killer. For a reason that really isn’t explained, Harper Curtis is tasked with traveling through time to kill ‘shining girls’ or girls who have great potential. The book jumps from present to past and back again as Harper meets, stalks and kills his victims.

Kirby Mazrachi is the only woman who survives a gruesome attack by Harper. The great potential Kirby promised as a young girl (Harper often meets his victims as girls or young women to give them a token and tell them he’ll come back for them in the future) may have been squashed but now she is determined to find Harper.

Kirby gets an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times and persuades sports reporter Dan Velasquez to help her. Velasquez covered Kirby’s case years ago but moved to the sports beat after years as a crime reporter left him jaded.

As with any time travel book it can be difficult to keep track of Harper’s travels. Since he meets the girls multiple times in their lives I had to flip back and forth a bit to keep track of everyone. The concept is interesting and the story is compelling but it is also extremely violent – think what you will about the fact that all the victims are women, all are intelligent or compassionate or promising, most are also ethnic.

For me, this book suffers for two major reasons. Firstly, there are a number of clichés. Of course there is a simmering romance between Kirby and Dan. Of course Kirby, an inexperienced reporter, is able to track down a serial killer that no experienced professional could find. Of course, there is a vague ending that could lead to a sequel.

Secondly, the book tries to be a science-fiction/horror/mystery and each genre ends up diluted. Add to that some extremely graphic, misogynistic attacks, a couple implausible plot points and a silly, climactic snowball fight and the result is disappointing.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #15: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman


graveyard-bookI think the word ‘meh’ is overused, but if someone asked me what I thought of this book, I would say shrug my shoulders and say ‘meh.’ I hate to say that about Neil Gaiman. And I really hate to say that about a Neil Gaiman book that received so many awards and accolades.

Like many of Gaiman’s books, The Graveyard Book combines elements of fantasy, horror and the supernatural. The premise is clever; a young boy is orphaned as a baby and raised by ghosts in a nearby graveyard. His foster parents name him Nobody Owens or Bod. They could’ve named him Anybody Owens, because, despite his upbringing, Bod is like any other kid. He is curious, introverted, bullied, love struck and eventually longs for a life beyond the graveyard. For me, the best parts of the book dealt with Bod simply as a boy navigating adolescence.

But there are parallel stories of ghosts and shifters and supernatural tokens and a secret society of killers led by “the man Jack.” All these elements may have added pages to the story but I don’t think they always complemented it.

Sometimes if I don’t like a book I dismiss the author altogether. After this book I’m not dismissing Gaiman. I still hope to be a fan. This just wasn’t the book that did it.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #14: Election by Tom Perrotta

electionI’m ambivalent about this book. On one hand, it was an easy read, the story is original, the writing is clever. On the other hand, it didn’t leave much of an impression. I saw the movie years ago, and in many places throughout the book I found myself thinking about the movie to supplement what was missing.

The book is written as a series of journal-like entries from the main characters. While this style gives different perspectives on the central event in the book – a high school presidential election – too often the entries blended into each other. And some entries were so short there wasn’t enough to them to really fill out each character. That’s where I kept retreating to the movie.

The story revolves around the presidential election at Winwood High. Mr. McAllister is a well-liked, passionate teacher who oversees the election. Tracy Flick is the ambitious overachiever who wants to be president because she truly believes she is superior to the other students and candidates but also because she wants to pad her resume. Paul Warren is the likable jock who runs against her at Mr. M’s recommendation. Paul’s campaign manager is Lisa Flanagan. Lisa had a secret, short-lived affair with Tammy Warren, Paul’s sister, who is also running for president.

There are other story lines that give some depth to the characters. Mr. M is having marital trouble, Tracy is rebounding from an affair with a teacher, Paul and Lisa are mixing business with pleasure. But the crux of the story is the election and the lengths the characters will go to to win or see that someone else doesn’t.

As with any movie adaptation there are differences in the book. In the movie Tracy is portrayed as slightly more villainous. In the book she’s precocious and insecure, a little more pitiable. Of course, the ending is also different, and I suppose the ending you prefer is directly related to how you feel about Tracy and Mr. McAllister.

I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it, but for me it was just too slight to leave much of an impression.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #13: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

things-fall-apartI hadn’t heard of Chinua Achebe until his death in March. I’d seen Things Fall Apart in the bookstore but didn’t realize its significance until I read his obituary. Not only is it one of the most widely read books in African literature, it is considered “the archetypal modern African novel” and is a staple around the world.

The novel follows the life of Okonkwo, an Ibo leader in pre-Colonial Nigeria. Okonkwo is respected because of his strength and his reputation as a wrestler, but his life has been marred by anger. Okonkwo has “no patience with unsuccessful men.” He seems to be a strict follower of his village’s customs, but his extreme intolerance of inaction and what he sees as cowardice ultimately leads to his downfall.

The title of the book comes from a Yeats’ poem that says “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In the novel several things fall apart – Okonkwo’s family, his village, Nigeria – due to fear, anger, tradition, British colonialism and Christian missionaries.

Toward the end of the book one of the white authorities says, “one of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words.” I found this interesting because there is nothing superfluous about the book. It’s a beautiful, sad, evocative story – part Greek tragedy, part cautionary tale, part historical fiction. I read the book, but I think it would be even more affecting to listen to the audio book, where you hear the correct pronunciations and intonations, but also because so much of this book relies on oral traditions of the Igbo people on whom this was based.

I bought my copy of Things Fall Apart at my local used bookstore. Inside was an inscription from Mrs. Bernstein to Marc. “This is a book I read in college, and I still consider it one of the greatest books I have ever read. That is why I wanted you to have a copy. You may be a little too young for it now but one day, when you have nothing to do in Texas, maybe you’ll pick it up.”

I hope Marc took Mrs. Bernstein’s advice and read the book.