Joe Hill himself calls NOS4A2 his "senior thesis on horror fiction", and notes that in some ways that makes it a senior thesis on Stephen King. This is a very accurate description of Hill's latest novel, as he expertly applies the formula his father made famous and crafts a truly chilling story. While I don't think NOS4A2 is as good as King's best work, it's certainly a respectful addition to the genre, and well worth your time if scary books are your thing.
The first ingredient of every Stephen King-esque horror story is a flawed protagonist. Someone the reader can identify with as they start out normal but eventually delve deeper and deeper into the supernatural. As things build and build, our main character will need to overcome their own weaknesses to survive.
In NOS4A2 we follow Vic "Brat" McQueen, an average girl with the not-so-average ability to find things. How does she find things? She rides her bike through an abandoned covered bridge and across space in time, to the exact place she needs to be to find what she's looking for. I'm sure you can guess what happens next: eventually Vic goes looking for the wrong thing, and ends up in big trouble. This is where the story truly takes off.
Charles Manx is the main boogeyman lurking within the pages of NOS4A2. Manx is 150 years old, drives a strange 1930s Rolls Royce, and kidnaps innocent children away to a terrible realm known as Christmasland where the kids deteriorate over time, becoming twisted and evil pictures of lost innocence. At times Manx is a perfectly crafted, terrifying mixture of Hannibal Lecter and Pennywise the evil clown - but at times he wanders a bit too close to some sort of Christmas-themed Batman villain. Does a bad guy using gingerbread-scented smoke as a weapon sound goofy or scary to you? It can obviously go either way, and Hill is an excellent writer who manages to keep it on the creepy side throughout most of this novel. Every once in a while he drifts a bit, but for the most part he stays on the rails.
My main criticism of NOS4A2 is that it's just too long, and for what it's worth I've had a similar opinion of most of Stephen King's latest work (11-22-64, Duma Key, Under the Dome). Personally I'm hoping that Joe Hill's next book breaks away from dear old dad in this department and tightens things up considerably. I think that a tight, concentrated version of NOS4A2 at half the length could have been a 5 star book. It's especially disappointing that despite all of this length, we don't learn much of Manx's backstory. His methods are creative, but his motivation is lacking. He's just kind of generic evil. A writer as talented as Joe Hill should be able to give us more.
Kate Mulgrew does a fantastic job with the narration. Her Manx voice is especially creepy, and the performance is just excellent overall. My only criticism is that she pronounced Haverill as Hay-ver-hill which just sounds weird to this Massachusetts native. Everyone knows it's Hay-vrill! A very minor criticism of her otherwise awesome performance!
Ok, so there's a new Stephen King book out called Joyland. Here are some of the key components:
- A serial killer who slashes throats at amusement parks.
- A ghost.
- A little boy with a special ability to just sort of 'know things'.
- A whodunnit mystery.
- A college kid who loses his sweetheart and grows up.
As everyone knows, Stephen King is the master of terror - so you might expect the first three components listed above to be the most important parts of Joyland... but you would be wrong!
Joyland is, at its heart, the coming of age tale of 21 year old Devin Jones. Devin is an everyman, a nice guy. He's going through a rough breakup with his first true love. He gets a job at Joyland, a second rate amusement park filled with cool college kids at summer jobs and weirdo carnies that are kind of there for life. There's a fortune teller, some sexy girls who take photos and pressure you into buying them, and plenty other flavorful characters. It's a flavorful and interesting backdrop for a novel.
As mentioned above, Devin is dealing with a lot of stuff. He's a young kid in an emotional part of life, and the ghost, serial killer, etc. serve as plot devices for some real growing up. The ghost and serial killer might sound scary, but there aren't really very many scary moments in Joyland. There are a few, I guess, but there are many more touching moments. Moments where you want to reach out to Devin and say, "Devin, hang in there dude - we'll get through this together and things will work out great." This isn't a book that will keep you up at night, this is a book that will keep you wondering how Stephen King can put into words so perfectly what it's like to like a girl who likes someone else better than you. If you're looking for a Stephen King tale of terror, then look elsewhere.
Joyland is also nominally a mystery, but I didn't get much out of this aspect of the book. Without giving anything away, there's this murder mystery and then it just kind of gets resolved all at once without the typical back and forth, slow progress, clue gathering, false leads, etc. that most mystery novels are filled with.
If you're a fan of Stephen King, then Joyland is probably most similar in style to Hearts in Atlantis. Hearts in Atlantis is one of my favorite King books, and Joyland is definitely no Hearts in Atlantis. It just doesn't have the unique story hooks, the characters are a bit flatter, and the lynchpin story connecting the coming-of-age theme isn't quite as interesting. Joyland is still good, but I'd recommend Hearts in Atlantis ahead of it any day. If you've already read Hearts in Atlantis and want another great story, then pick up Joyland - it's good. Good enough that I blasted through it in a day without slowing down.
The narrator for Joyland is decent. He did a bunch of different voices well, and breathed some life into the character - but the whole thing did feel slightly BLAH to me. It was good, but nothing I'll remember forever.
Between Man and Beast is primarily a biography of Paul Du Chaillu: hunter, explorer, scientist, traveler, and controversial figure in 19th century evolutionary debate.
It all starts in the mid 19th century. Paul De Chaillu is a young man trying to make something of himself, and decides that the way to do it is to be the first white man to see, kill, and bring back a gorilla. This may not sound like much in 2013, but back then it was a very big deal.
In the 1800s gorillas were completely shrouded in mystery. They had never been glimpsed by anyone other than the native tribes living in inner-Africa, who feared them greatly and viewed them as borderline supernatural beings. The natives told many gorilla-based legends. For example, it was thought that consuming the brain of a gorilla would give anyone incredible hunting and lovemaking abilities. In that case, who wouldn't want to chow down on some gorilla brain?
This book is largely divided into three sections. I'll do my best to give you an idea of how this book is structured without giving too much away about the plot.
In the first section, Paul heads into West Africa in search of gorillas, and is actually very successful. If you're a gorilla and you see Paul heading your way, then you should watch out because he shows no fear and is deadly. Things go well for Paul and he returns to America with many dead gorillas.
In the middle section, Paul returns and presents his findings to the scientific community. This is a time when Darwin had just introduced his evolution theory to the world, and people felt very strongly about it on both sides of the 'argument' (as they still do today). The evidence Paul brought back did not sit very well with certain people, and his reputation was attacked viciously. He was called a liar and accused of never having actually traveled to inner-Africa.
In the book's final section, Paul arms himself with increased scientific training/equipment and returns to Africa in order to redeem his broken reputation.
All three sections are interesting, well-written/narrated, and seemingly well-researched. I do feel that the middle section drags at times and probably could have been tightened up a bit. The material is compelling, but it just doesn't reach the same excitement levels as Paul journeying through Africa. All in all though, this book is excellent. It's a true tale of adventure and science, gorilla and man. Any fans of this genre should love Between Beast and Man.
Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan combine to create a haunting tale of baseball and ghosts in A Face in the Crowd. Have you ever watched a game of baseball and paid attention to the people in the crowd sitting behind home plate? Probably not, but after listening to this story you might look a little bit closer.
Dean Evers is a baseball fan, newly moved from New England to Florida. While watching baseball on his new HDTV, he starts to notice people from his past sitting behind home plate. He sees his childhood dentist, a kid he used to make fun of in school, his deceased wife, his business partner. Through these characters we explore Dean's life and learn his story. His story is haunted and interesting. I was genuinely excited to see who would show up behind home plate next, and what this character would teach us about Dean.
This setup is very well done, but unfortunately it doesn't follow through to the end of the story. The ending was a major disappointment. It's so abrupt, that I honestly thought my iPhone hadn't downloaded the complete audiobook or something. There was a lot of potential in this story, and I think I'd have a much higher opinion of it with a stronger ending.
Craig Wasson's performance is excellent, and fits the style of this novella very well.
Here's a short review:
Imagine if Stephen King combined with HP Lovecraft was asked to write a series of LOST episodes about a haunted/weird apartment building. Throw in a fun cast of stereotypical characters and some Scooby Doo-style mystery solving. That's 14 in a nutshell. It's the audiobook equivalent of a page-turner.
Here's a longer review:
Nate is a normal guy who doesn't make a lot of cash, and finds a great deal on a new apartment. After moving in, he notices that the apartment is just plain weird. The light fixture in his room is strange, there are random padlocked doors, and cockroaches unlike any he has seen before.
Eventually he meets a colorful cast of neighbors and each has a story to add about how strange his new apartment building truly is. I think a quick rundown some of the major players will give you a pretty good idea of the tone of 14:
Veek - Indian girl with a conservative attitude and a strange computer. Good with technology, hacker.
Tim - Man with a mysterious past, seems to know about lots of stuff that he shouldn't.
Xena - Blue haired, artsy, hot, and loves to sunbathe in the nude.
Mandy - A super hot, blonde, wannebe actress who is pretty much written as just a bimbo. Early on in the book there's a whole chapter told from her point of view, but she doesn't appear much after that. This is very out of place and really seems like an accident of editing. I'm sure in an earlier draft she was more important.
Andrew - Religious fundamentalist, kind of outcast from the rest of the group.
There are more involved, but this is a pretty decent sample. These characters are wildly varying, but all fairly archetypal. They're handled decently, but it's nothing special.
At its heart, 14 is a LOST-style cliffhanger story. As this group digs into the mysteries of their apartment building, it's clear that at every step one of them is going to have the specific expertise required to overcome the problem and move the plot along. Hey, we found a part of the mystery that's vaguely computer-related - let's get the computer chick to figure it out so we can move onto the next chapter! This repeats many times throughout the book as we work our way towards a resolution.
There's a theme throughout the book where characters cutely call each other by Scooby Doo nicknames, and unfortunately at times this mystery+character archetype=solution structure can make 14 feel kind of like a Scooby Doo episode. It can be a little hard to buy at times that this entire diverse group has nothing better to do than meet up every day after work to go on wacky adventures together. Oh, and there's also a lame landlord trying to bust up their adventures at every turn! Bummer!
Even if the basic structure of the book can be a little tough to swallow, Clines does an excellent job of dangling that carrot in front of the reader/listener - I truly did want to know what happens next over and over again. Like I said in the intro, 14 is definitely the audiobook equivalent of a page turner. These various revelations work their way towards a truly epic ending. I don't use the word epic to mean 'awesome', I mean epic in the sense of HUGE. 14 is not a book with a subtle conclusion. I enjoyed it, but it's completely over-the-top. I can see this sequence losing some readers - it's pretty out there. Unfortunately it's difficult to say any more without giving the whole thing away.
If 14 sounds like fun to you at this point, I'd recommend avoiding any spoilers like the plague. The fun in 14 is finding things out, and without that there's honestly not a great reason to read this book. The characters and setting are ok, but all just there to service that all-important mystery.
If you're into books that revolve around revealing the unknown in a horror-ish, Lovecraft-ish, sci-fi-ish world then pick up 14 and you'll probably burn through it!
I've been curious to learn more about Grigori Rasputin for a long time, and I'm glad that I finally got around to reading a book on "The Mad Monk".
Everything about Rasputin was just WEIRD. He's so weird that a lot of this book is hard to accept as fact even though it's accepted history. Rasputin grows out of humble beginnings into some mixture of fraud, miracle worker, drunk, holy man, woman-abuser, pilgrim, and healer. Through a crazy sequence of events, Rasputin finds himself at the right hand of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra and sometimes seems to hold just as much influence as the royal family itself.
Rasputin was also a legendary partier and honestly it's shocking that he lived as long as he did. In the end it was a night of debauchery that killed him, but maybe not in exactly the way you might think. Let's just say that Rasputin's life was weird right up until the end.
This audiobook presents an excellent view not only of Rasputin's life journey, but also of turn-of-the-century Russia. You'll learn about Russian politics, the complexities of the church, and Tsar Nicholas' war strategy.
Curtis Sisco does a solid job reading this book. I honestly didn't notice him much one way or another, which usually means he did a fine job!
In summary: If you have any interested in Rasputin or strange tales of history - pick this one up!
Have you ever wondered what happens to bodies when they die? Maybe not, but believe me it's probably a lot more interesting than you think.
Mary Roach does a great job of describing just how much we've been able to learn from our fallen ancestors. Dissections have helped transform many surgeries from a painful nightmare into a high-probability savior. Decomposition tests have provided crime scene investigators with new techniques to use when tracking down a criminal. Car manufacturers have used dead bodies to make automobiles safer for the living. The list goes on and on.
Things are not always pretty in cadaver land however, and Mary Roach does a great job of covering the darker aspects of this topic as well. You'll learn about body snatching, cannibalism, head transplants, vivisection, and lots of other gory details. This audiobook is not for the squeamish - fair warning! I'm not a very squeamish person, but I was squirming during some of the more descriptive sections. If you have trouble with stuff like this - don't listen while driving!
Shelly Frasier does a great job with the narration of Stiff. At first her somewhat quirky voice took a bit of getting used to for me, but Stiff is a quirky book and it really fits perfectly.
I first learned of the FLDS church a few years ago when I read "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer. I was horrified, and have followed the developing story and Jeffs trial ever since. I snagged this audiobook as soon as I noticed it, and worked my way through it very quickly.
This story is told in the first person by Sam Brower (narrated by Jonah Cummings, who does an awesome job), a private investigator working hard to break down and expose the incredible evil taking place in the world of the FLDS. The story is an interesting look into the innerworkings of a sad religious, a lunatic religious leader, legions of followers, poor unfortunate children, and how a private investigator goes about infiltrating this mess.
This is not an easy book to listen to. It's depressing and frustrating. It's hard enough to hear about the atrocities happening within the FLDS church, and even harder to hear about how difficult it is to get the government to intervene.
The only complaint I have is that the timeline of the story jumps around quite a bit. There are lots of characters in this book, and it's hard to keep them all straight. On top of this the author jumps back and forth in time frequently, and it can be easy to get lost at times. A fairly minor complaint, but I can't help but this this would be a stronger story if told in a more linear fashion.
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