Those Across the River, by Christopher Buehlman

Those Across the RiverMan.  I really dislike it when I think a book is going to be awesome, or, as is the case here, pretty decent, and then I read it and it’s just… not.

This book was pretty bad from the start, but it was the only thing I had to listen to at work when I ran out of podcasts every day, and so I forced myself (seriously, I was like, self, do I have to?) to continue in the hopes that maybe it would get better. It refused.

Those Across the River opens with the narrator all caged up with potential cannibal people and he’s all, man, I made some serious mistakes in getting here and let me tell you about them. So then we learn, very slowly, that our friend Frank has moved to Georgia with his lady-friend (whom he stole from a former colleague who subsequently prevented Frank from getting hired anywhere) to write a book sometime after World War I, of which Frank is a veteran, I think. So that’s already lovely. Then it turns out that Frank was never supposed to move there at all because his aunt what bequeathed him the house was also all, I am totally batshit crazy but you should definitely trust me and not live in the damn thing so just sell it, okay? Which, I mean, come on. Crazy lady tells me not to do something? I’m going to at least check it out.

And so of course the house is fantastic but the neighborhood is also totally batshit crazy and there are creepy people Across the River who totally want to scare the poo out of Frank and also everyone else because they aren’t getting pigs to eat anymore (just go with it) and are maybe looking to eat some people.

This could be sufficiently creepy to make me a happy listener, but there were so many things that prevented my happiness. First, the whole “no really don’t come live here thing” was, as I mentioned, totally never going to work and “but she’s a CRAZY person” is not enough to keep my disbelief suspended indefinitely. Then there’s this whole vibe of the Across the River people being out to get Frank that was very Castle-esque and with him being a vet I was like, oh lord, he totally came here with a PURPOSE and there’s going to be TORTURE, and I was not exactly wrong, actually, though it was not as terribly written as that awful awful book. And then, spoiler alert, it turns out that Those Across the River are totally werewolves, but Buehlman refuses to call them werewolves even though they change into wolves at the full moon and can be killed by silver bullets and I am pretty sure that… okay, I just looked it up, and werewolves weren’t actually much in pop culture at the time so maybe I can give Buehlman a pass on historical accuracy. But it bothered me while I listened to it, so it still counts.

Soooooo yeah. It’s certainly not the worst book I’ve ever read, but it’s so solidly meh that I can’t help but dislike it.

Recommendation: If you’re more into horror than I, you might stand a better chance.

Rating: 3/10

Thinner, by Richard Bachman

I’m always a little confused by authors who use pseudonyms but are also like, “I am totally this person,” so people will read their books. Like I’ve cataloged a few books that are authored by NORA ROBERTS (writing as J.D. Robb) or… someone whose name I forget where her author bio is like “This Person is the pseudonym of That Other Person.” Why are we bothering with the pseudonym, then?

All this is to say that I didn’t actually realize this was a Richard Bachman book until well after I started listening, because everything I looked at was all STEPHEN EFFING KING all the time. It is also to say that when people know they are reading a Stephen King book it is a little weird to hear the narrator talking about how it’s like he’s in a Stephen King book, but according to my friend Cory this is not an unusual thing to happen in a King novel. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Aaaaanyway the novel. I had actually thought this was a short story, because the plot — a heavy guy gets cursed to become thinner, which is cool until all of a sudden he can barely eat enough to survive — did not seem like a story that could be sustained over 10 hours(!). And indeed, there were a few parts where I was like, “Okay I get it let’s move it along now?”

But on the whole the story was delightfully horror-ful. It starts with a guy, Billy, who’s like, “That creepy gypsy guy was creepy. Why did he say ‘THINNER’ at me?” And then he’s all losing weight, and you find out that the creepy gypsy guy said that because Billy ran over the gypsy’s daughter who ran out into the street and so he was found not guilty of manslaughter or whatever except that then it turns out that maybe he wasn’t quite so not guilty after all? And maybe the gypsy isn’t only targeting him? But Billy is a lawyer, so he’s gonna fight back, even if he has to drive all the way up to Maine (you knew Maine was in here somewhere, didn’t you?) to find these gypsies and bitch at them. Because that’s really what it boils down to.

And really, the driving up I-95 bit could have just been completely excised from the story, because I really do understand that gypsies are creepy, and also why is it that everyone is like “Man, I haven’t seen a gypsy in like 25 years” and then at the EXACT SAME TIME like “Oh, gypsies. You know how they roll.” Do you? Are you sure?

But the whole cursing aspect is interesting, and Billy’s visits to the other afflicted-types are quite creepy, and the ending is the only possible ending I would have accepted for Billy so it’s fine that it’s pretty well telegraphed. Also, I knew I liked Joe Mantegna, the audiobook narrator, from his work on the teevee, but seriously that man can read a book. He did some fantastic voice work to the point where I was sometimes like, “Isn’t Joe Mantegna reading this book? Who is this guy? That is Joe Mantegna? Are you sure?” I think he should probably read every Stephen King book, because he can make with the spooky and terrifying. Maybe he should do a version of The Turn of the Screw! How much would it cost to commission that?

Recommendation: On the whole, I enjoyed my ten hours with Stephen and Joe. Especially Joe. And while I think the novel should be much much shorter, I do still think it’s worth a read if you’re in the mood for some gruesome.

Rating: 8.5/10 (bonus points for Joe!)
(RIP Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

The Shining, by Stephen King

Here’s another entry from my TBR Challenge… I saw this movie a while back and thought it was terrible, so I got it into my head that I should read the book because maybe it was better? And then my mother said, “No, really, the book is way better,” and then I found the book at the used bookstore for cheap and THEN I totally didn’t read it. Hence its addition to the challenge.

So! Now I’ve read it. Well, okay, I listened to it. And, in fact, it is way better than the movie, or at least what I remember of the movie — the problem with the movie is that it’s just so middling that there’s nothing to remember. Even after reading the book, my memory of the movie is this: Dude gets a job at a hotel. He goes all Jack Nicholson (see what I did there). He says, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” There is snow and possibly a snowmobile. The end.

The book, on the other hand, goes like this: Dude gets a job at a hotel, the only job he might even remotely get as a recovering alcoholic who, while sober beat the crap out of one of his students. His plan is to lay off the booze (which will be easy with no booze in the hotel), do some writing that will make him awesome and employable, and fix the problems with his family that are not all related to his alcoholism. This is a good plan. His wife and son come with him to take care of this hotel, which is closed for the winter, but the son has “the shining” which makes him a little bit psychic and a little too attuned to the horrors that have taken place in the hotel and that threaten to take place again. Dude is not attuned to these horrors, even as they start seeping into him, ruining his plan a little at a time until he goes all Jack Nicholson. He does not say “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” There is lots and lots of snow and one too few snowmobiles.

I didn’t exactly like the book, but compared to the movie it is downright wonderful. There’s so much more backstory in the book that makes things make sense, and that also makes things more interesting and creepy. Like, the dad was an alcoholic until one night he and his bud ran over a bicycle in the middle of the road that may or may not have had a child on it; they can’t find a kid but also can’t figure out why there would be a tiny bicycle without a tiny human. And the psychic kid sees a lot more than just REDRUM; he sees what his dad has been and will be capable of and somehow does not pee his pants in fear. And the hotel is dang creepy with its dead people and midnight parties and moving shrubbery and I really don’t think I’ll be able to look at an animal topiary the same way again. Like, ever.

There’s a lot more depth to the novel, is what I’m saying, and it allows King to be more subtle with the creepy and the psychological, which is just the way I like it. It didn’t hurt that the audiobook narrator channeled a little Jack Nicholson into his reading — just enough to be fairly terrifying without going all Witches of Eastwick.

Unfortunately, the depth also comes with a lot of long boring bits, which made me not like this book so much. Also, an epilogue. I have been reading an inordinate number of epilogued books lately. Someday I will find a good one. Today is not that day.

Recommendation: Read this if you didn’t like or don’t remember the movie; it’ll make you feel a little better. Not sure I would recommend it on its own strength.

Rating: 7/10
(TBR Challenge)

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

An interesting thing about listening to audiobooks at work is how the variously imposed stopping points affect my feelings about the book. For example, with The Amulet of Samarkand a little bit ago, I found myself really super duper excited to hear the end of it because my iPod died in the middle of a climactic scene. In other books, quitting time has come in the middle of some less exciting story bits and so I’m simply content to wait until the next day to find out what happens.

With this book, I encountered a new situation — a book that is completely different between Day 1 and Day 2 of listening to it. Seriously, after Day 1 I came home to Scott raving about how delightfully creepy everything was, with this ghost just sitting in a chair looking out a window or with the narrator always quietly suggesting a hint of bad things to come. See, in the first half of the book we meet a Rock Star with goth-y tastes who hears about some chick auctioning a ghost on the internets and is all, “Buy it Now!” So the ghost gets bought, in the form of a potentially haunted suit which arrives in the titular box, and Rock Star is all, “That’s cool, I guess.” Until, of course, it turns out that there’s an actual ghost involved. And then when it turns out that the ghost was purposely and maliciously sent to Rock Star, things get even more creepy. And that narrator seriously had the campfire ghost story voice down. I was spooked.

But then on Day 2, it seems we don’t really care about the quietly spooky aspect of the story and now we’re more interested in the loud, “I’ma GET YOU, Rock Star!” aspect instead. And it’s not quite as interesting, possibly largely because Hill throws in a few “unexpected” plot twists and then says, “Hey, did you get that? Let me say it another way, just in case.” There’s still a lot of decently creepy stuff, and I will never look at a Denny’s the same way again, but there is a lot more focus on Hill’s message.

And I really think I would have enjoyed this book more had I read or listened to it all in one go, or maybe in thirds, so that the division between Creepy Ghost Story and Journey to Find Oneself were less stark.

As it stands, I’m a big fan of Day 1 and would go listen to it again. I’m not sure how it comes across in print, but if it’s anywhere near as chilling, I will recommend this book based on that alone.

Recommendation: For fans of Stephen King-like suspense/horror (which, Hill being King’s son, makes sense), or campfire ghost stories, or perilous Journeys to Find Oneself.

Rating: 8/10
(A to Z Challenge)

The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey

You know, when I started this book, I was thinking, “Oh, this is going to be another one of those weird books, isn’t it? Hmm.” And, well, it is pretty weird, but something about it really clicked for me. It’s got monsters, it’s got weird happenings, it’s got unresolved problems… it’s even got an unreliable narrator, which is like my favorite kind of narrator. This is my kind of book.

Our narrator is William James Henry, an orphan in the care of the eponymous doctor, Pellinore Warthrop. He, like his father before him, is Warthrop’s assistant, helping him in endeavors small (the purchase of raspberry scones) and large (the autopsy of giant scary monsters). One night, a grave robber comes by all, “I was totally not robbing a grave, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but with that as a given, I found this dead giant scary monster in this grave I was robbing.” The monster turns out to be an Anthropophagus, a word which here means a giant scary monster with no head, eyes in its shoulders, a 3000-tooth mouth in its stomach, and a brain in its groin. Oh yeah, and its favorite (and only) meal is humans. Nomnomnom. Nom. Ew.

So of course the monstrumologist and his assistant end up going out to see what’s what, and then someone dies, and then some more people die, and then some uncomfortable truths come out about just what a giant scary monster colony is doing in a monstrumologist’s backyard, and then the genocide begins, as it does when the race in question wants to eat you. Nomnomnom.

I think what I liked best about this novel was its matter-of-fact-ness. The conceit is that the story comes straight from the diaries of a now-dead hundred-some-year-old Will Henry, so the story isn’t all plot — it’s also about how Will Henry feels about living with Warthrop and dealing with monsters and generally being a twelve-year-old without a real family. There’s also a lot of moderately interesting ethical pondering (Should Warthrop have warned the eventual victims about their chances of being eaten by a giant scary monster? Would anyone have believed him?) that makes some good points without beating you over the head with them.

I quite enjoyed this book. There’s a hint of a possibility of a sequel within the frame story; this is one that I would be very interested in reading.

Rating: 8/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge)

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Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Audiobook Round-up

I got back last night from a week-long camping trip in Alabama, which was awesome. Less awesome is all the internet catching-up I have to do!

Because of the twelve-hour drive, I decided to collect a bunch of audiobooks from the library’s fancy-pants online trove of such things. Scott loves them, but I’d never given them a real try. Now I have, and… well. I was right — I can’t focus on an audiobook to save my life. So. No ratings (or even decent reviews) for these until I read them proper, but here’s the list of things I listened to in the car last week.

Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, by Dave Barry (22 March)
This is a 1988 collection of Barry’s columns, which shows in all his talk about Reagan as president! I like Barry, so I enjoyed listening to this hour-long book while I tried to stay awake (we left home at 6am!). Bonus points for having John Ritter as a narrator.

More of Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, by Dave Barry (22 March)
I can’t seem to find this listed anywhere but fancy-pants online troves of audiobooks, so this is possibly audiobook-only. Unsure. Anyway, this is the 1996 collection of awesome columns. Still entertaining. Still narrated by John Ritter. Still capable of keeping me awake, if not listening properly.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde (28 March — 29 March)
I knew the general idea going in, of course — Dorian Gray has a painting that ages while he stays young. That turns out to be a gross over-simplification of this novel, which deals with heavy themes of morality and ethics and deception. Gray likes his painting at the beginning, but as it ages and the bad things he’s done show up in it he comes to loathe it. And his loathing of it has him doing even more bad things that show up in it. And all the while he has an angel-friend telling him how good he is, and a devil-friend spouting off ridiculous (even to him) notions of how the world works. I definitely enjoyed this book, but I will have to go back and read it to pick up on the hour or two I missed of it!

(Support Your Local Library Challenge)

Afterlife, by Douglas Clegg (13 October — 15 October)

I found this book on one of my local library’s blogs and I thought it would make a good RIP read — it’s a horror novel and it’s available free online. Brilliant!

Or not so.

The novel opens with a few brief glimpses of its themes: a scene at a government school called Project Daylight, a woman suffocating, a man being killed by someone reading his thoughts.

Then we meet the main character, Julie Hutchinson, a woman with some marital problems but an undying love for her kids. We soon find out that the dead man is Julie’s husband, “Hut” Hutchinson, which sucks for her. She goes through some depression about his death, seeing a shrink and trying to make sense of life without her husband. She also wants answers about his life — Was he cheating on her? To what lock do a strange set of keys belong? What really happened in the childhood he avoided talking about?

As Julie searches for answers she learns more about psychics, Project Daylight, and the weird things her husband can do, even after death.

This all sounds good, I guess, but I found it poorly executed. Clegg could have used an editor or three to clean up his sentences and check for continuity errors that can be glaring throughout the novel. I would have stopped reading it, but I really wanted to understand what was going on — but I still don’t know. Sigh.

Rating: 3/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2004, RIP Challenge)

Misery, by Stephen King (4 October — 12 October)

My second book for the RIP Challenge… I’m a little bit behind in getting to four, but I think I can make it yet, as I’ve just started two challenge-appropriate books.

Misery is about an author called Paul Sheldon who gets into an horrific car crash and wakes up as the ward of a nurse, Annie Wilkes, who just so happens to be Paul’s self-proclaimed “number one fan.” Unfortunately, her love of Paul — and his series of popular fiction novels about a woman called Misery — coexists with a fragile mind that isn’t prepared to let Paul go any time soon. She also has a bit of a mother mentality — when Paul does something bad, like, say, kills off Misery or tries to escape his captor, he’s in for a world of hurt, both mentally and physically.

I very much liked this book. At first, I wasn’t sure it would really classify as an RIP Challenge book, as there wasn’t anything particularly scary or gory about the storyline, just a crazy lady keeping an author hostage. But when it started getting creepy, it was creepy. I was constantly stopping in the middle of a paragraph, looking at my man, and yelling, “This woman is CRAZY!” Let’s just say I’m glad I’m not popular enough to be kidnapped any time soon.

Rating: 8/10
(RIP Challenge)

The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin (25 August)

I needed to take a break from Calamity Physics − it’s pretty long and even though I’m halfway through I’m still not entirely sure what the book is about − so I decided to take a quick romp through the 1970s. This book, at only 145 pages, didn’t take very long to read and was pretty entertaining.

I’ve seen both of the Stepford Wives movies and they’re pretty different, so I wanted to know just what the book was about. If you haven’t seen them, what we have here is a town called Stepford wherein all of the wives are subservient and domestic, convinced that their only purpose in life is to keep the house clean for their husbands. New arrivals Joanna and Walter Eberhart are part of the women’s-lib movement and, once they realize the dominance of the men’s club in town, plan to convert the husbands over to their side and open up the association to women as well. Joanna makes friends with a couple of other independent women, Bobbie and Charmaine, and they try to gather the wives of the town into a women’s club, with no luck.

Soon after Charmaine spends a weekend alone with her husband, she becomes one of the Stepford wives herself and Bobbie and Joanna worry for their safety. Their husbands reassure them that nothing’s wrong, but something very clearly is.

The book is really a lot more vague than I thought it would be − I ended up filling in a lot of blanks with scenes I remembered from the movies. It probably would have been better had I read this first and filled those blanks in on my own. The ending of the book is much more open-ended than those of the movies, but it’s still quite sinister. I like the fact that Levin leaves these things open to interpretation, but I wish I didn’t already have some interpretations in my head.

Rating: 7/10