Joyland, by Stephen King

JoylandPoor Stephen King. I remember when this book came out and it was a big deal that it would a paperback original, only in print, so that people would have to actually read a gosh darn book or whatever. But although I checked out the paperback from my library, I actually ended up reading this one mostly on my Kindle, as it has been long enough that the publishers gave in to those high-tech readers with their confounded devices.

And, really, it wasn’t that much different, reading it both ways like I did. I’m sure the floppy paperback was meant to evoke the early-seventies setting of the book and really get you into the story, but let’s be real, it’s Stephen King and the man can write — I was happily hanging out in rural North Carolina even when I was reading pieces of the book on my fancy smartphone.

This is one of King’s.. quieter novels, for lack of a better word. It’s not a horror novel or a doorstop or a book with Things To Say or some combination of the three, but it’s very obviously a Stephen King novel and it is delightful.

What this book is is a reminiscence by a present-day Devin Jones about his experience working the summer of 1973 at the Joyland theme park. You know from the beginning that something kind of weird and/or terrible is going to happen that summer, but most of the story is about Devin just growing up — spending the summer away from a girlfriend who’s going to (and then does) break his heart, learning how to be himself, finding out what he loves besides the idea of love, that sort of thing. But there is weird stuff, of course, because it’s King, and what we get here is a sort of haunted-theme-park-slash-murder-mystery subplot in which Devin and his friends first wonder about the woman whose ghost is meant to be haunting the park and then sort of accidentally solve her murder.

There’s spookiness and intrigue and yet another kid with The Sight that King loves to give his characters, so if you’re over The Sight you may want to pass on this one, and there’s also wonderful description and spot-on emotional heft. I should probably mention that this book is intentionally a pulp-fiction, noir-y mystery, so the mystery-solving ending is almost necessarily contrived and quick, but the rest of the story is well paced and I probably would have enjoyed it even if the solving bit had been left out.

Reading this book, and even just thinking about it as I write this post, makes me want nothing more than to run off and join a carnival — but maybe just for a week or two because it sounds like a lot of effort, really, and I’ve got bills to pay that I don’t think carnival running can cover. But it’s a beautiful dream.

Recommendation: For chilly winter nights when you want to think about summer; for those who want to experience nostalgia for a place and time they’ve never seen.

The Last Child, by John Hart

The Last ChildOne of the best things about being in a book club, even with the same members coming every month, is that you can never guess how everyone is going to react to a book, even yourself. One of the weirdest things is when you think a book is kind of okay and then everyone else LOVES it, and you’re like, but, seriously? Such was the case with The Last Child. I found myself in a room with ten people who loved the book and I just couldn’t figure out why.

It’s not a bad book, by any means, and it’s got a pretty decent plot going for it. The story takes place in a rural North Carolina town wherein two girls have gone missing about a year apart. One of our protagonists, Johnny, is the twin brother of the first missing girl, Alyssa, and he’s spent the last year trying to figure out what happened to Alyssa and watching his family fall apart around him — his father left, his mother turned to drink and drugs, and a horrible man stepped in to boss Johnny and his mother around. Noooooot fun. Our other main protagonist is Clyde Hunt, the detective who caught Alyssa’s case and didn’t solve it. He is now on the case of the new missing girl and is hoping, mostly for his own sake, that solving it will also bring Alyssa home.

So, interesting. And the mystery itself is pretty cool, with the appropriate twists and turns and oh-I-should-have-seen-thats. But everything else? Not so great. Hart’s characters are pulled straight from the mystery-character vault; there’s the trouble-making but mystery-solving kid, his only partially willing sidekick, the detective with a vested interest in solving a case, the same detective with feelings for a victim, and, possibly worst of all, the giant black man with the mind and temperament of a child but also mystical powers (see: The Green Mile). And the writing is tough to get through, with every sentence about twice as long as it needs to be and a whole prologue that doesn’t have anything to do with anything, really.

So, less interesting. There were lots of pieces of this book that were really fascinating, like the relationship between Hunt and Johnny and the whole discussion of rural life and politics, but the rest of the book just kind of fell down on the job for me. But there are ten other people, just in Jacksonville, even, who completely disagree with me and want to marry this book and have its babies, so clearly your mileage may vary.

Recommendation: I’d recommend a lot of books over this one, but if you like mysteries and have this one handy it’s not the worst choice you could make?

Rating: 5/10

Weekend Shorts: Stories from The Returned, by Jason Mott

You may recall from earlier this week that I absolutely loved The Returned. So when, in searching for another book, I came across a short story with the same title that was also a prequel to The Returned? SOLD. Well, it was free on Amazon, so not technically sold, but whatever.

And then later, when I discovered that was the middle story of a set of three? I cursed myself for reading things out of order, and then immediately read the other two stories. And then wished there were some more.

“The First”
The FirstThis story chronicles the first of the Returned, Edmund Blithe, who is mentioned briefly in the novel itself and whose story ends up being a little bit different from that of the other Returned we meet. Where other Returned show up in seemingly random places, Edmund comes back just weeks after his death to the same place he died, showing up at work and causing some severe emotional distress amongst his coworkers. The story is told partly from the perspective of his erstwhile fiancée, who has just finally gotten over the recent and sudden death of her favorite person and now has to deal with the fact that he’s come back but may or may not be himself and also he’s in government custody and how will she see him anyway, and partly from Edmund’s perspective of being unable to answer the government’s questions and also he’d really just like to see his favorite person, if that would be okay. I liked this one a lot.

“The Sparrow”
The SparrowThis is the first of the stories that I read, and I almost didn’t want to read the others because it’s kind of weird, or at least quite different from The Returned. It’s about a young couple who find a Returned child and take her in, but the two adults have very different ideas about how to take care of her and the story chronicles that fallout. Much of the story, though, is told in flashback to the child’s first youth and is about the stories that she invented with her parents, one of whom is often away during a time of fighting and is only able to sneak back sporadically. It’s an interesting story, certainly, and has some deep thoughts, but I was expecting something more like “The First” and so was a bit disappointed. Read this second, like you’re supposed to!

“The Choice”
The ChoiceProbably my least favorite of the bunch, this story treads a familiar path if you’ve read the book — a married man finds out that his childhood love, who died as a teenager, has returned and very much wants to see him again. The man, who has had a not-terribly-happy marriage due to still kind of being in love with his dead teenage girlfriend, fights the urge to see her, but after his wife finds out she decides that they should both go to visit her. The story is good, but it is practically straight out of the book so I’m not sure what purpose it serves.

All in all, if you’ve read the book and are interested in taking another trip into that world, I would stick with just the first story, which hews closely to the style and tone of the book. If you haven’t read the book and have half an hour to spare, you should read all of them and then, if you like the stories, put The Returned right on top of your TBR pile! You should do that last part anyway, really.

an RIP read

The Returned, by Jason Mott

The ReturnedI don’t know what it is about stories like this (and like The Postmortal and the fourth series of Torchwood) that I like so much, but I really really like them. People living when they shouldn’t be living, a world dealing with a sudden overpopulation crisis, people being complete assholes and other people being practically saintly, the government having to step in and do something right for the world but not necessarily right… I am a sucker for this plot.

In this particular iteration, the population crisis is caused by the sudden reappearance of previously dead people — not zombies, just no longer dead or somehow never dead, that part’s not really explained — in random places around the world. At first these Returned are a curiosity, and the world governments create a bureau to investigate the phenomenon and get the Returned back to their loved ones when possible. But some of those loved ones, and many of those without Returned loved ones, are hesitant to embrace these previously dead people as actual people, and soon the Returned are being rounded up and put in camps, as you do.

The book follows mainly the story of an older couple whose fifty-years-dead small child shows up on their doorstep. The couple has to deal with their feelings about their son (both the one they remember and the one they have now), their lives without him, and how to become parents again, all while dealing with the government and the opinions of their small-town North Carolina neighbors.

In between the chapters about this family, there are small vignettes about other Returned — how they came back, what they’re up to now, and how the rest of the world that is not small-town North Carolina is dealing with all this. There are also a couple scenes that give you an idea of what the government-types who are running the camps and such are thinking, which, now that I think about it, would be a really interesting perspective for one of these stories. Has anyone done that yet? Must go find!

Anyway. The characters are also pretty awesome; the book is mostly about the plot and the broader questions of ethics and being, so they aren’t the deepest characters ever written, but at least one of them will be relatable to you and even the jerk ones have enough backstory that you feel a little bad for them. Just a little, though.

I think the best part of this novel, and you may vehemently disagree, is that it never tries to explain why people are returning or whether this is going to keep happening after the end of the novel or even whether the Returned are real people or not. I like having the option to have my own opinion (which is currently “I have no idea”), and if Mott had tried to wrap it up nice and neat (like a certain aforementioned television show, grrr) I would probably have been disappointed no matter the outcome.

The second-best part of this novel is the author’s note, where Mott explains how the idea for The Returned came to him. This short note brought unexpected tears to my eyes and gave me a new perspective on some of the events of the story that I had previously not given much thought to. I don’t read poetry as a rule, but since that’s all that Mott’s written outside of this story (and some related short stories that I’m in the midst of reading), I may have to go check his collections out, because dude can write.

Recommendation: Read it. Just go do that. Right now.

Rating: 10/10

an RIP read

Touch of Frost, by Jennifer Estep

Touch of FrostSince I started my new job, my co-worker and I have been playing the Getting to Know You Through Books Game — you know the one. “You love Bartimaeus? You must be awesome!” “Oh, you read those books? Hmmm.”

We’ve attempted to find more common ground books, but it’s not going well. I thought she’d approve of its whimsy, but my co-worker didn’t get into The Eyre Affair, which means she is clearly beyond hope even with her love for Barty. It’s about a literary detective! There should not have been a problem! Sigh.

She recommended to me this series, starting with Touch of Frost, that she devoured via ILL (read: borrowing books from not our library) at our library but that I could easily get from the library around the corner from my apartment, and it sounded pretty good. YA, a gypsy girl who could touch things and know their history, mythology, monsters… sold!

But… eh. Like certain YA novels I have read recently, this is probably a book I would have devoured as a teenager (see: my obsession with the Sweep series), but after reading it I was just like, “I’ve read better.”

It’s a book that I thought suffered from trying to be too much like other YA novels, but may suffer from trying to be too much like Clash of the Titans, which I have not seen but which the author credits as her inspiration in the acknowledgements. Maybe if I had seen the movie, I would like this book better? That is a mystery unlikely to be solved.

The plot: Gwen Frost, a capital-G Gypsy who can touch objects and feel/see/experience things related to the objects and their owners, is forced to attend a private school for the descendants of apparently not-mythical warrior-types, like Amazons and Valkyries and Spartans and whatnot. She is attacked in the library and awakes to find another student dead, and feels bad enough when no one else cares terribly much (because warriors and also because the dead student was a jerk) to investigate. Things go horribly and magically wrong and Gwen ultimately sets them right and discovers why she’s been sent to this weird-pants school.

Which seems okay, but there’s a lot going on in this book. It’s a boarding school book and a book about mythologically descended teenagers and a book about a girl who doesn’t know her own history and a book about an intrepid girl detective (Veronica Mars is name-dropped, so plus ten points) and a book about a girl who likes a guy but can’t quite get with him and it is just a lot of books all at once! And none of the books are really well developed, so I couldn’t hang on to one and go with it because I just found myself lost. I get that you didn’t pay attention in “myth-history” class, Gwen, but that is no reason to know absolutely nothing about the school you attend, and even less reason not to believe in magic when you HAVE IT. Double sigh.

The ending, though… the ending is the best part of the book for me. Gwen finally finds out what the heck is going on and she also (spoilers?) gets some extra power to play with and makes some enemies, but then of course I’m meant to read the next book to find out what’s going to happen next and after this one I am just not motivated. I guess I’ll put that on the “maybe someday eventually” pile with rather a lot of other sequels.

Recommendation: For those who like mythology and adventures and don’t mind a simple, fast-paced plot.

Rating: 5/10

an RIP read