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 Stand, by Stephen King

The StandThis book. I don’t even know what to do with it.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times, I tried to read this book on a vacation a couple years ago and got just over halfway through before the vacation ended and I got caught up in other, shorter books. So when it became the October read for my book club, I was like, hey, now I’ll finally have to read the darn thing! But of course I didn’t remember much of the first half, so I started over at the beginning and read the whole updated version, all 1200 pages of it, over the course of three and a half weeks. I am never getting those three and a half weeks of my reading life back.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not a good book, it’s just not the book I wanted it to be. I always forget that Stephen King’s doorstops are focused more on worldbuilding than on, say, story or plot or characters, and I get frustrated when things refuse to move at a reasonable pace and when the “I know something that character doesn’t know” lasts chapter after chapter after chapter with no resolution in sight. It didn’t help that I’d recently read Station Eleven, which, as I described to my book club, is kind of like The Stand but twenty years later and a heck of a lot quicker. Oh, quicker, I miss you.

But The Stand was a truly appropriate read right now, with Ebola in the news and the flu starting to go around, so I was probably more creeped out by it than I would have been had I actually finished it two years ago. Yay, creepy!

If you don’t know, The Stand follows the accidental release of a manmade flu that kills something like 99 percent or more of the US population, if not the world’s population. The first many chapters involve lots of people developing a sniffle and then dying a horrific death, and then eventually the survivors of these chapters start dreaming about a Good person and an Evil person and they start seeking out their preferred new leader. Mostly the book sticks with the Good survivors as they all make their way to Nebraska and then Boulder, Colorado, where they settle and collect more survivors and work to form an interim government and get life back on track. There’s a running undercurrent of worry about the Evil survivors and their creepy-pants leader Randall Flagg that is obviously going to have to resolve itself in some kind of epic showdown, but mostly the book is just about people doing day-to-day things in a strange new world.

I had no trouble coming back to the book every day to find out what was going on with all these people that I was starting to care for and worry about, though I really wanted that whole epic showdown thing to show up quick because seriously, I wanted to know who was going to win. So then when I got to the showdown and spoilers, it’s neither epic nor really showdown-y, I was like, you have got to be kidding me. And yes, I get that that’s kind of the point, that life doesn’t actually have epic showdowns even when people bring atomic bombs to a gunfight (no, really), but I WANTED A SHOWDOWN, people.

At least I totally called the survival of my favorite characters at the expense of my only-slightly-less-favorite characters, because otherwise I would have had to go find a print copy of this book in order to fling it across the room. Throwing a Kindle is just not the same.

Recommendation: Go read Station Eleven, it’s so much shorter and probably better. Or read this if you’ve got the time and the inclination to enjoy Stephen King. It’s a decent one.

Rating: 6/10

RIP Update

Hello lovely RIPers and spectators! The weather around here has been hinting at fall, but it hasn’t quite taken hold yet. My sweaters are quivering in the dresser!

The StandBut it’s definitely been a spooky couple of weeks around here. As I mentioned on Friday, I’ve been reading The Stand for my book club, which so far has been mostly re-reading; I read half of the book two years ago on vacation and then never got around to reading the rest of it. I’m glad I re-read the first half, as I had forgotten all but the broadest strokes of the story, but the fact that it took me two weeks to get through that first half again is a bit disheartening. After the first harrowing bit where everyone’s dying of government-made flu (which is even more harrowing with the start of regular flu season and the recent ebola worries), there’s been a lot of nothing going on, although it’s clear that King’s building up to a big fight between Good and Evil. I’m intrigued to see where it goes, but I’m not really in any hurry to get there.

HannibalIn TV, Scott and I finished up Hannibal season one, which definitely got better and creepier after those first two episodes, largely because it becomes more obvious that Hannibal is not only a bad guy, but the bad guy. He’s very very good at being the bad guy, too, which led to me being angry at fictional characters at the end of the season when Hannibal has them completely outsmarted. I had to look up the storyline for the second season to make sure that I wouldn’t want to kill Hannibal myself whenever that season gets around to being on demand for me. Come soon!

What are you all consuming in the spirit of the season?

11/22/63, by Stephen King

So, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I was not terribly excited for this book club pick. I’ve read and liked a few Stephen King books lately, but I’ve also been stuck halfway through The Stand since I got back from vacation at the beginning of August. I just can’t find time to read the other 500 pages when I could spend that time reading a whole book, you know? 11/22/63 is nearly as hefty, at 850 pages, and I was just not sure I could make it, especially since I started reading the book three days before book club.

However. It seems that King turned his “compulsively readable” dial up to eleven while writing this book, and so I found myself up into the wee hours of Sunday morning finishing it because I just had to know what happened! Excellent! Less excellent: the what that happened.

But let’s back up here. So the plot of the story, as you may already know, is that there’s a fella who gets himself recruited to go back in time and prevent the assassination of JFK. This I was leery of, as I know approximately squat about said assassination and I have a mostly-hate relationship with historical-type novels. But the lead-up to the time travelling is actually really well done, as the protagonist must be convinced to do it and so therefore I found myself convinced that this was totally a fantastic idea. Well, kind of a fantastic idea. The idea seems less fantastic the farther you go in the book.

Anyway, part of the convincing consists of proving that our fella, Jake, can change the past, and those chapters are probably the most compelling of the whole novel, because Jake actually cares about the people whose lives he is attempting to change and because it is interesting to see how the “obdurate” (this is a recurring word) past will try to trip him up.

Then the JFK part starts and it is unfortunately less exciting, largely because Jake has to hang out in the past for five years before he can actually, you know, stop the assassination. It’s interesting, because I now know slightly more than squat about JFK and Oswald and Dallas and all the events that wove these people together, and about the awesome conspiracy theories that exist, but it is also very long. There’s also a love story bit in here that is okay as far as unnecessary love stories go, but seriously, five years, yawwwn. Luckily King uses one of my favorite storytelling techniques, the “here’s what’s going to happen a few pages from now but hang on while I get us there” technique, to keep me turning those pages.

So I liked the story, overall, from beginning to whatever might happen when Jake finally meets up with Oswald, but then instead of, like, ending the story King goes off in a different direction entirely and (spoilers?) tries to explain how the time travel works and how it affects the future and it gets a bit post-apocalyptic but then manages to end on a really sappy note. I guess it was the right ending for the book as written, but I was over here expecting a different kind of book. Darn you, expectations!

Recommendation: For those who need an arm workout, or like history, or who are planning their own visit to November 1963?

Rating: 7/10

Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

So I was gonna say I haven’t read much Stephen King lately, which is technically true, but then I realized that this is my third King book this year! Is it possible I’m coming around to King again, after many many years away? I think it might be.

I had heard of this book but wasn’t interested in picking it up, because it’s newer and I have this prejudice against “new King” that I picked up around the time I read and was greatly disappointed by Cell. I was like, King has stopped being creepy and spooky and interesting and is instead some crotchety old man and pfft whatever. This may not be a correct assumption on my part, but it’s stuck, and so when I saw that this was next up for my book club, I was equal parts “ohhhhh this is going to suck” and “hey, maybe it won’t be so bad.”

And it wasn’t so bad! In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is one of my favorite books out of King, and it is definitely my favorite of his collections (of which I have read not very many). There are four novellas included, though one is like forty pages and seems a little short for that category, and I found all of them to be awesome. And even better, I found all of them to fit in with each other in some way or other, which is a fun thing in a collection — I learned from this one that King has a thing against librarians, a thing for biting, a thing for people getting away with murder, and a thing for making me think a story will go one way and then totally not doing that. Fantastic.

I don’t want to say too much about the stories proper, because they are short and I found that the descriptions I read after the fact just did not live up to the stories themselves and I don’t want to fail you guys! But if you need something to get you started, I’d summarize the stories as follows: 1922 is a rambling confession letter, Big Driver is the story of an author’s trip gone horribly terribly wrong (and then horribly terribly wronger), Fair Extension offers up an interesting way to deal with cancer, and A Good Marriage is about, well, a good marriage that’s suddenly not.

Oh, I should also mention that there is rather a lot of violence and horribleness, especially in Big Driver, and so if you are not inclined to appreciate or tolerate such things, I would recommend against this collection. I have to admit I almost quit Big Driver more than once, and at least one person in my book club did give up on it. But in general I don’t think it’s too much worse than Misery, if that gives you a reference point.

Recommendation: For fans of awful things that aren’t happening to themselves and awful people they hope they’ll never meet.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge)

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)