Kate’s Review: “The Natural Way of Things”

28251422Book: “The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood

Publishing Info: Europa Editions, June 2016 (originally Allen & Unwin, October 2015)

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted.

Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue – but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.

The Natural Way of Things is a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Most of all, it is the story of two friends, their sisterly love and courage.

With extraordinary echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, The Natural Way of Things is a compulsively readable, scarifying and deeply moving contemporary novel. It confirms Charlotte Wood’s position as one of our most thoughtful, provocative and fearless truth-tellers, as she unflinchingly reveals us and our world to ourselves.

Review: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read a version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that was amped up on steroids? Well “The Natural Way of Things” takes it a few steps further and puts it on PCP. This is one of the books that I heard about through a description my mother sent me via email. She knows what I like. Set in a desolate Outback wasteland, I also got hints of “Mad Max: Fury Road” from this book, as it’s a violent tale of misogyny run amok. Unfortunately in this one the imprisoned women don’t have an Imperator Furiosa or Max Rockatansky there to whisk them away in a tanker truck. These women, their crimes getting caught in a sex scandal with a man or men with a considerable amount of power, are trapped in a desert complex with sadistic guards and a dwindling food supply. Rough, rough stuff. Thanks for sending it my way, Mom. This is the same woman who sent me a review of the awesome “What Belongs To You”, a book that starts with a gay hook-up in a public bathroom in Bulgaria.

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Probably my Mom whenever she shoots me an edgy book recommendation. (source)

But I’m glad that it’s rough stuff. I like that Charlotte Wood takes a hideous thing and doesn’t make it titillating, doesn’t gloss it over. There are descriptions in this book, from wounds to violence to homemade tampons with gross supplies, that made me cringe and flinch. The crime these women committed was the crime of being sexual beings whose sexuality threatened male power structures. Is it a little on the nose? Sure. But that doesn’t make it any less effective.

We mainly follow two women in particular. There’s the young and fierce Yolanda, who had sex with a number of players on a sports team (though the consent of this was, to me, questionable at best). Then there’s Verla, a bit more mild mannered and caught in an affair with a high powered politician. They cope in different ways with their capture. Yolanda becomes obsessed with trapping and skinning rabbits for food, while Verla hunts ceaselessly for mushrooms. Their routines and their deep friendship is what keeps them going, but their circumstances are so horrific you kind of wonder why they would want to. I loved both of them in their own ways, Yolanda for her ferocity and Verla for her cunning. They are strong in very different ways, being two examples of well written and tough female characters who are still realistic within their circumstances. The other women are also given a lot of depth, with a lot of them having their own unique personalities. Some of them are kind, others are not, but they are all victims and Wood makes it clear that none of them deserve what is being heaped upon them.

Wood’s writing is literary and her prose is haunting. There are passages and phrases in this book that flow effortlessly and evoke vivid imagery. She portrayed this camp so well that I could see the dust in the air, feel the heat, smell the stenches. It was a hard read, but in it’s horror and devastation there was a beauty in her words and a poetry in her writing. Her characters are also well drawn out, from the prisoners to the guards as well. There are a couple of guards we focus on, and while they do have their moments of extreme violence towards women, their disdain for women in general adds to the violence in another way. One of the guards is described as a hippie type who loves yoga, but his poisonous bile he spews about his ex girlfriend goes to show that words can also reduce women to animals, almost as much as leashes and prisons can. I almost had a harder time reading these horrible words he was saying about a woman who wasn’t even present, just because who knows how many women are spoken of in such a dehumanizing and objectifying way every minute of every day. This was the realest part of the book, and it was a punch in the gut.

I think that the only part of this book I had an actual critical hard time with (because I mean, I had a hard time with a lot of it) was that I wasn’t totally certain if this was supposed to be set in the present, real Australia, or a fictional dystopian Australia. Lots of people have listed it as Sci-Fi and Speculative fiction, but I didn’t really see much that would imply that this was the case. Well, outside of the whole ‘women rounded up and sent to a prison camp for being involved in sex scandals’ thing. I guess that to me it didn’t really scream Sci-Fi as a whole with just that aspect of it.

In a time where rape culture and misogyny is being spoken of more and more, I think that a book like “The Natural Way of Things” is an important work to showcase and talk about. “Mad Max: Fury Road” brought up these themes and attracted the ire of angry misogynists all over the Internet. “The Natural Way of Things” pushes these themes further, and flat out spits in the faces of those same creeps. It wasn’t an easy book to read, but it’s scathing take down of societal hypocrisy and violent chauvinism makes it a must read.

Rating 8: A scathing and well written novel about dangerous misogyny and rebellion. This should probably be on Women’s Studies reading lists everywhere, and that’s not snark.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Natural Way of Things” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Best Feminist Fiction”, and “Australian Speculative Fiction”.

Find “The Natural Way of Things” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock”

27064358Book: “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” by Paul Tremblay

Publishing Info: William Morrow, June 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Late one summer night, Elizabeth Sanderson receives the devastating news that every mother fears: her fourteen-year-old son, Tommy, has vanished without a trace in the woods of a local park.

The search isn’t yielding any answers, and Elizabeth and her young daughter, Kate, struggle to comprehend his disappearance. Feeling helpless and alone, their sorrow is compounded by anger and frustration. The local and state police haven’t uncovered any leads. Josh and Luis, the friends who were with Tommy last, may not be telling the whole truth about that night in Borderland State Park, when they were supposedly hanging out a landmark the local teens have renamed Devil’s Rock— rumored to be cursed.

Living in an all-too-real nightmare, riddled with worry, pain, and guilt, Elizabeth is wholly unprepared for the strange series of events that follow. She believes a ghostly shadow of Tommy materializes in her bedroom, while Kate and other local residents claim to see a shadow peering through their own windows in the dead of night. Then, random pages torn from Tommy’s journal begin to mysteriously appear—entries that reveal an introverted teenager obsessed with the phantasmagoric; the loss of his father, killed in a drunk-driving accident a decade earlier; a folktale involving the devil and the woods of Borderland; and a horrific incident that Tommy believed connected them all and changes everything.

As the search grows more desperate, and the implications of what happened becomes more haunting and sinister, no one is prepared for the shocking truth about that night and Tommy’s disappearance at Devil’s Rock.

Review: So the other night, the moment finished “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock”, I closed the book, set it on my night stand, and thought to myself

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(source)

I knew that I would need to ruminate on it for a little bit and let it stew. Its interesting, because Tremblay’s other book I’ve read, “A Head Full Of Ghosts”, seemed pretty straight forward and clear cut to me. I devoured that one, made an opinion, and called it a day, even though I know that others contest my theory about it (my friend Hillary in particular). But with “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” I found myself filled with questions. After going back and not only thinking about it, but re-reading parts of it as well, I have made up my mind about this book: I greatly enjoyed it. Part of that enjoyment comes from the fact that there isn’t really any clarity as to what really happened. We have about as much knowledge as the characters in this book, cobbled together from diary entries, hearsay, unreliable witness statements, and local legends and rumors. The big question is what happened to Tommy Sanderson? Is it supernatural, or just a regular, worldly evil? Tremblay is great at making you question the things that you read in his books, and boy was I questioning everything.

I first want to talk about the family that is holding out hope for Tommy. Tremblay writes the horror a parent feels when their child is missing in an honest and empathetic way, as Elizabeth is at times both completely panicked and anxiety driven, to numb and almost subdued. She has her moments of doubting everyone around her, even her other child, Kate, and wondering if anyone is being one hundred percent honest with her and what they know. It doesn’t help matters that she is convinced that she saw a vision of Tommy in his room after his disappearance, a shadowy shape crouched down and looking distorted. She feels his presence, she sees him, she smells him, but questions if it’s Tommy, or a ghost, or an omen, or merely her faculties starting to fall apart. This isn’t the first horrific loss that the family has experienced, as the family patriarch left them and then was killed in a drunk driving accident, which raises more questions about Tommy as well. Is this something that has haunted him and affected him for all these years? Is this a trauma that he never really recovered from, and that has altered his state of emotional being? Is this why he’s obsessed with zombies and disaster? Elizabeth’s inability to know and the fact that it is driving her mad is so heartbreaking, but so real. It’s also very hard to read about how it’s all affecting Kate, her other child and Tommy’s little sister. Kate is also hurting and scared, but has this twelve year old girl need to be tough and a supportive, so much so that she makes some very bad decisions when she thinks that she is taking care of her Mom. Seeing the role reversal of a child caring for a parent in this way is always so sad, and Elizabeth and Kate are just another well done example of this dichotomy. I really liked Kate and how Tremblay wrote her, complications and all.

The only insight we get into Tommy’s state of mind is through a frenzied journal, and what his friends and loved ones say about him. His friends portray him as just one of the gang, part of a group that is still having their long summer adventures a la “Stand By Me” or “The Goonies”. But Tremblay slowly reveals that maybe this isn’t the case, and that maybe even their perceptions and depictions of him, even beyond the secrets they are keeping, aren’t quite true either. Those around him only see him through the lenses of a mother, a little sister, and his pals, until the strange and upsetting diary is found. And even that is unclear as to what is the truth and what isn’t. I think that by making Tommy so mysterious, even when so much of him is laid out in the open, is what makes this book all the more scary, and all the more tragic. The one thing that is clear from all of the misdirection and false fronts is that Tommy is lost in more ways than one, and seeing it all written out and pieced together was incredibly heartbreaking. He is searching for someone to really understand him, and unfortunately a rather cryptic and strange character realizes this, and decides to take advantage of it. In this way, the horror of the story is far more real than ghosts, or devils, or other things that go bump in the night. It became evident that, even though perhaps there are strange and supernatural things afoot, the real scary thing is that sometimes we don’t really know those that we care about the most, and if they disappear we will be left with a huge, gaping hole that is filled with far too many questions. And we ultimately may not be able to protect them from those who want to take advantage of them.

And since this is a horror book, and since Tremblay is a damn fine horror writer, I need to talk about the creepy and weird shit that goes down. I already have an abject fear of waking up in the night to see a strange shadow person in the window or in the corner of my room, so whenever this part of the story happened shivers ran up my spine. Shadow people are present in many different kinds of folklore, and the way that they were described in this book was so effective and upsetting that I still feel a bit disturbed by it, a few days after finishing it. I like that Tremblay gives different explanations, from mass hysteria to the Third Man Phenomenon to just plain out supernatural terror. There is one scene written out in transcript form, that describes a Shadow Being combined with a bit of Uncanny horror to top it off, and I was practically shaking I was so tense. I don’t want to give anything away, but my God, it was so unsettling that it’s really sticking with me. Ultimately, the concept of shadow figures and shadow doubles could be a metaphor for other things, or it could just be a flat out creepy entity to instill fear into the reader. But it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that it scared the hell out of me, as unless it were a “Parent Trap” kind of situation I think that the thought of running into a Shadow Double or Doppelganger is just the very worst. Ugh. Thanks, Mr. Tremblay, for freaking me the hell out in that regard.

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More like ‘let’s stalk outside peoples’ windows together’, am I right?! (source)

I was left super disturbed by “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock”, and though it took a bit to build up and terrify me, terrify me it did. Paul Tremblay has continued to prove himself to be one of the best horror writers out there at the moment, filling his stories with scares and also a lot of emotions. And a whole lot of ambiguity, which I have accepted and come to really, really appreciate. If you read it at night, don’t do it by a window.

Rating 8: A slow burn horror story that is both terrifying and tragic, this newest book from the fabulous Paul Tremblay is another true winner. Ambiguity abound, but that can be the best thing about a horror story.

Reader’s Advisory:

Since “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” is still fairly new, it isn’t on many Goodreads Lists at the moment. However, with the themes it has, I would say look at “Popular Missing Persons Books” and “Popular Coming of Age Books”. And hey, if you have Netflix, give “Stranger Things” a try because MAN are they similar in a lot of ways (and I mean that it absolutely the best way possible)!

Find “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Loney”

25458371Book: “The Loney” by Andrew Michael Hurley

Publishing Info: John Murray, August 2015 (first published September, 2014)

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest.

It was impossible to truly know the place. It changed with each influx and retreat, and the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents. No one ever went near the water. No one apart from us, that is.

I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden for ever, no matter how much I wanted it to. No matter how hard I tried to forget…

Review: Gothic horror is a genre that has been making something of a comeback in recent years. The themes of isolation and madness and the inability to trust what you are seeing are all very upsetting, and in a time when manor homes and country life has changed and dwindled these themes have evolved to fit even the urban life. So perhaps our recent fears of losing touch with each other in spite of being so connected have paved the way for this comeback. “The Loney” by Andrew Michael Hurley goes back to the basics of the gothic horror novel, setting it in an earlier time and yet making it feel even earlier. Though it takes place in the 1970s in England, sometimes I felt like it was the turn of the century given the superstitions and moralities that ruled in this book.

It concerns Smith, a man who in present days hears of a news story of a child’s remains, found in the area where his family took a Catholic Pilgrimmage in the 1970s when he was a boy. He takes the reader back in time to this long forgotten and repressed weekend. His older brother, Hanny, can’t talk, and their mother Mummer, zealously Catholic and desperate to cure him, thinks that a ritual in this area will cure him. Her strict and dogmatic approach to Catholicism is in stark contrast to that of the new Priest, Father Bernard, who is far more meditative and lenient when it comes to Christ’s teachings. The Old Ways versus Reform is one of the many themes in this book, as change is both sought out but also feared. Mummer doesn’t believe that medicine can cure Hanny, but also thinks that this new Priest isn’t devout enough, in spite of the fact he very well may be representative of changing times and ideals. Mummer is putting her faith into Father Bernard, but has no actual faith in him because he doesn’t line up with what she thinks faith should be. The priest who better lines up with her was Father Wilfred, a tyranical and steadfast priest who passed away shortly before their trip, a death surrounded by strange rumors of it’s circumstances.

And then there are the locals, which consist of two groups. The first is a man and woman couple, and a pregnant teenager that Hanny is especially taken by. Smith and Hanny don’t get much concrete information about the girl, why she is here, and who the father of her child is. Just that this may not necessarily be her first time at the birthing rodeo. Then there are the strange men who wander through the countryside with their dog, and in and out of the pilgrims’ path. I couldn’t help but get some serious “Wicker Man” (the original, not the terrible remake) vibes whenever they came into play, their own beliefs in stark contrast to those of Mummer and Father Bernard (and the newly deceased Father Wilfred). They too have their own rituals and beliefs, and their own zealotry. I can’t say that the way that they were mysterious and threatening in their weird ways was a new concept, but it did serve an interesting purpose in this book when contrasted with Mummer’s beliefs. Mummer may be faithful and righteous, but she is cruel and cold to her children, especially Hanny. And then you have the strange and threatening locals who have their own anti-Christian beliefs, but who ultimately get shit done in their own ways, even if it is also pretty terrible. And given that this book takes place in Lancashire, the area that has a history of witch trials and witch burnings, the locals and their motives and powers are all the more relevant and creepy. It became clear by the end that “The Loney” was a meditation of faith, religion, and true belief at the expense of others. Even if true belief does work in some cases, there is always going to be some kind of cost.

I say that this is horror because the setting is classic to the genre. The characters wander around misty and dank moors, surrounded by coastline, marsh, and ruins. Smith feels alone in his own fears and skepticism of how this pilgrimage will go, but his love for his older brother makes him desperate to believe that all is well, even when it’s clear that it most certainly isn’t. But while the themes were spot on in this book, in gothic tone and religious reflection, I think that my biggest problem with this book was that it wasn’t particularly scary. At least not to me. I had gone in expecting some kind of slow burn creepiness that would unsettle me through and through, but instead I was just sort of ‘oh. okay’ by the end of it. The themes are interesting, and I liked the comparison and contrasting between the Catholic beliefs and the beliefs and strange, Nativity-esque ritual that the locals were doing (and whose grim climax fittingly happens during Easter weekend). The metaphor and symbolism weren’t lost on me. But I wish that it had been scarier.

For those looking for a scary book, “The Loney” may not be for you. But for those looking for an examination of deep and unyielding faith and the awful things it can reap, you may want to check it out.

Rating 7: A story with fascinating themes on religion and zealous faith, but not as scary as I had hoped it would be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Loney” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Folk Horror and Mystery”, and “Best of Little Known Authors”.

Find “The Loney” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Lovecraft Country”

25109947Book: “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff

Publishing Info: Harper, February 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

Review: As a fan of horror literature, it’s no surprise that I do have a fondness for the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Last year my husband got me the complete annotated Lovecraft for our anniversary, and it sits on my shelf in it’s huge and daunting glory. Cthulhu is also one of the most badass literary monsters out there. But here is the thing about Lovecraft: He was an unrepentant racist and white supremacist. People can trot out the ‘man of his time’ argument, but that doesn’t matter at the end of the day. I don’t think that there is a problem enjoying his works and his writing, but to deny that other side of him is inherently dishonest and problematic.

And that brings us to “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff. Ruff takes the works of Lovecraft and pays homage to them while simultaneously exploring and exposing American racism. He splits this book into multiple parts that all have their own little twists on Lovecraft stories or Lovecraft themes, and while they could probably stand alone, they all combine into an overarching narrative. While all of these stories have magical elements, from a haunted house to a magical cult of sorcerers to a magic elixir, all of these elements are connected to race. The haunted house does house a ghost, but the creaks and bumps in the night may also be the neighbors who are angry that a black woman has moved in. The sorcerer cult hopes to use Atticus as a vessel, as his ancestor was a slave who was raped by her master and started his recent familial line. The magical elixir gives a black woman the ability to turn white when it would be beneficial to her. They all reek of Lovecraft, but are so much more.

Our protagonists, led by Atticus Turner, are all members of an African American family in Jim Crow Era America, but their hardship and experiences of violent racism are by no means limited to the Deep South. Atticus has his uncle’s “Safe Negro Travel Guide” (based on “The Green Book”) to tell him what areas are or aren’t safe for him and George to be in, but that doesn’t keep him immune or safe from non-magical threats such as racist cops and locals who threaten or even give chase to them. It was pretty clear from the get go that the greatest threats in this book were not going to be Cthulhus or ancient ones, but White America and the hatred and bigotry that it stewed in during the time period of the novel. On the cover of this book, designed to look like a pulp novel, there are a number of things that show you just what you’re getting into. The blurb that sticks out says ‘America’s Demons Exposed!’, and right below it there are images of ghostly figures that look a whole lot like the Klan. This book is less about Lovecrafts works, and more about Lovecrafts thoughts, thoughts that were shared by people in all parts of America. And I think that Ruff did a great job of using this theme to talk about the ugliness that still haunts us today, even though we as a country are so uncomfortable thinking and facing that. America’s demons indeed.

And plus there were definitely some really creepy parts in this book. My favorite section was that of the Haunted House, “Dreams of the Which House” (a play on Lovecraft’s “Dreams in a Witch House” in both title and theme). The story concerns Letitia, Atticus’ childhood friend who had accompanied him on his road trip. She is looking to buy a house, and the one that Letitia settles on is in an all white neighborhood. It’s also very cheap because it’s haunted. So when Letitia is spending time in this house, there are strange and scary things that the ghost does. But then, there is an even bigger threat from the neighbors, who have started to harass Letitia just as much as a ghost might. I liked this one the best because I liked Letitia, I liked how she interacted with the ghost, and I liked how she made a stand in her house against ghost and Klan alike. Ruff also did a very good job of addressing racism in housing and property rights in this chapter, and microaggressions faced in day to day living (with Letitia and Atticus both being assumed to be ‘the help’ in her own home by white characters).

And I should say that while I think that Ruff did a good job, my perspective is that of a white woman, so if there are issues that POC have with this interpretation of racial oppression and bigotry, please do let me know.

“Lovecraft Country” is a book that I hope Lovecraft fans will read. I hope that many people will read it, as it explores themes that we simply can’t ignore.

Rating 8: A very well done horror story on both supernatural and realistic levels.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Lovecraft Country” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Quality Dark Fiction”, and “Best Weird Fiction Books”.

Find “Lovecraft Country” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Vampire Lestat”

43814Book: “The Vampire Lestat” by Anne Rice

Publishing Info: Knopf, 1985

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Once an aristocrat in the heady days of pre-revolutionary France, now Lestat is a rockstar in the demonic, shimmering 1980s. He rushes through the centuries in search of others like him, seeking answers to the mystery of his terrifying exsitence. His story, the second volume in Anne Rice’s best-selling Vampire Chronicles, is mesmerizing, passionate, and thrilling.

Review: When I was in high school, like many teenage girls who didn’t feel like they fit in anywhere, I went through a few identity explorations. I was a hippie, I was a rocker, I was a punk, and I was, mostly at the heart of myself, a goth. Black lipstick, black nail polish, dog collar, I had all of that and a sullen attitude and an obsession with the macabre. Though not as extreme, I was kind of Molly Shannon’s character from the “Goth Talk” Saturday Night Live skit.

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Though my best friend was more of a flannel and Minnesota Wild merchandise kind of guy. (source)

I also had a serious love for vampires. This was before “Twilight”, so my objects of obsession were “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles”. I read “Interview with the Vampire”, “The Vampire Lestat”, and “Queen of the Damned”, but quit the series once I figured out that it was super different from the movie “Queen of the Damned”, which was probably where my true heart was in regards to that that universe. But that should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, as that movie was all about vampire bad boy goth rocker Lestat and his swagger.

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I’m not sorry. (source)

So one night my husband and I decided to watch “Queen of the Damned”, and the next day I decided to pick up “The Vampire Lestat” at work. Call me inspired. It wasn’t long after starting, though, that I realized just how much that movie bastardized the book, the characters, most everything from the Anne Rice stories. I guess I’d blocked that out.

Picking up after “Interview with The Vampire”, “The Vampire Lestat” is the origin story of that book’s antagonist, Lestat de Lioncourt. We knew he was a snarky snippy bad boy in “Interview”, so now we get his side of the story in “The Vampire Lestat”. Unlike “Interview”, “The Vampire Lestat” is a book about a vampire who has few to no regrets about who he is at the end of the day. What I had forgotten from my high school years is that Lestat is not only a brat and an egoist, he also probably has too many emotions and feelings about those around him and those he cares about, which ultimately screws him over again and again. I like that Rice gave him the same problems as other angsty vampires of that trope, but instead of being gloomy and sulky, he turns it into armor. Lestat is definitely a cruel and destructive character by the end of this book, but seeing why he is that way is the kind of story I am a huge, huge sucker for. I especially liked his relationship with his friend and lover Nicky, a sensitive soul who isn’t cut out for the vampire life. It lays groundwork for why Lestat is so drawn to Louis, in spite of their clear differences. The descriptions of the decadent life of pre-Revolutionary France were sumptuous and rich, and Rice took me to every single place that she wanted to. While her writing can tread into the melodramatic at times, I love how she can really transport the reader into her world.

I also like the brass balls that Rice had in writing an openly bisexual character (knowing some of his love interests down the line I say bisexual instead of gay) to be her protagonist. While I’m sure in the 80s it could have been written off as ‘he’s a vampire and therefore some kind of twisted creature’, the love that Lestat has for Nicky and Louis both is never portrayed as anything other than real and all encompassing. True, they aren’t the most healthy of relationships (at all), but in the subtlety and banter and tenderness of these characters, Rice wrote up a story far more romantic than the movie version of “Queen of the Damned” did when they forced Lestat into a monogamous and hetero relationship with Jessie (not that I’m not a fan of that too, because I am, but it seems so sanitized compared to this book. And that came out in 2002! This book was written in 1985 for God’s sake!). And tragic. So very tragic. Lestat has vulnerability in this book that I had completely forgotten about, but it doesn’t compromise how ruthless he is. If anything the fact that he can love so much and be so cruel and vicious makes him all the more intriguing to me.

But then there are the not as good things. This book suffers from serious  fantasy bloat, as while it is supposed to be Lestat’s story we also get some background for other characters that doesn’t feel like it fits. I love Marius and I like Armand, but I wasn’t here for their stories, I was here for Lestat’s. Unfortunately, these backgrounds were shoehorned in, and I found myself skimming those parts, which is too bad because that mythology is definitely interesting. I just didn’t feel that it fit in this story. There was also the uncomfortable relationship that Lestat had with Gabrielle, his first vampire fledgling who also happens to be his mother. While nothing was explicit and while Lestat was more preoccupied with Nicky, the weird erotic undertones between these two were a bit off putting. I want to like Gabrielle, because there is a lot of depth there. She has her place as a woman during the 1700s, so becoming a vampire gives her a new freedom that she never could have experienced when she was alive. So it’s really unfortunate that her presence was a bit more uncomfortable than it should have been given the potential that was there.

Overall, re-reading “The Vampire Lestat” was a fun endeavor if only because I appreciated it a bit more this time around. I will probably re-visit “Queen of the Damned” (the book) at some point, but for now I’m content with the bastardized movie and thinking about Lestat, Louis, and Nicky.

Rating 7: I love Lestat to death and his voice is snarky, bitchy, and dark. His story, however, is a bit convoluted and sometimes loses him as the main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vampire Lestat” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Rooting for the Bad Guy”, and “Best Gay Vampires” (you knew this was coming. Lestat and Louis FOREVER!).

Find “The Vampire Lestat” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Book Club Review: “Warm Bodies”

9475392We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub! 

Book: “Warm Bodies” by Isaac Marion

Publishing Info: Atria, October 2010

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got the audiobook from the library

Book Description from Goodreads: R is a young man with an existential crisis–he is a zombie. He shuffles through an America destroyed by war, social collapse, and the mindless hunger of his undead comrades, but he craves something more than blood and brains. He can speak just a few grunted syllables, but his inner life is deep, full of wonder and longing. He has no memories, no identity, and no pulse. Just dreams.

After experiencing a teenage boy’s memories while consuming his brain, R makes an unexpected choice that begins a tense, awkward, and strangely sweet relationship with the victim’s human girlfriend. Julie is a burst of vibrant color in the otherwise dreary and gray landscape that R lives in. His decision to protect her will transform not only R, but his fellow Dead, and perhaps their whole lifeless world…

Serena’s Thoughts:

I read this book several years ago, and watched the movie right when it came out, so when bookclub decided to do a “book/movie” theme, this was an easy choice for me! I hadn’t re-read it since, and with the movie version being the more recent version I had experienced for the story, it was fun reviewing the original material and seeing the difference from the reverse perspective as well.

I think this book flew beneath the radar for quite a while before it was announced as a movie, and then when it was, everyone dismissed it as “zombie romance.” Which, really, shouldn’t that intrigue people, not put them off? But alas, judgement arose. And given that the new editions of the books have been released with the movie cover (a whole post could be committed to the subject of how much I hate movie-covers for books), I can’t even blame people who pass this over with that thought. I mean, look at this thing!

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Can you get any more teen-pop-stereotypical-romance-looking than that? No, the answer is no. And this is a tragedy, because the story is not that at all. Sure, there is some romance, but it’s sad to see what is a very philosophical book be overlooked simply because of that inclusion.

R is such an intriguing narrator. For a character whose actual dialogue is limited to brief syllables, he’s quite verbose as a protagonist. While much of the changing that he goes through can be attributed to his run in with Perry’s brain (the teenage boy he eats on one scavenging trip) and Julie, the living girl he befriends, R is clearly a force of change himself. With brutal honesty, he evaluates zombie society, humanity, and the force of human will.

With so many pop-culture representations of zombie-hood currently, Marion’s version is very intriguing. Zombies are often just stumbling, groaning, beasts. But here, they have, at the most basic sense, a world of their own. Their attempts to re-create life through human constructs such as marriage, school, and religion, all while bereft of the inner feelings that accompany them is not only sad but deeply disturbing. Further, Marion succeeds at something that the poor, struggling writers of “The Walking Dead” tv series have been attempting for so long: connecting the dots between the living and the zombie-fied. “We are the walking dead,” and all of that, but done in a subtle and truly impactful manner (unlike certain shows…).

I haven’t spent much time talking about Julie, and I think she was the biggest surprise for me when I re-read this book. The first go around, I didn’t really put much thought into her as a character. This time, looking more closely, I appreciate the fine line that Marion walked when writing her. She could so easily fall into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl category. But for all of her snappy lines and crafty bedroom design (cuz of course, she’s a teen girl, then obviously she must paper mache her room!), Julie’s background is dark. Much darker than I had remembered. These struggles help round her out as a character and allow her to offer a unique perspective into the world of the Living, without getting too caught up in the super sweet, “hope is all you need!” naivety that she could have been reduced to.

All in all, I had a really fun time returning to this book!

Kate’s Thoughts:

Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that it wasn’t me who picked the zombie book for our bookclub, but our dear Serena. But that should just go to show that this book isn’t just for fans of the horror and zombie genre. I think that the nice thing about the zombie genre, when done well, is that it’s usually far more about humanity and the human psyche than it is about marauding monsters. The few exceptions I can think of are “Dawn of the Dead” (the original), in which zombies are drawn to a mall because of a instinctual need for the routine of their past lives, and “Day of the Dead,” in which Bub the zombie starts to relearn various human emotions and actions, and feels affection for the man who has “created” him in a way. So “Warm Bodies” kind of took that concept and ran with it. Marion takes it even further though, and deconstructs just what makes humanity in a person, and gets way existential about it. Which kind of surprised me in the best way possible.

It took me a little while to warm up to R, as I did, admittedly, have a hard time with how he just kind of took Julie under guise of keeping her safe, and hid from her that he had, uh, eaten her boyfriend. But as he went on, he really, really grew on me, and I became very fond of him and his journey of self discovery. His rumination about what it means to be human, and his descriptions of the zombie culture and how it functions on indifference and complacence, were so thought provoking and tragically beautiful that I was completely enraptured with his voice and narration. I love the idea that zombies aren’t really totally lost if they look for connections and seek out beauty in life (because of R and Julie and their own connection).

Julie too makes for a very good character, like Serena said. She never rang false and never felt like she was too perfect, or too understanding and good.  I really, really loved her relationship with R. Their connection grew and progressed in a natural way, and I never felt like it was unrealistic or forced as time went on. It was also very complicated and had many layers, as R did, indeed, kill and eat her boyfriend, Perry. But even that was resolved and reconciled in a way that I found believable, and I was thinking that there was no way that I was going to be satisfied with that whole thing. Joke’s on me, I guess.

And I also want to say that M, R’s best friend, was exactly the kind of pal that I aspire to be. Snarky and sarcastic (even as a zombie) but ultimately loyal, and pretty damn great. I also liked Julie’s best friend, Nora, who is pragmatic and thoughtful, but never feels like she’s just a second fiddle. It goes to show that Marion took great care when crafting his supporting characters as well.

I greatly enjoyed “Warm Bodies.” I am so glad that I finally got to it with Serena’s good taste in book club books!

Serena’s Rating 9: Really great, even better the second time around.

Kate’s Rating 9: Such a complex and enjoyable love story, and a very deep look at what makes a human a human.

Book Club Notes and Questions:

“Warm Bodies” came out a couple years ago, nearing the end of the paranormal romance phase of teen movies and right in the midst of the rise of dystopia as the new theme. As a film, it’s a bit more light-hearted than the original source material, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a good adaptation. Nicholas Hoult plays R, a casting choice that makes almost perfect sense. First of all, his eyes are huge and expressive, and can convey so much emotion as R, even when he is still in the midst of being in his limited zombie phase. He is nuanced and subtle in his acting, and makes a believable zombie who is slowly evolving. Theresa Palmer plays Julie, and also brings justice to that role. Her back story isn’t as dark and depressing, at least it isn’t explored as much, and while it’s nice that things worked out a bit better for her, it’s too bad that we lost that character exploration. It’s also too bad that the decision was made to cast Nora, in the book a biracial woman, as a white woman. It’s not that Analeigh Tipton didn’t do a good job, because she is pretty great, but it’s a sad reminder that Hollywood is still fully into white washing characters.

1. Zombie stories have always arose from what seems to be society’s own existential fear. What is your perspective on the unique version of zombies and human society that is presented in this book?

2. It is never made quite clear what the “Bonies” are in this world. The human equate them almost to aliens and the zombies themselves almost fear them. How do you think they came to exist? Did they have their own inner society? Own goals and agendas?

3. The movie lightened up the story a lot and there were a few significant changes. What changes did you like? Were there ones you wished they hadn’t changed?

4. What notable differences between the book and movie did you see in the portrayal of the main characters (R, Julie, Perry, Nora, and M)?

5. Music, writing, and art are discussed a lot in this book. Does the story have anything to offer on the impact these things have on humanity? And the more fun question, if you were a zombie and had a favorite song, what would it be?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Warm Bodies” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Not your normal zombie!!!” and “Living On Their Own/On The Run (Teens/Young Adults).”

Find “Warm Bodies” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”

26118005Book: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” by Grady Hendrix

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description from Goodreads: Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fifth grade, when they bonded over a shared love of E.T., roller-skating parties, and scratch-and-sniff stickers. But when they arrive at high school, things change. Gretchen begins to act…different. And as the strange coincidences and bizarre behavior start to pile up, Abby realizes there’s only one possible explanation: Gretchen, her favorite person in the world, has a demon living inside her. And Abby is not about to let anyone or anything come between her and her best friend. With help from some unlikely allies, Abby embarks on a quest to save Gretchen. But is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?

Review: As a child who was born in 1984, I have vague memories of the 1980s and the cultural amazements that this decade had to offer. Much of my pop culture influences from my early years were solidly 1980s fodder, as my favorite childhood movies were “Ghostbusters” and “Bill and Ted”, I have memories of my nanny subsisting on a soundtrack of Madonna and Prince, and definitely remember a lot of shades of neon in the wardrobes of those around me. I also remember washing my Mom’s car in our driveway using a rag with Reagan’s face on it, because ‘we like wiping mud onto Reagan’s face’, as my Dad put it one day. So I have enough awareness of the decade to have at least a little bit of nostalgia for it. This means, of course, that when I heard about “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” I practically jumped out of my skin in pure, unadulterated excitement. A horror novel that drips of 1980s nostalgia?

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All this needs for maximum excitement is some Ecto-Cooler and some push pops! (source)

True, sometimes the 80s factor was laid on pretty thick, but the good news is that our protagonists, Abby and Gretchen, stand well enough on their own that they aren’t 80s stereotypes walking around on the pages. Hendrix did a really good job of creating a believable and complex girl friendship, so well that I was kind of surprised by it. Not to say that a guy can’t write this kind of thing, but it felt pretty true to life, ups and downs and all, without feeling like it was pandering to the audience. Abby is a girl from a lower income family (during a time when greed was so good) who is desperate to live the upper class life that Gretchen has, even if it’s vicariously and even if Gretchen’s parents are pretty wretched people most of the time. Gretchen’s family life is very representative of this egomaniacal Reagan’s America, and the setting of Charleston, South Carolina adds the racist and sexist and repressive attitudes of Dixie into this already gross recipe. The tension of the hierarchical culture is always present, as Abby is at a prestigious private school on scholarship, surrounded by rich kids (and administrators) who act like friends, but always see Abby as The Other because of her family income. The privilege reeks off of the kids in this school, and Hendrix brings it up through various situations and scenes that not only show the monetary privilege, but racial privilege as well. This is not an idyllic Charleston by any stretch of the imagination, as racism, misogyny, and Satanic Panic are always beneath the surface.

To me I was incredibly fascinated with Gretchen’s possession, and the ways that it manifested. For one, Gretchen’s place in society is one that a stereotypical exorcism story may not place her in. Instead of the daughter of a single parent whoring around actress a la “The Exorcist”, Gretchen’s parents are no doubt the kind of people that William Peter Blatty thought to be the ideal parents. They are conservative, they are religious, and they are strict to be sure that Gretchen has no improper influences in their home. One scene that stuck out in my mind was when Abby and Gretchen were caught listening to Madonna, and when Gretchen’s mother catches them she beats her daughter pretty violently with a hairbrush. A very, very interesting choice of family for a demon to target, in my opinion. It was as if Hendrix took that old chestnut exorcism story theme of ‘if you accept God and Jesus into your life, bad things won’t happen to you’, and spits in it’s face. Bold move, Hendrix, and I feel like it paid off. It was also a cool choice to make Abby, the girl whose family isn’t religious and doesn’t necessarily believe in this stuff, the person to cling hard to the possession theory. Satanic Panic was prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s, where lots of otherwise rational people believed that Satanists were conspiring against the country, so Abby was a good representation of that. I also liked that I was left questioning just what was going on in this story. Hendrix threw enough red herrings and misdirections in there that I was questioning what was the product of a demonic possession, and what was the product of trauma, or really just the fallout of mean girls doing mean things to each other.

And since it wouldn’t be a horror story without some horrific moments, I am happy to report that there are a fair number of decent scares in “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”. Hendrix is pretty solid and taking a concept that could be seen as light hearted and tongue in cheek, and then make it into something very unsettling and disturbing. While I’m not really one to be scared by possession stories in general, there were some moments in here that had me on the edge of my seat, just as there were moments that really grossed me out. One moment in particular. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say that a certain fad diet urban legend was used to the most disgusting degree as a means of demonic torment towards a frenemy of Gretchen’s and Abby’s….

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What has been read can never be un-read…. (source)

There were some things about this book that made me a bit uncomfortable. I understand that Hendrix was setting a place and time and doing so with certain attitudes. But some of the casually thrown about racist and sexist and homophobic things thrown around, while no doubt prevalent to 1988 in Charleston, made my modern sensibilities very uncomfortable. I get what he was trying to do, but I also think that it sometimes fell flat and came off as tone deaf. I cringed a bit more than I wanted to at times.

Overall, however, I tore through “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” and greatly enjoyed the ride. It isn’t for the squeamish at times, but those with an affection for the 1980s and strong girl friendships may want to give it a try. Just…. you know, prepare yourself.

Rating 8: A fun and scary book that puts a very complex and real girl friendship at the center. Sometimes it felt a bit fumbling when it came to social issues, but overall it was a good read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Best Friend’s Exorcism” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Upcoming Books of Note: Horror”, and “Book Titles That Give You No Choice But To Check Out The Books”. I would also say that if you liked this, give “The Exorcist” a try if you haven’t already. Lots of influence comes from it, obviously.

Find “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” at your library using WorldCat!