Review: Odd Thomas

With this post, I have officially finished the year-long struggle that has been the Eclectic Reader Challenge. In another post, perhaps, I’ll talk about what this has put me through and what I’ve learned ¬†from it, but for now allow me to sing the praises of Dean Koontz.

Summary: Odd Thomas (first name Odd, last name Thomas) just wants a normal life with his job at the diner and his soul mate, Stormy Llewellyn. The problem is he can see ghosts, and they usually ask for his help in catching their killers. When evil spirits start haunting Pico Mundo, they all center around someone who’s living, someone who’s about to cause disaster in the town. It’s up to Odd to stop him.

I’ve never read a Koontz novel before, mostly because he has terrible luck with cover art. So I was very happy to start reading it and realize that his writing is actually among the best I’ve ever seen. If I could marry a simile, it would be one of his. He has a way with imagery that I’ve never experienced before, a way to tell the setting in terms of flowery language that somehow doesn’t seem at all overdone. He’s the kind of writer I wish I could be one day, able to let us know exactly what we’re supposed to feel based on where the characters are.

Speaking of the characters, that’s what else stood out to me. They’re all very bold, perhaps a little bit caricature-ish, but again, in a way that isn’t overdone. From Chief Porter to Little Ozzie to Stormy (with whom I may be a little bit in love), Odd is surrounded with people who are interesting in and of themselves. These only help to create the rich world of Pico Mundo.

The plot, too, is fantastic. I really have no complaints about this book. I won’t say much, but the mystery of Fungus Man and his plan for murder kept me guessing right up to the very end. There were so many twists that I felt as though I was right there with Odd, figuring out these things at the same time as him.

One thing I will point out: Koontz mercifully made his characters intelligent. I honestly cannot tell you how many books I have read in which the protagonist, having been given an important clue, spends at least thirty pages wondering what it means when the truth is blatantly obvious to the reader. Not so with Odd Thomas. He recognizes that a series of dots are a message in Braille, he knows what a certain nickname refers to. He is unhindered by the idiocy which seems to be so popular in action/mystery novels, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Odd Thomas was, in all respects, a rather marvelous surprise. The main point you should take away from this review is OH MY GOODNESS PLEASE GO READ IT RIGHT NOW. As for me, perhaps next year I’ll start in on the sequels.

Happy reading.

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

This is only my second time reading an Agatha Christie novel, but still, I was by no means eager to revisit her recurring sleuth. Hercule Poirot has always struck me as overly pompous, quite unlike Sherlock Holmes, who isn’t exactly modest but at least admits it. This made it rather difficult to get into the book, but luckily Poirot doesn’t have much to do other than observe what’s going on around him and then proclaim whodunnit. I suppose that’s a mark of bad writing, but in a detective novel there really isn’t much else to be done.

Anyhow, the story begins when Poirot takes a train trip that is held up by snow. While stranded, a murder occurs on the train, and all the other passengers are suspect. It’s your basic setup.

To be honest, I thought the structure of this book was a bit flat. Most of it consisted of Poirot interviewing the passengers, and no real action or stunning bits of detective work took place. No doubt this is simply the way mystery novels were written at the time, but I think Christie could have done more.

That being said, the book as a whole worked because the crime itself was fascinating. There were so many loose ends and semi-mysteries for Poirot to solve before he could get to the big reveal, and the process of this is what really holds the book together. Sometimes it’s okay for a novel to be this flat, to have chapter after chapter of procedural dialogue, if the subject at hand is especially gripping. That’s what Christie was trying to do here. It was fun to watch as the story unfolded, as the alibis of the night in question were all given and as Poirot attempted to reconcile them all.

Something that really amused me was the way Christie consciously made all of her characters into national stereotypes. The English were reserved and precise, the Italian was loud and rambling, et cetera. It was funny, though I’m not sure if Christie meant it to be that way.

I suppose the ending deserves a mention, as much as it can be mentioned without being spoiled. It was just about as big a twist as I’ve ever seen, and it cleared up some big coincidences I had been criticizing.

All in all, a decent book. Far from the best I’ve ever read, but not the worst, either. My final book for the Eclectic Reader Challenge is Odd Thomas, which I hope to review next week so that I can finally start writing my normal kind of post again.

Happy reading.

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

There are only two more books to go in my Eclectic Reader Challenge, which means you only have to sit through two more of these terribly written reviews. You guys are great if you take the time to read these, because, as I’ve said before, I’m not a review kind of person and never have been. So! On with it!

I have to admit, I read this book only after I saw the trailer for the film. That being said, I’m glad I did take the time to read it. Stephen Chbosky’s first novel is about a boy named Charlie who, in a series of letters to an unnamed friend, recounts his first year of high school, meets two great friends, and sets out to “participate” in life for the first time.

The way this book is written, I think, really lends to the entire experience of the story. Charlie’s writing style is simplistic, even choppy at times, but the uncomplicated language only accentuates his brilliantly honest observations. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He doesn’t make things out to be better or worse than they are. They just are, and Charlie is left to make what he will out of that.

Because this is a series of letters, Charlie’s personality also has a lot to do with what we eventually read in the story. He is, as the title suggests, a wallflower. He isn’t much a part of things at first, but that gives him an opportunity to notice everyone else as they do things. He is able to pick apart what people are doing and why they are doing it, even if he has questions about why. He is incredibly intuitive, and from this stems a lot of introspection as he tries to understand how other people work.

And this is the core of the book. As Charlie wavers between passivity and passion, we are left to wonder why it is that people do the things they do, and for what reasons. This is definitely the most thoughtful book I’ve read, in that every few pages there’s another insightful sentence that could lead to hours of philosophical questioning. I think that’s a wonderful thing, and I think that’s why Charlie is such a compelling narrator. (An example: “The movie itself was very interesting, but I didn’t think it was very good because I didn’t really feel different when it was over.”)

Throughout the book, he wonders if there’s something wrong with him, which I think is something we all can relate to. At some point, we realize that we don’t exactly fit in, that we’re not like other people, and we have to reconcile ourselves with the fact of our uniqueness. And Charlie, by the end, certainly has a lot of things to reconcile with.

This is also a book about growing up and losing innocence. Charlie is exposed to a lot of heartbreak, both involving himself and involving other people, and he must handle that in the best way he can, in the process losing the frailty of what he was. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right, but then again I’m never certain with these reviews.

I suppose all I can say in closing is that this is one of the very few truly truthful and honest books I’ve ever read, and that’s something I think very highly of in a novel. I don’t exactly know what makes a book honest, but it’s one of those things you know when you read it.

Happy reading.

Reading About Writing

This year, I’m taking an AP Language class as my English course. Besides it being incredibly dull despite my interest in the subject matter, one of our three* textbooks is something called Writing With Style. Essentially it’s a writer’s thoughts on how to write, as apparently writers often feel the need to tell us how to craft opening paragraphs.

I’ve always been wary of people telling me how to write. Editing is one thing, and so is advice, but only when it is given with the understanding that everyone takes a different approach. Veronica Roth’s style, for example, is most definitely not going to be my own, and so on and so forth. We writers realize this as we discover what kind of pace and routine works for us.

But this book is an altogether different kind of advice from what I’ve previously read. It is a how-to of grammar, a step-by-step play of persuasive writing that’s generally meant to be a one-size-fits-all of nonfiction. It does not apply to novels but to an altogether stricter genre, and so I’ve found that I can forgive it for telling me exactly what to do and when to do it.

Of course, I’m not that kind of writer, and while the book may prove useful for my school career, at first glance it doesn’t seem to be of any help to my novelist side. Still, I resolved to learn something- anything- from this book. After six chapters, I believe I’ve come to a conclusion that will sum up my feelings about Writing With Style from the perspective of someone whose focus is quite a bit more fictional than the author intended.

Here is what I’ve learned from Writing With Style: learn the rules of good writing. Study them. Practice them. Do so until even the most hardened debate opponent is dissolved into a quivering puddle of incoherent half-rebuttals after you’re finished with him. And then, when you’ve done all that, when you’ve memorized what makes a good writer beyond memorization, do one last thing:

Forget it.

My Creative Writing teacher perhaps said it best: we have to learn the rules so that we can ignore the rules. This is the freedom that novels allow us. Within certain boundaries, most of which have to do with grammar, we can do whatever the heck we want. Books such as the one my class is reading serve a purpose outside their intended audiences only so far as to give us a general direction, a few main points we take away that may or may not influence the way we structure our writings.

Main Idea of today’s post: have fun with your writing. Challenge yourself. It’s still important that you are understood clearly, but beyond that, make up your own rules. That’s what fiction is.

Happy reading.

*I don’t even know.

Review: Carrie

I’ve never read a horror book before, and with good reason. I get scared fairly easily, though I don’ t like to admit it, and the idea of scaring myself in the interests of fun is repulsive to me. Thus: no haunted houses, no Paranormal Activity movies, and certainly no Stephen King novels.

Until now. It is the nature of the Eclectic Reader Challenge to put people outside their comfort zones, and this is the first time I actually have done that to the point where I was nervous picking out the book.

Having read it, though, it was nothing like I expected. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, that I would be terrified some monster from the pages was going to lurk in my bedroom, but I never got really scared at all while reading this. It was much more suspenseful than outright scary.

The plot follows Carrie White, a telekinetic teenager who’s lived under the oppressive rule of her mother’s religious mania. After being bullied by her classmates her entire life, she suddenly snaps and goes on an explosive rampage of revenge.

What surprised me in this book is that King never hid what the ending was going to be. The story is told partly from a third-person-omniscient POV, and partly from clippings of newspaper articles, scientific journals, and books supposedly published after the events concerned. From these clippings we learn early on that something happens on prom night at Carrie’s school, that her town is effectively demolished, that only a few of her classmates make it out alive.

So then you’re going through the book knowing what will happen, but you’re still not sure how it all came to happen, and that’s what keeps you turning the pages. You want to know what led Carrie to snap, you want to know how it all went down, even if you already know the aftermath of it. And that, I think, is an important lesson in storytelling – the it’s-the-journey-not-the-destination aspect.

This also kept you in pretty good suspense throughout. About a hundred pages in, I started wondering when people would start dying already, and that kept me reading. Perhaps that’s the point of horror stories: not to scare yourself in the don’t-turn-out-the-lights sense, but in the I-can’t-believe-it’s-so-gruesome sense.

Besides all that, I thought it had very good buildup to the climactic bloodbath. There were a lot of moving parts to handle in this book, but I have no complaints about how any of them were handled. You knew something was coming and wanted to get there while still finding time to enjoy the relatively peaceful bits first. And the scientific stuff was fantastic. I especially found the little explanations of how Carrie’s abilities worked to be excellent diversions from the main plot.

All told, this was a fairly satisfying book seeing as how it was my first foray into the genre. I don’t know if I’ll be revisiting King anytime soon, but if I do at least I won’t be as nervous going into it. I’ll give Carrie 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Happy reading.

In Which Records Are Broken

A while ago I told you all the story of how, following my reading Bridge to Terabithia, my elementary-school heart was brutally ripped out of my chest and then stomped into the ground by the boot of sorrow. I told you all about how no other book has ever made me out-and-out cry that way, and how thus Bridge has become a sort of icon in my literary career.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

It’s a strange thing to say this, but Bridge was no longer alone the night I finished that book (the fourth of October, I believe).

Certainly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time (owing, I’m sure, to the years in between and my subsequent tendency to not have the reactions of an eleven-year-old anymore), but it happened. I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t think it’s something to be ashamed of, having an emotional reaction to a book. I’ve gone over all of this before, and it still holds true. It was real for me. And it’s real for anyone who’s ever truly enjoyed a book.

I guess I just wanted to mark down this little piece of personal history. I highly recommend you read The Book Thief. Most of it is actually rather light-hearted. It’s about a German girl living through World War II and all the things that go along with that, though I wouldn’t categorize it as a Holocaust book, because that’s not the focus at all. It’s about family and books and war and growing up.

Also there’s a very interesting choice of narrator, but if you haven’t read it yet I won’t spoil the fun for you.

Happy reading.

P.S. Bit of a side note – the irregular posting does not mean I’ve forgotten you.

Review: Jane Eyre

There’s really no way to describe the book other than saying it’s about the life of one Victorian-era working-class girl called Jane Eyre, so I’m just going to dive into the spoiler-y bit of the review.

While reading this book I regularly talked about it to a friend of mine who had read it previously. She kept telling me that it was apparently a big feminist novel, but truth be told, I couldn’t really see that until I had finished it and could look back on the story as a whole. Mid-story, Jane simply seemed like a very smart girl who knew where she wanted to be in life, but now I see that she asserts herself in some very dramatic ways, from how she handles her relationship with Rochester to her refusal of St. John. She’s definitely a strong female character, and I admire that about the book.

Actually, I really like Jane as a character overall. I would say she knows her place, but that sounds awful and also it’s not quite what I want to get at. What’s wonderful about Jane is that she’s honest. In her first days at Lowood, Brocklehurst accuses her of being a liar, and Jane spends the rest of the book refuting that. Having grown up neglected, she doesn’t have any reason to think very much of herself. So, while she knows what her redeeming qualities are, she doesn’t build herself up and doesn’t lie to herself about who she is and what she can expect out of life. Her experiences have made her more honest and down-to-earth than most of the people around her.

Although the principal woman in the novel is fully fledged and likable, I found the men almost exactly the opposite. Rochester is erratic and harsh, weaving back and forth between blind devotion and overbearing scorn towards Jane. St. John is not much better, being forceful and unrelenting in his insistence that Jane must marry him. It seems that in this novel’s attempt to put women in the best possible light, it has ignored the men and forgotten that they need to be consistent characters as well.

At the same time, I found the relationships between the characters fascinating. I reveled in Jane’s mindless attachment to the master of Thornfield, in St. Rochester and his religious parallels with the sickly Helen Burns, in the mysteries of Grace Poole and her insane charge. As Jane moves from one bewildering location to the next, the sets of residents she meets shapes all of her interactions thereafter, and seeing that progression was great fun.

As for the plot of the book, I enjoyed the first four hundred pages or so. Once Jane left Thornfield, however, things got a little dull. I found myself wondering where the plot had gone, and when Rochester was going to turn up and sweep Jane off her feet to some magical honeymoon (as he inevitably and somewhat predictably would). Still, by the end the plot was resolved nicely, with good follow-up on all of the characters. I found the return to Gateshead especially interesting (although that’s quite a bit before she leaves Thornfield), as it showed the contrast between who Jane used to be and how the family dynamics stand years later. It was a return to the familiar, but everything had changed (much like Harry’s return to the Dursleys’ home at the end of Philosopher’s Stone*).

In general, my reaction to Jane Eyre was a paradox of emotions. I nitpicked what was wrong with it (or funny about it, or both) while proclaiming that I loved it. I berated Jane while holding her aloft as the epitome of characterization. At the end of it all, I couldn’t possibly know why exactly I liked the book or its characters- only that I did, and that was that. Perhaps I’ll never know. That’s just fine by me.

Happy reading.

*Recently I’ve been calling it Philosopher’s Stone, even though I’m American and here it’s called the Sorcerer’s Stone. I suppose it’s out of my respect for what Rowling intended. In other news, The Casual Vacancy is out. I’m only, like, ten pages in, but it seems great.