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.

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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.

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.

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.

Review: Killing Hitler

It’s about time I did another review for the Eclectic Reader Challenge- this time, a nonfiction. It’s always a bit off-putting for me to read a nonfiction book. I’m not usually accustomed to them, and they take a while for me to finish. However, I do enjoy them when they have a good narrative, so when I saw this in my local indie bookstore I was intrigued by the premise.

Basically, this book is exactly what it sounds like: a tracing of numerous attempts to assassinate Hitler, ranging throughout the span of World War II. Each chapter highlights a different plot, from individual dissidents to underground organizations. However, what jumped out at me while reading this book was not so much the content of the story as the way it was told.

Firstly, each chapter told a different story. There was no central narrative; the chapters weren’t even placed in any kind of chronological order. It seemed to me more like an anthology than a single book. That’s not to say that it’s an altogether bad thing. Having new assassins and new storylines in each chapter made it all the more exciting for me as a reader. With every new plot there were new relationships to be explored, more motives to be uncovered. The only drawback to this, as I have stated above, is the seeming lack of any order to the stories.

Courtesy of Amazon, thus the bit at the top.

Because of this setup, each chapter was individually obliged to give tremendous detail as to the circumstances and historical context surrounding the main players of each particular assassination attempt, which I thought was just brilliant. Too many times in history classes or in our own research we focus simply on what happened without any thought as to how these things came to be. After all, what sense does an assassination attempt make if it was done by someone who, up to that point in time, had been an advocate of Hitler’s ideas? Where is the point at which that person switched sides, and what was the catalyst for that? These are the questions that are settled easily by Roger Moorhouse’s attention to such things. Once the historical context has been established, the reader can begin to more fully understand the true nature of an action.

Still, there is a point where things get to be too much. As an amateur writer myself and one who has sought the advice of numerous other writers and authors on the matter, I’ve found the general consensus to be that, when writing, the point one is trying to get across should be made as simply and briefly as possible. So when I found myself wading through a dozen pages or more of historical context per chapter, I began feeling that surely something could have been cut out. At the very least, the cover of the book had misled me in thinking that this would be a novel about assassination attempts. Rather, it focused more on the world in which these attempts were made, what kind of people made them, and why. And while that’s all right, the amount of what I felt was extra, almost redundant information was much too high for my liking. Overall, it made for a very messy appearance of the narrative.

One last critique, going back to the misleading premise of the book: At least three chapters (out of ten) didn’t contain any concrete assassination attempts at all. Rather, they were discussions of the plans that were almost attempted, or which were contemplated and then set aside, in the midst of that group’s or individual’s greater fight against Hitler and Nazi Germany. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed those chapters all the same, but again I felt misinformed as to the nature of the book I had chosen for myself.

In general, this book gave me lots to think about in terms of how I expect nonfiction books to work, and how any story in general should or shouldn’t be told. While the plots themselves were interesting, the amount of prose to work through and the lack of any overarching structure served to worsen my reading experience. Perhaps it’s just my natural aversion to nonfiction books (and war history) talking, but as I got through Julie & Julia just fine, I don’t think that accounts for all of it. Still, I would advise my readers to be cautious in taking my word for it. As a rating, I’d give this book 2 out of 5 stars.

Happy reading.

Review: The Catcher in the Rye

This is the only book I’ve ever read where I didn’t have a clue what it was about before reading. My copy has no dust jacket, no blurb, no synopsis. Which I think is interesting and worth mentioning. It puts you more immediately in the story, I suppose, and you never quite know what to expect.

That being said, I’ll provide a little synopsis here. (I do recommend reading the book first, though, so you can have the same experience I did.) Holden Caulfield doesn’t seem to be good at anything. He’s been thrown out of multiple boarding schools, and as the book starts he’s about to leave another one. Rather than going straight home, however, Holden decides to hole up for a few days in a New York hotel. This is the story of that weekend, and Holden’s journey of self-discovery during that time.

I read this a little while ago, so it’s not as fresh in my mind as my other reviewed books were. So I apologize if this sounds a bit ramble-ish, but I’m just going to go ahead and give you a series of observations I made while reading the book.

The thing that struck me most about Holden is that he’s very confused. He doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, and he doesn’t understand a lot of things about himself and about what he’s supposed to be doing. In this respect, Holden Caufield could be any adolescent. There are lots of people giving him advice and trying to tell him what to do, but he can’t accept any of that. He doesn’t want any of the answers they’re giving, and he’s not asking the type of questions they can answer (or perhaps they just don’t want to answer). He’s detached from society, an outcast, a loner, and he has to learn to discover his answers on his own.

Another prominent theme in the book is Holden’s loss of innocence, or his childhood, if you will. He lost his brother, with whom he had been very close, about a year prior to the events of the book. The whole time, he’ll go on little nostalgic trips, or he’ll see kids playing, or his little sister, and get sad. Because that’s another part of growing up, is realizing that you’re not a child anymore, and that you have to move along and get on with your life. I think Holden would absolutely love to be younger again, to have his brother back and to not have the weight of all this responsibility and to just be free. But he can’t, so he’s stuck in this nostalgic shadow of a life, eternally wishing for the Good Old Days to come back again.

At the same time, though, he’s trying to act like an adult. He tries to pick up older women. He lives by himself for a weekend. He hires a prostitute. He has a little bit of gray hair on the side of his head, which he uses to prove he’s older than he actually is. But the hair, at least for me, was a metaphor for all of his ventures in this area. He may have the hair, and he may show it off, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually an adult. It doesn’t mean he’s mature. With most of his stunts, it either backfires on him or he chickens out, proving to himself once again that, while he’s older than he wants to be, he’s also younger. He figures if he can’t be a kid anymore, he’ll be an adult, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s a long process and you can’t just jump to the end of it. There is no state of experience without first having the experiences. Holden, therefore, is stuck in between, unable to move back and unable to move forward fast enough. And so he doesn’t go through with anything. The women don’t like him. Holden ends up running to an old friend’s place to sleep. He pays the prostitute without sleeping with her.

Another short thing I want to touch on is Holden’s alienation. He’s completely alone, even though he knows all of these people in New York. And the thing is most of that’s his fault. He keeps insisting that he doesn’t really like anyone, that people are always “phonies”, that they are promise-breakers and thieves. He’s not the most likeable person in the world, either. It’s this alienation, I think, that makes him most like us. He’s the person we all know we are, deep down. He’s the critic, the one reluctant to trust, the one who thinks no one will understand him. And that’s the saddest part of all.

There’s a metaphor early on in this book about the ducks that live at a pond in Central Park: When the pond freezes over in winter, what happens to the ducks? Do they fly away or stick out the winter in the park? Catcher is, essentially, about the story of a duck, Holden, and his attempt to solve that question. The answer, he finds, is that he doesn’t know.

I think that could apply to any one of us who’s ever grown up or is in the process of doing so. We don’t fit in anywhere in society. We are in the midst of making a huge shift, and until we complete that shift we don’t belong with either children or adults. We are stranded and alone, just like Holden in New York. We are trying to carve our own paths. People will try to help us; people will try to give us answers. But the truth is we need to do this ourselves. We need to face our fears and our problems on our own, if only to prove to ourselves that we can.

There are, of course, many more things worth discussing in this book, but I think I’ll stop there. I highly recommend this, it’s an engaging read and is really powerful. This completes my literary fiction requirement for the Eclectic Reader Challenge (about which you can find out more by going to the Challenge tab). Next on the list is nonfiction, but I’m not sure when I’ll get done that just yet.

In the meantime I’ll end this post with a couple of videos. (“Again?” the readers moaned in unison.) Yes, again. I won’t apologize for showing you relevant educational video. Besides, how can you not love John Green? And he talks about the book in a way that is much more articulate and shows a much deeper understanding of the work than I could ever give you.

Happy reading.