Tag Archives: book review

Hearts in Atlantis (a book review)

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I finished reading this marvelous book over this dreary sunshiny weekend.  And I am totally surprised by how much I loved it.

This marvelous book, Hearts in Atlantis, is a book by Stephen King, whom I have always considered a dreary sunshiny popular writing hack.  I have learned by it, how wrong I have been all along about this author.  He is now established in my mind as a serious literary giant  (as opposed to a comic literary giant like Kurt Vonnegut or Terry Pratchett).  He deals with the emotions of fear, loss, angst, and regret, and so falls too easily into the horror writer category.  I misjudged him for so many years because I read Carrie, his first success, and Firestarter… well, I tried to read Firestarter and only got 40 pages in when it was due back at the library… and… I mean, I never fail to finish a book I have chosen to read.  And then I did.  But both of those books showed me a writer who was trying too hard, following some road map of novel writing borrowed from some other writer he admired.  And it all becomes formulaic and trite, sometimes even boring.  He is mimicking someone else’s voice.  I filed him in the “authors who are hack writers” drawer next to R.L. Stine.

But this book proved me totally wrong.  I had to take King out and put him in a different drawer.  It starts out as a typical Stephen King monster story with a first section with a young boy as the protagonist and introducing us to the monstrous “low men in yellow coats”.  But it is a total trick to draw us in.  And it is even a very good monster story.  Like H.P. Lovecraft he has learned the lesson that a good monster story is not about the monster.  And showing us the monster directly is something that should only be done very briefly, at just the right moment in the plot.  Like the works of David Mitchell, this section connects you to threads from King’s other books, especially the Dark Tower series, which I must now read in the very near future.  Stephen King has learned through practice to write like a master.

But the theme doesn’t really start to score ultimate literature points until he tricks us along into part two.  The hearts in the title is actually the card game.  It is a card game that takes over the lives of college boys in a dormitory in the 1960’s.  They play it for money and it takes over their lives to the point that they flunk out of school at a time when that means they will be drafted and sent to Vietnam.  And the characters that are immune to the pull of the hearts game (also a metaphor for the second protagonist’s love life) fall victim to the urge to take on the government and protest the war.  Hence the “sinking of Atlantis” metaphor means the loss of innocence, and the devastation that comes from making choices when you are young that will haunt you forever.

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The post-war section of the book is filled with hubris, regret, lost love and stoic determination that is barely rewarded for only two characters in the entire plot.  I won’t of course, say anything that is a plot spoiler.  This is a horror story, and it is not my place to reveal the truth about the monster.  I can only tell you that this story is a devastating read for those of us old enough to remember.  And it is a fine work of dreary sunshiny fiction that frightens us with its truthfulness.

 

 

 

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A Perfect Old Book… The Distant Hours

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This book, purchased for two dollars off the sale cart at Half-Price Books, was one of the most pleasant surprises I have ever had in my reading life. I knew when I picked it up that it was not a perfect fit for me. It is a Gothic romance tragedy, possible even in a black-and-white-movie sense a horror story. It is a story for women, written by a woman, and all the most important characters, except the man who is murdered, are women. It is definitely not a story for crotchety old men like me, even though the Mud-man is a classic Gothic horror tale monster.  I can relate to that.

But I will not give away any of the convoluted plot. No spoilers here. For it is not the plot that makes this a truly great read. It is the language, the beautiful, insightful, passionate language that links my very soul to the souls of the characters in this story. Three elderly sisters live in a rotting old English castle that once belonged to their father, a famous author who created the novel The True History of the Mud Man. A much younger woman comes along and discovers she has a secret relationship to the castle through her mother who was sent to live in the castle as a child during the London Blitz in World War Two. The characters are so well developed, you can see them breathe. They are real people in a way that real people, especially mysterious real people, always present you with a mystery to be solved. Who are they really? What did they actually do? Which part of what they said to you is true? And which are the lies? And there was a murder? It happened in the past? We didn’t even know he was missing. Where is he now? And what did a monster character in a beloved old book have to do with it? Okay, I promised you no answers to any of those questions. But if you feel already like you simply have to know, well, that’s the magic in this story. You will fall in love with Edie Burchill and her mother. And also the Blythe sisters, Percy, Saffy, and Juniper. And the story will leave you devastated, the way it did me. Test me and see if I’m merely telling hoo-haws. You will not regret it.

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The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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Some books come along telling a story that has to be taken seriously in ways that don’t make sense in any normal way.  The Alchemist is one of those books.

What is an alchemist, after all?

An alchemist uses the medieval forms of the art of chemistry to transmute things, one thing becoming another thing.

Coelho in this book is himself an alchemist of ideas.  He uses this book to transmute one idea into another until he digs deep enough into the pile of ideas to finally transmute words into wisdom.

There is a great deal of wisdom in this book, and I can actually share some of it here without spoiling the story.

Here are a few gemstones of wisdom from the Alchemist’s treasure chest;

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting…” (p.13)

“It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them.” (p.17)

“All things are one.  And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”  (p.24)

“And when he had gone only a short distance, he realized that, while they were erecting the stall, one of them had spoken Arabic and the other Spanish.    And they had understood each other perfectly well.  There must be a language that doesn’t depend on words, the boy thought.” (p.45)

All of these quotes from the book, as you can see, come from the first third of the book.  There are many more treasures to be found in this book.  I should not share them with you here.  Just as the main character of the story learns, you have to do the work for yourself.  But this book is not only an enjoyable read, but a map for how you can execute your own journey towards your “Personal Legend”.  In fact, you may find that the book tells you not only how to go about making a dream come true, but, if you are already on that journey successfully, it tells you what things you are already doing right.

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David Mitchell is Genius!

Yes, David Mitchell is a very smart man… a very smart English man.  (That isn’t to say that his genius is any less genius than an American Genius.  Just that he is a genius who also happens to be English)

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And I, of course, don’t mean this David Mitchell either, though this David Mitchell is also a genius and also from England.  I have to tell you, though I have always loved British humor, this particular tongue of silver fascinates me enough to make me binge on hoards of old episodes of “Would I Lie to You?” from the BBC on YouTube.  He’s a quick-wit, Brit-wit, smooth-talking  bit-wit who can make you laugh even when he’s playing a thick-wit… which he is certainly not.

Anyway, that is the wrong English genius David Mitchell.

I mean the other English genius David Mitchell.  The one who wrote Cloud Atlas.  Also the one who wrote The Bone Clocks.  And, of course, the one whose book Black Swan Green which I just finished reading early this morning.

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Yes, I mean this David Mitchell.  The absolute genius writer who creates exactly the kind of books that I long to read.

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Now, this post should probably be more of a traditional book report than it is.  This book I just read is swimmingly, swannishly excellent in a David-Mitchell-is-GENIUS! sort of way.  It is about an English boy from Malvern, England undergoing the trials and tribulations of his thirteenth year of life.  The boy is a stutterer and secretly a poet.  The girl he pines for is the girlfriend of his greatest enemy, the boy who relentlessly bullies and taunts him.  One even suspects that this portrait of a Margaret Thatcher-era boyhood written in exquisitely horrible detail might be based on the author’s own boyhood somehow, so vivid is its detailing.

But this is already too cacked-up to be a proper book report just because of the two David-Mitchell-English-genius thing.  If you really want that sort of book review, read it elsewhere, or read the danged book yourself.  This report is more of a vow of fealty.  I must now turn my hoarding disorder sufferer’s exacting zeal on the matter of reading everything this living author writes.  I did the same thing to both Michael Crichton and Terry Pratchett because they are geniuses too.  But they are both now no longer living and writing new books, at least, not unless there is new meaning to the term ghost writing that I don’t know anything about.  So now it is David Mitchell’s turn to be the object of my intense fan-boy love of good writing.

Here are some David Mitchell books that I now must stalk and make my own;

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And hopefully, there are many more yet to come.

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Books That Make You Hurt

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Yes, I read this book.  Yes, it scared the poop out of me.  Yes, it made me cry.  This is a uniquely horrific horror story that is so realistic that you know that it has actually happened in real life somewhere, sometime.  Only the names of the characters would be different.

I have a deep abiding respect for Richard Peck as a writer.  He earned that with his books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago.  Those books made me laugh so hard it blew chocolate milk out of my nose.  And, yes, I was drinking chocolate milk at the time.  They are so realistic because the people in those stories are real people.  I know those people personally.  Of course, they have different names in real life.

But Are You In the House Alone? is a very different book from those other two masterpieces.  It tears your heart out and eats your liver because it is a first person narrative in the voice of a high school girl being stalked by a sexual predator.  Everything that happens to Gail in the high school, at home, and at the house where she babysits is hyper-real with horror movie levels of attention to detail.  I don’t wish to be a spoiler for this well-written book, but the narrator does not die in the book and it definitely does not have a happy ending.  For anyone who has the amount of empathy I do, and in many ways becomes the narrator-character by reading, reading a book like this can physically hurt.  A teacher like me has lived through horrible things like this happening to students before, it even happened to me as a boy, and it adds the slings and arrows of those things being re-lived as you read.

This is not the only book that has ever done this sort of damage to my heart strings.  I remember the pain from the conclusion of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.  You root for Little Nell and boo Daniel Quilp.  But the bad guy wins.  No happy ending can linger in the harp-strings of your memory-feeling song as long as a tragic outcome does.  I was there with Scout in that ridiculous costume in the dark when Bob Ewell was attacking her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  That story was filled with wise and laughable things, but the stark horror of that climactic moment nearly wiped all the good feelings away, if not for the heroics of ghostly Boo Radley whose timely intervention brings it all back before the novel ends.  It horrifies me to admit it, but I was there, too, in the moment when the boys all turn on Simon on the beach with their sharpened sticks in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  They mistook him for the monster.  I still haven’t fully recovered from that reading trauma.

The thing about books that hurt to read which makes it essential that I never try to avoid them, is that they can add more depth and resonance to your soul than any light and fluffy piece ever could.  Life is much more like Lord of the Flies than it is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I am sadder but wiser for having read Are You In the House Alone?  I am recommending it to other readers like me who don’t so much live to read as they read in order to live.  Not because it is easy and good to read, but because it is hard and essential to read.  It will hurt you.  But it will leave you like it leaves its narrator, damaged, but both alive and purely resolved to carry on.

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Another Danged Good Book I Read

Little Altars Everywhere 
by Rebecca Wells (Goodreads Author)

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Michael Beyer‘s review

Aug 04, 2017


Rebecca Wells is a writing chameleon, a shape-changer like blessed few other writers can manage. She creates the world of Thornton, Louisiana by story-telling through the eyes of eight different characters. Each voice is distinct and exquisitely crafted with a unique and individual personality. And yet, the plot is in no way fractured by the various viewpoints of the action. It is the story of all the love, violence, anger, resentment, ugliness, and beauty that takes a family of six from 1963 to 1991, from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance and pain, to grudging maturity and acceptance.
I can’t begin to recount the story without spoiling it for you. It is the story of Siddalee Walker and her family as they grow up on Pecan Grove cotton plantation. And it is a marvelous kaleidoscopic picture of the difficulties and complexities of living life and learning wisdom the way they used to do in Louisiana. Wells makes me laugh and makes me cry going back and forth between emotions in the space of a few pages. You know, the way brilliant authors usually do. I recommend you read this book. I loved it, and if you love reading too, you will not be disappointed.
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The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (a book review)

 

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The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto: A Novel
by Mitch Albom (Goodreads Author)

Michael Beyer‘s review

Jul 23, 2017

 

It was amazing!

This book is a miracle. It makes words into music and fills your imagination with some of the most beautiful guitar music ever played. It introduces you not only to a very convincing portrait of a fictional musician and Rock and Roll icon, but a vast array of very real musicians and show people who agreed to be used as a part of the story, approved the sections about them, and even helped Mitch Albom to compose it. These include notable music makers like Lyle Lovett, Darlene Love, Tony Bennett, Paul Stanley, and Burt Bacharach. The story itself transcends its fictional form, giving us a look at a musical history whose scope goes from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s to Woodstock, and on to the present day. It even gives us glimpses into the distant musical past, framing the story with the song Lágrima by the classical guitarist Francisco Tárrega. And all this music the book fills your mind with is actually performed only in your imagination and memory. Albom proves again with this book how his mastery of language makes him an absolute master story-teller.

 

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And now, here is me trying to make sense out of a reading experience that made my figurative heart grow wings and soar into the clouds in ways brought forth only by the strains of a sweet, classical Spanish guitar.

Stories like this one make a unique music in the mind, and though it is all fiction, occurring silently in the theater of your mind, you hear the music in your heart.  This story elicited the music of Rodrigo’s Adagio throughout, a piece I know intimately.  I myself have never written a musical book the way this fiction book was written.  But I know now that I have to try.  Poetry becomes song lyrics, right?  There is a connection between a good archetypal story about life and love and laughter, and the bittersweet strains of music on a Spanish guitar.

I truly and utterly fell in love with this beautiful book.  Mitch Albom is a genius… for a Detroit Tigers baseball fan.  And I would not risk telling you anything that might spoil such a beautiful story.  All I can say is, don’t read it… listen to it as you would a piece of beautiful music.  Listen to it and love it.

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