Tag Archives: books

The Too-Good Book Blues

I’ve just finished reading a book that I’ve had in my “to read” queue for far too long: Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts. It came highly recommended from a number of sources, and though I don’t usually read horror novels, I have to say, it’s a hell of a ride. Possession. Fear. Devils and demons. (Maybe? Or maybe not? The book and its main character are kind of agnostic on the point, which is frustrating, but also powerful.) And a blindsiding final twist that doesn’t disappoint.

It’s one of those literally unpotdownable stories that keeps you breathlessly turning the pages.

Which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because it fills my head with all sorts of ideas and aspirations in addition to just being a bloody enjoyable waste of time. Bad because it’s over now, and I have to pick up something else to read, and whether the next tome I pick up will even come close is anybody’s guess.

English needs a word for this feeling: that vague hopelessness you feel after tearing through a proper humdinger of a story, that creeping suspicion that what comes next can’t hope to compare. (The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows should get on that.)

In fact, I think it’s partially this feeling that’s had me so on the ropes creatively lately — in addition to the move, which swelled up and rolled out of control like the Thing and, bloblike, consumed my entire summer, I read John Scalzi’s Lock In at the beginning of the summer and it so filled me with this sensation that I couldn’t get interested in reading anything else for about a month. I pawed at Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and it just seemed to drag on. I nibbled on Matt Haig’s The Humans, and, though it’s really very entertaining (an alien puts on a human skin to stop a scientific discovery from reaching the light of day), I just kind of stopped reading it for reasons I can’t properly identify. Nothing wrong with the books. They just didn’t exactly seize me by the lapels.

But Head Full of Ghosts did, and now I have to deal with that. The next book up is Michael Crichton’s Micro, which I bought at the bargain bookstore and have put away 150 pages of in just a few nights. Not a bad start.

And, for that matter, look — it’s got me posting on a weekend again. Maybe the haze is lifting.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Re-Motivator: Bookwise

Books are the lifeblood of the writer. Not just because we traffic in them, But like water, we depend on them. We cannot function without them.

But while water in its purest form is a thing we can’t live without, not all water sustains us. Thirst may be a thing we can’t survive, but if you drink muddy water from a scummy pond, you may soon have worse problems than thirst to deal with. The man marooned on a desert island reaches for seawater to slake his thirst and only hastens his death.

Book, Books, Circle, Curly, Education, Knowledge, Learn

I think part of the reason I’ve been in something of a creative funk lately is because I haven’t been reading as many books — or I’ve been reading the wrong kind of books.

A little while ago, I reached for a book that I thought I was going to love: Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. Flynn is the author of Gone Girl, which I loved in all its twisted darkness, so I figured another book by the same writer would be a sure thing. So I jumped into the book one night, and I read about twenty pages, and I just wasn’t feeling it. No big deal. I was tired; try it again another night. Tried again a few nights on — still nothing. Thirty pages in, it wasn’t clicking with me.

I should point out that this isn’t a review or an indictment of the book. My wife loved it. But it just wasn’t working for me. Now, I’ve got a stack of books on my bedside table just waiting to be read, but I’m this weird creature. I don’t love reading multiple books at a time. I like to take on one thing, drill through it, and move on to the next. If I read too many things at a time, I get overwhelmed, distracted. Like in that old Missile Defense game, where you’ve got like thirty missiles aimed at your base, and you can only blow up so many of them? That game stresses me out.

My blood pressure is spiking just looking at this picture.

No, I prefer to keep to one book at a time. But I also don’t like to leave things unfinished. So here I was with this book that I wanted to like. But I didn’t like it, so I didn’t want to read it. But because I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t move on to other books I might have liked more. I had sipped from a scum-covered pond, and I was, as a result, not only thirsty for proper, refreshing water, but convulsing with dysentery in the meantime.

The bad book was clogging my system, and it was making me feel unmotivated and gross and even, stupidly, bad about myself. (Why don’t I like this book? What’s wrong with me?)

It sat there on my bedside table for a month, and I never got past page sixty. Shameful! And at the same time, I was becoming creatively blocked, as well. Unmotivated. Uninspired. Unproductive.

I don’t know what caused the wake-up, but one day I finally decided to dump the bad water out the window. I moved Sharp Objects to the bottom of the pile and picked up Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King instead. (Yeah, I know, I should be pulling my reading material from lesser-knowns, since I’m hoping to become a lesser-known myself soon. What can I say. I suck.)

And what do you know? Within fifteen pages, I’m fascinated and repulsed by the antagonist, frustrated and sympathetic to the protagonist, and before I know it, I’m 45 pages in and my eyes are drooping because I’m up way too late.

And — wonder of wonders — all of a sudden, a day or two after I ditch the bad book and pick up the good book, comes the thunderbolt from the blue that starts me off on my newest jag. (3000 words in so far. Not exactly awesome progress, but as I mentioned yesterday, it’s summer, and my Getting-Things-Done-ometer wobbles like a weasel in a windstorm over the summer.)

So here’s a reminder to myself. Read more good books. Toss out the bad books. Stay inspired and keep fargoing writing.

Also: bookwise is not a word, I was disappointed to find out. But it should be.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

Terrible Review: The Girl On The Train

I don’t have a ton of time for reading. Does that shock anybody? So my wife and I have had this one on our shelves for several months. Meant to read it — something came up. Meant to read it — wanted to read something else first. Meant to read it — got distracted with a flashy app on the phone.

Well, I finally read it, and I’m mad at myself for putting it off so long.

Here’s the obligatory part of the post where I warn you that I’ve read the book, and it’s hard to talk about the book in depth without spoiling some aspects of it. So: Spoiler Alert. Within I’ll be speaking (not at length, and unspecifically when I can) about characters and developments within the book. If you’re a purist and want to be shocked by everything, this is probably the part where you should stop reading.

What’s Awesome about it?

  • The Buildup. The book starts off slow — almost too slow — but once the inciting incident happens, the tension ratchets up after just about every chapter and never really slackens. The end result is that I ended up reading the last hundred pages of the book in twenty-minute sessions stolen during the same twenty-four hour period. I just couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next.
  • The Characters. The story revolves around the (not quite) alternating viewpoints of three women. None of these women is particularly likable, but each of them is undeniably recognizable. Their motivations, their hangups, their insecurities and their suspicions make perfect sense, and I found myself rifling through all sorts of feelings toward each of them. Sometimes I pity them. Sometimes I hate them. Sometimes I can’t believe how stupid they are. But always I’m compelled to see what they’re going to do next. That’s maybe the most important part of all this: each character has a very clear role in driving the story forward. Nobody is tacked on or just blowing in the wind like a useless confederate flag.
  • The Conflict. Something terrible happens and our central narrator (Rachel) fears that she may have been involved in it somehow. Problem is, she was blackout drunk the night in question and has no recollection of the events in question. This snarl adds another level to the mystery that’s already unfolding, and of course is a tremendous source of strife for the narrator. I’ll acknowledge that selective amnesia as a plot device would feel like a cop-out, but the blackouts aren’t present merely as a convenience: the narrator is as unreliable as they come. She’s a binge-drinker, and it becomes clear through the course of the story that the crucial blackout is not the only one in her life; rather, they happened to her several times in her life, and were also directly responsible for her shattered relationship (the falling apart of which is the backdrop to the whole story).
  • The Ending. I won’t spoil it, but the end sets you up for such a delightful one-two punch of betrayal and then vindication, it’s almost overwhelming. My wife was getting frustrated with me because I kept gasping and then exclaiming reading the last few pages while she was trying to work. I couldn’t help it. It was that good.

What’s Not-So-Awesome?

  • The Structure. Maybe it’s me, but the novel is awfully preoccupied with dates and I don’t know if it needs to be. Each chapter and sub-chapter is marked meticulously with the date and the time of day (August 13, 2013, Morning), a device which is certainly intended to build together a timeline of events. This becomes “necessary” since the narrative jumps around in time; we have the murdered woman telling swatches of her story after she has already died in the timelines of the other two narrators. Now, I understand that the dramatic tension and reveals achieved this way are a big payoff for the book, and I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the fact that with all the dates heading each chapter, I feel like I should have been taking notes for a test at the end of the book. I don’t know that the events of the story — especially when viewed through the lens of a less-than-reliable, sort of drifting-aimlessly-through-life narrator — call for such specificity.  But maybe that’s just me. End result: I pretty much ignored the dates and I did just fine piecing together the story without them.
  • Red Herrings and Such. At its heart, the book is a mystery novel, so there have to be false leads, misinformation, overlooked clues, and all that. But the main suspect for much of the book is just so obviously not the guy. Over 150 pages are spent trying to convince us that he could be the guy, but he’s obviously not. It felt taxing after a while, to still be going through the motions of investigating this guy who was obviously not the guy. And then the guy who turns out to be the guy, well, it feels a little out of left field, a little too easy, a little too neat. But again, that might just be my cynicism acting up.

What’s Hard to Quantify?

  • There is no hero. Yeah, we’re in the age of the anti-hero, where the protagonist has to do horrible things to win the day. And while I’m not saying there’s nobody to root for — clearly we hope that Rachel manages to pull through her troubles — it’s hard to get behind any of them. Rachel’s a drunkard and a total sad-sack living in the shadow of a broken marriage. Anna’s an adulteress who’s overly hateful of the woman she wrecked home on, and becomes increasingly suspicious and distrustful of her adulterating husband. Megan’s perhaps the easiest one to like, until you find out that SPOILER ALERT she’s responsible for the death of her own child. I just find it hard to hope for good things for any of them, though it does get revealed that Rachel’s problems were not entirely of her own making (as she seems to believe toward the beginning of the book).
  • Moral Ambiguity. It’s hard to say if Rachel causes the events of the book or if she just blunders through them, but what’s clear is that the story wouldn’t have happened if the narrator had kept to herself. Since her own life is in the crapper, she lives vicariously through the anonymous people she sees on the train, and that’s what sets things in motion. Whether the novel suggests this is a good thing or not is unclear: the murder gets solved because she sticks her nose in, but she also causes a world of hurt (for herself and the other characters — up to and possibly including actually playing a role in the murder herself) by sticking her nose in. The moral of the story is, then, either get involved in the lives of those around you, or don’t. I think you could make a compelling argument either way.
  • Looking inside the heads of women. I would need to hear from female readers on this, but if women in real life think the way these women do, then it would benefit guys to read this book. Because wow. The way they draw connections between events, the way they read between the lines of everything that’s said, the way they think about the men in their lives… men are toddlers, living among evil geniuses.

Okay, so, this review is by no means exhaustive, and I don’t want to spoil the book any more than I have to, but suffice to say, I got through it in four days. That’s pretty fast for me, and it speaks to the readability of the book. The tension is there; it hooks you and yanks you along like a guppy on the line.

All that said, the book does a brilliant job of romanticizing the everyday. The book is centered around trips back and forth on a train — a more mundane premise you could not imagine. But what’s mundane, just like in real life, quickly transforms into something much bigger, much more consequential. Things, in other words, always mean things. It accomplishes all this, however, with very straightforward, unembellished language. No purple prose here, no artful application of metaphors and comparisons or allegories. The writing is simple and straightforward, which, again, makes it very easy to read.

I pointed out some good and some bad, but who am I kidding: I read the book in four days, which is almost unheard of for me. The bad stuff, I feel, is largely subjective, and what bothers me might not bother you. The book is solid. It’s surprising. It’s satisfying.

You should read it.

The Fifty-Year Sequel

Apparently, some fifty years after penning the one-off novel that would rumble the foundations of the literary world and haunt the nightmares of eighth-graders for years hence, Harper Lee has penned a sequel.

Maybe not a sequel, so much. According to the press releases I’ve seen, it’s a new story that features several of the same characters as To Kill A Mockingbird, not least of which are Scout and Atticus.

I’m of two minds about this.

On the one hand, it’s fantastic. Scout and her world are so beloved, not just by lovers of literature, but by people who in some cases have never read another book, that to see her gracing the pages of another story tickles me in places I maybe shouldn’t talk about.

On the other hand, I’m apprehensive. Already, the hype machine is surging to life, heralding the release of this new novel, Go Set a Watchman. It seems that Harper Lee wrote this novel before Mockingbird, which is interesting in its own right. Then, Mockingbird took flight and Watchman sat on a dusty shelf for all these years. Unfortunately, with Mockingbird being what it is — a staple of the American literary canon, an adored favorite of kids and adults alike, a harsh but hopeful look at so many issues of its time — Watchman now has to contend with some frankly unfair levels of expectation.

Imagine if J.K. Rowling vanished from the face of the earth for thirty years and then materialized in a cloud of smoke and thunder to bestow on us an untold story of Harry, Hermione, and Ron as adults — and, oh yeah, she actually wrote it when she was in high school and has just been hiding it from us all this time. Imagine the shockwave produced as fans broke the sound barrier to line up for their copies. Imagine the poor bedraggled fibers of the internet sparking and fizzing out as every e-reader in existence simultaneously tried to purchase this book. (Or, hell, we’ll probably be reading books through implants directly into the brain stem by that time, who knows.)

I’m really excited about the new novel, but I almost wish that it could have been released under a pseudonym (of course, then, who would buy it) or that it could have been released back when it was originally written, or just after Mockingbird (of course, then, it wouldn’t be nearly the big deal that it is). This book is going to be subject to so much scrutiny and analysis and comparison to the original that its pages may literally spontaneously combust from the magnification of so many critical lenses. And I think that’s kind of awesome, because literature is important to our world in that way. Things always mean things, and this book will mean a lot to a lot of people. But I also think that’s kind of sad, because every story deserves the chance to stand on its own and be appreciated for what it is, and this story will never have the chance to do that. Like a rhinoceros born into captivity, it will never know the free, mud-stomping whimsy of the wild, never feel the thunder of the plains under its feet. All its meals are pre-determined, and it will be bathed for all of its existence by caring and well-meaning caretakers dressed all in khaki while bemused families gawp at it from behind their strollers and fannypacks.


Chuck’s challenge this week: Must Contain 3 Things. My three things: Library, Survival, War.

Ever gotten totally lost in a really good book? So did Elloree. Her story is below.


In the flickering light of her dying candle, Elloree resembled nothing so much as a praying mantis in smudged plaid and oversized glasses. Her spindly fingers tracked like machines across the typeface, barreling toward the bottom of the page, then flicked it over with robotic efficiency. Her radiant eyes bounced from side to side as they drank in the words like so much water down the throat of a man dying of thirst. Her papery lips alternately pursed with puzzlement or curled up with satisfaction or opened just slightly to gasp with surprise. In a matter of moments, she had finished the book and tossed it on the pile of its brethren; another stripped-down carcass added to a growing pile of bones.

She rose, dusted her knees, and ghosted her way through the aisles. They towered over her diminutive frame like guardians, shielding her from the crimson light streaming through the windows, the streaked and scorched sunlight invading her fortress as it did for only a few times every day. She floated through fiction, bandied around the biographies, and reveled past the reference section, landing at last in her favorite section: Romance. She picked out a thick volume with a strapping bare-chested man on its cover and hummed dreamily to herself as she carried it back to her nest.


Rast’s shrill whistle pierced the evening, and Nell lifted her gaze from her bedraggled footsteps.

“Up ahead,” Rast whispered, as if afraid of breaking the dusty silence. “See it?”

She did. And as it always did when they approached another town, her throat tightened. Most likely it was just full of more of the same: smoldering corpses, shattered buildings, the haunting echoes of an entire community’s tortured final moments lingering in the air like poison. Occasionally, despite all the festering death, there would be some supplies. It had to be risked.

Nell straightened her pack on her shoulders, brushed an errant strand of soot-smeared hair from her face. “Let’s go.”


The sun was almost down, but Elloree hardly noticed. She never did, as the sunset looked the same as sunrise and much of the rest of the day. With the never-breaking columns of acrid black clouds streaming overhead, only an occasional ray of burning light would streak through, and then only briefly. The rest was darkness and smoke, and her candle was guttering. She lit another and continued her story.


The extermination here had been methodical and absolute. The roads were pulverized and difficult to walk on; Rast and Nell found their footing much more easily several feet off the road in the mud and weeds. The buildings were hollowed and skeletal, their shells weird misshapen silhouettes against the fading red light. No food. No survivors. Nothing left.

“Sun’s down soon,” Nell said. “Time to go.” She hated making camp in towns; you never knew when a sentry would pass over. They were better off when they could find a copse of trees or a rampant untended cornfield. But Rast wasn’t listening. He was squinting against the fading light, his three-fingered hand needlessly visoring out the sun. “There’s a light.”

“Don’t be stupid. I don’t want to get caught out here.”

“Nell. That building. Over there. It’s intact.” he pointed with his five-fingered hand. “And there’s a light in its window.”

Nell sighed and humored Rast with a look. He was daft as a post, but loyal, and he tried to help, bless him. He was also absolutely right.

The Septids razed every building they declared “tactically useful,” which included food storage, weapons repositories, residences, schools, churches, and offices. Occasionally you’d find a squat untouched, a shed or a low-slung warehouse. This building was small — probably too small to hold anything useful — but it was also definitely illuminated from within. Not by much. A light too faint to be mistaken for anything other than the reflected glow from the scorched sun burned at one window at the nearest corner. But that one window glowed while the others were dark. Rast’s sharp eyes had picked out something useful after all.

She turned to him and nodded, drawing her pistol. “Quietly.”


The cracked and smoke-stained door opened soundlessly as Rast leaned into it, and on practiced, stealthy footsteps, they stole into the wide open space.

A library.

For a moment, Nell simply gaped. She couldn’t believe the building was so intact, but it didn’t take long to figure out why. Books had long ago gone obsolete. They’d been digitized and collected into virtual storage, which was easier to police and took up less space. Most libraries had been decommissioned, but in some outlying towns it hadn’t been finished before the overthrow. And here they were, in a library.

With somebody else. At the end of the room, a shuffling of feet, a clatter of books. They edged around the shelves and aimed their guns at the tiny girl hunched over a novel in front of a ludicrous pile of books. Her eyes peered at them curiously through the thick lenses of her glasses.

She blinked at them, and they at her, for a few tense moments.

“How are you alive?” Nell finally asked.

Elloree shrugged.

“How long have you been here?”

She shrugged again.

The girl seemed so carefree, so unimpressed by them. Nell felt foolish. “How did you survive the war?” She demanded, her voice growing shrill.

“The war?”

Rast giggled foolishly. Nell scowled. “The war,” she explained, “that wiped out most of humanity. The war,” she continued, “that destroyed this town. The war,” she finished, “that somehow left you untouched. You didn’t know?!”

Elloree shrugged, looking a little sheepish. “It’s just… well… I’ve been reading.”

Rast began cackling. “Bookworm read right through the end of the world!”

“It’s just,” Elloree said, “that they were really good books.”

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