A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

Anne Tyler’s latest addition to her expansive output is unfortunately a meandering disappointment. The sprawling, time jumping narrative suffers from a lack of focus and simply does not have an engaging and clear protagonist. The novel follows Abby and Red Whitshank, a couple married for nearly 50 years who have four children, but at times it is really the tale of their beloved house.

The house is a more clearly drawn and defined entity in the novel than several of the Whitshank children, but this house is so lovingly described that it becomes a vital character in its own right. The novel traces the creation of this lovely home in a quiet neighborhood of Baltimore over several decades as it shelters generations of the Whitshank clan.

This is a novel that feels simultaneously overstuffed but malnourished: Tyler tries to cover several generations of the Whitshank family history while not spending nearly enough time with each story strand to fully explore it. Readers are tempted with an intriguing storyline that seems like it will stretch on for chapters only to end abruptly as a new strand of the story is dealt with, and this start/stop style of storytelling does grow trying as the novel wears on.

Even mediocre Tyler writing stands far above most novels published any year and despite the uneven quality of this novel, there is still clear skill on display here. Tyler is a master of tone, and her soothing narrative voice is able to guide the reader through the bumpy plot points.

This is definitely not the best introduction to Tyler’s oeuvre (I highly recommend “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant for Tyler newcomers) but for longtime fans of Tyler’s work, and completists, then A Spool of Blue Thread will again prove that Tyler is the premier chronicler of a certain swath of American family life.

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MARVEL 1602 (2004)

“Marvel 1602” by “Marvel 1602 Vol.1 HC”. Zaldiva. Retrieved 2007-11-04.. Via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Marvel_1602.jpg#/media/File:Marvel_1602.jpg

As we wait for Marvel’s latest addition to their sprawling cinematic universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron to hit theaters, now is a great time to see Marvel’s greatest heroes in a different setting.

In Marvel 1602, writer Neil Gaiman imagines what some of Marvel’s most famous heroes would be like had they come into existence 3 centuries before their initial appearances. Most of the action takes place in 17th century England, as Queen Elizabeth I’s reign winds down, and the possibility of King James looms ominously over all the character’s fates.  In this graphic novel, Marvel poster boy Peter Parker has not yet had his fateful encounter with that radioactive spider and is known as Peter Parquagh. Charles Xavier may be known as Carlos Javier but he still has his loyal X Men to guide through adversity.

It’s entertaining picking out small character and costume details that remain unchanged despite the time shift and English setting. Though they may look different, the power sets of most of the characters match their modern day incarnations. Marvel 1602 includes many characters and it helps to be somewhat familiar with the overall Marvel Universe. It is not necessary by any means to be a diehard comics fan to follow the plot, but this book would be a treat to those who can pick up on all the layers of details, callbacks and jokes that Gaiman carefully weaves throughout the narrative.

The artwork cannot complete with the originality of the idea and looks just a bit too undefined and sketchy at times. Some pages also suffered from unclear panel progression, and it was not always clear how the story was supposed to flow. Though the artwork was not equal to the script, Marvel 1602 is still an engaging work worth a look at for anyone longing for a different take on the Marvel heroes they’ve come to love over the years.

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The Silver Linings Playbook(2008)

The Silver Linings Playbook (2008) image source: n.pr/1fBPF8n

Matthew Quick’s novel was adapted into a 2012 Oscar nominated film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, and it won Lawrence the Academy Award for Best Actress. If you loved that zany romantic comedy and wanted to spend some more time with Pat and Tiffany, you might be tempted to  pick up the original text.

However, be aware that Quick’s book is actually quite different from the movie, and I think this one of the rare cases where the movie is actually better than the book. In the novel, narrator  Pat Peoples (the name is changed to Pat Solatano in the movie) is a man in his thirties who has recently been released from a mental institution  in Baltimore. He has been in “the bad place” for an indeterminate amount of time, and his discovery of the actual length of his stay is a main plot point of the book, and is probably the most wrenching section of the novel. Pat’s realization that he has been away from regular life, and missed so many important events in his friends’ and family’s lives create a lot of sympathy for Pat.

He is on several medications to help stabilize his mood, but he’s still struggling to rejoin normal life, and get back with his estranged wife, Nikki, whose cheating led him to a violent outburst that sent him to the institution. He moves back in with his mom and dad in Collingswood, New Jersey. His brother and dad are true Eagles fans, whose blood runs Green during football season.

He begins to create a new routine for himself, and is deadest upon reuniting with Nikki when he meets the volatile widow Tiffany. This temperamental woman will change his life, and though their relationship was the main story of the film, it actually isn’t the main plot of the book. It is sort of a side story for a large portion of the book, and Tiffany appears much less in the book than the film would make you believe.

Overall, the book and the film are quite different. The location was changed in the film to Upper Darby,  a suburb of Philadelphia (which makes more sense considering how crucial the Eagles and football is to the film), and the character of Danny, Pat’s friend from the mental institution is barely in the book at all, unlike in the film where Danny(played by Chris Tucker) plays a much more substantial role.

There is a lot more focus on the Eagles in the book, which would make it a fun for read for Eagles fanatics, who could recognize themselves in the Peoples family. But the book contains some really jarring clichés, and kind of falls apart in the last third of the book, and ends with a whimper instead of an emotional crescendo like the movie. The book isn’t really a romantic comedy story, and is more of an account of one man’s experiences of living with mental health problems, and how his family and friends react and deal with guiding him through his recovery and treatment.  It’s a lot darker than the film, and the narrative isn’t as tightly focused as the movie’s plot was.

If you really loved the movie, or just would like to get another view on mental health issues then it’s worth reading “The Silver Linings Playbook”, but if you’re excepting the same kind of quick, sharp wit of the film, it just isn’t in the book.  But it’s still an easy read, and will appeal to high school level readers and young adults who will appreciate Quick’s simple and direct writing style.

image source: n.pr/1fBPF8n

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Doctor Sleep (2013)

Doctor Sleep (2013) image source: bit.ly/1hwHfth

*spoiler free review*

Was it worth the wait? Stephen King’s highly anticipated follow up to the instant horror classic “The Shining” (1977) was 2013’s “Doctor Sleep”.  Though this book does unfortunately fall victim to the curse of the sequel, and just can’t compete with the propulsive white knuckle ride that was “The Shining”, it is still a pretty scary book and a page turner that is worth a read for fans of the first book or the horror genre.

Since I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, I will just briefly say that the novel does require a pretty solid knowledge of the events of “The Shining”. Even though Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation is an excellent horror film, it does take quite a few liberties with the text, and it will be difficult to follow at least the first third of “Doctor Sleep” if you are not familiar with Stephen King’s actual writing.

But it is not entirely necessary to have read “The Shining” before reading “Doctor Sleep”. You should still be able to follow pretty much most of the book regardless.  This book picks up after the horrific and traumatic events that took place at the Overlook Hotel. Danny Torrance, now an adult who goes by the name Dan, is scarred from his experiences there, and finds that he is making some of the same mistakes his father did, and has become an alcoholic. He cannot escape the figurative (and literal) ghosts of the Overlook, and the alcoholism and violent streaks that tormented his father are now destroying his life. Dan as an adult is a barley functioning alcoholic, struggling to remain sober, and keep up the 12 step recovery program.

Dan’s story is just one strand that makes up the rather complicated and intertwined plot of “Doctor Sleep”.  In another town, a young girl named Abra Stone is grappling with immense telepathic and telekinetic powers of her own. She is able to form a mental link with Dan, and the two will be pulled into a fight against the terrifying True Knot, a group of violent vagrants and drifters who roam the United States searching for “steam”, a special element that people gifted with the ‘shining’ powers release when they are in pain. The True Knot hunt down victims and torture them, feeding off the “steam”, which gives them healing powers and grants them near eternal life. They can sense when people have the ‘shining’, and are drawn to children with these powers, which makes Abra a feast for the group, if they ever find her.

“Doctor Sleep” does not have the same secluded and eerie setting that made “The Shining” so memorable. Without a central setting that was as detailed and ominous as the Overlook, “Doctor Sleep” does seem to amble from location to location, as it heads toward a climactic showdown between good and evil.

“Doctor Sleep” is simply not as thrilling as its predecessor, which used its lonely location and small cast of characters (really just the three members of the Torrance family for most of the book) to great effect. With such a large cast, “Doctor Sleep” does sometimes shift focus away from Dan too much, and Abra does seem like she should be at Professor Xavier’s school with the rest of the X-Men with her wide and impressive power set. But King is a master storyteller, and creates a really thrilling book despite some ups and downs.

Image source: Wikipedia

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10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately

This is a really great list of fantasy books-some I had never even heard of

Flavorwire

Fans of magical prose and magical worlds, take heart. Titan Books has recently released a special limited edition version of steampunk legend James Blaylock’s The Aylesford Skull, a classic from one of the genre’s trailblazers. To celebrate the release, Blaylock has put together a list of forgotten or ignored works of literature that have inspired his own writing, and should be must-reads for anyone interested in science fiction or the fantastic.

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The Secret History (1992)

The Secret History (1992) image source: bit.ly/1mIRBOw

Just last week, it was announced that Donna Tartt had been awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel “The Goldfinch”. She may have only published three novels, but has made a huge impression on the literary world without being prolific.

Her 1992 debut novel, “The Secret History” announced the arrival of Tartt as a fully developed and prodigiously talented young writer. It is a self assured, confident work that is enjoyable despite a few flaws.

“The Secret History” is set at Hampden College, a fictional liberal arts school in New England. The narrator, Richard Papen is a very Nick Carraway -eqsue fellow, a young man leaving his humble roots to try and better himself  and integrate into  a more cultured strata of society.  The novel gets off to a quick start, with the death of  a Hampden student, Edmund Corcoran, known to all as “Bunny”.  “The Secret History” is the story of ‘Bunny’s friends, and of the group that forms at this very elite and posh college.

Upon starting his studies at Hampden, Richard becomes fascinated by an extremely tight knit group of students studying Ancient Greek, under the tutelage of the enigmatic and very particular professor, Julian Morrow. Richard fights hard to gain admittance into this handpicked group, but he eventually does, and his life changes forever.

The students in this very select group will become Richard’s closest friends at Hampden, and their personalities and interactions make up the heart of the novel. “The Secret History” is often described as a murder mystery, but it’s more than that. It’s a very detailed account of Richard’s desperate attempts to fit into this odd group of extremely idiosyncratic students, even if it could be dangerous to his life and sanity.

Tartt is a very talented writer, and of course, very intelligent. She excels at creating a mood and atmosphere throughout the novel. These early twenty-somethings don’t behave like average college kids-they eat gourmet meals, enjoy expensive wines, spend their weekends debating phonetics and syntax of ancient languages, lounge about quoting long dead philosophers. They are odd, but fascinating, and Tartt draws us deeper and deeper into the very secluded nook the group creates for themselves.

There is a “Great Gatsby” vibe that lingers over the entire novel, as you just feel that no good can come from such careless wealth, ambition, beauty and youth, but you still keep reading. Fans of filmmaker Whit Stillman’s work (especially his film Cosmopolitan) in particular will appreciate this novel as it is able to capture a very heightened view of early adulthood that somehow feels like the middle age of extraordinarily privileged and intellectual adults.

“The Secret History” is a long book (over 500 pages), but it moves along quite quickly, and though its biggest flaw is that it can get too deep into itself, creating some rough patches where too many ancient Greek or Latin phrases are flying about to make sense of, it’s still a compelling and memorable read.

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Filed under 1990s books, Pulitzer Prize winning authors, Recommended Reads

The Accidental Tourist (1985)

The Accidental Tourist (1985) image source: bit.ly/1nh8vnu

Anne Tyler is a prolific writer, and her calm, clear prose and plots revolving around everyday people and the daily trials and tribulations of average life are always refreshing to visit in a landscape currently dominated by so much supernatural and post apocalyptic doom and gloom.

Tyler’s 1985 novel, “The Accidental Tourist” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is one of her most highly acclaimed books, and is a great introduction to her work and style of writing.

The plot follows Macon Leary, a middle aged travel writer in the midst of some major upheavals in his life. His wife of nearly two decades, Sarah, has moved out, and he is still mourning the tragic murder of his twelve year old son in a fast food restaurant hold up.

Crippled by grief and his wife leaving him, Macon retreats further and further inward, with only his unruly dog, Edward for company. Forced to continue taking trips to complete the  ‘Accidental Tourist’ series of travel guidebooks for businessmen he writes, he checks Edward into lodging at an animal hospital and meets the energetic, flouncy, twenty something Muriel Pritchett. She is nearly the exact opposite of everything Macon stands for in life: messy not neat, loud and outgoing not withdrawn, inquisitive and eager, not staid and hesitant.

After Macon is injured in fall that causes him to move back home with his grown sister and two brothers, he finds himself constantly interacting with Muriel despite his best efforts to keep his life Muriel free. She ends up training the wildly erratic Edward, and forms a bond with Macon, and helps him recover from his grief and loneliness.

I will not spoil any more of plot here, but “The Accidental Tourist” is not as predictable a story as its jacket or back cover synopsis would lead you to believe. There were some surprises here, ones that I rooted for, and some that I was totally against. But I was always engrossed in the story, and in the very believable and delicately described emotions Tyler describes throughout the novel.

Tyler’s characters don’t have magical powers and are never called upon to save the world. They only people they usually have to save are themselves; they fight to overcome loss, grief, despair, apathy and loneliness. Her characters are flawed humans, but she still manages to imbue them with humor and make us root for their redemption and success.

Tyler has a very warm writing style, but she never becomes sappy. Her characters have to deal with some serious issues, and though she empathizes with them, she never gives them a free pass or illogical motivations for their mistakes or bad behavior.  There’s always been a level of disdain in literature, and by ” serious “readers that plot and story are secondary; style and linguistic prowess should come first (and overshadow everything else), leading to more often than not , intimidating and stunning sentences but incomprehensible plots and characters who just don’t feel real. There is something worthy and respectable about good, clean, solid writing that is intelligent but not showy. This is where Tyler excels. She writes honestly and conveys actual emotions without feeling the need to confuse readers or impress us with her prodigious craftsmanship.

image source: bit.ly/1nh8vnu

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