Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

July 24, 2014

Mr. Mercedes Plot summary (from the publisher): In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again. Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Mr. Mercedes is a war between good and evil, from the master of suspense whose insight into the mind of this obsessed, insane killer is chilling and unforgettable.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • All in all, this was a pretty gripping story. King is a master of the page-turner, and this skill translates well to the crime genre. Count me in among those fans that loved the departure from horror and the supernatural!
  • I enjoyed the little shoutouts to Christine and It. An author of King’s stature should be allowed to reference his past work, shouldn’t he?
  • Bill Hodges was a fairly likable character. Nothing in this first book (King has indicated that Mr. Mercedes is the first of a trilogy) irked me too much or put me off from ever wanting to read about him again. I especially appreciated that he wasn’t a supercop and that his being out-of-shape/retired hampered his investigation at a few points.
  • The disdain for boy bands was funny and well-placed.

Disliked:

  • There’s no way in hell some fat shlub like Bill would get a halfway decent looking woman, 20 years younger than him, into bed. I hate these ridiculous hookups in books!
  • Speaking of ridiculous hookups…Brady and his mother were…just…ewwww!!!! I will never be able to listen to a mother talking about taking care of a child’s headache in quite the same way again :(
  • What caused Brady to suddenly reach out to Bill? Usually there is some kind of triggering event, but here it just seemed like one day Brady decided he was tired of only peeping and wanted to get involved for real. I didn’t get it.
  • Another alcoholic character. Really? I know King is a friend of Bill W., but come on.

Rating:

Mr. Mercedes was an engrossing, straightforward crime novel that was a refreshing departure from typical Stephen King fare. Though some elements of the plot and actions of the characters bugged a bit, I found this to be a mostly enjoyable experience. I give the book 4 stars out of 5.

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A Look at Kindle Unlimited

July 20, 2014

So Amazon has just announced their new Kindle Unlimited program. Descibed as a “Netflix for books,” Kindle Unlimited allows subscribers free access to a library of 600,000+ titles from Amazon.com. A fraction of the titles, maybe around 10% (that’s not a hard figure; just a guestimate using the “Whispersync” search limiter), are also available with audio tracks. The price of the service is $9.99/mo, with the first month free.

As someone who reads more than 150 books per year (on average), it seems that Kindle Unlimited would be perfect for me. And yes, I have already downloaded and/or queued up more than 10 books that I want to get through in the trial period. But honestly, after spending several hours browsing through the Unlimited catalog in the past couple of days, I don’t think the membership would end up being “worth it.” Most of the books I want to read are already available for free through my library or Project Gutenberg.

Then again, when you consider that many of the “popular” Kindle books range in price from $7.99 to $12.99, all it would take is two books per month to get my money’s worth from the Unlimited program. That would be easy enough to achieve, but the selection is what’s holding me back.

Some people might also balk at the fact that Kindle Unlimited books are merely borrowed and don’t remain in your library once you end your membership. This isn’t a big deal for me, though, because I’m not interested in amassing a massive collection of e-titles.

Anyway, I’ll get the most out of this month-long free trial. After that, I’ll probably cancel until the monthly price drops down to something more reasonable (<$6.99).

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The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

July 19, 2014

the painted girls Plot summary (from the publisher): 1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The author did a wonderful job of setting the scene throughout the book. “Atmospheric” is the word that immediately springs to mind. I was instantly immersed in 19th-century Paris, and loved it.
  • I enjoyed the bits about Degas. I’m not a big art buff or anything and probably couldn’t identify a Degas with a roadmap, but found his appearances in this book oddly compelling. I want to learn more about his life, and will likely end up reading a biography soon.
  • The characters felt very real to me. Antoinette, at just 19, had already lost her innocence and naiveté about how the world works. Marie, at 14, was straddling the line between that childhood innocence and stark reality. And Charlotte was mostly just plodding along as the child she was, completely oblivious to the darker struggles of her sisters.
  • Even for someone not at all interested in art or dance, I found this book very engrossing. That’s not to say I’m now inspired to run out and find the best salsa classes Santa Monica has to offer; but I did enjoy most of it and found only a few spots to be a slog.

Disliked:

  • I didn’t care much for the shifting viewpoints. I liked Marie’s storyline (and character) far more than Antoinette, and became exasperated at times when the author broke away from Marie. This was especially true at the end, where the POV kept going back and forth after just a couple of paragraphs. Annoying!
  • Antoinette’s stubbornness regarding the boyfriend (I already forgot his name) was hard to endure. I didn’t really understand her “love” for him, and found her total devotion hard to believe. It got to the point where I was rolling my eyes and skimming whenever her dreams of New Caledonia came up.
  • I thought the character of the mother was woefully underdeveloped. I felt there was a lot more potential for conflict and interesting storylines in that direction, and was disappointed that she remained largely in the background.

Rating:

I was pleasantly surprised by The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. I’d never heard of this author before, and not being particularly interested in any of the over themes (Paris, ballet, art), I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this one. But the characters were great, their struggles were realistic, and the atmosphere was alluring. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham

July 16, 2014

liza of lambeth Plot summary (from the publisher): Maugham completed the writing of LIZA OF LAMBETH during his final year of medical school. The publication of this novel brought him enough money and notoriety that he decided to abandon thoughts of a career as a doctor (he qualified but never practiced) and instead make his way as a full-time writer. The novel itself is the story of a young girl, Liza, living in the Lambeth slums of London. The details of the novel are rich and evocative, much of the material inspired by the people and events Maugham encountered while he was a medical student practicing mid-wifery in the same area.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Well, it’s always interesting to me to read a well-regarded author’s earliest works to see if I can detect some of the greatness that lies ahead. (Note: I could not in this case.)
  • The descriptions of London’s slums and lower classes were certainly evocative. That aspect of the book reminded me of Dickens.

Disliked:

  • While I’m not ordinarily opposed to grim, depressing stories, Liza of Lambeth took this to a new level when Liza’s mother, instead of being torn up that Liza was dying, thought of the insurance money she would get. I know family members often have mercenary motives like this, but Liza and her mother weren’t even particularly adversarial up to that point, so the mother’s reaction was jarring.
  • The dialogue as written was very difficult to read. Obviously Maugham was striving for authenticity, but it became rather a trial having to decipher all the oddly contracted words.

Rating:

As W. Somerset Maugham’s very first published novel(la), Liza of Lambeth is worth reading because of the author’s pedigree. However, it’s not much as a standalone work and probably shouldn’t serve as any reader’s introduction to Maugham. I give this one 2 stars out of 5.

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Listening to Audiobooks

July 14, 2014

I find that the busier I get, the more I turn to audiobooks instead of paperbacks or e-books. Obviously, hands-free listening has its advantages, particularly when it comes to commuting or exercising.

But the problem is that I hate the standard earbuds that come with Apple products. They don’t fit well and are thus very uncomfortable for me. So now I’m looking for the lowest price, highest quality headphones I can find. I figure if I spend a bit of money to make my listening experience better, then I’ll benefit in the long run.

Off for more research now!

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

July 4, 2014

7 habits covey Summary (from the publisher): In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey presents a holistic, integrated, principle-centered approach for solving personal and professional problems. With penetrating insights and pointed anecdotes, Covey reveals a step-by-step pathway for living with fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity — principles that give us the security to adapt to change and the wisdom and power to take advantage of the opportunities that change creates.

Reaction:

This has been on my To Read list for such a long time, because as far as self-help books go, 7 Habits is one that almost everyone is familiar with. I was looking forward to gleaning lots of useful info out of Covey’s work, but was somewhat disappointed with the result. All of his advice seemed to stem more from common sense than any exclusive insight, so I had to wonder what was the point.

He gives each of the 7 habits a descriptive name, such as “Sharpen the Saw” or “Synergize,” but these actually just mean “take care of yourself” (e.g. exercise, study, etc.) and “teamwork.” In fact, the other habits can similarly be distilled to more familiar concepts like time management, prioritizing, and listening. Well, yeah, no kidding that’s how to be more effective!

To Covey’s credit, he doesn’t claim to have invented or discovered these habits. Instead, he says that he just put them together into a plan aimed at helping people lead more productive lives. Still, I sort of wonder what all the hullabaloo was about.

Rating:

I guess maybe the fact that I’m reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 25 years after its initial publication might have something to do with my perception of Covey’s habits. They seem so commonplace and ingrained that I have a hard time figuring out what new things I’m supposed to take from the book. To me, there was nothing groundbreaking here; however, if you’ve never had any exposure to efficiency training or time-management skills before, this might do you some good. I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

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Zoo by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

June 17, 2014

zoo Plot summary (from the publisher): All over the world, brutal attacks are crippling entire cities. Jackson Oz, a young biologist, watches the escalating events with an increasing sense of dread. When he witnesses a coordinated lion ambush in Africa, the enormity of the violence to come becomes terrifyingly clear.

With the help of ecologist Chloe Tousignant, Oz races to warn world leaders before it’s too late. The attacks are growing in ferocity, cunning, and planning, and soon there will be no place left for humans to hide.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The book started off well enough, with the idea of a widespread animal uprising against humans. That premise could have made for an excellent thriller — in the hands of different authors.

Disliked:

  • The plot went from intriguing to extremely ridiculous very quickly. Even when hand-waving the pseudoscience away for the sake of fiction, there was just too much else that couldn’t be overlooked, from Oz and his “nympho” girlfriend to the dumb scenes of animal attacks all over the world to the unbelievable “solution” and eventual non-conclusion.
  • I couldn’t stand the various scenes of animals suddenly turning on and attacking humans. While a couple of well chosen and well written ones could have added to the plot, the sheer number of them (and the way they were never referred to again after the initial description) told me that they were included simply for the sake of padding the page count to satisfy publisher demands.
  • Don’t even get me started on Oz and Chloe. Gag. Me.
  • The writing was heavy-handed and terrible, complete with eye-rolling dialogue throughout. And no, Mr. Ledwidge, describing the dawn as “rosy-fingered” (a la Homer) does not elevate your prose at all.
  • If the animals were going batshit crazy due to cell phone signals and petroleum use (or whatever the stupid reasons given in the book), why were the effects being seen in remote places like Africa and Siberia??? Wouldn’t the preponderance of events be confined to big cities where cell phones and petroleum abound?
  • Even assuming for a moment that the “science” were true and that the whole world agreed to the U.S. president’s recommendation to cease all cell phone/power/gasoline usage for two weeks, is it possible that the calming effects on the animals would be so immediate? I mean, come on! It was like flipping a switch. One minute they’re murdering and maiming people, and the next they’re as docile as ever? Yeah, okay.

Rating:

Honestly, I keep saying that I should know better than to read James Patterson + [insert hired hack's name here] books, and yet this is precisely what I keep doing. Why do I insist on torturing myself so? Probably because my damn library only ever has these audiobooks in stock and available for immediate checkout (wonder why). Zoo was probably one of the worst books I’ve EVER read — and we’re talking about a lifetime of reading that encompasses thousands of titles. I give this one 0 stars out of 5.

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Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

June 13, 2014

Purple Sage Plot summary with spoilers (from Wikipedia): Riders of the Purple Sage tells the story of Jane Withersteen and her battle to overcome her persecution by members of her polygamous Mormon Church, a leader of which, Elder Tull, wants to marry her. Withersteen is supported by a number of Gentile friends, including Bern Venters and Lassiter, a famous gunman and killer of Mormons. Throughout most of the novel she struggles with her “blindness” in seeing the evil nature of her church and its leaders, trying to keep both Venters and Lassiter from killing her adversaries, who are slowly ruining her. Through the adoption of a child, Fay, she abandons her false beliefs and discovers her true love.

A second plot strand tells of Venters and his escape to the wilderness with a girl named Bess, “the rustler’s girl,” whom he has accidentally shot. While caring for her, Venters falls in love with the girl, and together they escape to the East, while Lassiter, Fay, and Jane, pursued by both Mormons and rustlers, escape into a paradise-like valley by toppling a giant balancing rock, forever closing off the only way in or out.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • This was a very fast read with a story that didn’t get overly bogged down with unnecessary detours. Grey stuck with the two predominant plot lines without much digression.
  • The characterization was straightforward almost to the point of being simplistic. With the possible exception of Lassiter, the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. Sure, Venters veered into the gray area when he shot Bess’ father, but he had a “good” reason for doing so.

Disliked:

  • All the hidden/mistaken identities got to be a bit difficult to follow, as the explanation was convoluted by the protestations and misunderstandings of the characters. I’m still not sure I’ve got the answers straight. Bess was Lassiter’s niece and Jane’s half-sister? Was Fay a blood relation to them?
  • The foreshadowing was rather heavy-handed in this book. As soon as the author described the boulder that could effectively block all ingress and egress to the canyon, I knew someone was going to get shut up in there. I just figured it would be Bess and Bern, rather than Lassiter, Fay, and Jane.
  • The chase scene on horses went on for too long, especially as it involved a secondary character that had barely been mentioned up to that point. If more had been made of Jerry Card’s riding exploits, then the scene might have been more appreciated. As it was, it felt like filler.

Rating:

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey is often referred to as a classic western. I don’t know if that’s just because it’s old or if people actually think this is a quality story. I thought it was just okay, and worth reading — especially as it’s offered as a free Kindle download at Amazon and on Project Gutenberg. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

June 5, 2014

willa-cather-the-song-of-the-lark-001 Plot summary (from the publisher): The Song of the Lark is the self-portrait of an artist in the making. The story revolves around an ambitious young girl, Thea, who leaves home to go to the big city to fulfill her dream of becoming a famous opera star. Along the way, her realization of the mediocrity of her peers propels her to greater levels of accomplishment, but in the course of her ascent she must discard those relationships which no longer serve her.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I am almost always intrigued by stories of success, so there were some aspects of this novel that appealed to me. I liked that Thea was able to rise above her small-town beginnings to achieve that “$1,000-a-night” status that her aunt bragged about so much. Thea’s road wasn’t easy and she definitely deserves some credit for staying the course.
  • Cather does a good job of showing how many people are behind the success of one great artist. If Thea didn’t have timely financial help at exactly the right moments on her journey, she would have ended up teaching piano lessons in Moonstone for her whole life.
  • I loved that Thea and Fred were driven into a cave together by a ferocious storm. This scene totally reminded me of the exact same situation with Aeneas and Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. That had to be the inspiration, right??
  • I liked how Cather showed various folks from Moonstone popping up in New York to see Thea perform. That seemed like a totally natural reaction, as people everywhere are always willing to cheer on one of their own.

Disliked:

  • I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea that all of Thea’s financial help came from men who were in love with her. She wasn’t that beautiful or even personable, so I found the idea of Ray Kennedy, Dr. Archie, and Fred all coming to her aid to be a bit of a stretch. Then again, what were the alternatives back in those days? It’s not as though she could have gotten a bank loan on her own or anything!
  • The chronology of events wasn’t always laid out in a linear fashion, which served to confuse me on a couple of occasions. For example, when Dr. Archie and Thea were talking about how Thea failed to make it back to Moonstone after her mother died, I had to thumb back through several chapters to see if I had somehow missed that episode. But no, it was explained in detail only later in the book.
  • Thea wasn’t particularly remarkable or interesting to me. The only thing that set her apart from run-of-the-mill folks was her singing voice, and that’s obviously not something that can come through on the printed page. Other than singing, she was dull and even sort of ungrateful to some of the folks that had helped her.

Rating:

Having enjoyed some of Cather’s other works, I’d hoped for similar success with The Song of the Lark. But although this book does have its merits, I found the protagonist uninteresting and the story a bit too long for my tastes. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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A Death in the Family by James Agee

May 31, 2014

death in the family Plot summary (from the publisher): Published in 1957, two years after its author?s death at the age of forty-five, A Death in the Family remains a near-perfect work of art, an autobiographical novel that contains one of the most evocative depictions of loss and grief ever written. As Jay Follet hurries back to his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, he is killed in a car accident–a tragedy that destroys not only a life, but also the domestic happiness and contentment of a young family. A novel of great courage, lyric force, and powerful emotion, A Death in the Family is a masterpiece of American literature.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • This was such a wonderfully written book that it was a joy to read (despite the subject matter). Agee’s prose is often lyrical, giving the reader a chance to truly revel in the language. This is certainly a book I intend to read again.
  • The portrayal of the family’s reaction to Jay’s death was so raw and realistic as to be utterly captivating. I especially liked Rufus’ reaction: he wanted to go outside so other kids could see him and he could be the center of attention for once. That was just so perfect for a 6-year-old.
  • All through the book, I wondered how much was true and how much was embellished (since I know the story is autobiographical). I guess it’s a testament to Agee’s skill that I couldn’t detect where reality ended and fiction began.

Disliked:

  • Well, clearly this is nobody’s fault, but I’m saddened by the fact that this book was assembled and published posthumously. As such, we’ll never the know the exact order in which Agee intended the scenes to unfold. Again, not anybody’s fault–but a disappointment nonetheless.
  • Some parts of the book were rather dull and plodding, which, for all I know, Agee might have revised/polished had he lived long enough to finish the work to his satisfaction.

Rating:

A Death in the Family by James Agee is a well-written and realistic–yet unfinished–portrait of how family members react to the sudden death of Jay Follet. It’s easy to get caught up in the author’s language and style, making this a mostly enjoyable read. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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