The Gentler Side of a King in "Sleeping Beauties", by Stephen and Owen King - Book Review

The King of Horror is getting sentimental in his old age. While he’s been pulling away from horror for quite some time and focusing more on thrillers with strong characters, Sleeping Beauties is almost quaint at times.

The gist of the story is that the women in Dooling, Somewhere Town America, start succumbing to some sort of hibernation when they fall asleep. As soon as they drift off, their bodies start building a cocoon around them which keeps them alive but comatose. As virtually every woman falls prey, the men are left to fend for themselves. And it’s not pretty.

Sleeping Beauties: A Novel
By Stephen King, Owen King

Meanwhile, the women are transported into another world where only women exist. They are in some version of Dooling but set well into the future in a sort of post-apocalyptic setting. There is no electricity or running water and they have to start from ground zero to set up a functioning civilization. Not surprisingly, they fare much better than the men back in Dooling, even though under much more difficult circumstances.

King, who wrote this book with son Owen, clearly thinks women are not only the fairer sex but the smarter and more cohesive. But he also acknowledges that, in the end, women and men need one another for a well-balanced society.

There are, of course, heroes and villains in this tale and they are of both gender. A number of the main characters are either locked up in a women’s prison - before they cocoon - or serve as prison employees. Some of the most nefarious of that group are the staff, not the prisoners.

This is a 700-page tome that could have been told in less pages but moves along at a reasonable pace. Not as titillating as the Mr. Mercedes series (which I previously reviewed), it is an interesting commentary on the human condition and relationships. Perhaps writing a book with one’s son brings out the soft touch in an author.

Don’t misunderstand me, there is still plenty of bloodshed and evil doing, but there just seems to be a gentler side to King’s storytelling these days.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Elizabeth's rating: 3 stars

War, Crime, New York, and Great Writing in "Manhattan Beach", by Jennifer Egan - Book Review

I stayed awake nights to read this.  I couldn’t wait to reach the end, then hated when it was over. It’s that good.  I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad several years ago and liked it well enough.  Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, far exceeds its predecessor. 

Egan's first work of historical fiction was diligently researched over several years, and takes place in New York as World War II breaks out. It crosses time and oceans chronicling a famous gangster longing to do good; a father entwined in a gangster’s life he cannot sustain; and our imperfect heroine, whose strengths and smarts lead her from childhood to adulthood. The war itself is a character as well, propelling the lives of those left at home to support the “innocents” sent to fight, manifesting patriotism in even the most cynical, and fastening together the diversity of New York that would otherwise remain apart.

Manhattan Beach: A Novel
By Jennifer Egan

Anna is a child when the story begins, her father, Eddie, making ends meet as a bagman for a small time gangster. A loving relationship, Eddie takes Anna along for many of his drops. This ends suddenly however, when Anna turns 14, and Eddie begins employment for one of the most prominent gangsters in New York, Dexter Styles.  A dangerous path, clearly, but it allows Eddie to financially provide for his family, including Anna’s younger, disabled sister Lydia.

One day, Eddie doesn’t return home. Years pass, and after Pearl Harbor, the war effort is in full swing. Anna fills a role in the Brooklyn Naval Yard measuring ship parts; a job much too mundane, but she enjoys being part of the war effort.  Through mighty will and perseverance, she becomes the first female naval diver, making ship repairs underneath the water’s surface.  As Anna is discovering herself as a strong woman in very much a man’s world, she navigates the extreme chauvinism of the 1940’s, acceptance of her father’s disappearance, and meeting the gangster with whom her father was involved. Along with a supporting cast gleaned from interviews of people who lived and worked in Brooklyn supporting the Naval Yard, Egan weaves their real stories into a captivating plot.

Egan’s characters are beset with intersecting conflict and humanity; her writing and pace excels. She has uncanny ability to surface and convey emotions in the subtlest of ways; possibly the best feature of her writing.  Manhattan Beach is without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

Lyrical Writing in "Sing, Unburied, Sing", by Jesmyn Ward - Book Review

Sing, Unburied, Sing is heartbreaking and intense. It is the contemporary, rural South where location and characters are inextricably intertwined. This is Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, and she is certain to become one of South’s most notable writers.

The story is of a black family in coastal Mississippi, laden with the pain of memories, disease, drugs, and obsessions.  But it’s also a story of love, survival, and deep devotion. The chapters are told from the perspective of Jojo, a sensitive, prescient thirteen-year-old and his mother, Leonie. Jojo and his three-year-old sister, Kayla are raised by Pop, their grandfather who cares for them as well as his cancer-ridden wife, Mam, and their small home and livestock.  Leonie waitresses in a bar, gets high on meth, and is consumed with her white imprisoned boyfriend, Michael, also the father of her two children.

Focusing on the struggles of each character, Ward brings racial conflict front and center - from a story of slaves kidnapped from their homes in Africa and the harrowing ship ride to America, to Pop’s time in prison as a young man trying to look after a black child who was also jailed and brutalized. And we get a glimpse into Michael’s family - enough to witness extreme prejudice, violence, and hate’s repercussions.

Tight knit, Jojo and Pop care for Kayla and Mam, and Pop tries to prepare Jojo for manhood; while Leonie works and gets high, planning for the day Michael is freed from prison. Jojo listens to Pop’s stories of growing up and of his time prison; of the boy he tried to save; and of the blood on his hands. He is haunted, and they are all plagued with ghosts in some respect. 

Ward is able to weave together the mystical - through memories and specters from the past who can’t find their way home - and a jarring reality of racism and drug addiction. This is not an easy book to read, but it is certainly worthy of the effort.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 4 Stars

Family Drama Well-Serialized in "The Antiques", by Kris D’Agostino - Book Review

“Nobody ever said, ‘Here’s your family. What do you think?’ You just got them. Or you didn’t get them.

Have truer words ever been spoken?

Author Kris D’Agostino spins a lovely tale in The Antiques about a modern-day family finding their way through the death, and its aftermath, of the family patriarch. Ana and George were married for a thousand years and the resentments between them were big and typical, but she finds herself lost with his passing.

The Antiques: A Novel
By Kris D'Agostino

Ana’s adult children converge on the family home in Hudson, New York, some more willingly than others. Armie just comes up from the basement, as that’s where he’s been living for the last six years. Josef, the financial prodigy AND prodigal son, drags himself away from his self-absorbed life in the city. And, Charlie, the only daughter, comes in from L.A. after throwing a tantrum of her own on her tantrum-driven movie star client. All the old family wounds are reopened and no one acts as they should, but this is real family life, albeit more drastic and eminently more humorous.

D’Agostino’s story telling seems like a literary trick. He somehow lays out his prose in a way that makes you feel as though you are the director of a film shooting each scene, watching each take, from behind the camera. He sets up vignettes that run for pages at a stretch in which each character’s role is made crucial not just through dialogue, but through location and timing as well. At the start, you can almost hear a call for ‘action,’ and at the end, one for ‘cut.’ It is a beautiful way to witness a story unfolding.

Are all the hurts erased at the end? Does everyone finally get their acts together? Probably not. But D’Agostino has that author’s knack of wrapping things up with a denouement of family camaraderie that leaves you feeling hopeful and appreciative of your own dysfunctional one.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

Coming of Age in “Brooklyn”, by Colm Tóibín - Book Review

Eilis Lacey is from a small Irish town. Everyone knows everyone; there are few jobs. It’s a beautiful place of family and friends with limitations to earn a living after World War II. Eilis lives with her fragile mother and charismatic sister, taking classes and caring for the home. Her three brothers have moved to London where work is abundant. She is in a comfortable, if not ideal, existence.

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A Dead Writer, a Curious Teen, and a Crime in "Finders Keepers", by Stephen King - Book Review

In the past couple of decades, Stephen King has made a decided shift from horror to thriller/supernatural, a shift that has turned me into a huge fan. Previously unable to finish his books out of sheer terror, I am chomping at the bit for the thrillers.  Finders Keepers, the sequel to Mr. Mercedes, did not disappoint. Started it on a Wednesday; finished it that Sunday.

Early on, Finders Keepers seems only tangentially related to Mr. Mercedes and I wondered if it was a marketing gimmick to call it a sequel. But mid way through, the rag tag crime team of Bill, Holly and Jerome from the first book show up to help our latest protagonist in trouble, teenager Pete Saubers.

Pete has the fortune to happen upon a trunk full of money and notebooks filled with poetry and prose at a time of family crisis.  In time, he realizes the notebooks are the true value of his find. They are 20 years of unpublished writing from American hero author John Rothstein, who was tragically murdered years before.

Finders Keepers: A Novel
By Stephen King

The problem for Pete? Morrie Bellamy, the man who buried the trunk, gets paroled after decades in prison and, you guessed it, comes looking for his trunk.

King not only tells a fast paced story that keeps you turning the pages as fast as you can read the words, but he masterfully illuminates the important, yet tenuous, connection between authors and readers. One that King certainly grapples with daily. While extreme, King, perhaps partly autobiographically, shows how destructive a relationship can be between an obsessed reader and an unaccommodating author.

Don’t worry; even though the underlying theme is reminiscent of Misery, the plot is fresh enough for Finders Keepers to stand fully on its own. And, for those of you longing for King’s horrors of the past, don’t fret, Morrie Bellamy, even in his 70 year old broken down body, is as dark and frightening as they come.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Scribner

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars


The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer - Book Review

The Children’s Crusade is a deeply thoughtful book about a California family struggling to overcome “maternal deprivation”.  Author Ann Packer slowly builds up steam in her recent novel, and she brings to life a very real household whose inhabitants could live next door.  She begins with patriarch Bill Blair as he ends his Navy service and finds a beautiful piece of undeveloped land on which to build a legacy of home and family.  A caring and thoughtful, respected pediatrician, we hear throughout the book Bill’s mantra, “children must be cared for” - a poignant consideration as he progresses through his career, marries and raises four children.

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