Favorite Reads of 2014

I was going to do a whole “year in reading” post, but I got sucked into other things and now I find the year has already turned over. Happy new year!

Here are my favorite reads of last year. Many are relatively new, some are classics, all are worth your time.

The Sundial Cover

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson: After receiving a vision from their deceased father, the Halloran family and their various hangers-on prepare for the end of the world (gothic horror classic). I got this wonderful Penguin edition with introduction by Victor Lavalle.

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns begins with a maternity nurse discovering that one of the newborns in her care has disappeared and has been replaced by a six-foot corn snake, and it just gets wilder from there (mystery).

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers: Mystery writer Harriet Vane returns to her college at Oxford and is drawn into an investigation of a spate of poison pen letters, vandalism, and other pranks; she must call on Lord Peter Wimsey to help her solve the mystery (mystery classic).

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: Private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by a millionaire to track down a blackmailer and gets entangled with his spoiled daughters and a bunch of seedy characters (mystery classic).

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh: In the 22nd century, when China is the dominant superpower and the US has had a socialist revolution, Zhang is trying to figure out what to do with his life (science fiction).

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: At one time, the artificial intelligence Justice of Toren was the brain of a massive starship as well as the crew members on-board and the security forces keeping peace on a conquered planet, inhabiting the bodies of human prisoners-of-war, called ancillaries, whose brains have been wiped clean and repurposed. But now the AI, called Breq, is confined to just one of her ancillary bodies, as she doggedly pursues revenge against the one who betrayed her while becoming embroiled in a complicated struggle for power over the galactic empire (science fiction).

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Mitchell’s latest novel is a genre-bending epic spanning 60 years about the people whose fates are altered by an ongoing war between immortals (literary fiction).

In the Woods by Tana French: Investigating a child murder, Detective Ryan returns for the first time to his childhood home, where his two best friends disappeared in a still-unsolved crime (mystery).

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith: In the near future, climate change and perpetual storms have forced the US government to abandon the Gulf Coast, and those who remain live without laws or services (apocalyptic fiction).

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh: Tells the truth on every page. And there are dogs. They aren’t cute dogs but you can’t have everything (humor).

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: Flora Poste moves in with distant relatives on Cold Comfort Farm and decides to fix everybody (humor classics).

Revival by Stephen King: Throughout his life, Jamie Morton has repeatedly encountered the Reverend Charles Jacobs and been drawn into his mysterious experiments with electricity, but toward the end of Jacobs’ life he coerces Jamie into participating into the ultimate–and most dangerous–of experiments (horror).

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: After learning that her colleague has died of a “fever” in the Amazon jungle, Dr. Marina Singh follows in his footsteps to learn more about the cause of his death and locate the reclusive Doctor Annick Swenson, who is developing a miracle fertility drug (literary fiction).

Top kids’ books: James and the Giant Peach, The 13 Clocks and Charlotte’s Web — all rereads.

Recommended Reading: Revival by Stephen King

Recommended reading for this week is RevivalStephen King’s latest novel (and the second he’s published this year).

Revival Cover

Now, I’m a King fan from way back. I think this is the best book he’s turned out in a long time, maybe even since the early days. If you are looking for gore and scares, you won’t find it here. If you are looking for great characters, mature storytelling and an existential mindfuck of an ending, Revival has it. And it just over 400 pages, it’s even a reasonable length.

Halloween picks: The Scariest books

I usually like to get in the Halloween spirit by reading a scary book or two. This year, my top pick is NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. If you like Stephen King, you’ll love this book by his son. Not only does it read like King, but it reads like King at his absolute best–one of those great big books that takes you by the throat and forces you to race through the pages just to find out what happens. NOS4A2 has a Christmas theme, so this one will keep you chilled all through the holidays.

Alternatively, you may go for a classic read this Halloween. I just finished The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, a short surreal piece that inspired Lovecraft. It’s got pig-people in it. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Edgar Allan Poe are also favorites this time of year. (Here’s my essay on Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel.)

For more Halloween reading ideas, here are my picks for the top 10 scariest books of all time:

  1. The Shining by Stephen King
  2. It by Stephen King
  3. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  5. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  6. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  7. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
  8. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  9. World War Z by Max Brooks
  10. The Ruins by Scott Smith

What is the scariest book you’ve read?

Book List: Big Books for Summer

Cover of "Under the Dome: A Novel"

Cover of Under the Dome: A Novel

Settle into your summer reading with one of these epic novels.

Summer is the perfect time to wade into a really big book. You know the books I mean, the kind that can double as a door stopper for a recalcitrant screen door or a small table to hold your drink on the beach.

Most of the time, I’m afraid to commit to such books. But in the summer, I have much more reading time available. All I want to do during the long, lazy days is escape into another world, and just stay there a while.

If you don’t mind the extra weight in your suitcase, consider carrying along one of these big books on your summer vacation. There’s something for everyone on this list, ranging from post-apocalyptic horror to epic historical fiction to parallel worlds.

The Passage: A Novel (Book One of The Passage Trilogy) by Justin Cronin: Last summer’s blockbuster is newly out in paperback. If vampires are your thing, don’t miss it. But be warned, these vampires are real monsters. They glow in the dark, have mouths full of sword-like teeth, leap out of the darkness, and are possessed by an overwhelming desire to rip your head off. The book spans 800 pages and 100 years, but you won’t be able to put it down.

Under the Dome: A Novel by Stephen King: The master of horror is known for big books, and his latest novel is no exception. Spend your vacation trapped with the residents of Chester’s Mill, Maine, under a mysterious glass dome. In a very short time, all the rules of civilized society are thrown out the window. What ensues is murder, mayhem, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson: Dive into the enormously complex world of Arbre, complete with a 3,000-year history and even its own languages. Anathem has it all: big ideas in physics, mathematics, and philosophy melded with chases, fight scenes, explosions, mysterious space ships, conspiracies, and even a romance. Be prepared by the end to travel across cosmoses and following multiple conflicting story lines through quantum space. But it’s all great fun.

Lonesome Dove: A Novel by Larry McMurtry: Maybe you never got around to reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic. It has been re-released in a beautiful anniversary edition, so now is the perfect time to pick it up. Follow a huge cast of characters led by two legendary former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus (Gus) McCrae, who embark on one last folly: the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana.

Sea of Poppies: A Novel by Amitav Ghosh: Travel back to India at the height of British colonialism in this magnificently sprawling book. Each character in the large cast has a secret to hide; each one is in some way living as someone they are not. They are brought together by the intertwined strands of fate that direct their lives. Sea of Poppies is often funny, but it is also suspenseful, epic, and evocative of a long-ago time and place. The first installment in a trilogy, its cliffhanger ending will leave you wanting more.

Article first published as Big Books for Summer on Blogcritics.

Room 237…

I watched Room 237 last night on Netflix instant streaming and highly recommend it. It is a documentary that presents several theories on what is really going on in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But wait! It is so much more than a geek-out about The Shining. (Although, to be fair, the film will be more enjoyable if you’ve seen The Shining, and read it, and seen all of Kubrick’s other movies.)

The brilliance of Room 237 is that, even though it’s a documentary, the people being interviewed are never shown in that classic talking-head documentary style. Instead, film clips constantly play as they explain their pet Shining theories, most of the clips from the film, the bulk of the rest from other Stanley Kubrick movies, and some from other films. These clips serve as a constant commentary on the voiceovers, so that Room 237 becomes more about how people become obsessed with films (or books or other works of art), fueling their obsession with every possible piece of evidence, however slight. My favorite part in the film is when the guy is explaining his theory of how Stanley Kubrick helped fake the Moon Landing, and points to Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater in a scene in The Shining as his aha! moment.

I actually have a theory on The Shining myself, but mine isn’t as far-out as the ones presented in Room 237 (or maybe it is, and I just think it’s normal). I think that Kubrick, as an artist, challenged himself to make films that were not only in a particular genre, but that transcended the genre and perhaps even defined it. He did this with 2001: A Space Odyssey in the science fiction genre, and with The Shining, he was trying to make the horror movie. Many of the clues and inconsistencies pointed out in Room 237 were probably deliberate, as Kubrick was an exacting director, but they aren’t signs of some uber meta-theory. Rather, Kubrick was trying to subtly unsettle his audience, have them feeling constantly off-kilter in small and large ways, in an attempt to truly horrify them, rather than just scare or shock them. This is why The Shining actually gets more disturbing the more you watch it, as you start to pick up on these subtle inconsistencies. The Shining is a movie about a place where the rules of reality no longer apply, and the rules of movie-making don’t apply in the film, and the inference is that maybe none of us can trust what we think is real. Now, that’s terrifying.

The Shining Movie Poster

Speaking of Stanley Kubrick, I read this essay yesterday too, and it made definitely me want to watch Eyes Wide Shut again. That film has a lot of parallels to The Shining, doesn’t it? I feel another theory coming on…

The opening line…

Stephen King shares his thoughts on why opening lines are so important and why he spends so much time crafting them in Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences – Atlantic Mobile. As a reader, an opening line is a greeting from the author. Do I feel welcomed? Do I want to venture in further? Or do I want to run away?

I’m sure we all have our favorite first lines. One of mine comes from King: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” It’s a simple line, but it immediately sets the scene as well as the tone of the book, and it introduces instant tension. The Atlantic asked several authors what their favorite first lines were after running the piece with Stephen King. All interesting choices. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun to read the first line and imagine the book, rather than reading the book itself.

You are probably already familiar with the Bulwer-Lytton contest that challenges writers to come up with the worst first lines. It’s named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the writer who came up with the opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” later made famous by an authorial Snoopy. Every year, I get a chuckle out of reading the contest winners.

I leave you with some more favorite first lines. Don’t they make you want to read these books?

“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.” — Lonesome Dove

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — Nineteen Eighty-Four

“If you had told me we’d end up in a world with kids with green hair and bones in their noses I would have laughed in your face. But here it is.”–No Country for Old Men

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.” — The Haunting of Hill House

Common Themes in the Works of Stephen King

This essay started life as a collection of notes I made on every Stephen King book a few years back, when I was rereading them all. Then it morphed into an answer to a question on Quora.

Crimson King

The Crimson King, representative of the Random. Image via Wikipedia

I was asked to answer a question on Quora about the common themes in Stephen King’s works. I have read everything that King has written, and I have noticed several “big ideas” that recur in his works. Taken together, these ideas provide a worldview that I find very compelling, which is probably why I enjoy King’s writing so much. The following are the seven major themes that seem consistent across King’s body of work. Please note that this essay does contain spoilers for many King books. I have provided as many examples as I can remember, but I am sure I have missed some, so please fill in the gaps in the comments.

1) There are two elemental forces, the Purpose and the Random, which are constantly at war with each other; this battle affects all worlds and all lives. The goal of the Random is destruction of all worlds. The goal of the Purpose, which King calls the “White” and uses synonymously with God, is to hold the Random in check and maintain a balance between the two forces. The “Coming of the White” refers to the restoration of the Purpose, or setting things right after a period of chaos. The Purpose selects and guides humans to achieve its aims; these people, although retaining free will, are in the thrall of fate or destiny, which King calls ka. The Random enlists its own agents, which may be human or supernatural beings.

Examples: The Stand and The Dark Tower series are King’s epics about this ongoing battle, but the theme recurs in many other books, especially Desperation, The Eyes of the Dragon, Insomnia, It, Low Men in Yellow Coats, Needful Things, and The Talisman. In Pet Sematary, the symbol of the spiral found in the Pet Sematary and the Micmac Burying Ground leads from chaos to order. In The Talisman, this elemental opposition is reflected in the two hotels — the Alhambra Inn and Gardens and the Black Hotel — where the quest begins and ends.

2) Ordinary people, when they come together, can achieve extraordinary things against overwhelming odds. Everyone, even the most ordinary or lowliest person, has something special to contribute. When people form a bond and work together against a common foe, the effects of their contributions are magnified, enabling them to overcome powerful enemies. When the Purpose brings together a group of people in this way, the group is called a ka-tet.

Examples: King introduces the term ka-tet in The Dark Tower series, where it refers to a group where many lives are joined by fate. Ka-tets are also formed in Black House, Desperation, It (the Losers’ Club), Insomnia, The Stand and Under the Dome.

3) The most important thing a person can do is make a stand for the ultimate good. Heroic characters are exhorted to “stand and be true” against the forces of chaos that oppose them so as to preserve order in the world. Making a stand is an incredibly difficult, often self-sacrificing act. It requires faith and courage in the face of overwhelming terror and power.

Examples: Of course, The Stand is the epic story about making a stand against the ultimate evil. Other books where the hero is required to make a stand are The Dark Tower series, The Eyes of the Dragon, It, Needful Things and The Talisman.

4) Everything in space and time is cyclical, and all events are fundamentally connected. This idea is symbolized by a wheel. In Insomnia and The Dark Tower series, King describes his vision of the multiverse as a wheel made up of perhaps an infinite number of worlds, connected by the axle of the Dark Tower, and held together by the spokes, called the Beams. The phrase repeated in many King novels, “Life is a wheel,” expresses the cyclical nature of life and that nothing happens by chance. Ka, or fate, is also “the wheel that moves the world” (Rose Madder). This cyclical repetition can be a Hell for the people caught up in it (“Hell is repetition”), reflecting the Eastern idea of the endless cycle of reincarnation, which can only be escaped via enlightenment.

Examples: The Dark Tower series, which explains the cyclical nature of all worlds, is itself structured as a cycle, with Roland ending up where he began. This theme is also explored in the cyclical nature of time travel in 11/22/63, It’s sleeping and waking cycles in It, Duma Key, Insomnia, Low Men in Yellow Coats, Rose Madder, The Shining, The Stand, Storm of the Century and The Talisman. The idea of Hell as repetition is the major theme of the short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.”

5) Creation is a powerful tool in service of the Purpose. If the Random’s goal is destruction, then creation is the ultimate weapon against it. This may be why writers figure so prominently in King’s works, as writers literally create worlds when they tell stories. Like any tool, the writer’s ability to create can be used either for good or evil ends.

Examples: This idea is taken to the extreme in The Dark Tower series, where King introduces himself as a pivotal character as the creator of Roland and his world; therefore, he is responsible for Roland’s success or failure in his quest to save all worlds. Writers and their ability to create figure prominently in Bag of Bones, The Body, The Dark Half, Desperation, It, Lisey’s Story, Misery, The Regulators, ‘Salem’s Lot, Secret Window, Secret Garden, The Shining and The Tommyknockers, as well as the short stories, “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” “Dedication,” “The Road Virus Heads North” and “Umney’s Last Case.” In Duma Key, the creator is a painter rather than a writer, but the theme persists.

6) The innocent and uncorrupted are closest to the Purpose, which makes them unexpectedly powerful. Generally, the innocents are children, but they could also be the mentally disabled (Tom in The Stand, John Coffey in The Green Mile, Duddits in Dreamcatcher) or the saintly (Mother Abigail in The Stand). Their powers manifest as prophetic visions or dreams, as well as the ability to alter reality and communicate telepathically. Adolescence is a time when the innocent are most vulnerable to corruption, when their powers may be turned to evil, such as in Carrie or Christine.

Examples: Powerful children appear in Bag of Bones (telepathy), Cujo (visions), Desperation (visions and miracles), Firestarter (pyrokinesis, telekinesis and telepathy), Insomnia (can see auras), It (visions and magic), The Langoliers (visions), Pet Sematary (prophetic dreams), The Regulators (also autistic), The Shining (telepathy and visions), The Stand (telepathy and visions), The Sun Dog (visionary dreams), The Talisman (travel between worlds) and Under the Dome (prophetic dreams).

7) The greatest evil that people do is victimization of the weak by the strong. Victimization usually manifests as abuse of animals, women and particularly children. Abuse of the weak is a particular evil of human nature (rather than an elemental evil like the Random), but it can lead to corruption of the abuser by the Random. The abused are generally not rescued; if they are to escape, they must do so themselves, by calling on their inner strength and power. If abused children do not escape or die, they often grow up to commit evil acts as a result of their abuse.

Examples: Child abuse takes places in The Body, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game, Insomnia, It, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Rage, Rose Madder, The Shining and The Talisman. Wife/girlfriend abuse takes place in Cujo, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Dark Half, Desperation, Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game, The Green Mile, Insomnia, It, Rose Madder, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Talisman, The Tommyknockers and many short stories.

Here is the original Quora question with all the answers given.