Insomnia

As I’ve said a dozen times, I love Stephen King. He’s my all-time favorite author (ugh, that’s really hard to say considering how much I love Harry Potter) but it’s true. I’ve reviewed several of his books like The Outsider,  The Stand (my favorite of his),  Sleeping BeautiesPet Sematary, Lisey’s Story, Under the Dome, The Dark Tower, Song of SusannahEnd of WatchWolves of the Calla‘Salem’s Lot, and Wizard and Glass. Whew. I am a firm believer that there’s a King book out there for everyone, even if you don’t like horror. His Mr. Mercedes trilogy is a police detective story. The Eyes of the Dragon is a King Arthur story. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a survival story. The Dark Tower series is a quest. The Stand is dystopian. On and on. Insomnia, at its core, is just a story of a man who loves a woman and their task of helping others. Of course, there is a horror/supernatural element to it.

I had no idea what this book was about, other than it was a huge tie to The Dark Tower series. There’s a character in DT that is really important at the end. And this character is a minor character in Insomnia, but it’s critical that he survives this book because he is needed in DT. Cryptic, I know. But I’m trying to avoid giving too much away. I loved The Dark Tower series and don’t feel like I missed a lot by reading this one after I finished the series, but it would have been great to have the background info from this one first.

This story follows elderly Ralph who loses his wife, Carolyn, to cancer. After that, he begins not sleeping. Every night it gets worse, shaving off a few minutes of when he wakes up. He falls asleep no problem but wakes up at 5:30. 5:22, 5:15, until he is sleeping maybe 2 hours a night. And he starts seeing things. Weird things like people who aren’t there and colorful auras around people. He tries everything to sleep but is at a loss. He eventually realizes he isn’t alone in this insomnia. His equally elderly neighbor, Lois, is suffering as well. Together they must defeat the men of death. Basically, the grim reapers who visit you at that moment. Two of them are kind and do their jobs well, but one is sadistic and takes pleasure in torment. There’s quite the political anti-abortion plot that I rarely see in SK’s books, but it’s an important one to the overall events.

Many people find this book (pun intended) quite the snooze. I loved it, though. With all the DT references (hi there Crimson King) and the bond between Ralph and Lois, I thought it was a fantastic story. I listened to it over 25 hours!!! and didn’t mind a minute of it. This one is a must read for any SK fan.

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WWII Graphic Novels

I recently read two very powerful graphic novels that coincidentally were both about WWII. I was aware the first one was about the Holocaust, but it wasn’t until I picked up the second that I realized it was about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Back when I was a teacher, I taught gifted and talented kids, and one of our semester-long curriculums was about the 1940s. Not just about the war, but the entire decade. Two of our books that I taught were MAUS II and Hiroshima, both excellent books. Maus II is a graphic novel telling the story of the father of artist Art Spiegelman, who has taken his father’s survival during the Holocaust and turned it into a graphic novel.  The Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans are cats, French are frogs, etc. The book is beautifully illustrated with haunting depictions of life in Auschwitz. I’ve always meant to read the first MAUS book, but reading them out of order doesn’t lead to any confusion. The first book tells of Spiegelman’s father’s early life, how he met Art’s mother, the birth of their baby, the beginning of the German’s deportation of Jews, etc. Although it is equally important as MAUS II, it isn’t as graphic. That said I taught MAUS II to middle school kids, and some were really bothered by it, but it’s a very powerful book that needs to be used in schools. Of all the books we read, this one was the one that haunted the kids most.

The other book I taught, Hiroshima, was equally as powerful, but from a very different standpoint. Written by a journalist, John Hersey, it is told from a third person perspective of what life was like immediately before, during, and after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The book follows a handful of people through the event. It is at times very graphic and hard to read, but expertly written and an important piece of journalism. When I picked up Pika-Don yesterday, I truly had no idea what the subject matter was. This quick read follows the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man who survived not one, but BOTH atomic bombs dropped during WWII. This book was put together by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project, has several contributors, and is an excellent, beautifully drawn graphic novel. If you can get your hands on it, I absolutely recommend it.

The Collector Trilogy

I’ve been hearing about this series for quite some time. Several friends have recommended them as “can’t put down” thrillers. And as much as I did want to keep reading to see what happened, I didn’t love the writing style of this author. I felt like a lot had been left unsaid, causing me to reread more than I usually do, especially for a thriller, which is usually a fairly easy-to-follow genre, even with the given plot twists.

The first book, The Butterfly Garden, starts with a girl named Maya discussing the past few years of her life. She was kidnapped and forced to live in a hidden garden with several other beautiful girls. They all are tattooed with giant butterflies on their backs and given new names.  However, when they hit 21, they are killed and preserved in resin. Maya realizes, given the number of butterflies already preserved, that the Gardener has been doing this for a long time. Because the book starts with her speaking to the FBI, you know Maya and others have escaped, but *how* that happens is told over the course of the book. The book isn’t graphic, but it is disturbing, so be warned.

The second book follows the FBI team again with a series of killings. Every spring, a girl is murdered, placed in a church, surrounded by flowers. Priya’s sister was one of the murdered girls. And now, several years later, Priya is receiving flowers on her porch. Maya and another butterfly (who will remain nameless to avoid spoilers) are mentioned in this book several times, as well. The FBI team has taken Priya on as a little sister of sorts, and take her situation very seriously, trying to determine if the flower-sender is the killer or just another crazy person who is obsessed with the case.

The last book, The Summer Children, again features the FBI team, namely the female member, in a string of murders. The parents of abused children are being murdered and the children left on the FBI team member’s doorstep. This book was the best well-written, in my opinion, and I was really sucked into figuring out who was behind the murders. Unlike the second book, I had no idea who it was until quite some time through the story.

As for the writing style, I’m sure it’s just my personal preference, but I felt like the author’s editor was a little too enthusiastic with the red-lining because there were scenes that were just not explained well, as if the reader had prior knowledge of the situation when, in reality, that wasn’t the case. I kept rereading to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Overall, the books are interesting enough for me to have kept reading, and when the fourth comes out this spring, I will for sure check it out. That FBI has grown on me, and I want to visit them again.

Joie de Vivre

A friend of mine is a writer. I’m very lucky that she allows me to beta read for her, also. Her previous book, Rise, is excellent, but haunting. The war in Syria is something Katherine is very passionate about, and Rise is a reflection of that. However, I can happily announce Joie de Vivre is a delight. Literally translated, the Joy of Living, the title matches this one perfectly.

The story follows Scott and Ophelia at a chance meeting in college. They are thrown together in the worst of circumstances, a tornado, leaving Ophelia scarred and Scott looking for more out of life. Several years later, they meet up again, this time in New Orleans, very unsure what they mean to each other, dancing around the event that left them physically and emotionally scarred.

I’m not a fan of romance books, but Katherine writes some really great ones that aren’t just smut and empty plots. They are full of heart, dynamic and realistic characters, meaningful thoughts, and excellent writing. Ophelia is a character you will love, but will also make you want to tear your hair out in frustration with wanting her to just be okay. You can identify with Scott wanting to be a good man who follows his heart, but also letting Ophelia find herself. This book link to purchase will be released in November and I highly recommend it.

The Namesake

I’ve been really trying to branch out in my reading. I feel like there are so many amazing pieces of literature out there that I have missed. So, I posted a question on the Great American Book Club FB page asking for recommendations of more “important” books about different cultures and ethnicities. I was thinking along the lines of books by Khaled Hosseini, who I just love. Thankfully, the kind readers on the FB page gave me hundreds of suggestions. When I got my Kindle Unlimited subscription, this book was one that I was able to get. I had heard book things about it but really was unfamiliar with this one. And I can honestly say it’s been a really long time since I enjoyed a book written so simply and so beautifully.

The story begins with a couple getting married and moving to the US. His mother, Ashima, is very nervous about being away from home with her unfamiliar arranged marriage husband but makes the best of it. Once their son is born, they anxiously await a letter from their ancestor who, by tradition, names the baby. The letter never comes, so they are forced to select for him. In their Bengali culture, babies have two names- a “good” name and a nickname. The good name is for school, paperwork, etc and the nickname is how their friends and family name them. His nickname is Gogol, after the author, who his father has an emotional connection to. When they place Gogol in kindergarten, they are then forced to pick his good name and settle on Nikhil, although Gogol refuses to answer to it.

The story follows Gogol, mostly, and his struggles to find his place in his world. He, like most kids, wants to blend in and be accepted and is constantly embarrassed by his parents and their cultural differences. He is forced to visit family in unfamiliar countries for months on end. He leaves home for college, desperate to find himself and who he really is. He falls in and out of love, finds a job, and deals with life.

This book is spectacular and captivating in the most simple of ways. It’s just about a man and trying to figure out life. There’s no crazy plot mystery, so hidden twists, just a good character book, and I absolutely loved it. I’m not like Gogol because I am not torn between two cultures. My family has been in American for generations. But that didn’t matter. I still wanted to read about his life. Books like this are so important for representation. Just because I’m not Bengali-American doesn’t mean I didn’t see myself in Gogol at times. But, I imagine, to people (not necessarily Bengali, but of any one of two cultures) who do deal with, a book of this beauty must be of great comfort. Seeing yoursel fin a book, a tv show, a movie, is life-afffirming, and we need so much more of it.

A House at the Bottom of the Lake

Back on Prime Day, Amazon was giving its members a subscription to Kindle Unlimited for 99 cents. I jumped right on this deal and figured I would be able to find something from my hundreds of books long wish list that was available on Unlimited. I clicked on every single title (Amazon needs to make some changes to what info you can see on the wish lists) and found that 11 of them were on Unlimited. I also learned that you can only borrow 10 titles at a time.

I sorted the titles by length to create an order in which to read them, and this little novella ended up first. I’m a HUGE fan of the author, Josh Malerman. I’ve read and reviewed Bird Box and Black Mad Wheel and Unbury Carol and loved them all, Bird Box being my favorite. I was really excited to dive (pun intended) into this one.

James and Amelia are teenagers who are on a first date boating on a lake. They take a few harrowing narrow tunnels and find a hidden lake. As they paddle around, they notice there’s a house below the water. They hold their breaths, dive, and look around. It appears as if the house has been lived in with fixtures, furniture, knick-knacks, and working lights. Yep, under the water.  Clearly, something fishy (yep, pun intended again) is going on.

The teens can’t get enough of the house. They are magnetically drawn to it, getting scuba gear, and making their explorations just about every day. The power the house has over them begins to invade their “away from the lake” lives. I loved this book. After Bird Box, this was my favorite story of Malerman’s. He is such a great slow-burn horror writer. Instead of gore, he pulls in with suspense and mystery. I look forward to reading a lot more from this talented guy.

A River in Darkness

I really like memoirs, but it seems like most of them are just the same struggles- abuse, depression, drugs, etc. Those stories are important, and I have no problem with them, but I feel like I’ve read enough of them to last me awhile. I have started branching out and trying to read books written by and about other cultures, beliefs, ethnicities, etc from around the world. I received this book from the Kindle First program and was expecting a harrowing tale of escape. I didn’t get that, but I was riveted by the story anyway.

The author, Masaji Ishikawa, is half Japanese (from his mother) and half Korean. As a child, his father was emotionally and physically abusive, but the family had a stable life in Japan, but when Masaji was 13, his father forced the family to move to North Korea. The family gave up their stability for extreme poverty. They were the lowest caste and worse, returnees, which is the lowest of the low. His family went through hunger like you can only imagine surviving on weeds at times, sickness, struggle, and misery. Life in North Korea is nothing like what the pictures lead us to believe. Unless you are in the upper class or extremely wealthy, life is pure torture.

Masaji survived over 30 years and had a family of his own. He was fortunate enough to escape (because the punishment is death if caught) and made his way to Japan, always looking over his shoulder. However, he is still fighting to get his wife and children out of North Korea.  The majority of the story is about living in North Korea and the hardships rather than the escape, which made the entire book harder to stomach. The horrors that the North Koreans face is astounding. This was a very moving book that will stick with me for a long time.