Book Review: Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep by Christina Knowles

Doctor_SleepI finally read Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s eagerly awaited sequel to The Shining, published thirty-six years after the first, with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. The Shining is one of my favorite novels, and how could a sequel live up to something revered as one of the all-time best horror novels ever published? I decided it didn’t have to. I would read it and enjoy it on its own merits. So how did it fare, in my humble opinion?

Well, it was wonderful getting to know grown up Danny Torrance, now known as Dan, or to his co-workers at the hospice where he is now employed, as Doctor Sleep because of his uncanny ability to calm dying residents and guide them to the great beyond in a peaceful and pleasant way.

Yes, Dan has some problems, and at first he was a little less than likable. I was, initially, repelled by what Dan had become, an apple fallen a little too close to the family tree, but he soon won my heart with his remorse, selflessness, and compassion.

I also adored the little girl whom Dan befriends, Abra Stone. In fact, I marveled at King’s ability to write from the perspective of a pre-teen girl, but it was superb.

This novel, although strange and fascinating, was not at all scary like The Shining, and it didn’t need to be. It was so much more than that. It was about recovery and redemption, realistically told in an insanely surreal world. It continued the main story in The Shining, the story of alcoholism and facing the worst demon of all, our weakest and unlovely selves. I reconsider. Maybe it was a little scary.

But mostly, it was heartfelt, poignant even. More than once I teared up during this novel. I find that I like this new softer side of King, the King of the post near-death “accident” seems to create characters that feel a little deeper, are more expressive, kinder. Perhaps, it was the experience, or maybe he is mellowing with age, but I’m fine with it. Doctor Sleep delivers on weird with his descriptive immersion into horrifyingly evil minds, at the same time as showing us that there are still really good people out there, even in the midst of evil, and that even when the evil is in us, we can overcome it. Five out of five stars.—Christina Knowles

Read my review of The Shining.

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Book Review: Brenda Vicars’ Polarity in Motion

Snagged from Amazon.com
Snagged from Amazon.com

Polarity Weeks was already having a rough time of it. Switching schools, dealing with her mother’s Borderline Personality Disorder, and struggling to fit in are hard enough, but Polarity is shocked to discover that her latest problem has nothing to do with anything she or her family has done. When a nude photo of her suddenly begins to circulate among the students at her high school and on the internet, she has no idea where it came from or what to do about it. This novel deals with the all-too-real issues faced by the modern teenager living in a high tech age while navigating the age old problems of friends, parents, school, and popularity.

I really loved this book. At first I was turned off by the title and the main character’s name, but there is actually a touching story behind the name, Polarity. Although this book is categorized as a romance, it is so much more than that. It’s an intriguing mystery, which kept me turning the pages. It’s about bullying and relationships and about dealing with teenage drama in high school. It’s about dealing with parents and mental illness. It’s about issues with social media and technology and about being powerless in the system. It’s about growth and prejudice, and it’s about finding out who you are, who you are becoming, and who you want to be.

But my favorite part of the book, the part that struck an emotional chord in me, was the horrifying reality of Polarity’s daily tight-rope act of dealing with her mother’s mental illness. It was beautifully written and realistic. I didn’t know much about Borderline Personality Disorder, but I assume Vicars did her research because Polarity’s mom was startlingly real. Vicars manages to make the reader sympathetic to Mrs. Weeks, even while hoping for Polarity to escape her verbal and emotional abuse.

Vicars also writes Polarity’s character so smoothly that she seamlessly grows throughout the story from a passive introvert into a strong-willed and confident girl without ever seeming like a different person. I love a book that leaves me wanting more, and I want to know what happens in her life next. I enjoyed Ethan, the grandmother, and Polarity’s father as well.

As a high school teacher, I’m going to tell my students that this is a must-read! It would also be great to teach in a class because of the character growth and symbolism in the story. I just recently read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, and really enjoyed it, but I think I actually enjoyed this one even more! Highly recommend. 5 out of 5 stars.–Christina Knowles

Buy it: Polarity in Motion by Brenda Vicars

Revival: The Death of Hope by Christina Knowles

RevivalRevival by Stephen King Book Review**SERIOUS SPOILERS**

Revival is one of the most original books I have ever read–a strange statement about a book, which King admits was inspired and influenced by some of his favorite horror authors. Among these are Arthur Machen, HP Lovecraft, and Mary Shelley. Still, I’ve read a lot of King, and this one seemed particularly unique. Although unlike his novels, it did seem rather like a return to his earlier writing in a way. But I’ll get to that. First, a synopsis.

Revival (a brilliant and apt title, by the way) opens with a reflection of the “cast” of characters that make up a person’s life and a bleak foreshadowing of the impact of Reverend Charles Daniel Jacobs, the “fifth business” or “change agent” in the fifty-some year span of the life of our protagonist, Jamie Morton. Already I know this book is going to deal with some heavy issues.

The next scene is strangely creepy even though nothing unusual or bad really happens, but that is how King plays this tale—very subtle, at least until the last fifty pages of the book. Anyway, the scene opens with six-year old Jamie playing with his toy soldiers in the dirt when a shadow falls over him in the form of Reverend Charles Jacobs. I remember being tense through this scene, expecting something to happen, but Jacobs is a just a kind and warm person.

From this point on, we get to see Jamie grow up. We experience his childhood problems with siblings, school, we see his first kiss, watch him discover his passion for music, agonize over his descent into drug addiction, and breathe a sigh of relief when he is cured of it. Jacobs, on the other hand, we see only through Jamie’s eyes: a kind and understanding pastor, a friend, a healer, a loving and devoted husband and father—until a tragic and senseless car accident gruesomely takes the lives of his wife and young son. But that’s one of the first themes explored in this novel. Aren’t tragic accidents always senseless? I mean, when do they ever make sense? Reverend Jacobs cannot make sense of it either, and as a result, he loses his faith and takes Jamie’s along with it, then turns full-time to his obsessive hobby of experimenting with electricity.

Without going into too much detail, time goes by and Jamie meets up with the reverend as an adult with a slightly less than positive result. At this point in the story “something happens,” tying Jamie irrevocably to Jacobs. The “something happened” repeated throughout the story was another inexplicably creepy device King brilliantly used.

Later Reverend Jacobs becomes an atypical traveling healer, complete with a revival tent and offering plate, furthering the not-so-subtle but oh-so-apt commentary on organized religion. Jacobs serendipitously meets up with Jamie several times throughout his life, each time having a more negative effect. Our opinion of Jacobs, sadly, spirals downward along with Jamie’s feelings for the pastor until, finally, the friendship deteriorates into complete loathing and disgust, at least on Jamie’s side.

The first three hundred and fifty pages of this novel are fresh, descriptive, and thought-provoking. The characters are realistic and well-developed. I loved Jamie–and Jacobs, which made me feel strangely like I was betrayed by the reverend as much as Jamie was. However, the next fifty pages descends into a parody-like ridiculousness that made me feel like I was watching an old cartoon version of Frankenstein.

Throughout the novel, the allusions to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus were obvious. The object of Jacobs’ last experiment is named Mary Fay, daughter of Franklin Fay and Janice Shelley. She has a son named Victor (as in Victor Frankenstein), he is obsessed with power, particularly electricity and with what happens to us when we die. You don’t have to be a brain donor to predict what’s going to happen next.

Although I certainly appreciate King’s attempt to pay homage to Shelley’s Frankenstein, it was so over-the-top that I could not help picturing one of the old movie versions of it complete with Victor Frankenstein screaming, “It’s alive!” while I read. Still, I knew to expect the classic horror to appear sometime in the book. In fact, I looked forward to it, just to be disappointed in its cartoonish nature—but possibly, that is just a matter of taste. After all, King was a fan of the graphic novel, so maybe this was on purpose. He is such a brilliant writer; it likely was intentional. The contrast between the realistic and effective social and religious criticism and the fantastically surreal ravings of a mad scientist were a little disorienting, but perhaps, that was the point. My real disappointment lay elsewhere.

My only true disappointment in this novel was in the last few pages. I guess I didn’t expect it to end on such a depressing note, but here I am complaining about being surprised when a moment ago I complained of guessing the end. I’ve been lulled into believing that King usually has a hopeful ending to his novels with good winning out over evil, at least for the moment. But this novel is much more like some of his early short stories that end in complete and utter despair. The most horrifying part of this novel is when all hope is dead, and Jamie realizes that there is something much worse than nothing at the end of this life, something inescapable and that salvation does not exist.

I’m not really a happy-ending kind of girl, but the depth of darkness at the end of this novel left me disturbed, and not in a fun horror kind of way, but in a hopeless, bitter kind of way. But maybe that’s the true mark of horror, being forced to face the ultimate fear—that there may be something even worse than the unknown. 4 out of 5 stars.—Christina Knowles

Must-Read Books by Christina Knowles

Snagged from freecomputersonline,com
Snagged from freecomputersonline.com

As a teacher, my students often ask me what my favorite book is, and I easily reply, “Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah,” but after that, it gets tough to narrow it down to a list of essentials. I would love to just list ten, but I find it impossible to limit it that much when I begin to write. Here are my absolute must-reads:

  1. Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah: I love this book because it is the most beautiful novel I have ever read. It’s about regrets, misunderstandings, and relationships—relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and husbands and wives. It is thought-provoking, poignant, and reads like poetry. Within the contemporary story, lives a fairytale, so sweet and tragic that it captured my inner child, and I fell in love with this book. Hannah understands the dynamics of our closest relationships and how the ones we love most, have the most power to wound us, but also have the power to heal. I could read this book a thousand times, and I just might.
  2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Ray Bradbury is a genius of the written word. This book is probably my favorite science fiction novel because the dystopian world Bradbury creates is startling real, dark, and symbolic, and yet it is written like poetry, each word carefully crafted with the next; its evocative beauty remains with the reader long after the cover is closed.
  3. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: This strange and tragic novel blew my mind. It is weirdly surreal and unique in its delivery of the horrors of war and their effect on the human psyche.
  4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: This was my favorite book for many, many years because its dystopian world is not only filled with scientific and sociological predictions (two of my favorite subjects), but it is also filled with Shakespeare (another favorite subject). One of the novel’s main characters constantly quotes Shakespeare, and the book parallels one of my favorite plays, The Tempest. Incredibly deep, insightful, and startlingly accurate in many of its predictions.
  5. The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King: This is my favorite of the Dark Tower series. Stephen King always amazes me, but this novel (and the series) transports me to a surrealistic world filled with danger, magic, and loyalty, an epic quest on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, but modernized and on steroids!
  6. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: This book is heartbreakingly beautiful, about pain, suffering, mercy, and forgiveness. This book contains the secrets of life.
  7. East of Eden by John Steinbeck: This book was my first experience with real literature. I first read it in middle school, and I was enchanted with the discovery that a novel could be so filled with symbolism, allegory, epiphany, imagery, and the meaning of life. I think this book is quite possibly the reason why I became a literature major, and it began a life-long love of John Steinbeck novels.
  8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: This book is not just another angsty teen novel. It is a masterpiece of Existentialism, and like Brave New World, it is filled with allusions to my favorite literary works. This book is intellectual and emotional, and it had me hooked when the main character, Hazel Grace, started quoting from my favorite poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by TS Eliot. See my full review at: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2014/06/06/book-review-the-fault-in-our-stars-by-john-green/
  9. The Complete Poems of TS Eliot: His modernist outlook is deeply cynical, anti-traditional, heartbreakingly poignant, and most of all, lyrically beautiful. My favorite poet. Dare he disturb the universe? Oh yes, please.
  10. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Not just a Christmas classic, this story is symbolic and meaningful, and in Dickens’ style, blunt in its message of charity to the poor and the necessity of prioritizing in life. It never ceases to amaze me that even the most staunchly anti-Socialist people love this work, even while they continue to hoard their riches and look down upon the poor.
  11. The Pigman by Paul Zindel: I love just about any story concerning a friendship between teenagers and the elderly, but this one is the cream of the crop. I think I love this book so much because I lived this experience when I was young. Two teenagers accidentally befriend an elderly widower when they make a prank phone call to his house one day. They never imagine that he will mean so much to them or change their lives forever.
  12. The Crucible by Arthur Miller: Every time I read this play, I am hanging on every word of John Proctor. Miller creates a protagonist that grows from a selfish, lying adulterer to a heroic, self-sacrificing man of integrity in four dramatic and realistic acts, and manages to make a political statement at the same time. Brilliant.
  13. Walden by Henry David Thoreau: Elegant and Transcendent words of wisdom to live by. Enough said.
  14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Haunting, creepy, and beautiful written.
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding: Horrifyingly realistic. This book takes a look at the horrifying social behavior of children left to their own devices on an island, which is a microcosm of all of humanity, and it isn’t a pretty sight.
  16. 1984 by George Orwell: A quintessential sci-fi novel at its best. Full of dark warnings against Totalitarianism and the importance of words to thought.
  17. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: These are moral tales that accurately cover just about every type of personality, virtue, and vice with both humor and severity.
  18. For One More Day by Mitch Albom: This book is a magically transcendent exploration of a mother’s love through a bizarrely surreal visit with the other side. I love all his books, but this one is definitely my favorite.
  19. On Writing by Stephen King: I love everything about this book. It’s not only sage advice given openly from the guru of suspense, but packed with personality and real life stories along with the lessons on writing.
  20. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Lee has wonderful voice, creates characters you won’t be able to forget, and addresses issues of racial prejudice, justice, and moral integrity.
  21. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: I love this tragic tale of friendship, fate, and the harsh realities of life.
  22. The Black Stallion by Walter Farley: I never had a horse, but I could relate to this story of a boy and his horse, their love, and their loyalty because it reminds me of having a wonderful dog. I love books about the love between humans and animals, and this one is one of the best. Full of action and adventure too. I read the whole series.
  23. Strangers by Dean Koontz: Koontz expertly weaves the lives and experiences of several seemingly unrelated characters into one crazy and unexpected plot. You’ll never believe that it could be rationally explained in the end, but it is! My favorite Koontz novel.
  24. Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory: The one that started it all. This is considered the definitive King Arthur story. I love the Knight life.
  25. Paradise Lost by John Milton: Milton makes Lucifer shockingly relatable, or maybe it’s just me. I think I’ve said too much.
  26. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: Chivalry, knights, quests, love, and friendship. I love this tale of knightly adventure.
  27. The Shining by Stephen King: King at his best. This novel masterfully uses a malevolent ghost-filled hotel as a metaphor for the almost demonic hold of alcoholism. If you’ve only seen the movie, you are seriously missing out. For more check out: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2013/10/21/review-the-shining-by-stephen-king/
  28. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult: An engrossing story-within-a-story combining the strange but brilliant combination of the Nazi holocaust, a bakery, and a vampire in small village. Heart-wrenching, realistic, and superbly symbolic. Read the entire review here: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2013/11/23/review-the-storyteller-by-jodi-picoult-2/
  29. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: Dark, poignant, and unique. Death is the narrator, a neutral observer, telling the story of a young German girl who loves to read as things fall apart around her in Nazi Germany.
  30. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier: Creepy, gothic, and suspenseful with a scary head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who tries to sabotage the happiness of a young bride. Who can Mrs. DeWinter trust? Certainly not her husband, a widower whose wife, Rebecca, died under suspicious circumstances.
  31. The Island of Dr. Moreau by HG Wells: I love everything by HG Wells, but this one is particularly good. It’s science fiction, bordering on horror, and makes us question all kinds of scientific ethics.
  32. The Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Observation, logic, and reasoning are paramount to a very flawed, ego-maniacal protagonist, Sherlock Holmes.
  33. Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes: Mind-blowing philosophical theory, questioning the very essence of reality.
  34. Beyond Good & Evil by Friedrich Nietzche: Brilliant thoughts on mankind, the origin of evil, and the purpose of life.
  35. The Giver by Lois Lowry: A classic dystopian novel, written for children, but with such depth, and done so well, everyone loves it. Many layers of meaning and unforgettable characters.
  36. Bag of Bones by Stephen King: Haunting, mysteriously beautiful, romantic, and creepy. I love this book. Again, don’t judge it by the movie.
  37. Duma Key by Stephen King: I loved this book because it combines three things I find interesting— a haunted house, a stormy ocean setting, and an artist. I couldn’t put this one down.
  38. The Street Lawyer by John Grisham: This book will renew your belief in the goodness of people. It’s quite different from Grisham’s other legal thrillers, but still a page-turner.
  39. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: This book is hard to read. A difficult look at the oppression of women in a dark sci-fi story in a not-too far-fetched Totalitarian and faux-religious future. Definitely worth a trip to the dark side.
  40. The Angry Woman Suite by Lee Fullbright: Fullbright hooked me on the first page with her intricately woven plot and complex characters. The novel is a combination of historical fiction and mystery, wherein, Fullbright manages to use multiple first person narrators and jumps around in time without losing the reader, connecting all the times and characters seamlessly and hurtling them to the insanely climactic ending. Love this book.
  41. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: Shocking and powerful, this book will open your eyes to another culture and draw you in. This book touched me in its gripping portrayal of tortured minds, one by guilt, and another by tragedy, cruelty, and betrayal.
  42. Game of Thrones by George RR Martin: Graphic, complicated, shocking, and pure bliss! Martin is a master of complexity in both character and plot. One minute I despise a character, and the next I am masterfully manipulated into sympathizing with him.
  43. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke: This book about an alien race helping the human race evolve, unbeknownst to them, is magnificent! Clarke explores numerous themes such as history, art, and what gives life meaning, just to name a few.
  44. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar: This book is lovely and poignant from beginning to end. It’s a beautiful and heart-rending look at friendship and love in a world of inequality, addressing the issues of religious difference, poverty, and caste systems in modern Bombay.
  45. A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron: See life through a dog’s eyes. It’s a tear-jerker, but you’ll never look at your dog without imagining what he’s thinking again.
  46. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: Beautiful, poetic, and profound. “Song of Myself” and “O Me! O Life” are some of the most quoted lines of wisdom still today, and it is no wonder. He could be writing about the world right now. Like Walden, these are words to live by.
  47. Symposium by Plato: Wisdom from the ancients. I always love Plato, including The Allegory of the Cave.
  48. Metaphysics by Aristotle: I really like Aristotle’s reasoning about learning through experience and the physical world. He could be a modern-day scientist.
  49. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. An intellectual argument on why there is probably no god and how the major religions of the world are flawed. Dawkins breaks down the basics of evolution and punches undeniable holes in theology and philosophy.
  50. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan: Sagan convincingly destroys all illusions about the supernatural world in this book. It’s fabulously done, but at the same time, being disillusioned is kind of depressing.

So that’s where I will stop. I could literally continue writing about my favorite books all night, but I won’t put you through that. If you read all the way to the end, I wish I could give you some kind of reward, but why not pick up one of these fabulous books and enjoy? That will be a reward in itself.—Christina Knowles

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

17333223Finally– I finally finished the 771 page novel that is The Goldfinch.  I have never taken so long to finish a book before. Not just because this book was soooo long. I have read many long books, but this book had to be read slowly, absorbed. I do admit that it was not really a page-turner. This is an understatement. In fact, every time I had to put it down, I had no trouble at all. I actually looked forward to putting it down and had a hard time picking it back up. It’s not that it was a bad book, or even boring.  Actually, I found it very profound and am glad I read it. But let me start at the beginning.

This book is about a boy named Theo with an absent and alcoholic father and a loving mother, who is trying to raise him on her own.  While visiting an art museum, he and his mother get caught in a terrorist bombing. His mother is killed, he survives, and through a series of seemingly providential events, he meets an old man and his grand-daughter, steals a famous small painting called “The Goldfinch” in a confused and concussed stupor, and manages to find his way out of the carnage unnoticed in the chaos.

Theo experiences and suffers numerous things in the proceeding years, but always manages to hold on to the painting, maniacally attached to the famous and priceless work of art. He soon realizes what he’s done, but is both unwilling and afraid to give it up. The rest of the very lengthy book chronicles his life, living with post-traumatic stress, guilt, and fear, recording one bad decision after another in an almost ridiculous hyperbole.

As a reader I became somewhat fond of Theo, but who wouldn’t be after spending 771 pages with him? Still, after 771 pages, I would think I would be more attached to him. The characterization in this story is all right, but nothing to really speak of. The prose are eloquent, the descriptions striking and pictorial. The plot is wonderful. So what’s wrong with this book? Why did I look forward to putting it down and dread picking it up? Is it bleak, disheartening, cynical? Yes, as a matter of fact, it is, but that’s not it either. This book is dragged down with the weight of details, details, details. Endless details. I swear that this author takes thirty pages to say what most people could say in five. And I’m sorry; I don’t care how beautifully it is said, there comes a time when you just have to get to the point. Sometimes I would find myself dying to find out how something turned out or what someone said, but by the time five, ten, or fifteen pages went by, I would forget what it was I was waiting for. I was tempted over and over again to skim it, but a force seemed to hold me back, telling me that in all these details there had to be a purpose, a message that I was sure to miss if I half-heartedly scanned the pages.

It finally came. I must say the profundity of the last thirty pages made enduring the whole over-written story worth the reading. But even the ending was at least fifteen pages too long. When I finally achieved the nirvana of the story’s thematic message, I floated on this cloud for only a page or two when the repetitive, albeit beautiful, drone numbed my mind once again.

Still I marvel at the incredible perspicacity of Tartt. She paints this crazy, chaotic, hyperbolic story with its deeply flawed and sometimes unlikable protagonist, into an Impressionistic masterpiece that can only be fully understood as one backs up and takes in the whole picture, the whole really long, laboriously large picture. (Forgive the “artsy” metaphor-no pun intended.) And the irony of the depressing events Theo endures finally coming to a usable point through the philosophical ruminations of Theo’s drug-addled, abused, trouble-attracting, poor-decision-making childhood friend, Boris, was just superb. In one sublime page, the entire seemingly pointless suffering all seems to make sense. The book should have ended there, but no, Tartt needs to go on and on and on, almost condescendingly assuming that we didn’t quite “get it” yet. The book could easily have been done, and done well, in my humble opinion, in half the pages. One must ask, “What was her editor thinking?” Isn’t it the editor’s job to demand cuts where extraneous material invades? I can only assume that her editor must have been infatuated with Tartt’s beautifully descriptive and intelligent writing style.

The Goldfinch evokes such ambivalence in me that I still don’t know if I liked it or not. I will say this: I am so grateful that I read it, but I will never be reading it again. I am giving it 4 out 5 stars–5 stars for its deeply meaningful insight, but subtracting one for making me suffer so long to receive it.–Christina Knowles

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