Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Book Thoughts 2

The Shining Girls (Lauren Beukes) -  This book could have been so much better. But it wasn't horrible either. The premise is great. There's a serial killer, he time travels to kill his victims across several decades, he meets them when they're young, returns later in their lives to kill them, leaves them with a trinket from another girl he's killed, and creates this whole web of girls. All of these girls "shine" to him, that's why he's obsessed with them. But one girl survives his attack and goes about trying to catch him. The plot is interesting, though it kind of gets muddled at the end, but because of the complex plot, the characters really suffer.  We don't really know about the serial killer, his motivations, other than the girls are shiny to him, and even that term is never explained. The characters are really flat, even the main characters. I didn't read it that long ago, but I've forgotten a lot of the details already, because I just wasn't very invested in it. But I did like it while I was reading it. 

Gulp (Mary Roach) - This is the third Mary Roach book I've read: Stiff was about corpses, Bonk was about sex, and now Gulp was about digestion. She writes nonfiction delving into the weirdest stories about the weirdest topics. I personally love her books, read through them very quickly, and end up laughing a lot. They might be a little much for some people. Paul, for example, did not make it through Stiff. This book, being about digestion, includes the discussion of spit, Elvis's colon, and whiskey enemas, so if you can stomach that, read on.

The Casual Vacancy (J.K. Rowling) - I really liked this book.  Heck yeah J.K. Rowling! This novel is very character based. It's set in a small town in England, where a city commissioner dies of an aneurysm, and the book explores how that affects the rest of the community, where everyone knows everyone.  There's lots of small town politics, rich vs. poor, parents vs. children, gossip, secrets revealed. I thought the book was really lovely. Even though it's pretty long, I read it really quickly. BBC just recently made a 3 part TV mini series of this book, which is on my list of things to watch, but I heard they changed a lot, so I would totally recommend the book first.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt) - This is a book that's been on my list for a long time, and while I knew it was based on a true story, I didn't know it was actually considered nonfiction until after I read it. That actually explains a lot of my frustration with the book. It's essentially the story of a wealthy eccentric gay antiques dealer from Savannah, Georgia who kills his young lover, and he goes to court three separate times to prove that it was in self defense. That's the main plot. But then the narrator spends a lot of the book describing many of the other people who live in Savannah. Savannah is really a character itself in this book. I enjoyed a lot of these chapters, because the upper crust of Savannah is a very odd bunch, but a lot of characters showed up, were described in great detail, and then were never really mentioned again. Thinking this was a typical novel (albeit one based in truth), this was confusing and made the book feel a lot longer than it was. Knowing it's completely nonfiction, this makes more sense. Still, for a book with a title like this and that includes murder, voodoo, and small town shenanigans, I was expecting it to be a little more exciting, but maybe I watch too much Hannibal and The X-Files. Did I like the book? Yes. But less than I thought I would. 

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Madness, and Magic at the Fair that Changed America (Erik Larson) - I read some reviews online that people think this book is boring. I really don't think so. I loved this book! It's nonfiction and goes back and forth between two parts: Daniel Burnham, who was the architect in charge of designing the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, and then H.H. Holmes, who is coined as America's first serial killer, who committed most of his murders in his hotel he built specifically for the world fair. I had heard of this book before, because I'm pretty interested in serial killers, but it was recently mentioned in an architecture class that I'm transcribing. At this particular world fair, they debuted the Ferris wheel which held 2000 people at a time, the first zipper, Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, and shredded wheat. Thomas Edison was involved. Annie Oakley got her start. The man who designed Central Park was the landscape architect of the fair. I just can't picture anything like this at all today, 100,000 people a day from all over the world for 6 straight months coming to the exposition. They said the average person went everyday for 2 weeks just in order to see it all. It was several square miles, built in three years completely from scratch, all in a very classical style, and it only lasted until the fair was over. I went into this book only really expecting to be interested in the serial killer part, but the construction of the fair itself was actually super interesting. 

Of course the H.H. Holmes part was really interesting as well. It's written kind of like a novel, but every single piece of dialogue actually comes from a letter or newspaper (it has a huge index), so it's all true. I think it painted a good picture of what America's first known serial killer was like, what motivated him. He was a doctor, he was charming, he had very blue eyes, kids loved him. Despite not being an architect, he built a hotel by the world fair specifically for the purpose of killing the occupants. People place his murders anywhere between 27-200 people. He built secret passageways, a murder kiln in the basement, and had the ability from his room to seal off and gas any room in his hotel. It was really insane. But Chicago was also a pretty tumultuous place at the time, and there were hundreds of thousands of young single women traveling to the world fair, hoping to have a new life in the big city. So it's crazy how he got away with it for so long, but also, the way he was described, not at all surprising. He was actually in prison already for insurance fraud by the time they found out about the murders. I've now written two giant paragraphs for this book, but I just really enjoyed it and found it fascinating. I currently have 12 books out from the library, but this is the one I chose to read first.

The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) - This is another book I really wanted to like more. It took me so long to get into, over 200 pages in before I found it engaging. I think part of that is due to its structure. It's all set in New Zealand in the 1800's at the height of the gold rush. A man walks into a room in a hotel, having just had a very weird experience himself, and it's obvious that he's just interrupted a secret meeting. It turns out the content of the secret meeting has a lot to do with the strange experience he himself just had. The first 200 pages or so catch up this man (and the reader) until everyone in the secret meeting is on the same page, and then they all leave the hotel, and go about their business, all a part of this little secret club. 

That's where it gets interesting. Unfortunately it took a long time to get there. But once it got there, and once you learn all 12 of the characters I really liked it. Also, fair warning, it's almost 850 pages, and really feels like it's 850 pages. It has some supernatural elements (kind of?) and it really tries (and fails, I think) to incorporate elements of astrology. Each of the 12 main characters is assigned an astrological sign, each chapter starts off with an astrological chart, and chapters have titles like "Venus in Capricorn." I don't think the novel quite pulls off what it wanted to, especially with the astrological "mystery within a mystery" stuff, but I did end up enjoying it, even if I spent several hundred pages kind of hating it.

Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) - I had been on the waiting list for months and months before I got this book because it's been a classic for 20 years, but it also just got made into a TV show. I watched the first half of the first season, then started reading this book, and I'll keep watching the show now that I'm done. This book is about Claire, an English WWII nurse, who's in Scotland with her husband, touches a big rock after seeing a druid ceremony, and gets transported to Scotland in the 1700's, right before the Jacobite rebellion. She meets a handsome red head named Jamie, falls in love, and then spends a lot of time on horseback running away from people who wish her and her new husband harm. Jamie also has a price on his head for a murder he didn't commit, and is the object of obsession of a very bad English commander, who happens to be Claire's 1945 husband's ancestor. This book is famous for its sex scenes, which it has a lot of, but in my library was categorized as historical fantasy. Yes, there's time travel, but she time travels the one time and then is pretty much stuck in the 1700's, so I would say it's 5% fantasy and 95% historical. I don't know if I'm going to read the other books in the series, but for what it's worth, I did like this one. Also fair warning, the Scottish characters (so pretty much everyone but Claire, the "outlander") have dialogue written with an accent like, "ye werena the first lass I kissed" which I'm neither a fan of, nor against.  

Pet Sematary (Stephen King) - This was my first Stephen King novel and I can't believe it took me this long. I loved this book. As a disclaimer, I did not find this book scary, as I'm a little bit of a creepy person, but others might. It's apparently King's best selling and considered his most scary book. I think this novel shows what a fantastic writer King is. There are only about eight characters, so you really get to know everyone involved. The plot itself was really great, but I didn't expect it to be so funny. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and now have lots of other Stephen King on my list to read. The basic premise is that there's an old Native American burial ground next to a pet cemetery (spelled wrong in the title on purpose) where if you bury your dead, it comes back to life, but evil. The main character's two year old son dies. You can guess what happens next. But what I found interesting is that all of the inevitable evil two year old creepy zombie kid stuff happened right at the end. The whole rest of the novel was really masterfully building up to that point, and it was awesome. 

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