Category Archives: Reviews

Book reviews, including recaps, analysis, and MVP, my pick for favorite character.

Movie vs. Book: IT

41acskyedwl-_sy346_Contributed by Michelle Baker

**SPOILER ALERT: This review includes spoilers from both the movie and novel IT. Consider yourself warned. 

Over a thousand pages long, IT is more a story about the importance of true friendship and unity in the face of evil than it is a horror novel. The story follows seven friends in 1950s Maine who label themselves The Losers. They find solace in one another, and together they find a place to escape to, where they can be themselves. But there is something evil in Derry, and they have all seen something that has absolutely terrified them. One is chased by a giant bird, another a mummy; the girl hears voices down her bathroom drain and is subsequently met with a deluge of blood from said drain. The adults don’t see these things, so they don’t understand what scares the kids so much. 

The story is told in two intersecting parts: flashbacks of the Losers in the ‘50s and the Losers coming back to Derry as adults almost thirty years later. They are called back by Mike, the one member of the group who stays behind to keep an eye on the evil. He soon realizes that they didn’t defeat It as kids, and the only way to stop  children from disappearing or turning up mutilated is to fight It again. Once together, they acknowledge  working together to defeat It is the only way to save their hometown.

My initial thought about the movie is that Bill Skarsgård gives an incredible performance as my new biggest fear. But director Andy Muschietti also makes a few alterations to the novel, particularly by not cramming the entire novel into one movie: Chapter 1 is only about the children, and Chapter 2 (which will be released in September 2019) will be about the adults. By doing this, he ensures that the character development isn’t rushed or forced.

That said, there are also uncomfortable changes like shifting Mike’s purpose as historian and watchmen to Ben in the movie. In the novel, Mike is the only son in the town’s only black family. Mike grows up learning the stories that taint Derry’s history from his father and informs the kids of the cycles of evil. He continues this tradition of historian into adulthood as the one who calls the group back when the patterns reemerge. But in the movie, Mike doesn’t come into the action until almost halfway through the movie, and the information about Derry’s grisly past is provided by Ben. Mike merely seems to serve as “the token black kid” in the movie, and it’s awkward. 

Another big change involves one of the most controversial scenes in King lore: Each of the kids in the Losers possesses a strength, and when they are together, these powers are almost unstoppable. After they battle It for the first time as kids, they try to leave the sewer system but find their powers weakening. As a way to reunify and gain back their powers, Bev suggests all six boys in the group have sex with her. There aren’t enough words to describe how uncomfortable this was to read. The thought of this girl losing her virginity to her six best friends in the sewers of her hometown after battling a centuries-old evil creature made me feel privy to something extremely sensitive. 

But I do, in a strange way, understand King’s logic. The overall message of the book is the complexities of navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood, and it is clear in this scene that the “It” the kids ultimately face is not a clown, mummy or  bird, but being a grown up. And what’s more “grown up” than “doing it”? Sex is weird and messy, as is this scene. I concluded King chose this as the method of unification because what we don’t understand is scary. Bev Marsh doesn’t understand why this act will unite them, but she just has a feeling that it will. And she’s right. They make it out of the sewer, agree to come back if It ever does, and go home as if nothing happened.

The movie, thankfully, does not depict a multiple child sex scene, but instead offers up a reduction of the strong female character in the group to a damsel in distress. Bev is taken by It to the sewer where she catches a glimpse of It’s Deadlights–supernatural lights that cannot be comprehended by the human mind and that can drive the viewer of them to insanity. As a result, Bev is stuck in a catatonic state floating in It’s lair. The boys band together to save Bev and fight It, and Bev is awoken from her stupor by a kiss from Ben. (Seriously, why did all of the important elements of the story get shifted to one character?!)

While I am glad the scene was altered, there is something to be said about the printed Bev. In the novel she is strong, capable of making decisions, and is the one to get the group to focus on their shared goal when everything seems to be going wrong. In the movie, she is just a girl who needs rescuing. She is not taking control over the situation, nor is she coming to understand the power that she holds as a woman. She is filling the Hollywood script mold of Girl in Trouble.

Stephen King, who raised by his mother and aunts, has always had a knack for creating strong female characters with whom one can empathize and relate. Bev in the movie is only strong when she is flirtatious, which is a far cry from what King created. The movie was a great interpretation of the text, full of shocking, scary, and thought-provoking scenes and special effects. However, considering the changes made to some of the novel’s substantial characters, I would have preferred if the credits said “Loosely Based on the Novel by Stephen King.”

Get IT in paperback for $13.16. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Review: When the Future Comes Too Soon

51locs0rbnl-_sy346_Recap: World War II is taking over the talk, minds and happenings of British Malaya, and the people there are starting to fear for their lives. Young mother Mei Foong realizes things are heating up once Malaya is bombed. As the war worsens and the family must temporarily flee their home for safety, Mei Foong gets to know several other families from her town, including a man named Chew Hock San, who makes her feel things she’s never felt before. But Mei Foong is also married with four children and a fifth on the way. Her relationship with her husband is not ideal. She provides children and a wealthy status for him, and he provides financially for her, but the chemistry has dwindled over the years.

Mei Foong and her family are able to return home, but soon after that, the Japanese take over. People are getting killed, the prices of good skyrocket and Mei Foong’s husband becomes sick. He must go to a hospital far away where he can get the care he needs, but while he’s gone, Chew Hock San starts popping up yet again, offering to help Mei Foong with whatever she needs. The mixture of her fear of the war, her sick husband, her desire for Chew Hock San and her love for her children push Mei Foong to the limit in a time of desperation.

Analysis: As a person who loves World War II novels, I couldn’t put this one down. It’s a war story I’d never heard before; it wasn’t about the Holocaust or Jewish people being persecuted. To read about another persecuted group’s experience, the Malayans, and the evil they faced was eye-opening. More interestingly, Mei Foong’s family wasn’t directly impacted by the war in terms of being killed or tortured. In fact, in many respects, her family was one of the lucky ones — and yet, the war still so badly severed her family and relationships with others. It’s proof that WWII did more than just kill people; it caused an astronomical amount of stress that affected people in unexpected ways. Fresh perspective on something that happens 75 years ago isn’t easy to do, but it’s done here.

MVP: Mei Foong. For a wife who at first is so submissive, Mei Foong ultimately stands up in the only way she can. Because of this decision, her life does not go the way she wanted or planned, but her strength and stubbornness in her decision is undeniable and awe-inspiring.

Get The Future Comes Too Soon in paperback for $10.25.

Or get it for free on Kindle Unlimited.

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Review: Can’t Buy Forever

51rhw10ql4l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Recap: Odessa is a young girl living in a boarding house run by a widowed aunt. She has lived there for years after her father died and has made a life for herself there and gotten to know the others who live there as well. It’s a house full of miners, and though they’re all older, young Odessa falls for Nicholas. Dessa and Nicholas seem destined to be together, but one of the boys at school wants Dessa for himself. This age-old tale of two men fighting over a beautiful girl starts off reasonably enough but quickly enters dangerous territory, consisting of kidnapping, fighting and abandonment. Dessa is left in despair. Nicholas saves her. The two get married the night of Dessa’s prom.

But somewhere along the way, the truth comes out about Nicholas: he’s not actually just your average man. He’s an immortal gypsy. About halfway to two-thirds of the way into the book, the story takes a sci-fi turn and flees into the depths of a cross-country chase, several lifetimes lived by Nicholas and his family members and those who Dessa has known for most of her life also being connected to Nicholas’s gypsy family in some way.

Analysis: I was on board with the story for the first act. The romance between Nicholas and Dessa was satisfying and lovely. The two needed each other, and I liked it. But the sci-fi/fantasy aspects of the story seemed to come out of left field. It certainly took the book in a different direction, but a weird one, and as the deep details about Nicholas and his family continued to come, the story became more and more confusing. It was hard for me to follow, and by the end I wasn’t entirely sure that Nicholas was even Nicholas anymore. I powered through the book since it was short, but by the end, it lost all the greatness of the first half.

MVP: Dessa. Her character is taken on a journey — albeit a crazy, hard-to-follow, roller coaster of a journey, but a journey nonetheless. She offered the sweetness and innocence that the book needed to try and make the story work.

You can buy Can’t Buy Forever in paperback now for $2.97.

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Review: Valley of the Dolls

81ys9egzy2lRecap: The scandalous, spiraling-out-of-control lives of three up-and-coming women in New York merge in this 1960’s tale of fame and self-destruction. Anne Welles has just moved to New York in an attempt to escape her small-town life and find love and happiness. Jennifer North has worked her way through Europe and landed in New York looking for nothing but love. Neely O’Hara doesn’t care much for love, but cares every bit about fame, success and her singing and acting career.

The three meet at similar times in their lives. Anne meets a man who finally makes her feel something. Jennifer is working steadily and meeting men here and there. Neely is a young star on the rise. Anne works for an agent and stays involved in the entertainment business of Broadway, movies and eventually television as the other girls continue to focus on performing. After the only man she’s ever loved leaves her, Anne becomes the new commercial face of a makeup campaign, while Jennifer moves to Paris, shooting risque films and Neely becomes a huge, but unreliable and diva-like star.

As the lives of the three women start to spiral out of control, they all turn to pills: sleeping pills, weight-loss pills, any kind of pill to make them feel and look the way they’re pressured to feel and look. The pills — or “dolls” as the girls call them — lead to illness, rehab, depression and anxiety. It’s an ongoing struggle for the girls that doesn’t end even when the novel does.

Analysis: In the beginning, I couldn’t put this book down. Going back and forth between the three girls and trying to determine their character arch was exciting. It felt like an adventure. In the middle section when Jennifer and Neely start their addictions, I started rooting for them to overcome it all. They were the “underdogs” in a book full of sadness. I hoped the best for them as Anne’s love life continued to sour. But the last part of the book was a hard slog. None of the girls overcame anything. In fact, they just repeated their awful cycles or gave up entirely. There was no one and nothing to root for anymore. Their lives were a depressing pile of resentment and loss.

Knowing that Valley of the Dolls was such a huge hit when it came out in 1966 — it was the biggest-selling novel of the year! — I had high expectations. I understand why it was a hit. It was that perfect “trashy” novel and a great summer read if you’re into that kind of thing. But reading it fifty years left made it clear that it was dated and didn’t quite hold up.

MVP: Anne. She’s the least lost soul of the three. Although she became jaded at the end of the novel, she certainly held out the longest and worked the hardest. It seems she just surrounded herself with bad people.

Get Valley of the Dolls in hardcover for $9.99. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $8.51.

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Review: Lord of the Flies

lordofthefliesbookcoverRecap: The age-old story of a group of people abandoned and trapped on a deserted island basically originated in the 1954 classic novel The Lord of the Flies. A plane crashes on an island, leaving just a group of young boys to fend for themselves without grownups. Their first goal is to be saved. But as time passes, their new goal is to survive, and it proves more difficult than they imagined. After just one day, one of the boys goes missing and is never seen or heard from again. Ralph declares himself the “chief” of the group from the start, using a conch shell as his loudspeaker to call meetings to order and to organize plans, rules and work groups. Piggy, though annoying, becomes his much more logical and intelligent sidekick — or thorn in his side as the case may be. And then there’s Jack, who initially competes with Piggy for Ralph’s attention and then later competes with Ralph for his title.

As time goes on, tensions rise. Ralph is trying to convince the group to bathe every day, go to the bathroom in designated areas and most importantly keep a fire going at the top of the mountain in the hopes a ship will someday see smoke and save the boys. Jack directs his focus in another way: hunting. He becomes obsessed with hunting for pigs. Savagery becomes a source of power for Jack, and most of the other boys follow suite.

AnalysisLord of the Flies is one of the best novels of all time for a reason and remains just as powerful a read for an adult as it is for the teenagers who typically read the book in school. The struggle between order and savagery proves to be the innate struggle in any society, including our own no matter how “modern” we may think we are. That also makes the book particularly relevant now in the United States, a country divided much like the boys on the island are.

Perhaps some of the best parts of the novel come from its symbolism and foreshadowing. As time passes, the conch pales in the sun, which is a clear sign of the conch and the order it represents losing power. The boys are also constantly talking about the desire to hunt pigs, while one of the characters’ names is Piggy. If that’s not a sign of what’s going to happen to him, I don’t know what is. The “flies” in the title represent death, like the flies that typically surround dead bodies. The many “light” references included in the book are obvious signs of the “heaven” that comes after death and/or the heaven that the island appears to be initially, but so clearly is not. The list goes on and on.

There is so much to unpack, interpret and analyze. There’s so much that can be compared to other great classic novels (my personal favorite is the line the “green lights of nausea,” which immediately reminded me of the “green light” in The Great Gatsby). Ultimately The Lord of the Flies remains a great novel because of the one simple and terrifyingly haunting truth it proves: there is darkness in all of us, and when things are as bad as bad gets, we can’t stop it from coming out.

MVP: Piggy. Even Piggy “breaks bad” to an extent, but it’s much less severe than most of the other boys. His intelligence could have saved the boys very early, but his lack of confidence stops him from doing so. His story is a sad, pathetic tragedy, but a fascinating one.

Get The Lord of the Flies now in paperback for $11.48. 

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Review: True Colors

511drsbgj0lRecap: Winona, Aurora and Vivi Ann Grey have been three peas in a pod since childhood, sisters brought especially close together after the death of their mother when they were young. But as they hit their 20s and they started to go their separate ways, tensions grew between them. Winona remained single but excelled in her career. Aurora started a family, acting as the peacekeeper in the family. Vivi Ann remained a beautiful free spirit, inheriting the talents of her mother: riding horses. Vivi Ann is her father’s favorite as he grows increasingly depressed and ornery over the years after the loss of his wife.

But then Vivi Ann meets Dallas, an Indian in their world of cowboys and ranches. Hired as a ranch hand on their farm, Dallas feels immediately connected to Vivi Ann, and she to him. But she’s already engaged to “the perfect man” Luke Connelly, who just so happens to be Winona’s high school crush. Vivi Ann’s decision followed by  a murder in the town that involves her family sends the story off into the stratosphere and the Grey family spiraling .

Analysis: Like other Kristin Hannah books, the story is told through the eyes of each of the sisters, each chapter revolving between points of view, helping to paint a brighter picture of each character. Aurora, the girls’ father and Dallas remain the most underdeveloped as the story really focuses more on the oldest (Winona) and youngest (Vivi Ann) sisters.

After the scene it set initially, the book seems to move in one direction but then makes a stark turn around a third of the way into the book with the murder plot. For a story about sisters who have lost their mom, have a disconnected father and have a stranger enter their lives, it felt a little unnecessary to throw in any more drama. That said, the book really moves initially and slows down in the middle to end. There’s a period in which a long time passes in the book and the story seems to drag because of it, then rushing into a neatly wrapped up ending.

I really enjoyed the book while reading it and loved the story. I enjoyed the development of the relationship between Winona and Vivi Ann too — a sister relationship that no one would understand but sisters. I just wish both the amount of time that passed in the lives of the characters and the literal number of pages it took me to get there were a bit more concise.

MVP: Winona. At times she was pathetic and extremely bitter, but of all the sisters, she still seemed to be the one who most had her life together. She may have been defiant at times, she’s a woman who knew what she wanted.

Get True Colors in paperback for $10.

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Review: All the Best People

30687885Recap: There are secrets abound between four women of three different generations in a small town in Vermont. It’s 1972, and Carole is a mother to twin sons and a daughter and wife to an auto shop owner. But suddenly her days are filled with more people than just those who she lives with; she starts hearing voices, hallucinating, wondering if she’s becoming “crazy,” just like her mother was.

The book flashes back and forth between Carole, her “crazy” mother Solange, her sister Janine, and her daughter Alison. We learn how and why Solange went “crazy,” why the relationship between Carole and her sister Janine is so complicated, and why Alison is struggling to grow up in a world full of women who seem as though they haven’t quite figured things out yet.

Alison doesn’t fit in at school and instead spends time crushing on her teacher. Aunt Janine is also crushing on the same teacher, as she works to find a new husband after hers died. Carole, meanwhile, is dealing with the voices, visiting her mother, wondering if she’s suffering from the same disease. All the Best People delves into the complexity of women, their relationships with men and each other and the constant struggle they endure between heart and mind. As the story continues, secrets are revealed to the reader and ultimately each other that help explain why they are the way they are and what that means for their future.

Analysis: It’s hard to write a true “recap” of a book like this because the plot of the novel comes from these four women living their everyday lives, truggling together, yet separately. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman or maybe it’s because I have trouble keeping my attention on one storyline at all times, but books formatted like All the Best People always work for me. It always helps to get in the minds of each of the main characters. Each character in this novel is so complicated, especially Carole. The way author Sonja Yoerg writes Carole’s chapters as she gets sicker and sicker is great; the writing parallels the symptoms of the character’s disease and helps us to better understand what she’s going through.

MVP: Carole and Alison. I’ve already explained why Carole is great, but Alison is brilliant. She’s completely aware of and in tune with everything going on in the world around her, no matter how young and “naive” she is. She’s the child in this story, but it’s clear in many ways she’s smarter than the adults around her.

Get All the Best People now in paperback for $8.82. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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