Today I am going to review three books: I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells, The Familiars by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson, and Calico Joe by John Grisham. Since these are mini reviews, each will be spoiler-free and a little bit shallow. Even if you don’t know any of the books, I suggest you read this through, if only for the “things I learned” sections.
This book was the first horror I have read. It was nothing like I expected. In my mind, a book was horror if it was bloody and described in detail– but history books can do that, and they aren’t horror. No, I see now that horror is a way of writing more than it is a PG rating for gore. The style of this book was incredibly poetic, the emotions extremely real, the similes brilliant. That seems an odd thing to say, but the similes added so much to the strength of each scene. This book inspired two of my recent posts on emotion and contrast. I tell you, I could not put this book down. I read the first chapter just to see what it was like, and immediately I threw aside the other two books I was trying to read at the time. (They remain unread.) It was gripping.
Dan Wells also wrote Partials, which I reviewed about a month ago. His style was good there, but it was nowhere near as suspenseful and amazing as it was in this book.
As good as it was, I’d give a warning: there is gore, there is suspense, and there is a lot of death and conversation about death. Several times, the main character considers killing people, and it’s scarier than any time you see the monster on a rampage.
Things I learned from this book:
- Emotion and contrast, as said in earlier posts.
- Know thine enemy. There’s a popular horror tip that says never to describe your monster as a whole– only show parts at a time, and the reader will fill in the rest with something much scarier than anything you could come up with. In this book, the physical monster is described in detail halfway through the book. That doesn’t mean the author flouted the rules– the physical monster was not the monster of the story.
- Similes and metaphors, in order to be strong, must be distanced from the events of the story, but related. For instance, in the beginning of Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo, the author describes flags “like multicolored pieces of cloth that had climbed up and tragically hung themselves.” That is a weak simile because flags are nothing but multicolored pieces of cloth. The more distanced a simile or metaphor is from the truth, the stronger it is. However, you can add emotional punch to your story by relating it somehow to other events or objects. In I Am Not A Serial Killer, just after the main character witnesses a murder, the branches of trees, lit by the sunset, are like “bones dipped in blood”. Tree branches are not bones, but we just saw quite a bit of blood, so it has some emotional punch.
Next we have The Familiars. This book, soon to be made a movie, was just the sort of book I would have read when I was eleven. Funny animal fiction with a touch of magic, set in a fantasy world– not to mention being of a good thickness– that sort of thing appealed to me then and still appeals to me now. The book was written well, with good descriptions and characters. Yes, the emotions were childishly magnified at points, but most were handled magnificently. Furthermore, though the book seemed to be in disagreement with my theory on plot twists at the ends of chapters, it tended to have emotional twists instead, sort of like a statement that even though things seem to be working out, bad things aren’t far away. The whole thing was extremely well done.
On top of this, I think it will make quite an excellent movie. As I read the book, I looked at the structure as a whole. The whole thing fits perfectly into movie format. Some scenes will have to be omitted for brevity, but the plot should be almost exactly the same. I don’t think this will be a horrible adaptation at all.
Things I learned:
- Structure can be applied as well to books as to movies, as I learned from Partials as well.
- The trio of characters, two of whom have terrible secrets and one of whom is just comic relief, is not as cliched as Rick Riordan makes us believe. As much as I like him, he does this horribly. All the characters mope all the time about how they wish they could spill their guts about this secret, but can’t. In this book, the characters act like themselves at all times, though they have to lie once or twice to keep their secret safe, which they believe will estrange them from all the others. They use their skills to full effect, even when those skills don’t really fit with their personas. The comic relief guy is hilarious and occasionally helpful, but always lovable– never there without a reason. Also, the other character of the group that isn’t the main character can be the know-it-all type, but they too have secrets and special skills apart from their knowledge, which keeps them real.
- Making your characters travel is a great thing to do, especially if they have to visit historical sites. Especially in a different world, this really helps get a feel for the environment. There is only so much information you can get across through infodumps– it’s better to have your characters experience things for themselves. Nevertheless, the know-it-all I mentioned before is still useful for small information points, though even he/she should be floored by some of the bigger facts.
This is the first John Grisham I have ever read, and it was spectacular. It’s a change of pace from the fantasy or classics I usually read: the story of a (fictional) rookie baseball player who broke records left and right until– KABLAMMO!– spoilers happened. This book was emotional in a completely different way than the books that inspired my earlier posts. On page eleven, I looked up and tried to figure out why I was already so emotionally involved. More than that, the book felt smooth. Unlike adventure stories, where plot twists shoot up like spikes to give you emotional yanks, there were few plot twists here. It was just a story– a story that yanked you emotionally in a way that you saw the twists coming, but you didn’t want to believe them. Believe me, I tried a few times to be impassive. I failed. It was just so well written.
The book switches between present tense and past tense– present for the present, and past for the past. Half of it is told in flashback form, but in a way that it feels like regular narrative, and half is told in the present. It was excellently done.
I will give a slight warning: this is not Matt Christopher. This is not a middle-grade baseball story where the main character doesn’t know how to pitch, then gets a confidence boost from his coach and strikes out every batter. This is about serious, adult baseball, and it wouldn’t be for everyone. I think anyone could read it, but it isn’t the same as middle-grade. Also, it would help to know a little about baseball. I was a little lost by RBI statistics.
Things I learned:
- We are predisposed to like people. Give us nothing of a guy’s personality, or just one thing about him that we might like, and we will love him forever. We never got an accurate description of Joe Castle’s personality– we made it up ourselves off what we saw him do, and we loved him for it.
- You can have a perfect character, but he can’t be the main character. The only reason he is allowed to be perfect is that we never see his flaws. Don’t describe him in depth.
- Epilogues are for sissies. Sure, you can have them, but it acts as an enormous infodump that you wrote just to get out of telling boring stuff. This book took something like three chapters to wrap things up, but those three chapters added so much emotionally. Endings don’t have to be boring just because the conflict is wrapped up.
So there you have it! Three excellent books from three very different genres, reviewed in one place. I loved them all. Read their synopses, and if any sound interesting to you, go read them! I’ll vouch for each of them, unless you decide to ignore my warnings and read a horror novel at age three.