Wednesday, May 6, 2015

May Book Review Club: The Silkworm

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I'm sure the rest of you are outside soaking in the sun, but here in Maine we're only just starting to think about retiring the storm door and putting up the screens. Nevertheless, it's never too early to think about beach reading. So here's a likely candidate.

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By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Mulholland Books, Little Brown & Co, 2014

No matter what she calls herself, J.K. Rowling knows how to write a page-turner. She can wield a stiletto, too.

Even back in the Harry Potter years, it was clear Rowling had no use for the press. (Looking at you, Rita Skeeter.) She made that clear yet again in THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, the first crime novel she wrote as Robert Galbraith. This time around, she skewers the publishing industry—with humor and perhaps a tad more fondness. Perhaps. A tad.

Like all her other books, THE SILKWORM is rich in intriguing, compelling characters, starting with the protagonist, private detective Cormoran Strike. An Afghanistan vet who lost half a leg to an IED, he is the illegitimate (but acknowledged) son of a mega-rock-star and lives in a low-rent but scrupulously tidy room over his office. He’s tormented by his ex-girlfriend, a gorgeous party girl who’s about to marry a lord.

It’s not exactly groundbreaking for a crime novel to feature a crusty, damaged, slightly soggy gumshoe who’s perpetually short of cash. The thing is, though, Strike’s a nice guy. Despite its best efforts, life has made him only a skeptic, not a cynic. He fires clients because they’re creeps, takes them on because they need him. He’s a terrible businessman. I’d have a beer with him in a heartbeat.

Nor is it unusual for a gumshoe to have an admiring gal-Friday. But Cormoran’s sidekick, Robin, is as endearing as he is. Taken on as an office temp in the first book, she succumbs to a lifelong, latent fascination with crime detection and stays on for good. This time around, she’s trying to persuade Strike and her unpleasant fiancĂ© that she should be less of a secretary and more of an assistant detective. She’s a marvelous combination of clear-eyed realist (except about the fiancĂ©) and pie-eyed enthusiast.

Of course, there’s romantic tension between Strike and Robin. Part of you knows how cheesy that is. The rest of you is on tenterhooks.

Populating the rest of the book is a rogue’s gallery of waspish publishers, editors, writers, and agents, each of them happiest when someone else gets a miserable review. Our corpse is one of them—Owen Quine, a formerly ground-breaking novelist looking for a comeback with a satire on his industry, his disagreeable characters standing in for real rivals, friends, and lovers. Quine’s murder reflects the bizarre fate of his protagonist, and since the novel isn’t published yet that narrows the field of suspects to those who might have seen the manuscript.

The book’s title is Bombyx Mori, after a silkworm that is boiled alive in its cocoon in order to produce silk. (Side note: I’m never buying silk again.)

The police arrest Mrs. Quine, who already had hired Strike to find her missing husband. Our man feels sorry for her and her mentally disabled daughter, so sets out to prove her innocent.

In the best tradition of crime novels, huge complications end in satisfying simplicity. The murderer’s revelation is a surprise (at least to me, and I have to admit I’m easy), yet makes perfect sense afterwards.

With beach-reading season coming on, this one belongs in your sandy satchel.

(Dear FCC: This was a Christmas present. Sadly, J.K. Rowling doesn’t give two hoots what I think of her book.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Review Club: April 2015

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@Barrie Summy

(We have a total snow cover here in eastern Maine. No fooling. Good books--that's all that's keeping me going. So here are two. Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews!)

By Rachel Hartman
Random House Children's Books, 2012 & 2015

The cover of SERAPHINA has been haunting me ever since the book came out in July 2012. A wood-block print in oddly lovely colors! With a gracefully swooping dragon!  And a medieval-looking city! What was stopping me?

Time, inertia, and brain-cramp, apparently. Also good luck, because if I’d read it in 2012 I would have had to wait two and a half years for the sequel. A couple of weeks ago, someone reminded me of SERAPHINA just as I was feeling mournful about not having an all-absorbing fantasy to read. When I finished it, mournful yet again, I discovered that the sequel came out this very month.

SHADOW SCALE came to a conclusive end for Seraphina, so now I'm worried that there won't be another book set in this world. Talk about mournful.

To state it plainly, I adored these books. I'm not alone: SERAPHINA earned a gazillion starred reviews, won YALSA's Morris Award for best debut novel, was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal, and was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General's Award (the author is Canadian).

Trouble with reviewing the two books is that the surprises emerge early and often. Watching them unfold is such a tremendous pleasure that I don't want to spoil it for anyone. So I’ll be vague.

The first book is set in the nation of Goredd, which has a decades-long but uneasy truce with the dragons of Tanamoot, the mountainous country just to the north. The dragons have learned to assume human form, and some of them live side-by-side with the humans in Goredd.

Factions in both human and draconic society are trying to undermine the peace, and human-shaped dragons (called saarantrai) often are harassed in Goredd. They're made to wear bells so the natural humans can tell the difference. (Brrr. )

Our heroine, Seraphina, is an extraordinarily gifted musician, assistant to the court composer in Goredd's capital city. She has a dangerous secret, which we learn early on so we can suffer with her as she tries to keep it under wraps. After a member of the royal family is killed, apparently by a dragon, she becomes enmired in the effort both to find the murderer and to save the human-draconic treaty. 

SHADOW SCALE takes Seraphina out of Goredd to explore neighboring states—I won't say why—in a magnificent feat of world-building. This world is diverse in every way I can think of: Various skin colors,  religions, and sexual preferences, various national penchants for racism, tolerance, gloom, joy, math or music.

My favorite state, Porphyria, has six genders in its language: naive masculine and feminine, emergent masculine and feminine, cosmic neuter, and point neuter. (Cosmic neuter is for gods, eggplant, and strangers.) (Yes, there’s humor.) At one point, we meet a woman who started life as a man, requiring Seraphina to follow Porphyrian custom and ask “How may I pronoun you?” Emergent feminine, she's told. I want to live in Porphyria.

On the other hand, gays in Goredd are called Daanites, after a saint who was martyred for that reason, along with his lover. They're not closeted, but they're not entirely accepted, either.

Inhabiting this complex, exciting world are characters to match, starting with Seraphina herself. She’s necessarily cautious and secretive, but also feisty and smart, with an inner life complicated and enriched by the demands of her Big Secret. She makes big mistakes. She has an unwise love interest. But her spirit and courage keep her moving forward anyway.

Her music tutor, a dragon, is a gorgeous character (as are all dragons, actually). Dragons are analytical and emotionless in their natural form, but when they’re human they’re subject to human tastes and emotions, which upsets and fascinates them. Obviously there’s comic potential here, but also the potential for insight: What is emotion, other than an inconvenience? What is its function in our lives?

A further insight: The villain who controls minds is far more terrifying than any monster that threatens us physically. I will say no more.

Because you gotta read these books.

(Dear FCC: I bought these books with my own money. You should, too.) 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review Club: March 2015

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Sorry I missed last month--there was the small matter of a slip on the ice and a broken hip. This month, feet up, my only recreation is reading. There are worse fates. 

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By Jacqueline Woodson
Penguin/Nancy Paulson Books, 2014
Ages 10 and up

Whatever you do, don't tell a potential young reader that BROWN GIRL DREAMING is a book in verse. (WHY do so many of us think poetry will be boring?) If the kid picks up the book and freaks out at the unusual amount of white space, say “Just read one page.” You'll probably end up with a poetry fan on your hands.

From page one:

I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
my great-great-grandparents
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky's mirrored constellation
to freedom.

I am born as the South explodes ….

Seriously, kid, how can you resist? Give this book a chance.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING won the National Book Award and a Newbery honor—with good reason. It's gem-like, heartwarming, funny, sad, sneaky, inspiring, and addictive. You may very well read it in one sitting, although you'll want to re-read it. These poems live and breathe.

Full disclosure: There's not a lot of action, and as I read I kept wondering if I would have objected to that at age 10.  (I so hope I wouldn’t have.)

Nor is this a polemic on race relations in the '60s and beyond, although it certainly offers insights. (Most chilling: If you were leaving South Carolina and your skin was brown, you had to go at night to avoid being stopped and beaten.) I’m praying the book's title won’t relegate it to the sixth grade civil rights unit—kids should be free to love it in its own right.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING is the epitome of “show don't tell”—not so much a factual memoir as a direct experience of American girlhood, regardless of race and almost regardless of era. Being sketched in verse somehow heightens the impact.

It's got everything: sibling rivalry, hair, school troubles, an uncomfortable religion, the pros and cons of a dominant family, the death of a beloved grandfather, the fear that your best friend has found someone she likes better.

Also a mother sneaking out in white gloves to sit at a segregated lunch counter. But the best friend makes more of an impression.

The first controversy in young Jackie's life is that her father wants to name her “Jack,” after him. “Name a girl Jack/and people will look at her twice, my father said.” (To his annoyance, the women insist on Jacqueline.) Also, she's the family's second daughter: “... My older brother takes one look/ inside the pink blanket, says,/ Take her back. We already have one of those.”

Later, when mother and children have gone to live with the South Carolina grandparents, leaving Jack behind in Ohio, the father's absence is “like a bubble in my older brother's life,/ that pops again and again/into a whole lot of tiny bubbles/of memory.”

The South Carolina poems are idyllic—breezes are fragrant, the family so strong that its members simply rise above the fact that it's not safe to shop at Woolworth's or ride in the front of the bus, regardless of the law. When the scene shifts to Brooklyn, Jackie begins to experience universal growing pains: difficulties in school (especially following a brilliant older sister), a mother who's just a tad stricter than most, a church (Jehovah's Witnesses) that makes the Woodson kids walk out on birthday celebrations at school.

But also there are joys: A Puerto Rican best friend whose family absorbs Jackie and feeds her arroz con pollo; the dawning realization that, despite her school troubles, she is destined to be a writer.

Sprinkled in between the longer poems are numbered three-liners called “How to Listen.” Here's #9:

Under the back porch
there's an alone place I go
writing all I've heard.

Thank heavens for that alone place, and for this beautiful book.

Dear FCC: I got an autographed copy of this book because I donated to We Need Diverse Books. Which we do.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review Club: January 2015

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@Barrie Summy

Happy New Year! Barrie Summy, fearless leader of the Book Review Club, reports that as a group we published NINETY reviews last year. If you're looking for a good book to while away the winter nights, click the icon above and all will be well.

By Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow, 2013

The past leaves its taint, but it can offer redemption.

Also, move over David Copperfield.

Tough call, which of my Christmas books to read first. I ended up going with ORPHAN TRAIN simply because I’d been seeing it around for a full year and it had been nagging at me. It was the right choice for post-holiday recovery—absorbing, harrowing in its quiet way, not GAME OF THRONES but not—praise heaven—“It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Molly Ayer, 17, a prickly goth, has gotten used to being abandoned on the rock-hard face of the world. A serial foster child, her father dead and her mother a drug addict, she’s now in the Spruce Harbor, Maine, home of Ralph and Dina, who argue loudly about whether to keep her.

Vivian Daly, 91, also knows the world’s rocky face. An Irish immigrant, she lost her impoverished family to a New York tenement fire in 1929, and was sent west on a train full of orphans to be handed over to anyone who wanted them. Her future, like that of her fellow travelers, was a craps shoot: Maybe she’d find a nice family who treated her like a child, or maybe she’d be a nine-year-old hired hand, over-worked, unloved, barely kept alive.  She lost the bet at first, facing first a sweat shop, then a desperately poor, abusive household before finally finding a safe (if constrictive) home.

Having attempted to steal the local library’s third and most ragged copy of Jane Eyre, Molly has been assigned to fifty hours of community service. Her boyfriend gets her a gig with Vivian, his mother’s employer. After school and on weekends, Molly will help Vivian sort through the eighty years’ worth of memorabilia in her attic.

The story alternates between third person for Molly’s story and first person for Vivian’s recollections, which dominate and horrify. For all the sadness and mistreatment Molly has experienced, her troubles pale before the often Dickensian fate of an orphan in the 1930s. Like David Copperfield, Vivian sees humanity in all its cruelty and degradation before finally landing in a caring home, where a change of name signals a new destiny.

Vivian’s troubles are not over, however. Scarred and numbed by her past, she can’t embrace life. Like Molly, she’s built walls that protect but also isolate.

We benefit from her tale, and so does Molly. The book’s ending is a bit tidy for my taste: Loose ends tied up, everyone is content. But there’s a great deal of satisfaction in seeing two damaged women find solace. Kline gave us the ending we wanted, despite our better judgment.

Dear FCC: Ho ho ho.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Book Review Club: December

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@Barrie Summy

Jingle, jingle! Wondering why it's 50 degrees one day, 20 the next? I bet the Ice Dragon is involved. Read on . . .

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By Gregory Maguire
Candlewick 2014

Boy, there’s hardly anything more entertaining than watching a talented author make free with a character we think we already know. Gregory Maguire is among the handiest practitioners of that craft, retelling the tales of an ugly stepsister, Snow White, and, of course, various Oz characters. (He wrote WICKED. Heard of it?)

This time, his partner in madness is Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore whose house walks on chicken legs and who has been known to eat children. There are guest appearances by the Firebird and the Ice Dragon—also Russian folk figures—and Myandash, a character in Saami tales.

Among scads of literary Baba Yagas, Maguire’s earthy, irreverent version retires the jersey. She warps time, fools with the weather, has a house that keeps re-inventing itself and a kitten who keeps the insults flying. (Witch: “I think I’ve kept my figure, don’t you?” Kitten: “Who else would want it?”) She’s lived lots of places at lots of times, confusing her Tsarist Russian listeners with references to vitamins and Emily Dickinson.

“I’ve stepped sideways out of life,” one of our heroines says, watching the witch in action. “I am life,” Baba Yaga replies. “You’ve stepped nearer. For good or for ill, for inspiration or indigestion, I don’t know yet. We’ll see how you get on.”

The tale begins with a “prince and the pauper” switcheroo: In a slapstick mishap, Elena, a dirt-poor girl from a starving village, changes places with Ekaterina (“Cat”), a wealthy, well-educated cosmopolitan on her way to St. Petersburg by private train, intending to meet and possibly woo the Tsar’s godson. She has a present for the Tsar: a Faberge egg that becomes one of the book’s important magical objects (as do the Firebird’s egg, the teeth of the Ice Dragon, and two sets of matryoshka “nesting” dolls).

The focus of the tale switches back and forth between Elena and Cat. Oddly, neither is particularly compelling at first—Cat’s a spoiled rich kid who scores zero on the empathy scale, and Elena is barely surviving, with no time or energy to enchant us. But they grow on us, exactly as such kids would in real life. It’s marvelous to watch them discover that worlds and ideas exist outside their opposite bubbles.

The story is, of course, a marvel of layers and wonders—never was a book cover more apt. The basic problem is that something is draining Russia of magic—the weather’s weird (drought in Elena’s village, floods in St. Petersburg), the Fire Bird’s not regenerating properly, and even Baba Yaga can’t control her environment. The situation is depressingly familiar to those of us who worry about the melting ice cap.

The witch sets off in her chicken-legged house to find the cause, sweeping the two girls along with her.  They meet the Tsar, his godson, Rasputin, and a succession of creatures with their own agendas. They collect new friends and collaborators as a snowball collects pebbles.

Among the book’s layers are the varying relationships between adults and young people.  Most of the grown-ups are either dying or too depressed or oblivious to be of use to the kids in their charge. The two exceptions are Baba Yaga and Cat’s godmother, Madame Sophia, bookends on the social scale who turn out to be funny, delightful maternal figures.

I was bothered by the narrator, an imprisoned monk who tells us that he knows the story because he can watch the world through the eyes of birds. This device is so unwieldy that I’d rather Maguire had ditched it and just left us to imagine how the monk knows so much. Actually, I wondered why he was necessary at all—his little personal asides don’t add much—but perhaps I haven’t thought this through.

Otherwise, this is a wonder of a book. You should read it, or give it to someone. Coincidentally, it’s out just in time for the joyous gift-giving season.

 (Dear FCC: I’ve met Gregory Maguire, but I’m sure he doesn’t remember. I did not manage to snag a review copy of this book—my excellent local library bought it with its own money and lent it to me. My reward for writing this review is entirely spiritual.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Beach-reading time is over, at least in the Northeast. Not quite wood-stove-reading time, but close. This one will work for either--be prepared to dive in, never to surface until the last page.

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The Queen of the Tearling
By Erika Johansen
HarperCollins, 2014

Like many fantasy readers, I’m jonesing big time for the next book in Megan Whelan Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. While I wait (forever? ohpleaseno), I keep looking for another series that will satisfy me without taking every scrap of my free time like the Game of Thrones books.

THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING comes tantalizingly close. Debut author Erika Johansen starts her trilogy with a fascinating premise and pretty good world-building, an interesting conflict, and a fun cast of characters. Both the world and the characters so far lack the rich complexity of Whelan’s, but, hey, we’re in no position to quibble.

The setting is Earth, far in the future. The world we know suffered some kind of apocalypse followed by The Crossing, a shadowy event that sent cataclysm survivors sailing over an unnamed sea to a new world. This world—regressed to medieval technology and forms of government—is divided into four nations, the primary ones for us being The Tearling (which includes cities called New London and Lewiston) and Mortmesne, which is ruled by a powerful witch known as the Red Queen.

Our heroine is Kelsea, daughter and heir of the dead Queen of the Tearling. When we meet her, she has achieved adulthood at 19 and is being collected from the hiding place where she’s spent her formative years. Her loving guardians have raised her to rule and made sure she’s schooled in everything a queen needs to know, but it’s all book learning.

On the harrowing ride from cottage to capital city, she begins learning how to lead for real. By the time she reaches her throne room, she’s gained the loyalty of her Queen’s Guard and made the acquaintance of an entrancing outlaw. She also has made a grandiose but heartfelt gesture to end the monthly shipment of Tearling citizens to Mortmesne for slavery, one legacy of her mother’s reign. For the rest of the book, she’ll struggle to hang on to those gains under the shadow of impending war with the Red Queen’s overwhelming force.

Kelsea’s rise to leadership evolves nicely—she has heart, courage, and brains, and her education has capitalized on all three, so it’s satisfying to watch her synchronize the gears. I do wish I knew her better—the point of view shifts from hers to those of her enemies, which is interesting, but always in third person and always slightly distant.

Also, there’s a deus ex machina: First one, then two sapphire pendants Kelsea has inherited. When the going gets tough, they glow and radiate warmth, apparently offering direction to their young queen. When the going gets outright dangerous, a sapphire can take over to blow an attacker across the room.

The sapphires are an intriguing mystery, and I’m eager to find out what’s going on with them. But in terms of character development—at least in this first book—they’re disappointing. Lyra, heroine of Phillip Pullman’s epic His Dark Materials trilogy, also has a mystical and helpful gizmo, the alethiometer. But she has to learn to use it—it doesn’t just step in and save the day. In a later book, I’m hoping Kelsea, too, will be called upon to live up to her accessories.

I keep comparing this first book to DUNE, Frank Herbert’s beloved space saga. Like Kelsea, Paul Atreides has been trained to lead but has to struggle at a young age to apply his learning to real situations. He also has mystical underpinnings that sometimes seem to take control—although they’re internal, not housed in a glowing gem. One of his victories at the end of the book is learning to be the boss, directing the mystical powers rather than just letting them do their own thing. I trust that victory awaits Kelsea, too.

There’s yet another character problem, although this may be the result of my own prejudices. Much is made of the fact that Kelsea is “plain,” a big disappointment to herself and those who remember her beautiful mother. The message over the course of the book is, “Hey, looks aren't everything.” True enough, but that trope seems old-hat to me—I thought we’d moved beyond it.

Despite the problems, I gobbled up this book and am eager for the next installment in the trilogy. The premise is so very, very compelling, the many mysteries so very, very tantalizing—I’m willing to trust that Kelsea will grow on me as a character.

And, girl, get control of those blue rocks.

(Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday, because my man knows how to keep me quiet.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We're Back! The Book Review Club Greets September

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@Barrie Summy

Back to reality, girls and boys. And by way of easing back in, here's a book set in the steamy jungle of New Guinea, where snakes slither through the grass and gingham curtains flutter at the window. (Seriously.)

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By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014

 “It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion – you’ve only been there eight weeks – and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”

That’s an anthropologist talking about living with a jungle tribe. But we recognize the feeling even if we’ve never been closer to New Guinea than the National Geographic channel. It applies to love affairs, new jobs, books you’re writing, a new group of friends . . . and so on and on.

Forthright, charismatic Nell Stone, the anthropologist who’s speaking, is the central figure of Lily King’s EUPHORIA.  Inspired by events in the life of Margaret Mead after the 1928 publication of her groundbreaking COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA, this is a slim, thoughtful, honed-down book, a breathtaking read.

The narration alternates between first person and third, with the occasional dip into Nell’s field notebook. In the third person, we meet Nell and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick—called “Fen”—as they are canoeing away from a New Guinea tribal village that has exhausted and horrified them. The first two things we learn are that someone may have thrown a dead baby at them (the tribe does not hesitate to drown unwanted newborns) and that Fen has somehow broken Nell’s glasses.

Elsewhere on the river, in the more intimate first-person, we meet anthropologist Andrew Bankson as he’s trying unsuccessfully to drown himself. And we’re off.

EUPHORIA is a love story, tragic in its way, but it also is a fascinating essay on the pitfalls of anthropological fieldwork. And it’s about jealousy, of two or three types.

In the 1930s, anthropologists are divvying up interesting tribes the way archaeologists used to divide up Egyptian burial sites. Disappointed in their first New Guinea tribe, Nell and Fen are looking for a pleasanter one—with good art, we learn to our amusement. Bankson helps them find a nice one, and then—lonely, drawn to them as intriguing fellow scholars, and increasingly enamored of Nell—visits them on extended vacations from the village he’s studying.

As we watch Nell and Fen set themselves up—big new house, curtains at the windows, villagers employed as servants—we realize that their scholarship is compromised by their own points of view and the way their presence is changing the tribe daily.  “Glimpses of how it really was before us are rare, if not impossible,” Nell admits.

But there are bigger problems. Because of her first, groundbreaking book, Nell keeps getting swamped with mail and lecture offers. The as-yet-unpublished Fen is increasingly rabid for fame of his own, desperation eating away at his scientific ethics. And, of course, Nell and Bankson—wonderful characters, clearly meant for each other—are falling in love.

In a book that’s otherwise as intricate and measured and lovely as a Bach fugue, Fen struck a discordant note for me, at least in the first reading. He’s so relentlessly the villain—nasty to Nell (how did those glasses break?), a mean drunk, waving a gun around at the slightest provocation, concocting a truly dastardly deed to make his name. The ending, in which he enacts everything we could possibly have feared, seemed rushed and at the same time way too neat.

The last of the tragedy unfolds at a distance, and we find out about it well after the fact. That’s an interesting choice for King, and muted the impact for me. But a second reading may convince me that the distance is necessary, as is Fen’s eternal drumbeat.

I’m looking forward to that second reading. Despite my quibbles, this is among my top ten books of 2014, maybe the top five. Highly recommended for a totally immersive read.

Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday, recommended to my beloved by Blue Hill Books. Nobody cares whether I review it. And you know me, FCC—I'm just out for a good time.