More Brief Book Reviews

Ah, May. That craziest time of year for teachers, where every spare second is taken up with grading, graduation prep, more grading, saying goodbye to seniors, making final exams, a bit more grading, and keeping all of the students under control. In other words, it’s not exactly my best time for reading and watching stuff. But I’ve still managed to catch up on a few things, even if one was for work and one was with the kiddos…

21412284The one book I read for me was Nick Cutter’s The Deep, a horror novel that finds its setting in a confined, claustrophobic underwater sea lab set up near the bottom of the ocean’s depths. That’s a great place to put a horror novel, and Cutter makes the most of it, never letting the characters – or the reader – forget the isolation, the darkness outside, or the sheer wrongness of existing in a place so hostile to human life. It’s the plot that’s a bit messier here, and it ultimately makes the book feel a bit cluttered and messy, even if the scares and horror work like gangbusters. The Deep opens as a post-apocalyptic tale, with a disease called “The ‘Gets” wiping out much of humanity, and one possible cure found in the aforementioned lab. But once the book moves into the waters, things get complicated, diving into twisted family backstories and a more constant, omnipresent horror that feels like Pennywise from It snuck into an apocalyptic novel. It all ends up feeling a bit all over the place for a while, as if Cutter had about three different novels going and decided to jam them all together, and the book’s odd pacing (which sort of shoots off in spurts once the book gets to the lab) keeps things a bit confusing and rushed at times. For all of that, though, Cutter maintains his gift for horror and psychological screw-turning, from a journal following a mind through madness to a cavalcade of nightmarish images that defy description and reason. And while The Deep sometimes feels like too much plot for its length – and occasionally feels unexpectedly rushed – it’s still a pretty solid piece of horror, if not as strong as either of the other Cutter books that I’ve read. Rating: *** ½

6867Meanwhile, work has found me re-reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement, only to find it solidifying even further as a true masterpiece, and among the finest books I’ve ever read. I’ve written about Atonement before (about a year ago, when I first taught it); suffice to say that it’s a story set against the backdrop of World War II, telling the story of a young girl who makes an awful mistake early in life, and her efforts to atone for that mistake. Re-reading Atonement, it’s even more clear how intricately structured this book is – how well it hides its secrets in plain sight, how its themes are established in even the most seemingly pointless scenes, and how every sentence, every word, is deployed to maximum effect. And none of that even gets into the way McEwan lets his narrative deploy emotional punches when the reader is least prepared, whether it’s watching as Briony makes her awful mistake or sitting by the side of a French soldier who’s dying far from home (in a passage that left me choked up when reading it out loud in class, and had several students confessing that they cried reading it). I’m in awe of Atonement – not just the prose, not just the powerful story, but the sheer craft and technique that went into it, weaving dozens of themes and ideas and stories together in a way that seems effortless, but holds together with each successive revelation and shock. A masterpiece, plain and simple. Rating: *****

9780439139601_p0_v1_s1200x630Finally, the kids and I recently finished up our bedtime reading through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the book that’s always been held up as the major transition of the series from light, fun kids fare to something more ambitious and “older”. That observation holds up, not only in terms of the plot, but also in terms of Rowling’s writing, which really feels as though it’s on another level from what we’ve seen once the book hits its big payoff. Goblet of Fire is a long book, and while there’s an argument that it’s got some unnecessary detours along the way, it’s hard not to enjoy all of the sidebars and wonderful journeys into Rowling’s imagination and world. What other series could dedicate so much time to the question of whether magical serving races are in fact being used as slavery, and lets that debate play out? (Indeed, one could easily argue that the book’s details are better than the main story, which really makes no sense whatsoever; there’s a lot I love about this book, but the story is pretty absurd, and deeply hurts the book along the way a few times.) But really, it’s the last section that everyone remembers, and rightfully so, as Rowling’s writing becomes sharper, her control of mood becomes better than we’ve ever seen it, and the characters’ ideals – and the themes of the series – become richer and more compelling. Indeed, maybe the biggest surprise to me was how much harder I took the big death of this book; while I initially dismissed it on my first read as “well, it’s a way to raise the stakes,” Rowling does so much more with it than I remembered, turning the last part of the book into a shocking moment that drives home to the characters the stakes of their fight. In short, I had a blast with it, even more than I remembered; it’s a fun book, sure, but reading it – and, undoubtedly, experiencing it through my daughter’s reactions – has given me a fresh love for Rowling’s novels. Rating: ****

Amazon: The Deep | Atonement | Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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