Justin Tate Likes Books

Justin Tate Likes Books

Book reviews and updates on what I'm writing.

5 Stars
It Lingers
The People in the Trees - Hanya Yanagihara

Had I written this review moments after reading the final words, I might have given the book 3 stars or maybe even 2. The ending, while not entirely unexpected, managed to leave me shocked and stupefied. At first I was angered by the whole thing, then I was perplexed, then I started re-reading certain chapters. Only then did I realize just how smartly woven this yarn is spun. In hindsight, it's actually quite miraculous how Yanagihara managed to tie together the varying storylines.

I will warn readers that this is not necessarily an "easy" read. There are peaks and valleys and sometimes, notably at the beginning, it is a little boring. Don't skim over the boring parts, however, because later they will become the most interesting later. Also, don't you dare skim the footnotes. They take on an entire story of their own and contain the most memorable moments of clever writing.

Once Norton arrives on the mysterious island, know that things really pick up. The descriptions of the plant life, animals and natives are exquisite and paint extraordinarily vivid images of a rich, fantastical world. This part the book is as edge-of-your-seat adventurous as Jurassic Park, though in a very different way.

The cast of characters is fairly small, but well-developed if Norton thinks them worth developing. Everything is seen through Norton's eyes, and in the end, it's important to remember that.

OVERALL: While I don't know that this book is destined to become a "classic" it is layered enough and smart enough that I would like to take a literature course on it. Even as I re-read a chapter here and there, I start to see some of the hidden brilliance that was scattered throughout. For that, I have to give it 5 stars, even when my initial reaction was shock and disappointment. If you're looking for a book that will haunt you and leave you thinking about it years, The People in the Trees will do it.

4 Stars
Bad Bugs
The Nest - Gregory A. Douglas

A rollicking entry into the “Paperbacks From Hell” series of horror classics previously out of print. If your favorite part of creature creepers is watching people get eaten alive, this will satisfy your desires unlike any other. Nearly every chapter includes a graphically-described swarm of mutant cockroaches devouring human flesh. A few innocent animals too, for good measure.

True to the bizarre trends of '80s horror, additional moments will "leave" you scratching your head in the most amazing way. Those familiar know I'm talking about the iconic masturbation scene. It's so insane, so inexplicable, so preposterous, you have to wonder how Douglas could even think of it. In any case, just be glad he did. These immortal pages contain one of the most memorable moments of horror fiction that I can recall.

Overall, The Nest is better than it should be though still pretty bad. Even I began to tire after a phonebook of characters meet their brutal demise. The remaining cast struggle to obtain significance until the final 20% of the book, which is admittedly excellent. The scientific explanations and epic showdown are well worth the slog through the more boring passages. It's like Douglas said to himself: Now that I've completed the obligatory slaughter, I can actually write a novel!

You probably know if you're the type of person who enjoys off-the-wall, B-horror, killer bug romps. If you are, go for it. And tell me what you think about The Scene--even better, try to explain it! LOL

5 Stars
Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell, Pat Conroy

Gone with the Wind is a masterpiece of creative writing on every level. In its 1400 pages (or 49 hours on audio) there is not a single wasted line or insignificant moment. From a purely technical perspective, it is awe-inducing how flawlessly Mitchell utilizes characterization, setting, research, conflict, point of view, narrative voice, symbolism, foreshadowing, allusion, and every other literary device in the handbook. Even more amazing, she can juggle all this and deliver a plot that is relentlessly enjoyable.

The closest novel I've read to this quality is Les Miserables, which was clearly the template for Gone with the Wind. In case there is any doubt, Melanie goes so far as to read directly from its pages during a moment of high tension. Even in Les Miserables, however, there are hundreds of pages of dully written history that is disjunctive and awkward in the flow of narration. Mitchell, following Hugo's formula, also includes segments of war history. Her historical segments work much better, however, because they are short and play a more direct role in the action. Les Miserables is commonly read in an abridged format, but it would be impossible to abridge Gone with the Wind. Every word has a purpose, everything a cause and reaction.

Writers seeking examples of superb characterization should also look no further. Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley and Melanie (among others) are so finely drawn as to boggle the mind. How is it possible for such flawed individuals to be so absorbing? How can fiction feel this real? Even stronger than each individual character is Mitchell's handling of relationships. The way these characters mold to one another, influence one another, speak in subtext and interact creates a world so vivid that real life begins to feel dull.

Despite its long-running popularity, I feel Gone with the Wind (the novel) is perhaps the most underrated classic of all time. There should be no contest. Any list of classic literature that doesn't include Gone with the Wind in the Top 10 is simply wrong. I suspect part of why it gets forgotten as a novel is the iconic movie. I'm so thankful to have mostly avoided the movie thus far, so I could fully enjoy the novel's many surprises on its own. For those who are already well-versed with the movie, I suspect the novel will still blow you away. I just can't imagine how they could efficiently cram 49 hours of book into a 4 hour movie.

Although it was intimidating to devote so much time to a behemoth like this, I never regretted it for a second. Gone with the Wind is one of those masterpieces that is an actual shame if you never get to it.

**SIDE NOTE: The unabridged audio version narrated by Linda Stephens is the best audio performance I've ever encountered. Her performance might very well have elevated my opinion of the novel. I recommend listening to it if you can.

4 Stars
Top Shelf Writer Wisdom
Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing - Douglas Glover

First 80 pages contain the most well-articulated writing advice I've ever encountered. Particularly his Do This, Don't Do That approach. Great for those of us who become easily flustered by the endless ways to write a novel. Of course it helps that my own strategy meshes well with his suggestions.

I fell in love with his rants on common failures of student writing, their lack of commitment, and the challenges of being a writer in a 'post-literate' society. Glover's greatest strength is his observations on how to make theme work in a mainstream way. He is obsessed with literary art, yet equally as obsessed with clarity. Only fools dress their characters in white and expect the reader to realize it's some kind of message on purity. At the same time, there is a place for texture and dramatic symbolism and he shows you how to do it.

The back half is a snooze, unfortunately. Pages and pages of literary analysis of obscure titles which don't even sound interesting. Much of his analysis contradicts the brilliant approach outlined in the beginning half. Still worth the price of admission for those first few essays. Will keep this book close to my heart and revisit it often.

5 Stars
Got my vote
Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future - Pete Buttigieg

God, yes! A presidential candidate who went to Harvard for LITERATURE. There's even a chapter where he discusses the beauty of "linguistic rhythm."


Oh yeah, he did some other things too, like fight for our country and turn a dying city around. But that's not nearly as important.

Being honest, after 2016 I mostly keep my head in the sand. I wander around, blissfully pretending that I don't live in a United States where a large enough population rejected the most qualified candidate in favor of the least qualified. My plan on 2020 has been to vote for a female candidate, whoever that happens to be.

But Buttigieg has me woke. I still want a female president more than anything, but Pete is who I need right now, in this particular election. He makes a great point that generational change is something to benefit the country rather than hurt it. He's ridiculously mature, level-headed, willing to own up to his mistakes and LEARN from them, and shows unseen adeptness at working with the other side. He stands firm on values, but understands that we can't keep going with this Civil War mindset. Eventually we have to unite - and he has plans on how to do it.

From a purely book review perspective, I think it's fair to say there are a few dull moments. Overall, though, this is a moving memoir from a fascinating public figure who, even if he isn't the Democrat nominee, will be a powerful Kennedy-esque presence on the national stage.

5 Stars
King's Masterpiece
Pet Sematary - Stephen King

Stephen King's legacy will be vast, I have no doubt. We'll still read him hundreds of years from now, just as we have with Poe and Dickens and many others. Of all his master works, however, I take the somewhat unpopular stance that Pet Sematary is his magnum opus. Re-reading it now only confirms this opinion.

When I first read Pet Sematary (I couldn't have been older than 13) I knew right away that it was more than a typical scary story. For one, it made me feel decades older. Wiser. More entuned to human nature. King never shies away from character, but he really digs deep with Louis Creed. There are numerous novels that portray death well (James Agee's A Death in the Family is superb) but fittingly enough, it's this gothic horror novel that illustrates it best. Death isn't pretty and surviving it can be just as grotesque. Pet Sematary gives all of this to us, and more. Much more than we want to see. But maybe we need to see it to understand.

We often scream at characters in horror movies for doing stupid things (WHY WOULD YOU LEAVE THE HOUSE YOU IDIOT!?) and arguably Louis Creed does some stupid things in this book. King adds supernatural influence as justification, but let's be honest - no justification is needed. Creed and his decisions are as relatable as they are tragic, which is something never quite accomplished--not on the same level at least--with Jack Torrance or Annie Wilkes or Carrie White. Not dissing those other books, I'm a fan boy for them too, but it's why I think Pet Sematary is King's greatest achievement.

For those interested in reading this one, for the first time or 20th, I highly recommend the new audio version narrated by Michael C. Hall. His outstanding performance enriches the novel in ways I hadn't noticed before.

5 Stars
Feel-good novel of the year?
Elevation - Stephen King

With "Elevation" Stephen King steps aside from horror to write a poignant little novella on unity, tolerance and rising above the fray. Of course there is also a supernatural twist. For me it works because of its brevity and not in spite of it. Just enough is explained to inspire reflection, without ever getting too political or caught up in unnecessary adventure. The ending image is mesmerizing. I love the emotional finality of it, although I'm not entirely sure how to interpret it. Anybody want to start a discussion?

As an aside, I feel the audio version is a must. Stephen King narrates it himself and the added personal touch enriches the experience. Also, the audio version includes a bonus short story called Laurie (also read by King) that was published for free on his website a while back. It's an okay story, not amazing on its own, but meshes well with the themes of Elevation.

5 Stars
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction - Grady Hendrix

As a long-time follower of the TooMuchHorrorFiction blog and fan of Grady Hendrix, this ode to Horror novels from the era when they dazzled most is a dream come true. Beside highlighting some very obscure plot lines, there's a wealth of publishing history and social context on how it all happened. Written with charm and wit, this is an easy read that's as entertaining as it is informative.

But Reader beware, you're going to create quite a shopping list. Even more scary, most of the rare books are pricey finds made even more expensive thanks to Hendrix. If you have any of these titles on your shelves and are willing to part with them, now is the time to put them on eBay. Outside of the rare few which received reprints (mostly thanks to Valancourt Books--God bless them) it's hard to find any under $50.

Whether you want to revisit beastly books from yesteryear, discover some extremely unusual titles for the first time, or simply learn about publishing trends, you got to read Paperbacks from Hell.

3.5 Stars
Return to Fear Street #3
Drop Dead Gorgeous (Return to Fear Street #3) - R.L. Stine

Drop Dead Gorgeous has a more complex, mature structure than the typical Fear Street formula. We piece together the story from various points of view, including adult characters, the central villain, diary entries, and first person narration of murder victims. The ending homage to the 90s provides a delightful tribute to long-time fans of the series.

Like all Stine books, it's a readable, spooky good time. Not nearly as unputdownable as Fear Street in the glory years, however. This is because YA publishers don't think novellas sell anymore, so they require him to write Fear Street books that are longer. A shame since Stine's greatest skill is compact mysteries. The longer they get, the more tired the premise becomes. Still, it's a macabre ride that's mostly thrilling from beginning to end. Shorter would have been more satisfying, but the plot never gets truly boring. Certainly it’s more consistent than "You May Now Kill the Bride" which really fizzled out in the second half.

Haven't read "The Wrong Girl" yet, but if Return to Fear Street continues at this level, I hope they publish more.

5 Stars
Found at last!!!!!
Clue - Michael McDowell

Movie novelizations are amongst the lowest genre in terms of literary merit, and yet it's common to see them go for high prices on eBay. This “Clue” novelization by Michael McDowell is particularly pricy, rarely going for anything less than $150. Possibly because the movie remains a cult masterpiece, or maybe because Michael McDowell was a noteworthy horror writer on his own, I understand why fans are constantly seeking it out. I certainly was.

When I at last got my hands on a copy, I decided to not just read it but literally transcribe every word. The archivist in me felt it was important to save a digital copy should it ever disappear completely to the dusty shelves of rare book collectors. This transcription process was one of my most cherished reading experiences. There are few ways to be more intimate with a book than to retype every word. It requires a slower reading and allows the discovery of technique you would normally never notice, such as stylized word repetition, clever usage of punctuation, and white space.

I'm also happy to report that this novelization has literary merit. Content-wise, it never strays from the movie and yet it is still delightful to essentially re-watch the film through McDowell's superb narration. Consider, for example, this delicious description of Yvette:

Yvette was the nec plus ultra of downstairs maids. She was young. She was astonishingly beautiful. She had better curves than a major league pitcher. She was dusting the books in the library with a feather duster that wasn’t half as soft as the waves of her lustrous hair. Yvette was not only a French maid; she was a fetishist’s dream of a French maid, and she had an outfit to match: a glossy black dress, cut high on the thigh and low in the bosom, so tight it whined when she walked. A starched white cap was perched absurdly atop her head, and a starched white apron was slung low across her waist, like a remembrance of chastity. Her stockings were at once black and sheer, and the seam that ran along the back of her calf was a draftman’s ecstasy of curve. Her shoes were high in the heel and tight in the toe, completing a figure that was—all in all—at once startling, grotesque, and divine.

So often as I was reading/transcribing my way through, I would crack up at McDowell's hilarious use of language to depict scenes that I knew by heart. Other times I simply marveled at the quality of his tight, efficient prose.

There is one other big attraction this book has to offer—an extra ending not included in the film. It's an outlandish, preposterous ending and I'm not surprised it was scrapped from the movie, but it's also one of the most fun. Probably not $150+ fun, but if you are obsessed with the movie as much as I am, you might very well consider this money well spent.

Overall, while this book is a line-for-line replica of the iconic film, McDowell's talented way with words adds next-level charm that isn't possible even if you've watched the movie a hundred times. McDowell notices little quirks and clues in the characters that I never picked up on, and he even offers subtle jabs at some of the more absurd moments of the movie. It's a shame this novelization will likely never be re-printed, because it's truly a fabulous read that works on so many levels.