Saturday, December 25, 2010

Let Me In

Let Me In
Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist
St. Martin's Griffin, 2010 (media tie-in)
486 pages

Originally published as Låt Den Rätte Komma in Sweden (Let The Right One In is the title of the first English translation), this novel by an author that many are calling "the new Stephen King" is the most unique and creepy book I've read in a really long time. The book (and its Swedish language film adaptation) has been very popular in Europe, and a Hollywood version of the film (renamed Let Me In) was released in the States this year. I haven't seen either movie, and this isn't a movie review blog, so back to the book.

The story centers around Oskar, a middle school-aged boy who's tormented by neighborhood bullies. Oskar lives with his Mom in a suburb of Stockholm (I don't think the author cares too much for suburbia given his dreary descriptions of this one!) and he's a really odd kid, yet most of us should be able to relate to him. One evening after a particularly traumatic day at school, Oskar meets his new neighbor. Eli is a strange girl who smells bad and only comes out at night, but she and Oskar become friends. Oskar eventually realizes that Eli is a vampire . . . not only is she a vampire, but she's 200+ years old and, oh, she's not really a girl.

Woven into Oskar's story are those of several other characters who will eventually cross paths with Oskar. The most disturbing (and disgusting) is Håkan, who becomes the monster on the outside that he considers himself to be on the inside. Despite Håkan's actions, for some reason I still felt sorry for him when glances of his humanity came through. (He kind of reminded me of Frankenstein in that way.) But some scenes involving him are really, really gross.

There's a born-again Christian police officer, several absent/distant parents, a group of old stoners, a man with too many cats, and a teenager named Tommy whose story kind of runs parallel to Oskar's. At some point or another, we get into the heads of nearly all the characters to see things their way. Eventually we get Eli's story, who s/he is and how s/he became a vampire. There's an underlying current of sadness and gloom that makes you wonder if perhaps Lindqvist wrote this during one of Sweden's long, dark winters. And yet there's hope, exhibited in characters who undergo life-changing experiences and an edge-of-your-seat final scene of justice that will make you say "Yes!!!" out loud.

It really is an example of classic horror genre. Yet in a way, Let Me In is a love story, multiple love stories, actually. It's a friendship story that asks: what would you do/how far would you go for your friend? All the while weaving through multiple stories of acceptance of self and others for who they are. Each of us has an inner monster, and it's up to us to keep our monsters in check. Some say that's the difference between humans and . . . well, non-humans.

If you have a tendency to bite your nails, you'll lose a few while reading Let Me In. I know I did. Recommended if you like horror or suspense, or general vampire tales.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fatal Fixer-Upper

Fatal Fixer-Upper
Author: Jennie Bentley
Berkley, 2008
336 pages

My recent adventures as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity have me interested in all aspects of construction and home renovation. As I searched my shelf for a new read, this one popped out at me. Fatal Fixer-Upper is the first in a series known as the Do-It-Yourself Mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Avery Baker. You've just gotta love that title, especially if you watch as much DIY and HGTV as we do in our home.

Avery is a thirty-something interior designer who works in her boyfriend Philippe's furniture store in Manhattan. Philippe is a beret-wearing Frenchman with a roving eye and penchant for speaking in French language clichés. Avery gets an unexpected letter from a nonagenarian great aunt from Maine; she barely knows Aunt Inga and only vaguely remembers a childhood family trip to Maine. The intriguing letter requests for Avery to visit as soon as possible. But Avery arrives too late; Aunt Inga is dead, supposedly after falling down some stairs in her old Victorian home.

At first, Avery isn't very interested in sticking around the small Maine village any longer than she must. She thinks she'll just sell the house and go back to New York. But when she realizes that Philippe is having an affair with a young woman barely half his age, she decides to use the distance to her advantage and renovate the house. In the meantime, she meets some interesting (good and bad) locals, including the hunky handyman Derek; a friendly bed and breakfast owner; an unscrupulous cousin; and a very annoying real estate agent. She also learns that on the day Aunt Inga died, a local college professor disappeared.  And did I mention that someone doesn't want her around? A threatening letter and a couple of menacing break-ins rattle Avery's nerves.

Are these events related? This, of course, is yet another mystery, and soon Avery finds herself conducting her own investigation. Along the way she comes across an old legend that links the town to Marie Antoinette. The historical trivia adds a nice element to a story that just keeps getting more interesting with each page. Oh, and Philippe? Turns out he has a few mysteries of his own. You'll have to read to find out how it goes!

I liked the book and will probably read more of this series when I'm looking for an escape . . . or perhaps some home improvement tips and ideas. :-)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain
Author: Garth Stein
HarperCollins, 2008
336 pages

A couple of weeks ago, I went to my apartment building's office to pick up a package. While I was waiting for the leasing agent to finish up with a potential renter, a young man entered the office. He was carrying a book. I notice these things. It was The Art of Racing in the Rain. I overheard the young man say it was one of the best books he's ever read. I really noticed that.

I picked up the free sample on my Kindle, thinking this was probably not for me, but I was curious. I was hooked after just reading a few sentences. The narrator of book is Enzo, a dog (Labradoodle, if I remember correctly) looking back on his life. Enzo really wants to be a human. He's spent quite a bit of time watching television, and he's very smart. I love this dog!

Enzo recalls his early days on a farm in Washington state, and lovingly recounts his first meeting with the man who would become his best friend. Denny is a would-be race car driver who knows the art of racing in the rain (there's a lot of auto racing "philosophy" in the book - for that reason it should appeal to a wider variety of readers). As Denny goes through life's changes (marriage, fatherhood, ups and downs - including some really BIG ups and downs), Enzo is right there with him. All the way. Did I say I love this dog? I think you'll fall in love with him, too.

You'll also fall in love with Denny. He's such a gentleman, and a really good guy, which seems so rare in fiction. There are times when you'll probably want to punch someone on his behalf, yet you know that Denny wouldn't want you to punch them.

I really did like this book. The only problem I had was the ending. That's no fault of the author or the characters. You see, books don't normally make me cry. I can only think of one other time this has happened. But I had a near meltdown at the end of this book. So if you read it, get some tissues!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Help

The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2009
464 pages

As someone who was born during the Civil Rights era and raised in the South, I grew up hearing stories (from different perspectives) about what things were like back then. This is a period in history that has always fascinated me, and I've always gotten a great deal out of reading books and watching movies about it. That said . . .

The Help takes place in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi and is "narrated" by three characters: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Skeeter is a young white woman who has recently graduated from college and wants to be a writer. Aibileen and Minny are black women who work in white homes doing the cooking, cleaning, and often the raising of children (Aibileen, for example, has raised 17 white children, and Skeeter herself was raised by a domestic helper named Constantine, who moved away without saying goodbye - this weights heavily on Skeeter's mind.)

Aibileen is in her fifties, single, and has recently suffered the loss of her only child, a young adult son who'd had quite a bit of academic potential. Thirty-something Minny is married to Leroy, who beats her when he's drunk. They have several children ranging in ages from toddler to teenager. Skeeter lives at home with her parents on a farm that her mother refers to as "the plantation."

For quite some time, Skeeter's been friends with a group of young women who are now the leaders of a Jackson societal group, led by Miss Hilly (who has to be one of the meanest beeyotches in recent literary history). The more Skeeter observes, the more she realizes the inequities of Jackson life. Her growing awareness leads her to form a relationship with Aibileen and Minny, which results in the three of them collaborating to write a book about race relations in Jackson that will shake that city's foundations. As the three narrators get to know each other (and some of the other characters such as the cold-hearted young mother Elizabeth and the insecure Celia, who married her way to the "right side" of the tracks, so to speak), they find that they have a lot more in common than they ever realized.

You'll laugh, you'll want to cry, and you'll really want to hit somebody (a couple of characters, I mean) when you read The Help.

Thanks to my friends Q and L for recommending The Help.  I don't often say "everyone should read this!" but in The Help's case, I really do think so. In fact, I'll go so far as to state that this book is the To Kill a Mockingbird of our generation. I'm not really doing it justice with this lame book review, and for that, I apologize. But run, don't walk, to get your copy . . . and start reading it today.