The Gunslinger by Stephen King (The Dark Tower, Book I)

Rating: 3.5 of 5

Book One in the Dark Tower epic offers fast-paced fantasy with moderate action and few answers. Its focus, though, is on the introduction of the story’s hero, his initial quest, and his world.

Paperback cover The GunslingerThe Gunslinger by Stephen King follows Roland, the last gunslinger, on his quest across the desert of a ruined world to find the Man in Black. Along the way Roland meets Alice, a lonely but tough broad, and Jake, a frightened Earth boy, both of whom play an important role in his finding that which he seeks. Ultimately, Roland must decide whether he’s willing to sacrifice everything (and everyone) in order to satisfy his vengeance.

Few first lines are as compelling:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Once I started this book, I could not put it down. The sad thing is, I’ve owned the book for over 20 years. Why did I take so long to finally pick it up and give it a read?!? When I finished, all the seedlings – the quest for revenge, the dying world, magic, fantastical beings, a prophecy, and the Tower – sprouted into my overwhelming need to know more.

Roland’s world was quite similar to our own with subtle (and not so subtle) differences. His language, at times, was confusing; a mix between “High Speech” and 70s – 80s American lingo. I wasn’t sure if that was to demonstrate Roland’s lifespan of hundreds of years, the similarities between his world and ours, or simply to make him relatable.

The novel’s structure maintained the balance between pace, forward motion, and backstory. Throughout the story, there were flashbacks to Roland’s childhood and training as a gunslinger, which illustrate who he is (or was intended to be) and hints at potential motives for his relentless search for the Man in Black. At no time did I feel like King needed to hurry up and get on with the story.

There were many unanswered questions that I’m sure King will explore, if not all-out answer, in the rest of the series. But I still felt satisfied with this book’s story and resolution. Overall I’m quite pleased with Book One and cannot wait to start Book Two in October for the Dark Tower read-a-long.

Interesting tidbit: The series was inspired by a ream of green paper, silence on a winter’s day, and the poem, “Childe Roland,” by Robert Browning. (That’s what Stephen King wrote in the “Afterword,” anyway.) The story’s evolution as well as where King intended to take readers in the Dark Tower series were also explored in the “Afterword.”

Night Shift by Stephen King

Rating: 4 of 5

A solid collection of 20 short stories that demonstrates King’s ability to transform everyday normalcies into our worst nightmares. Several of these stories have since been adapted for the screen.

Stephen King has brought together nineteen of his most unsettling short pieces–bizarre tales of dark doing and unthinkable acts from the twilight regions where horror and madness take on eerie, unearthly forms…where noises in the walls and shadows by the bed are always signs of something dreadful on the prowl.

The settings are familiar and unsuspected–a high school, a factory, a truck stop, a laundry, a field of Nebraska corn. But in Stephen King’s world any place can serve as devil’s ground…if the time of night is propitious, and the forces of darkness are strong, and the victims are caught just slightly off their guard… (Source: StephenKing.com)

Book cover Night Shift (Paperback) by Stephen KingShort story collections are sometimes hit or miss; you’ll either love most of them or forget most of them. Thankfully, Night Shift falls under the “hit” category. Here’s a quick recap of each story along with my two cents.

↓ 5 STARS ↓

I Am the Doorway” was the first story in this collection to give me a major case of the creeps. A retired astronaut has to deal with the reality of coming home with more than just the experience of space travel. Hint: Look at the book cover. *shivers* My favorite of this collection.

Gray Matter” is an excellent example of King taking an everyday situation, a contaminated beverage, and twisting it into a hellish experience for a man, his son, and the small town in which they live. The descriptions of Ritchie were so vivid I could almost smell him. (For some reason, when I finished this story, Dreamcatcher popped in my head.)

Children of the Corn” gave me nightmares. I often wondered if the story would pack the same punch as the movie; now I know. Religious crazies always give me the heebie jeebies, but make those nutcases parricidal kids too, and woo-boy! Non-stop shivers.

The Last Rung on the Ladder” is a gut-wrenching story of a brother’s guilt over not being there for his sister. Heavy themes but more dramatic than horrific. I especially appreciated the relevance of how we all are often too busy with our individual lives that we skip putting in the time on our most important relationships, taking for granted that we’ll have tomorrow to do so.

One for the Road,” a sequel to ‘Salem’s Lot, reminds us why we should always be prepared whilst traveling and never stray from the beaten path. This is in my top five faves from this collection.

↓ 4 STARS ↓

Jerusalem’s Lot,” a prequel to ‘Salem’s Lot, unfolds through a series of letters from the current owner of Chapelwaite, a place avoided by nearly everyone because of its sordid history. There was a strong feeling, for me, of M.R. James’ influence on this tale. And just when I was sure I knew what was going on, King took it to a whole notha level.

Battleground” surprised me. I had already watched its adaptation for a TV mini-series, so I had high expectations. While the TV version and especially William Hurt’s performance as Renshaw had more depth and reality, I thoroughly enjoyed the short story. Plus, the story further supports my theory that dolls (and maybe all toys) are not to be trusted.

Quitters, Inc.” – Smoking and a smoker’s attempts to quit have been featured in many of King’s tales. This story reminds me of a chain letter from the mafia. You know, read this then pass it on, or else. Only I can’t figure out why anyone, after experiencing “the program,” would refer anyone they knew. Perhaps they don’t really like the people they refer? One thing’s for sure, this “program” works.

I Know What You Need” mixes a dollop of the paranormal with a healthy dose of stalker-ish love and obsession to deliver a potent tale of one man’s devotion to the woman of his dreams. Of course, she’s about as deep as her pocket book. So in the end I actually liked “the bad guy” more than Elizabeth.

The Man Who Loved Flowers” demonstrates the power of perspective by telling the story from the people observing and interacting with the main character. A chilling realization that one must not judge a book by its cover or make assumptions about anyone, ever.

↓ 3 STARS ↓

Graveyard Shift” is told through the POV of Hall, a drifter who works the three-to-eleven shift at a mill in Gates Falls, Maine. Hall doesn’t mind the crappy conditions of the mill or his a-hole foreman. What he minds are the rats. This story will probably have the most impact on those afraid of rats and being underground.

Night Surf” is set in the world of The Stand and follows a group of survivors after Captain Trips (later renamed Captain Tripps), a flu-like virus, has already begun to wipe out the world’s population. Sadly, I wasn’t a fan of this one; the story is too short to have such unlikeable characters. But it was fun to read the seedlings of what would grow into an epic novel.

The Mangler” is an example of a sub-genre within King’s work that I refer to as “possessed machines.” This one dabbled in the occult and featured a moderate amount of gore. It was memorable and may cause some readers to hesitate briefly before approaching their appliances.

The Boogeyman,” unfortunately, didn’t scare me at all. Its concept of “the monster in the closet” interested me; it just didn’t affect me. Maybe it was that I didn’t much care for Lester Billings. Or the fact that no one seemed to protect their children – to sacrifice themselves so their kids would be safe. My dislike of this story is, I’m sure, for subjective reasons.

Trucks” was probably my least favorite of the entire collection. Not being a big fan of Christine I kinda figured this one wouldn’t knock my socks off. It’s a terrifying premise, though: machines with a consciousness and the ability to rule the world. There’s no contest between the human body and a 15,000 pound truck.

Sometimes They Come Back” was another story I’d already seen adapted for the screen. The movie was okay but the short story was 100% better. There was more authenticity to the characters and the town. And I better understood Jim Norman’s grief and the evil behind his brother’s death. My only complaint is that the ending seemed fairly rushed, even for a short story.

Strawberry Spring” – A serial killer terrorizes a college campus, disappears, and then resurfaces nearly a decade later. Meh.

The Ledge” – Stan Norris has an affair with Marcia Cressner, the wife of a mob-type badass. When Cressner finds out he makes Stan a wager he can’t refuse. If Stan wins, he gets Marcia, money and freedom. If he loses, well, he’ll be dead so it won’t matter much after that. Nerve-racking suspense for anyone with a fear of heights.

The Lawnmower Man” might inspire you to do a complete background check on your next landscaper. I found this story ridiculous and hilarious! And I wondered when he wrote it if King was inspired by some of Arthur Machen’s work.

The Woman in the Room” explores some adults’ inability to deal with caring for their disabled or dying parent. I wasn’t sure if John loved or hated his mother. And I’m still not sure if he did what he did because he loved her and didn’t want her to suffer or because he just didn’t want to suffer anymore.

What’s your favorite short story? (By any writer.)

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

Rating: 3 of 5

A lost-in-the-woods adventure that lacks much of the imagination displayed in King’s other works. Entertaining, but only for those who enjoy fairy tale-ish plots, and those who are patient (and open-minded) enough to overlook a protagonist who doesn’t quite fit the typical nine-year-old girl.

Nine-year-old Trisha McFarland strays from the path while she and her recently divorced mother and brother take a hike along a branch of the Appalachian Trail. Lost for days, wandering farther and farther astray, Trisha has only her portable radio for comfort. A huge fan of Tom Gordon, a Boston Red Sox relief pitcher, she listens to baseball games and fantasizes that her hero will save her. Nature isn’t her only adversary, though – something dangerous may be tracking Trisha through the dark woods. (Source: StephenKing.com)

Probably my biggest problem was Trisha McFarland; she did not act or think like a real nine-year-old. There were times I would have thought her at least thirteen and other times eighteen or nineteen. I dunno. Sure, adults tend to underestimate kids and their abilities, but Trisha made me consciously suspend my disbelief.

The main exploration of fear in Tom Gordon was Trisha’s solitude and survival in the wilderness. There was nothing really imaginative in the plot, characters, or “twist.” The horror aspects were mild to bland, most times barely scratching the surface of the possibilities. And the story contained adequate tension and suspense which built to a satisfying climax.

Having said that, I enjoyed the book for what it was: a story of “man versus nature” which, ultimately, is a battle between the will to live and the urge to give up.

The Stephen King Challenge: Mini-Challenge #2

Photo three Stephen King booksThe second mini-challenge for The Stephen King Challenge kicked off on Wednesday, May 9, 2012. The prize for this mini-challenge is a surprise. (Psst! I won the first mini-challenge: a brand new hardcover of 11/22/63. I’m pretty stoked about winning.)

The mini-challenge schedule is:

Feb | March | April
May | June | July
Aug | Sept | Oct
Nov | Dec (free months*)

*November/December are free, non-mini-challenge months due to the holiday season.

For the second mini-challenge you must read one book per month in the three month period. And you must read a book that contains the quote listed on the Challenge page. You will get three entries in the giveaway, if you read the three books required. If anyone reads more than three books, they will get one extra entry for each book over the required reading.

My Reading List for Mini-Challenge #2

“It was like drowning, only from the inside out.”
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon – May 2012

“The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”
Night Shift – June 2012

“Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – July 2012

Once you’ve read and reviewed a book for this mini-challenge add your entry on the May – July Mini-Challenge Review page.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Rating: 3.5 of 5

A well-written novel with a multi-layered plot that features King’s trademark descriptions – wordy and vivid – and seamless integration of the paranormal into everyday life.

Here is Stephen King’s most gripping and unforgettable novel — a tale of grief and lost love’s enduring bonds, of haunting secrets of the past, and of an innocent child caught in a terrible crossfire. (Source: book cover)

Here’s the gist:

Thirty-something author, Mike Noonan, hasn’t been able to write anything since the sudden death of his wife four years earlier. Unable to beat his severe case of writer’s block, Mike decides to pack up and spend the summer at his lakeside home, Sara Laughs. Upon arrival he discovers two things: the house may be haunted; and, during the last year of her life his wife, Johanna, hid something from him – something that involved Sara Laughs and its community. Mike’s path soon crosses with that of another young widow, Mattie, and her three-year-old daughter, Kyra. He learns Kyra’s grandfather, Max Devore, is a man who stops at nothing to get what he wants, and what he wants is custody of Kyra. So Mike feels compelled to help Mattie and Kyra. But his decision to help only makes matters worse. And what should’ve been a battle for custody turns into a battle for their lives.

Here are my two cents:

For the first 100+ pages (of a 732-page paperback), I was deep inside the grieving main character, Mike Noonan; I don’t think I needed *that* much development of Mike’s mental state, personality and relationships. But King knew just how much not to tell in order to keep me turning the page against the relentless exposition.

Once Mike arrived at Sara Laughs the pace picked up significantly, and the paranormal aspects were intriguing and eerie. During those scenes I felt a little antsy in my chair. However, I didn’t feel a constant pressure or even a consistent tension. There’d be a really juicy scene and then a quick resolution. Not necessarily in the form of an answer but an end to the supsense that had been building. (I prefer stories mimic the beginning of a rollercoaster: when you slowly creep, inch by inch, to the top until BAM! You race toward the bottom and then rip through the middle and arrive mostly unscathed at the end.)

Probably the biggest problem was I just didn’t connect with Mike or his relationship with Johanna. Or his relationship with Mattie and Kyra, for that matter. But that’s me, and I have a hard time with lengthy exposition when from a character I don’t care much for.

Here’s what you might not like:

* It takes between 200-300 pages for the deeper mystery to reveal itself

* It takes even longer for the paranormal activity to kick into high gear

* Racism

* Graphic violence and sexual assault

Final thoughts

I probably won’t read Bag of Bones again anytime soon, if ever, but that’s based more on personal preference than the novel’s quality or content. I would recommend it to readers looking for a slow-paced paranormal mystery built around a town’s dirty secret, with a love story at its core, and topped off with moderate “horror” elements.

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

Rating: 5 of 5

An enchanting fairy tale guaranteed to capture the hearts of fantasy readers, especially those who love stories of good versus evil, sibling rivalry, and prison breaks.

A tale of archetypal heroes and sweeping adventures, of dragons ad princes and evil wizards – as only Stephen King can tell it!

The passage through the castle is dim, sensed by few and walked by only one. Flagg knows the way well. In four hundred years, he has walked it many times, in many guises, but now the passage serves its true purpose. Through the spyhole it conceals, the court magician observes King Roland — old, weak, yet still a king. Roland’s time is nearly over, though, and young Prince Peter, tall and handsome, the measure of a king in all ways, stands to inherit the realm.

Yet a tiny mouse is enough to bring him down, a mouse that chances upon a grain of Dragon Sand behind Peter’s shelves and dies crying tears of fire and belching gray smoke, A mouse that dies as King Roland does. Flagg saw it all and smiled, for now Prince Thomas, a young easily swayed to Flagg’s own purposes, would rule the kingdom, But Thomas has a secret that has turned his days into nightmares and his nights into prayed-for oblivion. The last bastion of hope lies at the top of the Needle, the royal prison where Peter plans a daring escape…(Source: book jacket)

Intriguing, right? Though, that synopsis only touches the surface of the story’s themes and characters.

The Eyes of the Dragon is my favorite of Stephen King’s work. When I first read it, almost 20 years ago, I was captivated. (In awe, too, that a “master of horror” could write a true fairy tale!) And every time I read Dragon I’m transported to the kingdom of Delain: I cry when Peter’s locked away; I rage at Flagg’s deceit and trickery; I loathe Thomas for his betrayals.

It’s a short read, around 300 pages. The story flows smoothly at a steady pace, with nary an info dump in sight, and the suspense of whether good will outsmart and overcome evil is present throughout. Prince Peter will charm you with his loving heart and devotion; Flagg will mesmerize you with his black magic and lust for power. And there are a couple surprising twists in the plot.

If you enjoy fairy tales or fantasies, you will most likely enjoy the Eyes of the Dragon.

Do you prefer “good” to always beat “evil”?

Or do you enjoy stories where the bad guy wins?

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Rating: 5 of 5

Vampirism at its blood-thirsty best: no angsty teenagers; no forbidden love; and, most certainly, no effin sparkles.

Here’s the gist:

Ben Mears, a widowed author, returns to his childhood home – the rural town of Jerusalem’s Lot, known by the locals simply as ‘salem’s Lot – planning to write his latest novel while living in the town’s infamous, some speculate haunted, Marsten House. But upon arrival he learns the house was recently sold. So, instead, Ben rents a room in the town’s boarding house and soon after meets, and falls for, a local woman, Susan Norton.

Meanwhile, the new owners of the Marsten House – Barlow and Straker – have plans of their own; first, open an antique store in town; second, convert the Lot’s residents, every single one of them. Before anyone realizes the truth behind recent disappearances, deaths, and a contagious illness, the infestation consumes the town. Ben, along with a handful of others who understand what’s really happening in ‘salem’s Lot, must fight for their lives and the town’s survival, or join Barlow’s ranks.

Here are my two cents:

First, full disclosure, I love ‘Salem’s Lot. It’s a 5-star book in my eyes and no one can tell me otherwise. This was the third time I’d read it and still, when I left the safety of my well lit bedroom for a drink or restroom break, I had to cut on lights before entering or passing through each room on the way. Nearly forty years after publication and it hasn’t lost its creepy-crawly grip on my imagination; King’s talent for description and atmosphere being major factors, I’m sure.

The run up the hallway, the horrible scream of the door as he pulled it open, the dangling figure suddenly opening its hideous puffed eyes, himself turning to the door in the slow, sludgy panic of dreams–

And finding it locked (p. 33).

The first time I read ‘Salem’s Lost, in my early teens, Mark Petrie was my favorite character; he remains so after this, my third reading. There’s something deeply affecting about a kid being stronger and smarter than the adults. And all because Mark hadn’t lost the ability to believe in every possibility, not just those seen or proved conclusively. (Okay, his slight obsession with monsters and horror fiction might’ve helped, too.)

Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting…on the peculiarity of adults. They took…sleeping pills to drive away their terrors…and their terrors were so tame and domestic. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child (p.242).

And, perhaps more importantly than strong heroes, the villains were ruthless and cunning. Straker, as the obedient slave, freaked me out almost as much as his master. But nothing surpassed Barlow – old, powerful, and pure evil. He was neither ashamed nor fought against his nature; he accepted and relished being vampire. There was nothing sexy or romantic about Barlow, or his minions.

A shuddering groan escaped him, and he put his hands over his face.

I can’t. I am afraid.

He could not have risen even if the brass knob on his own door had begun to turn. He was paralyzed with fear and wished crazily that he had never gone out to Dell’s that night.

I am afraid.

And in the awful heavy silence of the house, as he sat impotently on his bed with his face in his hands, he heard the high, sweet, evil laugh of a child —

–and then the sucking sounds (p. 165).

Here’s what you might not like about ‘Salem’s Lot:

* No one is safe; every character is vulnerable.

* There is animal violence; first a dog and later rats.

* There are a couple scenes of child abuse.

* Most of the story is told in close third person; however, in certain chapters, King does zoom out to provide a broader view of the town as a whole.

* The novel’s structure. It’s not told in typical linear format. From a chronological view, it starts around the three-quarter mark, flashes back to the beginning (where we’re at for 90% of the story), flashes forward to where we began, and ends at the end (of this story).

* The climax – the direct confrontation of Barlow – happens pretty fast. It may feel rushed to some readers.

* The ending may come too soon for those readers emotionally invested in Ben and Mark.

Final thoughts

For anyone who read Stoker’s Dracula and hungered for more along those lines, I recommend ‘Salem’s Lot. For diehard fans of sexy vampires or sparkly vampires, you should probably skip ‘Salem’s Lot.

[Please don’t misinterpret the above. I’m a sucker (HA!) for certain sexy vamps; an addiction to the Sookie Stackhouse series and HBO’s True Blood are well known to my peeps. But I draw the line at Twilight; vampires should never, ever, sparkle in daylight.]

The Stephen King Challenge: Mini-Challenge #1

Covers Eyes of the Dragon 'Salem's Lot Carrie Bag of BonesThe first mini-challenge for The Stephen King Challenge kicks off on Wednesday, February 1, 2012. The prize for this mini-challenge is a brand new hardcover copy of Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63!

The mini-challenge schedule is:

Feb | March | April
May | June | July
Aug | Sept | Oct
Nov | Dec (free months*)

*November/December are free, non-mini-challenge months due to the holiday season.

For the first mini-challenge you must read books within certain themes. Choose three themes and read three books that fit each of the themes during the three month mini-challenge period. If you complete the three themed reads, you will be entered in the book giveaway. A bonus entry will be given to any person who reads a fourth book that fits within the fourth theme. And another bonus entry will be earned if you read a book of King’s short stories.

Examples of themes:

Fantasy/Post-Apocalyptic
i.e. The Stand, any book from the Gunslinger series, Under the Dome, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Talisman (with Peter Straub), Black House (with Peter Straub), 11/22/63

Ghosts/Hauntings
i.e. The Shining, Bag of Bones, Duma Key, It, Insomnia

Creatures: supernatural (werewolves, vampires, demons/devils, zombies, etc.) or other
i.e. Salem’s Lot, Needful Things, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Eyes of the Dragon, Dreamcatcher, Pet Sematary, Cell, Cujo, It, The Tommyknockers

The Mind: psychic, psychological, possession, abuse, etc.
i.e. Misery, The Green Mile, Dolores Claiborne, Rose Madder, Carrie, Gerald’s Game, The Dark Half, The Dead Zone, Desperation, The Regulators

Once you’ve read and reviewed a book for this mini-challenge add your entry on the Feb – Apr Mini-Challenge Review page.

My Reading List for Mini-Challenge #1

‘Salem’s Lot – February 2012 – Creatures
The Eyes of the Dragon – March 2012 – Fantasy
Carrie – April 2012 – The Mind
Bag of Bones – BONUS – Ghosts/Hauntings

Have you read any books by Stephen King? Ever wanted to?

The Stephen King Challenge

Medium Button The Stephen King Challenge ItSo the plan was I wouldn’t join any challenges until I finished my site’s re-design. Well that only lasted until I received an invitation to join The Stephen King Challenge, hosted by Michelle (True Book Addict) and Kate (Read 2 Review), which was too good to pass up.

What’s the goal of this challenge?

Read Stephen King’s published works, all of ’em.

What’s different about this challenge?

It’s perpetual. That means it lasts as long as you take to read all of Stephen King’s books. BUT, there will be mini-challenges throughout the year 🙂

When does it start?

February 1, 2012

Click here to join the challenge.

For full details visit the challenge’s official website. (For a complete list of King’s work visit his official website.)

NOTE: Re-reads are allowed.

When I signed up on January 23, 2012 I’d already read the following:

‘Salem’s Lot
The Shining
The Stand
Firestarter
Cujo
Christine
Pet Sematary
The Talisman
Thinner
It
The Eyes of the Dragon*
Misery
The Dark Half
Four Past Midnight (Collection)
Gerald’s Game
Dolores Claiborne
Nightmares and Dreamscapes (Collection)
Insomnia
On Writing (Memoir / Non-Fiction)
Everything’s Eventual (Collection)
The Green Mile (Read the original serial format, which I own)
Cell**

*My all-time favorite book by Stephen King.

**Notice the rather large gap between The Green Mile and Cell? Yep, from 1996 to 2011 I didn’t read anything new; I just re-read what I owned and loved.

Click here to join the challenge. (A big thanks to Michelle and Kate!)