So, at the end of January, I’ve read the two books that I bought at my last Nanowrimo meetup: Four Past Midnight and The Clan of the Cave Bear.
Four Past Midnight by Stephen King
I’ve read a lot of Stephen King since getting my Kindle two years ago, and he’s quickly become one of my favourite authors. So even though this copy of the book was barely holding together with sellotape, I couldn’t resist. It’s a collection of four different novellas (they’re too long to be called short stories), each of which varies in quality.
I was already somewhat familiar with this one – while I haven’t actually seen the miniseries adaptation, I have seen the Nostalgia Critic review of said miniseries. (“Scaring the little GIRL?!”) The story begins with a plane taking off on a routine cross-country flight – but about an hour in, the several people who had fallen asleep wake up to find that everybody else has vanished into thin air. Upon landing the plane, they find nobody’s around on the ground either, and there are other strange things going on…
It’s definitely the best story in this collection – the concept and plot are intriguing and compelling, and there’s a good mix of interesting characters to follow. The most memorable of these characters is Craig Toomy – he starts out just being hilariously hammy, but once you learn a bit more about him, he’s much more a figure of pity than humour. I’ve found that’s one of King’s real strengths: building deep characters with complex thoughts and backstories (usually pretty miserable backstories, but still). Rating: 4.5/5.
Secret Window, Secret Garden
King uses a lot of characters who work as writers themselves (write what you know, after all). Here, the writer in question is Mort, who has retreated into the country to do some work after his wife has left him. He gets an unexpected visit from a stranger named John Shooter, who accuses Mort of plagiarising his short story. Mort denies it, but that’s not enough to satisfy Shooter, whose quest to make things fair becomes increasingly extreme.
This is the second-best of the stories; personally, stories about writers have a natural appeal to me. You definitely feel worried for Mort as he’s hounded by this crazy man, and you want to see how everything’s going to turn out. There are a couple of twists towards the end, and King does manage to keep you guessing regarding the main one – even though he seems to give it away a while before the end, you do still wonder until the final reveal. I think I’ll need to re-read this story with the twist in mind. Rating: 4/5.
The Library Policeman
Sam Peebles is called upon at short notice to give a speech at his Rotary Club. He goes down to the library to get some books which can help him, making the acquaintance of a particularly unnerving librarian in the process, who is very insistent that he return the books on time. Of course, fate conspires against Sam….but what originally looks like a basic story about a guy being hounded by some unknowable monster just because he was late returning his library books, is actually a bit more complicated.
While this story is still compelling, it’s a bit slow in places. It also contains some pretty nasty imagery – the true face of the monster comes to mind. There’s also one scene – which is very much a real-world kind of horror – that I had to rush through because it made me feel so uncomfortable; even worse is that it’s foreshadowed throughout the story and it’s not hard to imagine what’s coming. This isn’t the most original story, however: a lot of aspects, such as the nature of the monster, reminded me strongly of IT, which was published before this. Still, an OK story. Rating: 3/5.
The Sun Dog
Young Kevin gets a Polaroid camera for his birthday, only to find that no matter where he’s pointing it, it seems to take a completely unrelated picture of a dog. Kevin takes the camera to a guy named Pop Merrill to get it looked at, all while feeling increasingly uneasy about it; unfortunately, he and Pop have different ideas about what to do with the camera and the ever more worrying pictures that it takes.
Of all the four, this one takes the longest to get going, which takes away some points for me; it does pick up later on, however. The character of Pop is interesting, and quite difficult to get a grasp of at first, but apart from him, there’s nothing really special about this one. Not that good, but not that bad, either. Rating: 2.5/5.
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
Our Nanowrimo Muncipal Liaison recommended this to me a while back – now I’ve finally got round to it, I found it to be a very good read.
Set in eastern Europe during the last Ice Age, it follows the story of Ayla, a little Cro-Magnon girl whose family dies in an earthquake. She is subsequently adopted by a group of Neanderthals, who refer to themselves as the Clan, and the novel follows her life to early adulthood as she grows up among a different species, with inevitable difficulties – after all, Ayla not only looks different from the Neanderthals, she thinks differently too.
First thing I have to say is that the amount of research that must have gone into this book is breathtaking – there’s so much detail of the landscape, the plant and animal life, and the people themselves, it’s almost as good as being there. Of course, not everything can be taken from fact – fossils can’t tell us everything about Neanderthal behaviour – but the culture that Auel invents for the Clan is both interesting and (largely) plausible. Particularly fascinating, if perhaps not realistic, is the examination of how a Neanderthal’s brain works differently from Homo sapiens – in the novel, the memory-controlling section of the brain is so well developed that Neanderthals can actually access ancestral memories, a la Assassin’s Creed. It reminds me of Stephen Baxter’s novel Evolution, where he invents such creatures as intelligent humanoid dinosaurs and a high-flying pterosaur with a hundred-metre wingspan, with the excuse that they left no trace of themselves in the incomplete fossil record: it may sound fanciful, but ultimately, can you prove for certain that it didn’t happen?
Our heroine, Ayla, is likeable and sympathetic enough, and the Neanderthal characters are well developed too, with the narrative making it clear how their thought processes work and why they do what they do.
The story does have a few flaws. First, there are some repetitive moments: all the times Broud complains to himself about Ayla get a bit samey after a while, for example. And some scenes pass a bit too quickly: the ending was too abrupt for my liking, for one thing. And even though the scenery detail is well researched and interesting, there is too much of it sometimes.
But overall, I really enjoyed The Clan of the Cave Bear, though I want to get through some other books before I continue with the Earth’s Children series. Rating: 4/5.
Currently reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.