Once again I’m behind in my book blogging! Here’s a few of my most recent reads, bookended by two really good ones, both terrifying in their own way:
Dan Simmon’s The Terror was one of those books that had the unfortunate destiny to be purchased by me upon its initial release (I bought the hardcover shortly after it was published), spurred on by the arctic setting and promises of being scared silly. I say unfortunate because then it sat on my bookshelf for the next FOUR years, gathering dust as I by turns willfully ignored or completely forgot about it. (By the by, Nick Hornby makes reference to such ill-fated books in The Polysyllabic Spree, where he notes the tendency of certain books to go from the bookstore to the bookshelf, never to be seen again, so at least my copy of The Terror eventually did see the light of day again.) Anyway, back when I was home sick for a couple of days, I wanted something to read that would take me longer than a day to read it, a book with some meat on its bones. I spied The Terror on the shelf and thought, why not? It’s waited patiently long enough.
It took only a few paragraphs before I was hooked and it was a good thing I had nothing to do but convalesce, because I didn’t want to do anything else but read this book. Set in the Arctic in the mid-19th century, Simmons takes the mysterious fate of the doomed Franklin Expedition and offers a terrifying explanation. The expedition was comprised of two ships, The Erebus and The Terror, the latter commanded by Captain Francis Crozier, an Irishman who’d made the British navy his career and his life. When the book opens, the two ships, containing over a hundred men between them, have been stuck in the arctic ice going on two years. Worse than the dwindling food supply and the searing cold is the fact that something is stalking them from the ice, killing men and instilling a superstitious fear that this is no mere polar bear. But what is it? It will take almost the entire 700+ pages to find out. And for me, that was an exquisite sort of torture, as I wanted to know, wanted to keep reading and hurry to find out what it was that treated these men as prey to be toyed with and killed, and if anyone would make it out alive. But at the same time, the story is told so well, the details and descriptions so rich, that I didn’t want it to end.
Even if Simmons hadn’t imbued this book with elements of horror and fantasy, it would stand on its own as a gripping historical novel. The conditions that these men were forced to live with and through were horrific enough in their own right: frostbite, starvation, hopelessness. The effective mix of these genres into one sumptuous book made me one happy reader. If you’re looking for chills and thrills, you would do well to board The Terror.
You may recall that back in January, Georgia was hit by a winter storm that blanketed our area in a layer of ice. Because of that, my church book club’s meeting was cancelled. I knew it would be, and used that knowledge as an excuse not to read the book, a nonfiction work by Bruce Chilton called Rabbi Paul. Instead, the discussion for that book was postponed until February, which allowed me to rationalize that I had plenty of time to read the book. Except I didn’t. Subtitled An Intellectual Biography, the book is an exploration of the Apostle Paul’s life, mainly post-on-the-road-to-Damasus-conversion. It was enlightening and I learned a lot, arguably more than I ever really cared to know, about this most influential figure in early Christianity. I just shouldn’t have waited until days before book club to read it. There was a lot to take in and absorb, and I probably did not do the book justice by speed-reading it like I did. Even still, I came away with a better understanding and appreciation for this oft-maligned and misunderstood man.
Next up was my library book club’s February selection, Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help. Yes, finally I succumbed – it’s one of our basic ‘rules’ for the book club that any books chosen must be available in paperback, since some members prefer to (or because of demand, must) buy the book and we agreed they shouldn’t have to fork out almost $30 to read a book club selection. So, because the publishers have kept postponing the release date of the trade paperback, I kept pushing off assigning it for book club. When I heard last fall that the projected spring 2011 release had been pushed back yet again, I decided to make an exception and put The Help on the book club list. Many of the members had already read it and there were ample library and personal copies to go around.
I won’t go into details about the storyline, because I’m sure pretty much everyone has either read it or read about it by now. In fact, that was a big part of why I didn’t read it for so long. So many people raved about it that of course, that set off warning bells in my head and my stubborn side kicked in, too. No, I would not be one of the throngs of people who fell in love with this book! (Picture me stomping my foot here.) And so, when I finally did borrow a library copy and start reading, a fully expected to be disappointed, even, if I’m being honest, hoping to find tremendous fault with the book. But I can’t say I did. In fact, I quite liked it! Would it rank among my favorites of all time? No, but it was still a good book that held my interest, that had interesting and likeable characters (as well as some not-so-likeable ones) and got a lot of people thinking and talking about a subject that probably hasn’t gotten much attention before, at least from the masses. It reminded me a lot of The Secret Life of Bees, both in the tone, the story and the popularit of the book itself. I imagine the film will be a blockbuster as well – and yes, I’ll be lining up to see it, just like everyone else.
Apparently I didn’t get enough scares from Dan Simmons, because a couple of weeks later, I found myself checking out a library copy of Alexandra Sokoloff’s supernatural thriller, The Unseen, after reading Susan’s review. I was one of those kids that read a lot of books about the paranormal and supernatural, but I’d never heard of the Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University in North Carolina. The controversial lab, which operated for thirty years and utilized methods such as Zener cards to study ESP. Sokoloff uses this info as the basis for her thriller, where Lauren, a young college professor discovers the forgotten files of the mysterious lab. Partnering with Brendan, a charming and charismatic fellow professor, the two set out to reenact the final Rhine experiment, one that had devastating and lifelong consequences for all involved. This, of course, involves a creepy old mansion, menacing strangers and plenty of bumps in the night. It’s a fast-paced and somewhat frightening story, but just when I felt it was starting to get really good, it was over. It did whet my appetite for more ghost stories, though. Any suggestions?
Flash forward a few weeks – and a few books – later, and I once again returned to the frozen northern waters, this time for Cassie Brown’s book, Death on the Ice, which I picked up last summer when we went back to Newfoundland for a visit. Since I moved to the mainland when I was 11, I wasn’t among the Newfoundland children who read this book as part of their class curriculum and only became aware of the book’s existence a few years ago. Subtitled The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914, it’s written in a narrative style and tells the story of the men involved in a tragedy which, as tragedies often do, needlessly took the lives of so many.
The seal hunt has been a part of Newfoundland culture for generations and in the prewar years, it was a hugely profitable venture for the ship’s owners and the merchants both at home and overseas. For the poor men who worked the ships and hunted the seals, it offered the promise of wages, pitiful though they typically were, and weeks spent living in harsh conditions in the freezing subarctic waters. Brown vividly describes the wretchedness of the time aboard the sealing ships and doesn’t shy away from the brutality that the seal hunt entailed, either. As she explores how the disaster occurred and all the mistakes and negligence that led to over a hundred men being trapped on the ice for two days, I was riveted and felt a mixture of empathy and horror. Death on the Ice chilled me to my very bones.