Archive for December 2016

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue


"None are so blind as those who will not see."

Following her duties as one of Florence Nightingale's proteges during the Crimean War, Lib Wright finds herself stuck in the monotonous duties of being a civilian nurse. With the excitement and urgency of the war behind her, Lib longs to find some kind of purpose in her work. When an opportunity in Ireland presents itself, Lib jumps at the chance to do something different. Little does she know that the job will bring about the most personally and professionally challenging situations in her life.

Lib finds herself in the home of the O'Donnell family, a simple dwelling that hosts the mother, father, and daughter whose devotion to each other is only surpassed by their faithful adherence to their religion. Even after the untimely death of their only son, the family remains resolute in their adoration. This devotion reached a miraculous peak when their eleven-year-old daughter Anna started to abstain from all food. For months, young Anna has captured the imagination and curiosity of the faithful and scientific communities by surviving solely on "manna from heaven."

A committee of local medical professionals, businessmen, and clergymen have hired Lib and a subdued nun to keep watch of the girl. They will monitor Anna and her family to verify or disprove her stunning claims. A strong believer in science and reason, Lib is determined to expose the O'Donnells as frauds. But how can Anna, a child who seems unwavering in her convictions, be the mastermind of such a complex deceit?

Fans of Emma Donoghue's Room may be a bit surprised by the restraint that permeates The Wonder. When I discussed this novel with my book club, most members found the pacing to be unbearably slow. The Wonder is not a fast read. Most of the novel centers around Lib keeping watch over Anna in the confines of the child's bedroom. Unlike Room, the novel is driven not by action but by the developments and revelations of the characters. For her part, Donoghue allows the mystery of the situation to bubble beneath the surface of the entire book. Each character interaction inches closer to an ending that is both satisfying and astonishing in its revelation. In The Wonder Donoghue weaves a quietly provocative tale of morality and spirituality that is as clever as it is revealing.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 37)

Cujo by Stephen King


"The world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and unwary."

For several decades now, Stephen King has captured the imaginations of readers by feeding upon their fears. His 1981 novel, Cujo, begins with a scare that everyone can relate to. Tad Trenton is terrified by the monster that lives in his closet. The monster's nightly taunts have Tad in such a hysteria that only his father's recitation of special "monster words" can soothe him to sleep. His parent's, Vic and Donna are facing hardships of their own. The revelation of Donna's recent infidelity hits Vic at the same moment his ad agency is threatened with the loss of their biggest client. As if things couldn't be any worse, Donna's car is acting up and needs the mechanical expertise that the family does not have adequate time or money to address.

Enter the Chambers family. Joe works as a mechanic from his home garage while his wife Charity raises their son Brett. The family has troubles of their own. Although Joe has a garnered a strong reputation as a skilled mechanic who can fix problems without breaking the bank, his meager income causes constant arguments about money. Charity, who has just won the lottery, struggles with balancing her own desires for the money with the needs of her family.

Most crucial to this story is the Chambers' St. Bernard Cujo. Despite his size, Cujo is a lovable pup who loyally obeys his family and is friendly to all those who visit their home. When the Trenton family brings their malfunctioning car to Joe's garage, they see no trouble in letting Tad play with Cujo. Joe assures him that he will do no harm. Unlike the Chambers and Trenton family, we know the truth about Cujo. We helplessly read on as he chases a rabbit into a dark hole. We witness the rabid bat bite his nose. With the virus taking hold of both his mind and body, Cujo tries to hold on to every bit of the goodness that resides within him. As both families go about facing their troubles, we know the true terror that Cujo is about to release.

I've read quite a few Stephen King novels and have never been disappointed with them. As with the others, Cujo is a deep character study that uses horror to maintain momentum. Each of the characters is believably flawed and is allowed to develop at a natural pace through the course of the novel. By writing a remarkable inner dialogue, King somehow manages to make Cujo into the most engaging and conflicted character in the novel. The human characters are less likable than their animal costar, and this sometimes caused me to lose interest in parts of their narrative. A part of me couldn't help but feel like most of their misfortunes were self inflicted. While I don't think Cujo will be counted as one of my favorite King novels, it is hard not to marvel at the novel. It is a tightly paced and character driven novel that preys upon some of our most basic fears to maximum effect.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, or Goodreads.

(2016, 36)

Friday Flicks: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


From the moment I heard about J.K. Rowling writing a screenplay inspired by her anthology Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was both excited and nervous. Like many others, my childhood and love of reading were fostered by Rowling's incredible Harry Potter series. After the huge commercial and critical success of the 8 Harry Potter films, a spin off of some kind seemed inevitable. Thankfully, Warner Bros. brought most of the filmmakers responsible for those films back to bring Rowling's new story to life. Still, without the success of preexisting source material, Fantastic Beasts was anything but a safe bet.

The film opens with British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving into 1920's New York City. Armed with a suitcase full of illicit magical creatures, all cleverly hidden from the eyes of Muggles (No-Maj's non magical people are called in America), Newt plans to make his way to Arizona to release one of his beasts. As he walks the streets of New York, he is drawn to a large gathering in front of a bank where a woman from the New Salem Philanthropic Society speaks of the evils of wizards and the need for a re institution of witch hunts.

A bump in with No-Maj man leads to an unintentional switch in suitcases and the eventual escape of many of Newt's animals. With magical creatures running freely through the heavily populated New York, Newt must turn to the assistance of a group of American Wizards and a No-Maj to capture the beasts. Failure to return the creatures to the safety of his suitcase would place Scamander in serious trouble and threaten to expose the entire magical community to a world that is growing less and less tolerant of their existence.

I'll admit to having mixed emotions going into this film. On the one hand, I had faith that Rowling would provide a story that would be a worthy successor to her acclaimed Potter series. At the same time, the announcement of Fantastic Beasts being the start of a five film series had me worried that this franchise would be nothing more than a cash grab. As the movie opened, I feared that my predictions would come true. The mistaken suitcase switch seemed like a rather cliche device that was not worthy of the Potter universe.

Those fears were quickly assuaged as Scamander stepped into the vast expanses of his creature carrying case. The film ends up feeling very different from the Potter story, but equally as magical and engaging. Newt Scamander is a misunderstood outcast who sees good in creatures that most would ignore or run from. Each cast member brilliantly brings their characters to life with skill and great care. For her part, Rowling presents a story that is much more complex and layered than I initially perceived. Fantastic Beasts spins an extraordinary fable of acceptance of differences and the role of politics in the fight for those who may be seen as "other". The end of the film provides a satisfying closure to Scamander's story while opening the possibilities to expand the story into what is sure to be a unique franchise. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is easily the most original and exciting blockbuster of the year, and I can't wait to see where Rowling and company will take this story next!

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