Back Roads, Which Should be Titled All Things Dark and Twisty

Friday, August 30, 2013

Let me start by saying that I am not usually squeamish about dark and twisty stories.  I have the stomach to read about things like incest, sexual assault, murder, etc...Not for me just the books that are full of sweetness and light-I like a book with a dark side.  That said, I usually want there to be some sort of redemption involved, or justice being done, or something to resolve the story such that there is a larger message about this experience of being human we are all going through.  Apparently, author Tawni O'Dell didn't get the same memo.

Back Roads is about as dark and twisty as a family drama can get.  The description on Goodreads makes the book sound a bit like an overblown Lifetime movie.  Harley is a 19 year old who suddenly finds himself looking after his three sisters after his mother is convicted of killing his abusive father.  The pressures of working two jobs to make ends meet, and dealing with the emotional fall-out of their father's murder, takes a toll on Harley.  Looking for an outlet, he begins a relationship with a mother of two from down the road.  He becomes obsessed with her, and his obsession sets off a series of events that ultimately tears his family apart.

I remember when I wrote my review for the novel Push, which I actually really appreciate as a work of literary art.  My one criticism of it was that I felt the author, Sapphire, had gone overboard on the tragedy, giving her main character every single problem that a person of her race, gender, and class might be expected to ever have.  At least in that book, however, the problems were, if not resolved, improved throughout the course of the book, and it felt as though Sapphire was trying to highlight the specific issues of racism, sexism, classism, and gender violence that many people living in urban poverty experience.  O'Dell's book also throws pretty much every family problem at her characters-incest, alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty-but in the end I was left wondering what the point of it all was.  Almost none of the characters were that likable or relatable.  They were all deeply flawed, which would be fine except that they never developed past them.  I felt as though just about every character left the novel in exactly the same state as when the book began.  And the serious issues presented about toxic family dynamics were sensationalized rather than examined critically.

Given all of that criticism, you might expect me to pan this book completely.  But I still gave it three stars on Goodreads.  Because despite my dissatisfaction with the ending, the story was engaging enough that I wanted to keep reading.  Granted, I wanted to keep reading because I was sure that O'Dell was going to eventually offer a moment of redemption for at least one of the characters, but it was well written enough that I didn't want to give up on it.  So if you don't mind dark and twisty for the sake of dark and twisty (and based on the number of true crime shows out there that do nothing but highlight dark and twisty there must be lots of you), then you would probably enjoy this book.

Joyland, Stephen King

Sunday, August 25, 2013

King has tackled a lot of supernatural creatures over the years-mind readers, fire starters, vampires, werewolves, and really, really, REALLY creepy clowns.  But there is nothing he does as well as an old-fashioned ghost story.  He's written quite a few over the years (Bag of Bones being one of the better examples), and Joyland continues his tradition of creepy goodness!

Joyland is set in an amusement park, and the main character Devin comes there as a college student to work for a summer.  Heartbroken after losing his first love, he throws himself into the carny life.  While working at the park, he is drawn into a mystery-a young woman was killed on the haunted house ride.  People claim to have seen her ghost haunting the ride, and Devin's best friend has his own close encounter with the apparition.  Devin also befriends a dying boy who has the power to see things that most people can't see.  He tells Devin that the girl will not be at rest until her killer is found.  Devin is drawn into both the search for the murderer and a relationship with the boy's mother.

King does his usual masterful job of creating characters that almost leap right out of the pages into real life. There is a nostalgic feeling to the story, which is told as a long flashback from Devin's point of view, and which I've noticed in more of his books the older he's gotten.  King must have also done quite a bit of research into the world of carnies, which has its own culture and language. Like in many of his books, the character with a disability has some sort of special ability, which sadly does not keep them from tragedy.  As ghost stories go this one is less scary and more sad, given the circumstances of the girl's death.  As mysteries go it's pretty well done, with a noir feel that suited the setting perfectly.  On a scale of one to The Stand, I'd say this one is about an eight.  Easy to read, entertaining, and perfect for a lazy day at the beach, which is exactly where I read it.