Overview of '11.22.63'
Stephen King is often referred to as "the master storyteller" and for me this is never been more evident than in his epic novel 11.22.63. An lengthy 734 pages long, the book examines the "butterfly effect” that results when one man tries to change the past. To quote from the back narrative: ‘In 2011, Jake Epping, an English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, sets out on an insane – and insanely possible – mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Leaving behind a world of computers and mobile phones, he goes back to a time of big American cars and diners, of Lindy Hopping, the sound of Elvis and the taste of root beer. In this haunting world, Jake falls in love with Sadie, a beautiful high school librarian. And, as the ominous date 11.22.63 approaches, he encounters a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald.’
Into his portrait of the Kennedy era, King weaves the love story of Jake, now known as George, and Sadie, one that never becomes overly treacly but instead is detailed with humour and realism. In 11.22.63, Jake travels the classic hero’s journey, from a jaded high school teacher, bruised from his divorce from his alcoholic wife, to a man who discovers the love of his life and the courage to do what hurts in order to put right the problems he’s caused.
Rich details of 1950s and 1960s American Life
King is a master at evoking small-town America from the 50s and 60s. We are treated to a rich portrayal of a past life; from Jake's first taste of homemade root beer, through the music and dances of the era (Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’, lindy hopping), to the cars (Jake's beloved Sunliner). In contrast to this nostalgic idyll, King also gives us the downside - prevalent domestic violence, racial prejudice, the fug of ever-present cigarette smoke. Idyll and anti-idyll are set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the bogeyman figure of Nikita Khrushchev. Besides the darkness, King provides plenty of lighter moments in the book – absurdly quaint slogans (Drink Cheer-Up Coffee!) and sidesteps such as the fun of George teaching Ritchie and Bevvie how to lindy hop. The humour is more evident in the first half of the novel, before the narrative takes a dark downward twist in the months leading up to Lee Harvey Oswald's attack on Kennedy. The richness of detail is amazing, like tracing the path of a fractal. The blood and sweat of King’s depiction of the prize fight between Case and Tiger. The shat-HOOSH sound of the machines at Worumbo Mills and Weaving. The taste of the root beer and ribs. At times, the narrative is so evocative I felt I was deep inside the novel, embedded in the heart of 1960s America.
Remember the butterfly effect...
Ah, let's not forget we're not supposed to tinker with time. What about the butterfly effect? King provides plenty of hints about the impact George's presence in the past is having, and it's not always a beneficial one. Take what happens to Vince Knowles; the changing colour of the Yellow Card Man's card; the subtle differences in the conversations George has every time he returns to September 9, 1958. This is no Groundhog Day – instead of opportunities to improve his situation, King provides George with more and more chances to screw up the future by messing with the past. As Al Templeton tells him: "The past is obdurate. Doesn't want to be changed". It’s no coincidence that the entrance to the rabbit hole into 1950s Lisbon Falls is chained off, posing as a broken sewer pipe. A metaphor for George’s sullying of the world’s future by meddling with forces he doesn’t understand. A salutary lesson for all of us (not that any of us are likely to go time travelling any time soon!)
High tension, moving towards a perfect ending
Throughout the narrative, the foreboding figure of the Yellow Card Man, a foul-mouthed wino, stands guard over the mysterious portal from Jake’s present day life into 1950s America. It is late in the novel before the Yellow Card Man’s secret is revealed, along with his instrumental role in safeguarding the future of the world. The tension mounts as the past becomes ever more obdurate in its attempts to thwart George’s interference in the Kennedy assassination. Will he succeed or won’t he? As we discover the answer, King sweeps us along to the novel’s ending, which for me was perfect. Very moving.
Why genre fiction is overlooked when it comes to the major literary prizes, when it can produce novels of this calibre, is beyond me. I highly recommend this book.
I'm delighted to welcome my friend Ellis Shuman to my blog today. Ellis is the author of the gripping suspense novel 'Valley of Thracians' as well as a collection of short stories entitled 'The Virtual Kibbutz'. He also writes a popular blog, where he posts book reviews, articles about Israel, Bulgaria, and anything else he fancies. You can find it here. https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
Reading one of Ellis's posts got me thinking. Which is the better medium for e-books, a dedicated e-reader or a tablet? Me, I love my basic Kindle. The battery life is amazing; I can go weeks between recharges, despite using the device most days. I also love e-ink; I can read my Kindle in bright sunshine, whereas the shiny screens on tablets render that difficult. Kindle Paperwhites also have a backlight facility, which enables readers to use their devices in the dark, and are also waterproof. Once my basic model stops working, I'll upgrade to a Paperwhite.
I also like the fact that I can't access the Internet. Sure, my Kindle is wi-fi enabled, allowing me to browse Amazon for new books, but that's as far as it goes. For me, the fact I can't access Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or any other of my favourite websites, is great. I can lose myself for hours in social media!
Ellis prefers to read via a tablet
Ellis has a different take on the subject. 'I don't own a Kindle,' he says. 'I am a late adapter, if I adapt to a new technology at all. I have recently considered purchasing a Kindle, but feared that I would be falling behind the times with a single purpose device. In the end, I've elected to buy a tablet, giving me a handheld unit that will enable me to read digital books comfortably, as well as interact with the Internet when I see fit to do so.'
I mentioned above how my Nook allows me to read in the dark. Ellis, of course, can do that as well with his tablet. The rest of this post is given over to him; he's written an article about why he enjoys reading digital books in bed at night. Seems his wife prefers the more traditional paperback, though! Over to you, Ellis.
Reading in the dark - 'Lights out!'
When I was a young boy, this parental request meant an end to my nightly reading adventures, whether they be solving mysteries with the Hardy Boys or traveling 20,000 leagues under the sea with Jules Verne. In those days, I was obedient to a fault. The lights in my bedroom invariably went out at chapter's end. I never read books by flashlight because I could barely breathe under the covers. Four decades later and my reading preferences and habits have changed. Now, the words "Lights out" declared in my conjugal bedroom signal a start to the night's literary activities. My wife and I fire up our tablets, turn off the lights, and start reading in the dark. While my wife reads a family drama set against the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, I read fiction as well as non-fiction, having selected recently published titles that will not only give me pleasure but which I will also review for my blog.
Books delivered seamlessly and instantly
I was the first in our household to purchase a tablet, not for its Internet connectivity or for the ability to play games and watch videos on a handheld screen, but purely for the joy of reading digital books. While I appreciate the look and feel of flipping through the physical pages of a paperback, I also find pleasure in selecting a title to read, clicking a button, and having that book delivered seamlessly and instantly to my tablet. As a book reviewer, I frequently bookmark passages that I will consider quoting or paraphrasing in my reviews. This function is not available when I'm reading an advance reader copy (ARC) of a new book received in PDF format. Just the other day, my wife asked me how I keep track of passages to include in my reviews when reading a hard copy of a book. I realized that reviews of those books rely on my often faulty memory, rather than my leaving paper notes between the pages.
Some of the books I've recently reviewed have been quite good and I gladly recommended them to my wife. This was a bit difficult when we were a one-tablet family and I was the only one reading in the dark. My wife purchased her own tablet and some of the ebooks I received made their virtual way into her hands as well. My wife hasn't totally warmed to reading digital copies of books. "What percentage are you up to?" I sometimes ask her, comparing how far each of us are in our respective reads at the end of the night. My wife doesn't see any benefit in a note informing her that she is three minutes away from the end of the chapter. She would much prefer to skim ahead through physical pages to determine when she plans to put down her book for the night.
Time to go to sleep
There are other things you just have to get used to when reading via tablet, whether it's the size of the font, the way you hold the device, and how to swish your finger to turn the pages. It's not the same experience as reading a paperback, that's for sure. But, there is one thing that my wife and I both experience at the end of the night, and it doesn't matter if we're reading a physical book, or a digital one on our tablet. When our eyes become tired, we end up reading the same sentence over and over, not comprehending the text or remembering what we've just read. It's time to shut down the tablet for the night, extinguishing the small light of its screen. At that point, the words "Lights out!" signal, just like they did in childhood, that it's time to stop reading and go to sleep.
More about Ellis Shuman
Ellis Shuman was born in the United States but moved to Israel as a teenager. He served in the Israeli army, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives outside Jerusalem. For two years, 2009-2010, Ellis and his wife lived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Ellis writes frequently about Bulgaria, Israel, books, travel, and other interesting things on his blog, which you can find at https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
And about his books, starting with The Burgas Affair
She’s an Israeli data analyst. He’s a headstrong Bulgarian detective. Together they must track down those responsible for a horrific bombing.
In the wake of a deadly terrorist attack at Burgas Airport in Bulgaria, Israeli and Bulgarian intelligence agencies launch a joint investigation. Detective Boyko Stanchev on the police task force teams up with Ayala Navon, a young Israeli intelligence analyst on her first overseas assignment.
The two must establish whether the terrorists were assisted by a Bulgarian crime organization in laying the groundwork for the attack.
It should be a routine investigation, but shadows of the past keep interfering.
Boyko’s interactions with a crime boss pursuing a vendetta against him threaten to throw him off track. Ayala’s pursuit of the terrorists and their accomplices brings up painful memories of a family tragedy.
Boyko and Ayala form a shaky alliance, one that evolves into growing cooperation and affection as they desperately race against time to uncover who was behind the Burgas bombing.
The Burgas Affair is a fictional account of the aftermath of a very real terrorist attack. On July 18, 2012, a deadly explosive rocked a tourist bus at Burgas Airport, killing five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver. The terrorists responsible for this murderous attack have never been brought to justice.
Valley of Thracians
A Peace Corps volunteer has gone missing in Bulgaria and everyone assumes he is dead, everyone except his grandfather, who refuses to give up hope. Retired literature professor Simon Matthews launches a desperate search only to be lured into a bizarre quest to retrieve a stolen Thracian artefact—a unique object of immense value others will stop at nothing to recover. Matthews travels through a Balkan landscape dotted with ancient tombs and fortresses, unaware that his grandson has been confined to an isolated mountain cabin, slowly recovering from a severe head injury. Nothing can be taken at face value, as the woman assisting Matthews in his quest and the nurse caring for his injured grandson may have ulterior motives in helping the two reunite. Even when Matthews succeeds in joining up with his grandson, departure from Bulgaria is only possible if the missing relic can be found.
The Virtual Kibbutz
In this debut collection of stories, the author introduces you to kibbutz residents challenged with adapting to new realities. Along the way you'll see how kibbutzniks face up to the violence of the Intifada, cope with the Internet, and struggle to have more control over their lives.
Marriage can be a killer...
'Gone Girl' is Gillian Flynn's third novel, a dark, disturbing tale of dysfunctional relationships. It's as fine a portrayal of a psychopathic character as you're ever likely to read. To quote from the back blurb:
'Who are you? What have we done to each other?
These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren't made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.
So what did happen to Nick's beautiful wife?'
A sharply written portrait of a psychopath
The first half of the story is narrated from the present-day viewpoint of Nick, under suspicion from the police, spliced with Amy's historical account of their relationship taken from her diary. We see how incidents from Nick's point of view take on a very different twist when told by Amy. Her journal entries show her growing disappointment with Nick's emotional reticence, ending with her revealing that she wants a gun to protect herself from him. There are doubts woven into the first half of the book, however. Nick is clearly no angel, being shallow and self-absorbed, but is he warped enough to murder his wife? On their wedding anniversary?
Maybe not. After all, the beautiful and brilliant Amy has attracted unwanted attention in the past, from a copycat schoolgirl friend to the stalker-like obsession of her ex-boyfriend. Could someone from her past be responsible for her disappearance?
'Gone Girl' is sharply written, with language designed to stimulate all the senses. 'The smell of salt and factory-farm meat floating on the warm breezes'. 'Snow like sugar clouds'. Noelle Hawthorne's triplets trail behind her like a kite; Maureen Dunne's knitting needles click-clack while she 'talks in her contented-cat voice, all deep, sleepy purr'. Flynn paints vivid word pictures as she hustles the narrative along, her pace relentless.
My only criticism of the book is one echoed by other reviews I've read - the ending didn't sit well with me. Such a high-tension novel would, I think, be better served by a different finale, although I won't say what or why as I don't want to be a plot-spoiler! Other than that, though, 'Gone Girl' is a tremendous read, one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Other novels by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn's first novel was 'Sharp Objects', which won a Crime Writer's Association Dagger Award. The book tells the story of reporter Camille Preaker, who searches for the truth behind the murders of two pre-teen girls whilst confronting her own tragic past. Whilst doing so, she finds herself identifying with the young victims - maybe too strongly...
Flynn's second novel is 'Dark Places', in which the thoroughly unlikable character of Libby Day earns money by selling details of the slaughter of her mother and two sisters, a crime that took place when she was still a child. Her brother, Ben, was imprisoned for the murder, but clues soon surface to show he may have been wrongly convicted. How reliable are Libby's memories? And if Ben wasn't the killer, then maybe his sister poking around in the past might prove dangerous...
More about Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn was born in Kansas City, Missouri, with a great deal of her childhood being given over to reading and watching movies. She studied English and journalism at the University of Kansas. Eventually she moved to New York City, with a ten-year stint writing for Entertainment Weekly . She has also worked as a TV critic. She now lives in Chicago with her husband, their son, and a giant black cat named Roy. You can find out more via her website, www.gillian-flynn.com.
Have you read 'Gone Girl'?
If so, let me know what you thought of it! What did you think of Amy and Nick? Did you see the plot twists coming? How was the ending for you - did you think it fitted what went before? Leave a comment for me!
Today's post is a collaboration between myself and my novelist friend Jerry Byrum. Welcome to my blog, Jerry! Together we’re going to examine how author gender affects reader perception.
Personally, I don’t care whether men or women write the novels I read. What does it matter, so long as they provide great content? To me, gender, when it comes to authors, is as relevant as hair colour or shoe size; it simply doesn’t matter. I’ve never agreed with the Mars/Venus approach, preferring a philosophy of life that emphasises similarities instead of differences. I’m betting, however, that if you’re someone who views the world in terms of male/female dichotomies, you’re likely to have a strong preference for either male or female writers. Fair enough if you choose male authors because you enjoy spy thrillers, or female ones because romance is your thing. There's no denying men and women dominate certain genres. What's more suspect is when people won't read espionage novels if they're written by a woman, such as Gale Lynds, or romances when penned by male authors, such as my friend Jerry Byrum.
Stereotyped gender attitudes definitely exist towards novelists. When I told a friend I’d completed my first novel, his first question was ‘Is it a romance?’ Then there’s the time I told somebody I intended to write novels. ‘What sort?’ she enquired. ‘Children’s books?’ This person knew children don’t feature in my life. So why the presumption I’d write fiction for them?
I find it a shame that in 2019, there’s still such strong gender stereotyping. Women are clearly supposed to write soft, fluffy material, whilst men stick to hard action topics. Shouldn’t we be past this nonsense by now? Fair enough if the Bronte sisters had to write under male pseudonyms in Victorian England, but for gender still to matter in 2019? I don’t get it.
Initials have no gender bias
Other writers report similar issues. Author Joanna Penn writes thrillers using her initials J F Penn because she doesn’t want buyers to judge her work based on her gender. She writes in the Action Adventure category, one dominated by male writers. Her books contain violent scenes; one features a psychiatric patient being disembowelled. She’s received comments about how the reader thought a man must have written the book, or that they expected something more ‘delicate’. Joanna says on her blog: ‘The author’s gender shouldn’t impact the way the story is read so it’s best to make it a non-issue. Initials are neutral. They have no gender bias and I like that approach.’ So how do these prejudices operate when it comes to men?
Here’s where I step aside and let Jerry Byrum take the floor. I asked Jerry, as a male romance writer, to give us his take on the subject. Here’s what he had to say.
There is no sacred ground or ownership
The notion that women or men writers/authors are better at particular genres is almost as mythical as saying short people should only write about short people and the same for tall people. Or that only doctors who've had a dreaded disease are permitted to treat it. Men and women have successfully broken through all kinds of areas or endeavors traditionally reserved for the respective genders. In my view, neither has a monopoly on a particular genre. There is no sacred ground or ownership. Creativity, such as writing, takes place on a broad playing field, and it's okay to break the rigid rules and color outside the lines, or write in the margins and off the page. But what about writing romance? That shouldn't make a whit of difference. Even though real-time hetero romance fiction is composed of 50/50 male/female, the bias exists that only the female 50% can write better romance stories. That's hard for me to buy into. However, a piece of information that shows up regularly across the internet is that women writers write approximately 95-98% of all romances, leaving a single-digit percentage to male writers. That high percentage alone, though, does not confirm that women are better at writing romance than men.
So why don't more men write romance?
I believe that question takes us back to how we raise boys and girls in the home and culture/society. Boys and girls are usually directed into certain activities, and heavy emphasis is placed on "behaving" like a male or female. One of the criticisms often leveled at men who have written in the romance/erotic romance/erotica genres is that men writers tend to be rough-edged, abrasive, abrupt, or a combination in their writing of romance. Nicholas Sparks puts that argument to rest, and so does James Waller, of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ fame. Both capture the "softer" edges of romance, and reflect well the female perspectives of their characters. Their works are immensely popular among women.
On the other hand, you've got Sandra Brown who writes edgy romance-suspense with a strong storyline, but with an impulsive romance angle. As well as a good dash of explicit description when things get intimate. Very popular with women.
The process of writing is gender neutral
Then we've got the current BDSM/"billionaire-bad-boy" trend now popular. Both sub-genres have received criticism that they foster a "harsher" portrayal of romance, and rough treatment of women. However, those bestsellers that have hit the New York Times and USA Today hallowed lists are authored not by men, but by women, and women readers drove those authors to the top of the lists. (There are deeper currents as to why the popularity exists, but I digress.)
So who writes better romance, men or women? I say both can write excellent romance, and have. If we as writers, male and female, take our craft seriously, we'll quickly realize the process of writing has no gender; it is gender neutral. Men and women writers are equally capable of learning how to be flexible with words as they capture the full dimension of their characters. I think it's fair to expect all writers to get inside the head of each of their characters, male and female. I don't think writers can hide behind the solitary advice of writing "what you know," but we should also feel free to write what we don't know, and with a bit of research and imagination no telling what wonderful stories we can share with readers. Fiction is our invitation to do that.
Thank you, Jerry!
It's been a pleasure having you on my blog. So what do readers think? Does the gender of a novelist influence you over whether to read their work? Do you expect women writers to be more ‘delicate’, as was said to Joanna Penn, and men more aggressive? Do you have a strong preference for either male or female writers, and if so, why? In which genres?
Or perhaps you're a writer who's encountered gender stereotypes when it comes to your work. Are you a male romance writer who find people expect guns and not roses from your fiction? Or are you like Joanna and me, surprising others with our choice of disembowelment and psychopaths as subject material? What do you think about novelists concealing their genders behind initials or pseudonyms? Leave a comment and let me know! Meanwhile, thanks for reading!
More about Jerry Byrum
Jerry Byrum is a native of North Carolina who now lives near Washington DC. He is a graduate of High Point University, and East Carolina University. After service in the U.S. Army, Jerry taught public school science six years, and served as science consultant four years. He enjoyed a 25-year career as a National Representative of the American Federation of Teachers, with assignments in more than 30 states. He is a member of the Romance Writers of America, and enjoys writing edgy contemporary romance, with strong female protagonists and other runaway characters usually on a mission to satisfy their passions.
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