I stumbled upon this new reading challenge thanks to Book Bunny’s Burrow’s sign-up post, and it looked like so much fun I decided to sign up too!
Hosted by Great Imaginations, this fun reading challenge is a summer-themed bingo card. For those who haven’t seen this type of reading challenge before, you try to get a bingo on the card with the books you’ve read. Each book can only count for one square. Additional rules for this round are: sign up by July 14th, and all books read for the bingo must be read during July, August, and September.
I know I’ll be reading a bunch anyway, and I’m excited to check things off on the bingo card. Maybe some of the squares will even help me decide what to read next! Keep an eye out for my wrap-up post in September where I’ll let you know how many bingo’s I got.
Want to join the fun? Sign up over on Great Imaginations!
By the way, how adorable is that flamingo? So adorable!
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world. And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf. But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf. Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness. When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next. This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.
Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning. She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too. Mental illness runs in her family. She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying. This is due to her schizophrenia. Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself. The reader is just along for this ride. And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride. Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness. Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.
Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages. This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):
All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking. Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)
The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness. Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life. This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express. It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence. They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds. Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.
Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)
There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character. Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian. She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people. People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life. Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition. She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery. The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir. Eva Canning is bisexual. It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous. However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way. Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous. What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way. Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.
The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened. The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book. The final third, though, takes an odd turn. Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions. That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful. However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe. I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted. It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life. Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function. I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened. The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.
The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar. There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going. Her voice is perfect for Imp. She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years. She sounds like the 20-something woman she is. I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print. Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.
Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal. The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan. Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically. Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.
4 out of 5 stars
Danny Torrance didn’t die in the Overlook Hotel but what happened there haunts him to this day. Not as much as the shining does though. His special mental powers that allow him to see the supernatural and read thoughts lead to him seeing some pretty nasty things, even after escaping the Overlook. He soon turns to drinking to escape the terror. But drinking solves nothing and just makes things worse. When he sees his childhood imaginary friend, Tony, in a small New Hampshire town, he turns to AA to try to turn his life around and learn to live with the shining.
Abra is a middle school girl nearby in New Hampshire with a powerful shine. She sees the murder of a little boy by a band of folks calling themselves the True Knot. They travel in campers and mobile homes, seeking out those who have the shine to kill them for it and inhale it. They call it steam. They’re not human. And they’re coming after Abra. Abra calls out to the only person she knows with a shine too, the man she’s talked to before by writing on his blackboard. Dan.
A sequel that takes the original entry’s theme on overcoming your family origin and ramps it up a notch, Doctor Sleep eloquently explores how our family origin, genetics, and past make us who we are today. All set against a gradually ramping up race against the clock to save a little girl from a band of murdering travelers.
The book begins with a brief visit to Danny as a kid who learns that the supernatural creatures exist in places other than the Overlook, and they are attracted to the shine. This lets the reader first get reacquainted with Danny as a child and also establishes that the supernatural are a potential problem everywhere. The book then jumps aggressively forward to Danny as a 20-something with a bad drinking problem. It’s an incredibly gritty series of scenes, and it works perfectly to make Dan a well-rounded character, instead of a perfect hero of the shine. It also reestablishes the theme from The Shining that someone isn’t a bad person just because they have flaws–whether nature or nurture-based. That theme would have been undone if Dan had turned out to be an ideal adult. It would be much easier to demonize his father and grandfather in that case, but with the way King has written Dan, it’s impossible to do that.
The way Dan overcomes both his drinking and his temper, as well as how he learns to deal with his shine, is he joins Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In contrast to his father who tried to quit drinking on his own, Dan attempts it in a group with accountability. This then shows how much easier it is to overcome a mental illness with community support. I appreciated seeing this. I will say, however, that some of the AA talk in the book can get a bit heavy-handed. Some chapter beginnings include quotes from the book of AA, and Dan can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with it when he relates almost everything to something he learned or heard there. AA definitely plays a vital role in many people’s recovery from addiction, and it’s wonderful to see that in a work of fiction. However, it would have been better for the reader to see the role of AA more than to hear quotes from AA so often.
The big bad in this book is a band of supernatural creatures who were once human and still look human. But they change somehow by taking steam and go on to live almost indefinitely. They can die from stupid accidents and sometimes randomly drop dead. The steam is acquired by torturing children who have the shine. The shine comes out of their bodies as steam when they are in pain. They call themselves The True Knot. This troop is a cartoonish group of evil people who try to look like a troop of retirees and some of their family traveling in a camper caravan. The leader of this group is Rose the Hat–a redheaded woman who wears a top hat at an impossibly jaunty angle. I was pleased to see Rose written quite clearly as a bisexual. Her sexuality is just an aspect of who she is, just like her red hair. Seeing a bi person as the big bad was a delight. Her bisexuality isn’t demonized. Her actions as a child killer and eater of steam are. She is a monster because of her choices, not because of who she is. I alternated between finding The True Knot frightening and too ridiculously cartoonish to be scary. I do think that was partially the point, though. You can’t discredit people who seem ridiculous as being harmless.
How Abra is found by The True Knot, and how she in turn finds Dan, makes sense within the world King has created. It doesn’t come until later in the book, though. There is quite a bit of backstory and build-up to get through first. The buildup is honestly so entertaining that it really didn’t hit me until after I finished the book how long it actually took to get to the main conflict. So it definitely works. Abra is a well-written middle school girl. King clearly did his research into what it’s like to be a middle schooler in today’s world. Additionally, the fact that Abra is so much older than Danny was in The Shining means it’s much easier for the reader to understand how the shine works and see a child, who understands at least a bit what it is, grapple with it. This made Abra, although she is a child with a shine, a different experience for the reader who already met one child with a shine in the previous book. Abra is also a well-rounded character with just the right amount of flaws and talent.
There is one reveal later in the book in relation to Abra that made me cringe a bit, since it felt a bit cliche. It takes a bit of a leap of faith to believe, and I must admit it made me roll my eyes a bit. However, it is minor enough in the context of the overall story that it didn’t ruin my experience with the book. I just wish a less cliche choice had been made.
The audiobook narrator, Will Patton, does a phenomenal job. It was truly the best audiobook narration I’ve heard yet. Every single character in a very large cast has a completely different voice and style. I never once got lost in who was speaking or what was going on. More importantly to me, as a New England girl born and raised, is that he perfectly executes the wide range of New England accents present in the book. Particularly when he narrates the character, Billy, I thought I was hearing one of my older neighbors speak. I could listen to Will Patton read a grocery list and be entertained. Absolutely get the audiobook if you can.
Overall, this sequel to The Shining successfully explores both what happened to Danny Torrance when he grew up and a different set of frightening supernatural circumstances for a new child with the shine. This time a girl. The themes of nature, nurture, your past, and overcoming them are all eloquently explored. There is a surprising amount of content about AA in the book. It could either inspire or annoy the reader, depending on their mind-set. Any GLBTQ readers looking for a bi big bad should definitely pick it up, as Rose the Hat is all that and more. Recommended to fans of Stephen King and those that enjoy a fantastical thriller drenched in Americana.
4 out of 5 stars