Novella Review: "Gwendy's Button Box" by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Courtesy of Cemetery Dance
Stephen King has teamed up with another writer once again; this time to bring us a novella-length tale featuring King's favorite antagonist. In Gwendy's Button Box, The Man in Black, Walter o'Dim or whatever moniker you favor has a dark task for a little girl whose insecurities make her the perfect target for an evil wizard.  Richard Chizmar, editor, author and founder of Cemetery Dance, is King's wingman for this exploit into the deranged hijinks Flagg gets up to when he's not busy tormenting Roland.

I'm going to spoil a few little things ahead. No biggies.

Gwendy's Button Box is about a gal named Gwendy who is putting forth a Herculean effort to lose weight by running up heart-attack inducing steps in her hometown when she meets The Man in Black. He's struck by something about her and decides to task her with safeguarding a strange box covered in buttons. Gwendy takes the challenge, little knowing that she's made a deal with the proverbial devil.

Like any good mysterious magical object, Gwendy's button box offers rewards and consequences. What's different about Gwendy's button box is that she can seemingly avoid the consequences if she is able to resist an almost supernatural urge to push the box's buttons. Soon, the novella becomes a tug of war between a growing young woman and the powers of the peculiar box. At first lacking in immediate threats to get the blood pumping, it isn't long before the sick imaginations of two accomplished writers are put to work.

Good co-writing makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the read to tell who is at the wheel in any given section of the book. (I'm currently challenging myself to see where Owen King has taken the lead in Sleeping Beauties. I'm failing.) Whether the writers have done a great job of editing each other, have a solid sense of the work's voice or both, they manage to keep disbelief suspended with a fluid narrative. Chizmar and King do that wonderfully for Gwendy's Button Box. I'm hoping they decide to take on something a bit longer in the future. 

Shelly Barclay

Short Story Review: Massinello Pietro by Ray Bradbury

Photo of Ray Bradbury by Alan Light
Massinello Pietro by Ray Bradbury is a short story in his anthology We'll Always Have Paris. It is the first story in the anthology and an odd one. It is all about the importance of a seemingly insane old man who keeps a menagerie of pets in what we can assume is a small apartment of sorts in a very nosy neighborhood.

Massinello Pietro loves animals, music and dancing. His love for these things is unswayed by complaints from his disgruntled neighbors and even threats from the police. He keeps far too many pets that make a lot of noise. He plays his music at all times of the night, much to the chagrin of the neighborhood. He refuses to stop, no matter how many complaints he gets. His reasoning is that it makes him happy. As the story wears on, the reader comes to realize that he is not so much being inconsiderate of others as he is being considerate of himself. He is tired of the unhappiness that life can bring, so he resolves to suck himself out of the mire of the human condition and make his own conditions.

Ray Bradbury keeps this story short and simple. He gives the reader an eccentric, likable and pitiable character. He gives us page after page of validation for the complaints of the man's neighbors, but then he gives us validation for the man himself. He also shows us that, in the end, the polite, happy-go-lucky man was actually of value to those who were annoyed by him. In the end, his presence had been normalcy to them. Without him, things are wrong.

A Review of "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

In 2011, a then-unknown author named Erin Morgenstern published a refreshing fantasy novel called The Night Circus. This Massachusetts-born novelist was rejected by dozens of literary agents before finding her home and sending this strange love story out into the world. I finished it a few weeks ago, and I am still enthralled by world of The Night Circus.

Morgenstern's creativity shines through on every single page of this book. Sure, the plot doesn't race along, but I was happy to take my time with the bevy of unusual characters she designed and, above all, explore Le Cirque des Rêves–the eponymous night circus. She has a knack for strange romanticism, which limits the characters to some degree (they're all pretty, talented, etc.), but I think you'll be intrigued, even if everything is almost too lovely and magical. 

At the center of our story are two magicians, pitted against each other from childhood, playing a game where neither knows the rules. The game board is Le Cirque des Rêves. As each of their skills grow, so too does the circus. It is filled with magical and mechanical feats, but visitors only know that they are drawn to its wonders. Decked out in black and white with only the rare splash of color, its decor alone is enough to make it stand out. It's a place like Hogwarts. I know it isn't real, but I want to spend my next vacation there.

There are some books that have such deep characters that you are moved along by them. Some have amazing settings that pull you in. Rare few fantasy novels have both. For me, The Night Circus was all about the setting. A few characters, particularly the twins, captured more than my passing interest, but I was distracted always by descriptions of snow-blanketed tents, gravity-defying cloud mazes, shape-shifting gowns and masterful clockworks. Morgenstern really nailed this place. I kind of hate that it isn't real.

My final word is fantasy lovers should read this book. Romance lovers will probably like it too, though I think it isn't quite a romance. Take your time. Enjoy the imagery. I know I did.

Shelly Barclay

Let's Review "Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Memoir" by Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson is a super-popular blogger known as "The Bloggess." Last year, I read and reviewed her second book Furiously Happy. This Christmas, my husband bought me a signed copy of her first book Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Memoir. It's been a damn rollercoaster, but I finished up Let's Pretend This Never Happened and am happy to say Jenny Lawson is a talented writer who you should be following.

Lawson is a Texas gal born to a taxidermist and his long-suffering wife. In Let's Pretend This Never Happened, she takes us through some often hilarious and sometimes worrisome misadventures with wild creatures–both alive and in various states of death. I say states of death because dead animals, in Jenny's household, could be dead, disemboweled or reanimated as a cutesy wall or desk ornament. She is both horrified by and okay with the live random bobcats and turkey stalkers as well as large animal corpses hanging out around her house.

Jenny Lawson has about as many health problems as an inbred show dog. That's not to say that she's inbred, though she is from Texas. (Come on. Low-hanging fruit!) You can't help but feel sorry for her as she navigates her way through rare disorders, mental illnesses and even rheumatoid arthritis. If she ever gets a break, it's probably going to need an x-ray.

Somehow, in spite of the wacky family, or maybe because of it, Jenny Lawson is able to pull through an eating disorder, failed pregnancies, being a human pincushion to have a baby, a marriage with some kind of financial professional,  being a mother, having OCD and even vultures trying to eat her zombie dog. Her memoirs show that sometimes strong stuff is made of chipped and cracked glass. They prove that even women without pajama sets can make friends with other women. They make you feel like trying harder because if Jenny Lawson can have a popular blog, bestsellers and a driver's license, you can definitely get off your ass and take that cooking class.

Now, all I want to do is praise Lawson's bravery in baring her soul for the world to see, even if she does exaggerate. However, I would be remiss if I didn't warn you that this Let's Pretend This Never Happened goes a million miles a minute, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I can't even imagine what it looked like before an editor got his hands on it. You have to work hard to keep up, but that's okay. It's worth charging through the author's thought process to get to the tales of laughter and woe that lie beneath.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" by Fannie Flagg

Years ago, I watched the movie Fried Green Tomatoes for the first time. More than a stereotypical chick flick, this movie was funny, energetic and wholesome while tackling heavy topics. It's always been one of my favorites, yet I somehow never knew it was adapted from a novel. I learned that a few weeks ago when my sister asked me if I wanted to borrow Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg from her before she dug into it. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity and here I am.

At its core, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is about a woman named Idgie and her family. Idgie's sister-in-law narrates some of the story while telling tales of her life to her friend in the nursing home. However, there is much more to it than the core tale. While jumping around from the past to the future and back again at odd points, this book encompasses a lot of folks, all Southern and all just a little countrified.

In contrast to Idgie's adventurous and daring spirit, there is Evelyn Couch­–a modern housewife struggling through menopause and a crippling lack of confidence. Her friend Ninny is a bit like Idgie and encourages Evelyn to be herself and find help for her health issues. While Ninny often narrates some of the story of her friends and family's history, the book also slips into third-person, so the reader can get a glimpse of events Ninny didn't see, from murders to elephant marches. Also intertwined with these stories are fictional clippings from local newspapers involving characters and settings. I wasn't expecting that, and they proved to be quite funny at times.

Idgie is the soul of the novel and her soul mate is a woman named Ruth. I was a little surprised at how casually Fannie Flagg handled the fact that Ruth and Idgie were obviously gay. People around them knew it and this is Depression-era Alabama. I'm not entirely sure if people in that time and place would have been as accepting of such a relationship as the characters in the novel are or if Flagg wanted to leave that kind of bigotry out of the novel. In any event, it doesn't seem out of place.

There are a number of black characters in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Some are staff and all are friends of the central cast of characters. Bigotry and racial violence is handled extensively and I think tastefully. From the shame of being thought an Uncle Tom to the added difficulties of being black, homeless and hungry during the Depression, readers get what feels like an inside look into life before Civil Rights. It feels genuine and thoughtful at every step.

Homelessness, alcoholism, spousal abuse, disability and loss are all interwoven into this otherwise uplifting novel. Love, affection, unconditional friendship and humor all appear to counterbalance these difficult, but relevant issues. For me, humor is what came through the most. A few tall tales, a parking lot run-in and some good food jokes all made Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe a happy, inspiring novel that is well worth the attention it, and its silver screen counterpart, has garnered over the years.

Shelly Barclay