Thursday, June 29, 2017

John Dies at the End by David Wong

I haven't done a regular book review in some time here. Some weeks, it's all I can do to post a Deal Me In short story review. (And recent history asserts that even THAT was too much for several weeks in a row.) Recently I've been posting short reviews of books I've read on Goodreads, and that was OK for a while. But now I feel the need to write something longer on books.

It's unfortunate, however, that the book I choose to resurrect regular book reviews with is this one, mainly because it's a very hard book to describe to someone else. It's no understatement to say that John Dies at the End is one of the most unusual books I've read in a very long time. Evidently it has quite a cult following, and a movie has been made from the book. (It's on my Netflix queue, so I'm eager to see if it makes a little more sense than the book.) But I have to admit that it seemed a little uneven to me, and it would probably benefit from a rereading, if I had that kind of time (which I don't).

So how to summarize this book? Well, for starters, David Wong is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin, who is the executive editor at, which is your first clue about what kind of book this might be. Read his Wikipedia page for the interesting back story of how all this came to be.

The action of the story takes place in [Undisclosed]. (This is what it's called throughout the book.) There's a pair of protagonists, John and Dave, and they have some special powers that allow them to do all kinds of things, not the least of which is to see and interact with creatures and other entities from other dimensions -- what we might otherwise call monsters, although as the events of the book play out, that word is way too simplistic for these things. John and Dave have these powers due to a drug-like substance called "soy sauce." It appears out of nowhere in small metal canisters that are cold to the touch even in the middle of summer, and when you take it, it changes you in all kinds of strange ways.

"Soy sauce," NOT "soy sauce."

Oh, and there's also a dog, Molly, that figures prominently in the plot, but she has an annoying habit of exploding, among other things. In fact, many of the characters in this story keep dying in odd and interesting ways, but they keep coming back. There's also issues with time and the order of events in this story, which doesn't surprise the reader once it's made clear that more that one dimension is involved. But I have to say that it can be very confusing at times.

Molly can even drive.

The upshot of the plot, without giving too much away, is that there is a being from another dimension who goes by the name of Korrok, and who is very interested in taking over the beings and worlds in this dimension. To do this, he sends all kinds of monsters to achieve this purpose, as well as taking control over ordinary people, turning them into various monsters.

Even though my brief synopsis sounds truly like the hottest of hot messes, this is a pretty funny book, even if the humor is often black humor. And it's definitely not like anything else I've ever read. I have to admit that the author was very inventive with what could have otherwise been an ordinary story. And along the way, he manages to work in some pretty interesting philosophical questions that arise from the events of the story.

My major problem with the book is that I feel like it began well -- funny and weird and intriguing -- and ended pretty well (with some major revelations that I simply didn't see coming) -- but the middle part of the book seemed disjointed, or even sort of like filler. This is why I think I might like to read the book again, to see if I just missed something in the middle that would make more sense now that I know the basic arc of the story.

Rating: 4 stars; I'm glad I read this unique book, even though (spoiler) John does NOT die at the end.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

DMI2017, Week 25: "On the Hill" by Elizabeth Spencer

This week I successfully got back on my Deal Me In reading schedule, pretty much. The deck of cards dealt me the Four of Hearts, which sends me back to my list of Mississippi authors (in honor of the Mississippi bicentennial) and a story by Elizabeth Spencer. I read another story by Spencer earlier this year ("A Southern Landscape," Week 12), and this story, "On the Hill," was very different from that one. I suddenly realized that she has the distinction of occupying two spots on my roster of Mississippi authors, along with Faulkner and Welty. That was not by design -- I think it was more about what was available to me in terms of reading resources, although I did buy Starting Over, the collection in which we find this story, specifically for Deal Me In this year.


The title of this story refers to the location of the house of Barry and Jan Daugherty, recent transplants to the small town of Eltonville. They are a bit aloof and more than a little mysterious, but everyone who's anyone in town loves to attend their elegant dinner parties.

Eva Rooke and her husband Dick are some of the Daughertys' guests, and Eva especially begins to be sucked into something of an obsession about figuring out who the Daughertys really are. This is because she sees certain things that make her wonder just what exactly is going on. One day she sees Barry coming out of the Holy Brotherhood of Jesus church, a strange cult on the edge of town. On another day, the Daughertys' son Riley shows up at Eva's front door after school, saying that his mom has gone away and he can't get in his house. Upon investigation, Eva discovers that Jan is inside the house, apparently drunk and passed out. The story gets more and more enigmatic from there, with Eva never really figuring out what the Daughertys were all about, even long after they suddenly move away.

Rating: 4 stars; I liked this story even though I feel like I didn't really understand it. I am still relatively new to Spencer's writing, and I enjoy her style. In this story, she also did an excellent job of pulling the reader into Eva's thoughts, curiosity, and confusion about the Daughertys. I still plan to read more of her work.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

DMI2017: More Catching Up (Weeks 21-24)

This group of four stories brings me up to the end of last week, so I am officially caught up now. And it's definitely a mixed bag of stories!

Week 21: "Why I Live at the P.O." by Eudora Welty
Card: Two of Hearts (Mississippi authors)
Collection: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
How have I missed this story all these years? I know that it has been widely anthologized and whenever one mentions Welty, this story usually comes up. In addition to being a famous author, Welty was also known for her photography, and supposedly this story was inspired by one of her photographs showing a woman ironing in the back of a post office. This is a truly funny story of sibling rivalry and the ways in which it can cause family relationships to go all to hell. I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of this, but I definitely saw glimpses of the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son in this story. But more than anything else, I just wallowed in the Southern cadences and turns of phrase that Welty uses all throughout the story.

Rating: 5 stars, no contest!

Week 22: "The Apprentice" by Larry Brown
Card: Seven of Hearts (Mississippi authors)
Collection: Big Bad Love
When I put together my list of Mississippi authors for my Hearts suit, I'm ashamed to say that I didn't actually know many beyond the obvious ones like Welty, Faulkner, and Wright. So I started googling and came up with a pretty long list of authors born or raised or living in Mississippi, and Larry Brown was on that list. He passed away in 2004, but in his lifetime he was a pretty notable author and won many awards, including the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, as well as the Southern Book Award for Fiction. He hailed from Oxford, Mississippi and became known for his gritty, down-to-earth stories and novels.

This story, "The Apprentice," was actually pretty funny, but with an undercurrent of darkness and despair. Lonnie and Judy are a married couple who, according to Lonnie, at least, were happy until Judy decides she's going to become a writer. She writes all the time, which is actually OK with Lonnie, except that he begins to read some of her stuff and it's completely awful. (Her story "The Hunchwoman of Cincinnati" is what finally leads him to realize that she's a terrible writer.) The problem is, if he tells Judy the truth about her writing, she becomes unhinged; if he lies and says it's great stuff, then they have amazing sex. So he's in-between the classic rock and hard place.

Rating: 5 stars; I really liked Brown's tone and style, and I am very eager to read more of his stuff.

Week 23: "How To Become a Mars Overlord" by Catheryanne Valente
Card: Queen of Diamonds (Science fiction/Fantasy)
Collection: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
This was one of those stories that I really wanted to like. The premise is irresistible: the "story" (really more of a humorous essay) consists essentially of instructions on how to become a Mars overlord, with examples of those who have gone before you. It's true that there's only one Mars in our solar system, but apparently every solar system in the Universe contains a Mars-like planet, just ripe for the taking by any enterprising overlord. The sections of the essay include: "Welcome, Aspiring Potentates!", "Query: Why Mars?", "Step One: Get to Mars," and "Step Two: Become an Overlord."

Rating: 3 stars; I wanted to like this story, but I didn't really because it was not a story. The title was the best part. The essay consisted of tale after tale of Mars overlords and what they were like and what they did to conquer their Mars, and in the end I just found it all very confusing.

Week 24: "My Dear, My One True Love" by Lee Durkee
Card: Ten of Clubs (Mystery/Detective set in Mississippi)
Collection: Mississippi Noir
This is another story that's not a story (have I missed something somewhere in the rules of modern fiction?) but it's entertaining nonetheless. It's an ode to the crazy woman. It begins: They have the most beautiful eyes, crazy women do, differing tints and gleams, true, but always that pinprick of wilding incandescence, the swamp gas rising. Of course, relationships with crazy women don't end well. And with no risk of a spoiler, here's the end of the story: Life goes on in this manner until someone gets led away in handcuffs or we find ourselves late at night once again shoveling away under the Mississippi stars, my dear, my one true love.

Rating: 4 stars; even though it's not really a story in my opinion, it was well-written and humorous, always pluses to me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

DMI2017: Catching Up (Weeks 17-20)

Funnily enough, I think it was just about this time of year, two years ago, that my Deal Me In reading plan went belly-up. What is it about the summer that is so fatal to DMI? Maybe it's just me, but I bet I'm not alone in this. For me, vacation and time away from my normal environments generally result in less reading, not more. And over the last two months, I've been gone from home about half of that time.

So now I am faced with playing some catch-up because I'm determined not to let my DMI roster die another ignominious death -- even cats have only a limited number of lives, and who knows if DMI is the same way?

I've decided that the best way to deal with my backlog is to do mini-reviews of the stories I'm behind on, eventually bringing my roster back to a state of currency. So here goes!

Week 17: "Combustible" by Ace Atkins
Card: Queen of Clubs
Collection: Mississippi Noir
Shelby is a high-school freshman who is trying to run away from home. Her stepfather is abusive and her mother (and pretty much everyone else) is turning a blind eye to the abuse. Lucky for Shelby, there's a leaking gas valve under her house that might just solve her problem.

Rating: 5 stars for plot and atmosphere

Week 18: "Jerusalem's Lot" by Stephen King
Card: Two of Spades (Stephen King old and new)
Collection: Night Shift
An oldie but a goodie, written in epistolary style. Charles Boone comes into possession of Chapelwaite, his family's historic estate. But of course weird things start to creep into the tale, such as things moving around inside the walls of the house (rats, surely). And there are local legends of sinister goings-on at a nearby abandoned town called Jerusalem's Lot. Charles discovers that one of his ancestors played a pivotal role in some strange events at Jerusalem's Lot, and not only that, but this ancestor may still be around almost a hundred years later.

Rating: 5 stars, mostly for the expert way King replicates the tone and style of an 18th or 19th century epistolary novel.

Week 19: "Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction" by Jo Walton
Card: Jack of Diamonds (Science fiction/Fantasy)
Collection: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
This is a very short, entertaining story of alternate reality, where World War II turned out very differently. Germany and Japan are still aggressive world powers, and the U.S. is still mired in the Great Depression. Short vignettes tell the story of the desperation experienced by various individuals, with longer vignettes depicting the story of Linda Evans, a waitress working a dead-end job. One day she encounters an opportunity to improve her lot, but it would involve betraying her employers, who might be Jewish. The title of the story comes from newspaper headlines and story excerpts interspersed throughout the story. Some of the headlines are ads for science fiction books written by names such as Asimov and Heinlein.

Rating: 3 stars; I liked this story and found it pretty creative -- but then again I'm a sucker for tales of alternate history. However, I didn't quite "get" the story, and I felt that it wasn't actually a complete story, not really going anywhere.

Week 20: "Man of All Work" by Richard Wright
Card: Five of Hearts (Mississippi authors)
Collection: Eight Men
An interesting story from one of the more widely-known authors in the pantheon of Mississippi writers. Carl and Lucy are a black couple with two small children, and they are worried about being behind on their house payments. There's no prospect of things getting better anytime soon, because Lucy is on bed rest after the birth of their second child, and Carl can't find work despite being skilled as a cook. Against Lucy's wishes, Carl decides to dress up in her clothes and apply for a job as a maid with a white family. What starts out as a light, amusing, and intriguing premise for a story suddenly turns dark and complex as Wright skillfully explores deeper issues of race, class, and sex.

Rating: 5 stars; this was a fascinating and compelling story, delivering much more to think about than I thought it would at first glance. Plus, it's written entirely in dialogue, so that's another interesting angle.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.