Crowing About “Hollow Kingdom”

I’m not wishing for the end of the world any more than I long for a murder to happen but I do love reading about both of them.  So many interesting things happen in novels about the apocalypse.  Remember R.E.M‘s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”?  It’s a checklist of perfectly terrifying elements that make a captivating story – “Birds and snakes and an aeroplane”, “Governments for hire” and the “Furies breathing down. your neck” – all the best parts of great Apocalyptic fiction.  I don’t want the end of the world to happen but when the writing is so good well, I do feel fine.  Thank you, Michael Stipe.

So many books featuring a possible apocalypse stand out when I think of my ‘best ever’ books, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (which I first read way back in high school).  We get to meet the characters in these books when they are at their weakest, when everything is stripped away, so we really get to know them.  I still remember conversations between Stu and Franny in Stephen King’s book more vividly than I do the actual content of any class I took in high school.  It’s also fascinating to see how authors like Emily St. John MandelEdan Lepucki and Neal Stephenson choose to end our world – what exactly are the  catastrophic mistakes that they see our society making that takes us to destruction?  How do they imagine our society will rebuild?  These are the nitty gritty details that I love about this type of book.  If an advance review mentions genetic engineering gone wrong, pandemics-getting-out-of-hand, any instance where the CDC makes a mistake and tries to cover it up then I place my hold right away.  At least they will be an entertaining read and the really beautiful ones give me a chance to ponder what we value in our civilization – what would we miss if it all starts to fall apart?

I knew that I would read this debut novel about the apocalypse seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow (these were the keywords thrown around for the last few months when Hollow Kingdom was being chatted about online) but I didn’t know if it would just be a quirky read or one that rises above ‘book about a crow’.  I also wondered who I might share it with. How many other readers would like to read a book written from the perspective of a crow? From the first chapter I knew that it was a book for everyone.  Everyone!

The story begins with S.T., his human friend Big Jim, and their dog, Dennis, enjoying a fine day outside their home near Seattle. Looking back S.T. realizes that there might have been other indications that Big Jim’s health was declining but when one of Big Jim’s eyeballs falls out and rolls across the lawn he knows that things are starting to get serious. S.T. is a clever bird. Crows are, of course. He thoughtfully scoops it up and puts it into one of the cookie jars in the kitchen in case it can be used by Jim later and then spends the next few days trying to cure Jim of this terrifying illness. He tries everything – brings him the keys to his truck, tries feeding him Cheetos, carries him their favourite photographs from the fridge door, brings some medication from the local Walgreens – but nothing works.   With Dennis by his side (he attaches Dennis’s collar to a leash and leads him away from their home) they go on a mission to see if there are any uninfected humans who can help Big Jim.

It’s horrifying like all good infection-turns-humans-into-zombies novels but it’s wonderfully different because it’s all told through the language of animals and how they see us.  Author Kira Jane Buxton must have enjoyed books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down when she was a kid because she has the natural world built to perfection.  If the violence level weren’t so high I would be tempted to share this book with junior readers because there was so much to love and her passion for animals is evident throughout.

S.T. is the main voice but he is joined by Dennis and they meet other crows and dogs throughout their adventure.  We see some of the adventure from the perspective of moles, a poodle, a seagull, an armadillo, a polar bear and an octopus and it is all bewitching.   Their travels take them across the state, through a university campus, into abandoned neighbourhoods, a large zoo, an aquarium, forests and to the beach and it leads to a wide variety of discoveries about humans.  Some work out well for our team of crow and dog and some really do not.

I’m trying not to spoil the plot of the story (or the ending) but with many of the remaining humans preoccupied with their zombie thoughts this leaves an opportunity for the natural world to take over and it is all beautifully described by Buxton.  Seeing the destruction of the human world through S.T.’s opinionated eyes is the very best view. He was perfectly content being a crow who felt like he was almost human.  He has more enemies than friends among animal kind so the challenges that he and Dennis face together are doubly hard.  It becomes an opportunity for the reader to fall hard for both of them; especially as the author describes them as “a rejected crow with an identity crisis partnering a bloodhound with the IQ of boiled pudding.”

There are some moments in this book that were a little scary to read and had to be returned to – if I could have read them with my eyes partially covered like you watch a horror film, I might have done so.  I read this book quickly because I almost couldn’t believe how clever it was, how she was able to make her crow’s voice seem authentic, and yet I didn’t want to finish it because the time spent with S.T. and Dennis seems far too short.  It’s the classic problem with a book that you love – reading it fast because it is perfection but just not wanting it to end.

Yes, Hollow Kingdom can also be described as a zombie novel, and it is narrated by a Cheetos-eating crow with a name that is so profane I can only share the initials in this blog post, but there were moments in this book that moved me to tears and caused me to want to write down quotations from Buxton’s beautiful text.  I could needlepoint them on a pillow with a cute little crow and dog image maybe?  The author might be trying to send us a message about the environment or the dangers of relying on technology.  She might be saying all or none of this and wants to remind us of the importance of animal welfare.  It’s an unforgettable book about the end of world as we know it and you really should read it – Cheetos optional.

— Penny M.

Get the Night Light Ready

At Halloween do you like to settle down and watch a spooky movie to get you in the mood for handing out candy to the ghosts and ghouls on your doorstep? Perhaps you have more of a taste for the macabre. Reflecting on Halloween makes me think of how I would rank my favourite fright-filled films.

Now, I’m not really a horror fan. I have been known to watch a movie with a blanket pulled up, covering my face, with one eye peeking over the top while I ask my husband to tell me when the scary part is over. Still, there a few films that I’ve watched and enjoyed which do fit the bill.

One of the most recent horror films I’ve watched is Winchester. It was Helen Mirren playing Sarah Winchester, the widow of the Winchester Firearms company magnate, that first intrigued me. This partly fact-based film (with some creative license of course) wasn’t one of those blood-gushing, over-the-top violent films. However, it does make you jump at the right times and the underlying theme of ‘why’ resonated with me. Although only a few parts of the movie were filmed at the actual Winchester mansion it made me want to visit and see just what made Sarah frantically build this mysterious house in San Jose, California. If you’re as intrigued as I was, watch the film and then check out the mansion’s website.

Another of my favourite horror films is Sleepy Hollow, based on the Washington Irving legend that we’re all familiar with. A headless horseman haunts a town. People are scared. A gruesome death occurs.

What makes the Johnny Depp version of Sleepy Hollow a favourite of mine is the romantic twist on this piece of European folklore that’s been popular since at least the Middles Ages. In this version a personally troubled police constable from the city, Ichabod Crane (Depp), is asked to help the village. Arriving in Sleepy Hollow, he meets Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Ichabod falls in love with Katrina while trying to help rid the town of its monster. This “battle” is highlighted by some CSI-like techniques which have been adapted to fit in with the time period. As dark as the cinematography of this film is, the light in the outcome of the story makes it one to watch.

This brings me to my two favourite films based on Stephen King novels: The Shining and Misery. In The Shining Stanley Kubrick adapts the story of a boy whose psychic powers brings out the evil in an old hotel. Being isolated in a large hotel during a snowy winter creates cabin fever for one of the main characters with murderous outcomes. The historic setting of the hotel and the film’s score of music from the past gives the film a nostalgic feeling which is partly what attracted me at first. The scary scenes will make you jump out of your seat and although the film is slightly different from the book it’s a great movie to watch!

In Misery it’s the spectacular performances of Kathy Bates (who won the Academy Award for this role) and James Caan that originally caught my attention. Rob Reiner directs and one of the best scenes happens as Caan’s character slowly, painfully hobbles across the screen towards freedom and then … BANG … our excitement is squashed and we cringe as Bates’ character ends his attempt to free himself of this ‘misery.’

The final films on my Halloween “must watch” list are:

I’m sure there are much scarier movies out there with blood and guts that would give me nightmares forever but I digress. Whether it’s the spinning head of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, the mysterious woman’s appearance in the Woman in Black, the question of is he dead or alive in The Sixth Sense, the satanic plot of the people in Rosemary’s Baby, the classic shower scene in Psycho or the static on the television in Poltergeist these frightening, suspenseful moments always draw me in. I get the shivers just thinking about these films. For now though, I think I’ll just wrap my blanket around me tightly and make a run for the candy bowl!

— Teresa N-P

Shhh…A Quiet Place

We received a movie at WPL this week that has been worth waiting for. I don’t always think this. I place my holds early and often for books but don’t really follow the same plan for movies. I know that a new book is coming months, sometimes years, before it is published and it’s so exciting. With movies, it’s a so-so feeling. Many movies are good, many movies have captivating performances, gorgeous sets, wonderful costumes, sensational soundtracks but very few will actually knock my socks off. Well, this is the one. Socks are off. This is the one you must see. A movie that should rise to the top of every list this year. It’s John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place.

Initially it was billed as a horror film and then the tide seemed to swing towards marketing it as a thriller but I would say it is more like a classic suspense film with a few monsters thrown in to spice things up. The monsters are definitely scary. A bird flew past our kitchen window the day after we saw this movie and I was sure it was one of those monsters in our backyard. That feeling has finally worn off now.

This is John Krasinski’s film because he is the director, co-writer and star of this film. You might be thinking to yourself “Hey, isn’t he Jim from the American version of The Office?” when you see his face on screen. Yes, yes, he IS Jim from The Office and he is just as spectacular as a father who is leading his family through a post-apocalyptic world where monsters are hunting them using the sounds that they make as he was when he played Jim. And these monsters, they are hunting for any sounds. This family is so careful about not making noise that they use American Sign Language to communicate, play Monopoly with felt pieces, and spread this wonderful white sand on the walkways of their farm to muffle their footsteps. Now, about that sand. Where did it all come from? I was really not sure about this as we were watching the film but I could not even bring myself to lean over and ask anyone in my family because I was so compelled to stay silent throughout the whole thing. I’m sure that you have heard this from other people who have seen the film or even seen some of the jokes online.

quiet

But after you see the movie you can’t stop talking about every last detail. I think it’s been our top film for post-movie chatting for the whole year. Maybe it was because we felt like we had to stay silent through the whole thing or maybe it was because of the outstanding performances of the cast, the beauty of the landscape and the sheer terror we felt while we were watching. Other than Krasinski the cast is small which works very well and adds to the sense of isolation on screen as you realize that so few people survived the apocalypse. It’s just eerie. Emily Blunt plays his wife in a role that is half earth-mother, half warrior and they have cast some wonderful actors as their children, including a young woman who also had a lead role in 2017’s Wonderstruck.

This is a challenging film for all of the actors as so much of the emotion is conveyed entirely through gestures and facial expression – there is no room for error in their parts and it is done well. You can find some wonderful interviews online with the actors as they describe the work that they did to prepare for these roles and the guidance they received from young Millicent Simmonds with using ASL on film.

And, I know it’s a horror/thriller film, but I did really think it was a beautiful film. It might not make it to any Oscar lists for costumes or set design but there was a distinct look to this movie. They cared. Really, if they hadn’t been facing a constant struggle to stay alive I think it might not have been a bad way to live. The lovely photographs on their walls, the jam jars and quilts. Like Country Living but dingy. I did catch myself thinking that the absolute silence of their home life was appealing. Their kids were playing Monopoly without arguing over who got which piece or who had the next turn. I know, I know, they are living in the constant shadow of an ever present danger that will swoop in and eat them if they even knock a knife off of the table. But the sense of calm and all of the cozy sweater wearing? I could go for that. Monsters – no. More whispering while we play board games after dinner – yes.

The Blu-ray + DVD copies that we have here at the library come with glamorous special features which I am so very excited about. Director John Krasinski will give us a special behind the scenes look in Creating The Quiet and they have also included The Sound of Darkness and something called A Reason For Silence : the art of unforgettable visual effects. I look forward to watching all of these and I am going to watch the entire film one more time. I’m going to watch it again because I know that I am going to love being terrified again, because those children are absolutely amazing, because Emily Blunt gives an incredible performance as the strongest onscreen mother I have ever seen and because this time I’ll be able to eat popcorn while I watch.

— Penny M.

Oh, the horror!

I am taking a course this summer that requires me to read from genres outside of my normal reading tastes. Horror is a genre I haven’t touched since the mid 1980’s, when I read Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, became terrified of my roommate’s cat, and had to sleep with the light on for a week!

The other day I noticed one of our new books at WPL called The Only Child by Andrew Pyper. When I saw National Post quoted on the cover saying “Pyper could be the next Stephen King” and then discovered that Pyper is Canadian, I was willing to give horror another try.

The Only Child revolves around the character of Dr. Lily Dominick, a forensic psychiatrist, who became obsessed with the human mind after witnessing her mother’s death at the age of six. Lily’s newest patient, however, shakes her to the core: not only does he claim to be 200 years old, but he says he knew her mother. Lily struggles between what is real and not real, both in the memories of her mother and the stories this “man” tells her about his life. The patient/man/monster quickly establishes a hold on Lily that keeps both her and the reader in suspense and looking over a shoulder until the end of the book.

Elements of the characters of classic horror, including Jeykll and Hyde, Dracula, and Frankenstein are present in this storyline, so it definitely had the potential to be terrifying. However, I found the book to be more creepy than scary. I was able to determine a couple of plot twists way in advance, which also helped reduce my fright (and our hydro bill). Overall, I would give The Only Child 3 stars out of 5.

-Sandy W.