The Incarnations

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I have barely been reading lately, and I hate it. I apologize for missing a few weeks of reviews. I started a new job, and it has been occupying a lot of my time. But you’re not here to read about all of that, are you?

The Incarnations follows a man who has a not-so-great job. Beijing taxi driver, Wang Jun, lives a dull, modest life with his wife and daughter. One day Driver Wang finds a letter in his taxi from someone who knows all about his life. The letter almost sounds like the writer is stalking him. Driver Wang keeps the letter to himself, but more and more letters find their way to him. The mysterious writer claims to know Wang from their previous lives. The letters go into great detail about who Wang was in his past lives, and they begin to urge Wang to leave his wife. Wang feels himself drawn to the letter writer, but the writer is convinced that Wang is his/her true love.

My favorite thing about this book was its writing. The novel takes place right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The descriptions of Beijing as it prepares to host an international competition are claustrophobic, dirty, frantic, and at times dystopian. Quite a few scenes also take place in China’s past via Wang’s reading of the mysterious letters. The author describes the cruelty, poverty, and riches of past eras just as well as she details modern Beijing. The novel includes many nods to true historical events and people, but it also includes some folklore and mythology.

The characters are well-rounded for the most part, but the characters from the historical sections feel a bit more flat and fairy-tale like. We are led to believe that certain characters are Wang’s past selves, but they do not always feel like present-day Wang. Perhaps the historical characters give insight to parts of Wang’s inner self that he represses, but there is a chance that Wang or the letter writer are unreliable narrators, which adds another layer to the story.

The plot of the book had a lot of promise, but in the end, it did not satisfy my expectations. The historical sections did not feel like they meshed well with the modern parts. Despite how prevalent the historical portions were, they did not feel like they had much impact on the overall plot. Perhaps if there was more of an echo of repeated events and character actions between the past and present sections, the novel as a whole might feel more cohesive. I also felt like the novel ended too soon. I am very interested in knowing the outcome of some of the ending events.

This is a book that definitely gives you a lot to think about. It might even be a solid book club selection. The plot, historical facts, folklore, and daily life in Beijing make it a smart and expansive novel, but the execution could have been slightly tighter. I gave The Incarnations 3/5 stars.

Heart-Shaped Box

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If you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you know that I have become a fan of Joe Hill’s novels. I read and loved NOS4A2, and I read and liked Horns by him. So, I decided to go back to his first novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much as the previous two I have read.

Judas Coyne, an old rock/metal star, buys a ghost online. Judas does not quite believe in the ghost he is supposedly buying, but it is in his image to like Gothic or macabre items. Plus, he’s rich and a bit bored. He soon finds out that the ghost is indeed real. In fact, it has ties to Judas’s past and wants revenge. It is out to kill him and everyone he loves, and the seller has a no returns policy.

So far, I would not really call any of Joe Hill’s books scary. His novels tend to be a mix of horror elements, cool characters, an adventurous plot, and a dash of a romantic subplot. I would say that all three of his novels that I have read contain these themes. Personally, I like this mixture, but if you’re looking for a real scare, I would look elsewhere. Since this was Hill’s first novel, it simply isn’t as polished as his others. The plot itself is interesting, but it feels thin compared to his newer works. The best part of the plot (and the scariest parts) took place in Judas’s home in the first half of the novel. After that, the plot dragged a bit with a lengthy road trip. The ending felt a little sudden and chaotic after the relatively dull middle section. Hill’s novels tend to have some paranormal/magical elements in them, but in his later works he does a better job of describing the images and explaining the paranormal logic or magic behind these scenes.

Character-wise, I did not connect with Judas and his friends. Judas felt like the stereotypical aging rocker who has a much younger groupie girlfriend. Marybeth, his girlfriend, felt like a slightly more original character, but only slightly. The best characters in my opinion were Judas’s dogs and Marybeth’s grandma. I just love a badass no-nonsense grandma character.

I was slightly disappointed in Heart-Shaped Box, but only because Joe Hill’s newer works are just better. He’s definitely improved as an author, and I would still highly recommend NOS4A2. I will definitely be reading The Fireman and Strange Weather by him in the future.