Well, it got the NO part right, at least
This book is a great example of why I probably shouldn’t let other people’s reviews have too much sway when it comes to choosing my next read. Truthfully, despite having heard a fair amount about this book when it was first released, I never had any interest in it, and I’m not afraid to say that this decision was based entirely on the stupid spelling of the title alone. That may be superficial, but I feel ok about it because, come on. I’m one of those people who uses full words and sentences (with punctuation, even!) when I text or tweet, so there was no way I was ever going to get behind a book named "NOS4A2" on my own.
So you can imagine my surprise when, reading through end of year best of lists on GoodReads, this book kept popping up again and again. Even more shocking, it had garnered a 4+ star rating on the site, and most reviewers were positively slavering over it. The near unanimous praise to high heavens piqued my interest and I assumed that the book must be much cleverer than its dopey title implied. (Also, there was some speculation in the Tournament of Books forum prior to the actual roster being released that this book might make the final cut.)
I hesitate to say that giving NOS4A2
a shot was a mistake, because really, how can we ever know for sure if something is good or bad (or perhaps more importantly, if we’ll like it or not, irrespective of judgments of quality) if we don’t try it for ourselves? That said, my initial instinct that this book wouldn’t be a good fit for me, proved to be true.
I struggle to dismiss NOS4A2
as a “bad book”, because I don’t actually think that it is. It is certainly not Literature with a capital L, but nothing about the way it is packaged and promoted would lead you to think that it is, and it would be grossly unfair on my part to knock it for not winning at a game it wasn’t even playing. I don’t have anything against genre fiction either, since I love mysteries and have ripped my way through more than my fair share of frothy regency romances, so my general displeasure with NOS4A2
isn’t due to some blanket genre prejudice.
I think the issue—MY issue—with it is that although I enjoy thrillers, I don’t tend to gravitate towards the horror genre when I read, so a book that falls into this category is going to have to work really hard to convince me and win me over. In the end, it almost doesn’t really matter whether NOS4A2
is a good or bad member of the genre because it’s just really not my kind of book. I’ve never even read a Stephen King novel, for crying out loud! So I’m probably the last person who can speak with any authority about how successful Joe Hill’s book is as modern horror masterpiece. (Hill is King’s son, for those of you not in the know and wondering why I’d link the two above and beyond the obvious content-related reason.)
But for what it’s worth, NOS4A2
, while not absolute dreck, did not really convince me that it was worth my reading time and just did not impress me very much at all. The plot was fine, I suppose. It is convoluted and drawn out, but the gist is that the central heroine of the book is a girl named Vic and the main villain is a man named Charles Manxx. Vic discovers when she is very young that when she rides her favorite bicycle that she is able to pass through a bridge that always pops her out the other side in the precise location of lost items that she happens to be searching for. Manx is a serial killer who believes he is rescuing children by whisking them away to a place called Christmasland where every night is Christmas eve and every day begins with Christmas morning. As is the way of these things, Manx and Vic’s paths eventually cross with dire consequences, and the battle that winds up resulting is like the quintessential fight between good and evil. Only one side can triumph, but which will it be?
This book is really long (the hardcover is over 700 pages... thankfully I was reading an ebook version), so obviously I glossed over most of the plot. This is partly because I don't want to ruin all the twists and turns for those of you who might wish to read it, but also because there was so much stuff that went down, I get tired just thinking of how I could possibly make it coherent to someone who hasn't read the book. There's a whole subplot that deals with why the book is called NOS4A2
and even though I think you could have just as easily called it Christmasland and that would have been fine
, I accept why he named it what he did. (I still cringe at the title, though!) Clearly I’m not going to knock Hill for a lack of imagination. He’s obviously very creative… and yet, I felt like the book dragged quite a lot. Sure a lot of stuff happened, but I only recalled feeling legitimately tense and creeped out on one occasion, and the rest of the time I just never felt invested in any of the action or the outcomes. I kept waiting for something to happen that would blow my mind, and that never happened. I actually felt within the first 50 pages that I was probably not going to like the book very much, but some of the reviews I read had suggested that readers felt especially gratified by the ending of the book and so I kept reading, expecting that it would have a really cool twist or that something really smart would happen. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I knew exactly how the book would end, but I had a pretty good idea, and at the very least, was not surprised by any of the choices Hill made. Even if NOS4A2
is purely middlebrow reading and didn’t make me engage my prefrontal cortex overly much, I at least expected it to be really gripping and hard to put down, that it would entertain me. But it didn’t really. I feel like no matter your taste in horror novels, whether you like the extra gory or you prefer psychological suspense, I think most fans of the genre would say that the one thing they all agree on is that a horror novel shouldn’t be boring. Forgive me for saying so, but this was a ho hum boring book for me. Carnage and occasional creepy moment and all.
One thing that I took from NOS4A2
is that it’s a wonderful thing to read for pleasure. Not every book needs to make me a better human being or teach me something profound about myself or the world, and there is certainly nothing wrong with reading a book just because it’s fun and brings you joy. But what I realized is that for me as a reader, writing is such an essential aspect of the reading process, that if I don’t like the author’s way with words, it’s going to be a dissatisfying read for me. I want prose that sparkles, I want an author to play with the words and use them in a thoughtful, masterful way. The story really needs to be something special if the writing can get away with just being serviceable or secondary, and chances are I just won’t connect with the book if the writing is flat for me. Occasionally Hill pulled out an interesting turn of phrase that I appreciated, but largely I felt his talent is for stories and less so for writing as a craft. This is only his third book, so he may improve. Or maybe this is his style and it works for him and his readers; if so, more power to him. I just know it didn't really work for me.
So many people have read and enjoyed this book a lot, but, ultimately, I am not one of them. I would not recommend it unless you already have an interest in horror fiction or this particular title. If like me, you found the title off putting and likely representative of the general vibe of the novel as a whole, then I would say you probably will not enjoy it very much either. So, a “mehcommendation” through and through. For most of the novel, I was like Vic circling around searching for my Shorter Way Bridge to catapult me from where I was to a place where I'd find whatever was missing that would make this book fun. Alas, that never happened and those elements mostly remained lost to me.
[I realize this review is more negative than positive, and want to stress I don’t think NOS4A2 is a bad book. It just wasn’t for me. This was definitely a case where I should have trusted my gut and given this one a pass right from the start.]
Rating: 2 out of 5