11/22/63 by Stephen King

Genre: Thriller
Main characters: Jake Epping/George Amberson
Time and place: 2011/1958-1963, US (a small part of the book takes place in Derry, Maine)
First sentence:I have never been what you’d call a crying man.
Verdict: Loved it :)

Summary
Meet Jake Epping, 35. An English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and recently divorced. He leads quite an ordinary, uneventful existence, until one day a phone call turns his life upside down.

When you go down the steps, it’s always 11:58 A.M. on the morning of September ninth, 1958.

Turns out time travel is in fact possible. Sure, it’s always in the same time and the same place, but it is quite a huge discovery nonetheless. It’s also a chance for Jake to put right things that once went wrong, starting with the day a demented father killed his wife and children, and ending with (why not) one of the biggest events in recent history, the JFK assassination.

However, the past does not easily accept to be changed. Each step away from the original timeline is a struggle — would Jake be able to win?

General impression
Oh, how I have waited for this book! Ever since I first read there was going to be a Stephen King book involving time travel and wanting to change history for the better I was totally hooked. And now that I have read it I can only say that it was every bit as good as I imagined it to be :)

Setting
Getting to see the life in 50s/60s-small-town-America through the eyes of a contemporary was quite a treat for me. I loved how, particularly at first, Jake kept comparing the old ways with his present-day ones, and usually it was the present that kept falling short. Life seems to have been a lot more peaceful half a century ago, complete with people that are (were) nicer and a lot more trusting. Some of the official IDs (the driving licence, if I remember correctly) didn’t even have photos!

One of my favorite scenes regarding past/present differences was when Jake went to a bank to make a deposit, and noticed how everything was done on paper. A thing that was only to be expected, since the PCs were still a long way off, and yet the mere idea struck me as novel in an it’s-so-obvious-why-didn’t-I-think-about-it-before kind of way. For some reason I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around a computerless bank (which only goes to show how used I got with having computers everywhere around me, since I cannot quite imagine a world without them).

Another notable difference between the then and now was that smoking seems to have been everyone’s favorite pastime back then. A thing that’s only natural, I guess, since no connection with cancer had yet been made, and all the papers were filled with ads portraying smoking as the coolest thing ever — and yet I, like Jake, found somewhat strange a world more often surrounded by blue smoke clouds than not, simply because it was so very different from the way things are now. I love books that make me think of things I have never thought of before, so this book was to me a winner from this point of view at the very least.

Characters
To be honest, Jake felt a bit Mary Sue-ish to me (or whatever the male counterpart of a Mary Sue is). He is supposed to be this ordinary teacher, but as the book unfolds it turns out there is nothing he cannot do, be it lindy hopping, killing people in cold blood, directing a successful play or writing what was quite likely to be a best-selling novel. His drive to do (what he considers) the right thing never falters, despite the fact that he knows the past will not allow to be changed without putting up a brutal fight. And, Mary Sue or not, I very much admired him for that. As I liked the way he always ended up teaching English, because this chance to help young minds expand was what he considered his vocation. I really do not have anything to reproach him, other than his being a tad too close to perfection :)

As a character, Lee Harvey Oswald was sort of a weaselly young man. There was no way in the world for the author to pull off making him sympathetic, and so he didn’t even try. The first time we ever meet Oswald is during an argument with his wife, Marina, whom he treats like dirt, and it all goes mostly downhill from there. And, of course, adding to that we have the fact that we only get to see him through Jake’s eyes, and Jake is not exactly an objective party (I am quite certain that Oswald would have been despicable enough even if he had the benefit of a not-so-subjective narrator, though). This however makes him feel more like a caricature (having some traits exaggerated while others are ignored) than a real human being — not that I am complaining in any way, the book is long enough as it is, plus the author didn’t have that much creative freedom in this case, as Oswald’s character has been documented over and over again. And yet, wouldn’t it have been even more interesting if the line drawn between good and bad had been at least a little blurry?

I should now say something about Sadie too. However, for most of the book I didn’t have that much interest in her. Sure, I loved to see the relationship between her and Jake develop (mostly because I liked him and so I wanted him to be happy), but other than that there was always something that felt to me a bit off about her, although try as I might I cannot quite put my finger on it. Perhaps she seemed to me overly-fragile and likely to break — I say that because somewhere in the last bunch of pages she starts acting sort of badass (she even threatens someone with a knife), and I actually liked her then, despite the fact that the said change did not seem all that plausible to me. Or who knows, perhaps I have just read her wrong, or did not pay her enough attention or something. Either way, we just did not click.

Relationships
Jake however totally clicked with her :)
By now I have read quite a bunch of reviews, and mostly they all agree that the relationship between Jake and Sadie was one of the best things in the book. Ah, and it is indeed a nice relationship (particularly if we consider I enjoyed reading about it despite my less-than-lukewarm feelings for Sadie), but was I as impressed by it as some of the rest of the world? The answer is no, but this may well be my fault; after all, I started this book in order to read about time travel and affecting timelines and the likes, while a love story I could very well take or leave :)

Plot
I was very happy to discover that this is a very tame book, horror-wise, as there is almost no gore at all (at least by Mr. King’s standards), and there’s only a slight hint of evil lurking nearby — just enough of it to be deliciously creepy, no more. The vast majority of the plot revolves around Jake’s attempts to create a better future. At times this can turn out to be somewhat boring, as in order to take action Jake needs to stake out his ‘targets’ for a while, however for me there always was present an underlying sense of excitement: “will he be able to pull it off?” and “how will he be able to pull it off?”

What I liked most
The time travel! I am first and foremost a time travel buff, so how was I not to like it? :)
The history part of it! Seeing as I am also a history buff, I was bound to jump for joy seeing how I had an opportunity to learn more about a couple of people (JFK/LHO) that up until now I knew rather little about.

And then there’s of course the small details, such as I found it interesting how Al could afford to have the cheapest burgers around the area because he bought his meat from the past, at ’58 prices :) Although in his case it would have been a lot wiser if he had raised the prices a bit, methinks; as things were most people avoided Al’s establishment thinking that the meat in the burgers couldn’t possibly be actual beef given how cheap it was.

What I liked least
The time for nitpicking is upon us: at one time Jake is writing both a book and his memoirs, saying about the latter something like “these are the pages you are reading now”. But. But then he is forced to make a quick escape to the present day and he leaves the pages behind1 :) (and of course they get lost in the reset when he gets back in 1958)

Other than that, the one moment I found least enjoyable was the one when Jake sees a part of Sadie’s name (“DORIS DUN”), and it was the same as a part of the name of a woman whose husband has tried to kill her — so boom, all of a sudden Jake has this crazy idea that Sadie’s husband too will do the same thing. While I did get (and enjoyed) the parts regarding the past “harmonizing” with itself, this particular moment seemed to me to be pushing it a teensy tiny bit too far.

Thoughts on the ending
Unexpected and, as such, nothing short of brilliant :)

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Recommend it to?
The Goodreads rating is 4.27, so if you have at least a passing interest in either Stephen King or time travel stories, I heartily encourage you to give it a try.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Stephen King’s website

Written by the same author:

Black House (with Peter Straub)
Under the Dome

  1. I am actually hoping to be wrong about this one, it seems to me quite a big slip up if the author did indeed slip. []

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Grace Winter
Time and place: 1914, a little boat on the Atlantic Ocean
First sentence:Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.
Verdict: Sadly, another one of those books that everyone loves but me.

Summary
It was not the sea that was cruel, but the people.

Grace Winter is 22 and she’s only been married for a few weeks when she becomes a widow. The ship that she and her husband were travelling on sinks, and Grace is one of the passengers of the few boats that were launched; sadly, her husband is not. The real trial is only now beginning though: there are 39 people in Grace’s boat, a bit more than its dimensions allow. As days pass, the hope of rescue dwindles and the weather becomes agitated; the boat’s load should be lightened — but how? Does some people’s chance of survival justify the death of others?

General impression
The premise of the book — thirty-nine people crowded on a tiny boat, a boat that spent twenty-one days at sea — reminded me of Life of Pi, which I loved, and this was the reason I ended up requesting it from NetGalley.

There are indeed similarities between the two books. This one starts out quite captivating, with the difficult choices that the people in the boat must make — their boat is overcrowded as it is, and so they have to steel their hearts at the plights of the people all around them. Particularly touching is a scene where they have to ignore a young boy, nicely dressed, whose mother has died after setting him on a plank. This moment will come back to haunt Grace, our narrator, now and then, and I can only imagine how unsettling the experience must have been.

Like Pi, the people in this boat have to make do with as little resources as possible. Their bodies grow gaunt, raw meat feels like a delicacy, the rains bring with it the blessing of sweet water. And also, like in Pi’s actual story, conflicts break out among the passengers, with some ending up dead. And this is where the book’s grip on my interest faded almost completely. Grace, as a woman, spends her time with the women in the boat, and so we know little to nothing about the talks going on in the men’s group. This is why my opinions/feelings only apply to the female travelers. And boy, they were a despicable lot. Scratch that, despicable probably is too strong a word — yet I cannot find any other right now, so it will have to do. The women spend their time gossiping, fabricating stories out of thin air, and then believing these stories themselves and reacting with indignation towards the ones the story’s about. Instead of wanting to keep peace — after all, they were all literally in the same boat — some of them sow dissent, while others are preoccupied with seizing as much influence and power as possible. While I do of course realize that this is the way things would probably happen in the given situation (as the average person has a tendency for all the things described), I cannot say I am fond of people acting in an average way in extraordinary circumstances. Which is why I spent half the book wanting to punch some of the said women in the face, and also why the moral ambiguity of most of the story was lost on me — to me there was nothing ambiguous about it, those women were in the wrong.

Consider that the people in the boat had one experienced sailor among them, just one. And he, albeit gruff and not very social, has done everything in his power to care for his little flock — he rationed the provisions, he instituted a schedule, he caught fish — and the idiots in the boat owed him their survival, such as it was. They themselves should have known that, as at one point they intersect with another boat from the same ship, and the people there seem a lot worse off. Now, this sailor, Mr. Hardie, may not have a completely clean character — he may have been a thief, but there is no proof of that, just stories upon stories upon stories, most of them fabricated as likely as not. But no, the women decided to hold him responsible for their situation (“He made his best guess, that was all, which was certainly better than mine. Yet I and others blamed him as if he knew the truth and kept it from us–capriciously, or as a form of punishment for our sins.“). They said he was a threat to them and he had to be killed. And this is supposed to be morally ambiguous? Not in my book it isn’t. It is one thing to kill someone to ensure your own survival and quite another to finish one off simply because you’ve grown tired of being under his command.

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I should mention a few words about Grace. It’s interesting how, despite being the narrator, she didn’t feel that central to the book; she felt to me like yet another woman among those in the boat (although to be fair to her Grace did have the sense that the others lacked — or perhaps she just tells the story in such a way to make herself look good). I did like that she was a doer, not a talker; her motto is “God helps those who help themselves” and she considers hope “a weak emotion, a kind of pleading passivity or entrenched denial”. Her father went bankrupt and killed himself, and her mother, on hearing about this, went mad. Grace’s sister went on to become a governess, while Grace herself evaded this fate by marrying a rich guy (interestingly enough she considers her sister the weak one, the one who settled for less — I find the opposite to be true). Marriage seems to be Grace’s ‘weapon of choice’ (she finds herself a new husband before the book is done), and this has detracted from my initial opinion of her. I feel somewhat cheated in a way — I loved her motto, and a female character who believes in doing things herself can only be a likable one, I thought. But Grace spends the vast majority of the pages entrapped in an environment she cannot influence, regardless of what her philosophy may or may not be. The cases when she does find herself a mistress of her own destiny — after her father went mad and after the thing with the boat is fully over — her solution is marriage, which basically delegates the doing to someone else. Sure, she is very proud that she was able to secure her future by finding a rich husband — but is this really ‘doing something’?

Which brings me at last to the conclusion. Was this a bad book? I don’t think it was. Was this a book for me? Alas, unfortunately it wasn’t. I did enjoy it quite a bit at first, but as the characters revealed their true colors I became less than enthusiastic.

A quote (Grace recollects her former life):

“My mind was blank and terrified, unable to fathom what had brought my handsome and worldly lover to his knees in a patch of dirt that was not a rich and earthy loam built up through generations of natural processes, but a combination of horse dung and wash water and boot scrapings and kitchen scraps that were too spoiled for even the ragamuffins to eat. Then I realized with a shock that seemed to leap like primordial fire from Henry’s blazing eyes to my own that the thing that had brought Henry to his knees in that filthy courtyard was me.”

Recommend it to?
Anyone interested in reading a story of survival & psychological ambiguity. At the moment it has a rating of 4.05 on Goodreads.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Charlotte Rogan’s website | Charlotte Rogan on Twitter | Reading guide questions | A review far better than my own, at Read React Review