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Review: The Bill Hodges Trilogy by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes (2015)*

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.
In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.
Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again. Only Bill Hodges, with two new, unusual allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Finders Keepers (2016)

“Wake up, genius.”
So announces deranged fan Morris Bellamy to iconic author John Rothstein, who once created the famous character Jimmy Gold and hasn’t released anything since. Morris is livid, not just because his favorite writer has stopped publishing, but because Jimmy Gold ended up as a sellout.
Morris kills his idol and empties his safe of cash, but the real haul is a collection of notebooks containing John Rothstein’s unpublished work…including at least one more Jimmy Gold novel. Morris hides everything away before being locked up for another horrific crime.
But upon Morris’s release thirty-five years later, he’s about to discover that teenager Pete Saubers has already found the stolen treasure—and no one but former police detective Bill Hodges, along with his trusted associates Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, stands in the way of his vengeance….

End of Watch (2017)

For nearly six years, in Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, Brady Hartsfield has been in a persistent vegetative state. A complete recovery seems unlikely for the insane perpetrator of the “Mercedes Massacre,” in which eight people were killed and many more maimed for life.
But behind the vacant stare, Brady is very much awake and aware, having been pumped full of experimental drugs…scheming, biding his time as he trains himself to take full advantage of the deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.
Brady Hartsfield is about to embark on a new reign of terror against thousands of innocents, hell-bent on taking revenge against anyone who crossed his path—with retired police detective Bill Hodges at the very top of that long list….

The first Stephen King novel I read was Carrie. I was ten years old and it captured me in a way that not much else had, at least not until Shakespeare, but I wouldn’t get to him until I was twelve and on a visit to my grandparents’ house. I’ve been reading King ever since, the most recent novel being Revival.  There are my favorites (readers of my blog know of my love for IT, but others are The Dark Tower series, The Shining‘Salem’s Lot, and The Stand, to name a few) and there are those that are not my favorites (the early Bachman books, Gerald’s GameDuma Key, and a few more).  There will be a time when my least favorite of King novels will end up being on my favorites list (this happened when I read Christine), but that’s another post.

I’d heard a lot about the Bill Hodges trilogy, especially when the TV series aired.  But it wasn’t until I saw warnings about connections to King’s latest novel, The Outsider, that I decided I should read the trilogy.  It took a couple of weeks to work my way through Mr. Mercedes, but it’s the first act of a three-act play – that’s always the toughest part.  Characters are introduced, their stories are established and clues are dropped about how things will pan out later on in Act Three.

By the end, however, I was hooked.

I had had the foresight to pick up a copy of Finders Keepers shortly before finishing the first book.  This one was finished on the morning of Friday, July 13th.  Within hours, I had a copy of End of Watch in my hands.  At around eight o’clock on the morning of July 14th, less than 24 hours after I’d bought it, I had finished it.

So – here are my thoughts, such as they are.

Bill Hodges, a retired police detective, is joined by Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson as he tries to track down first the Mercedes Killer; then tackles a case involving two unpublished novels; and wraps it up with a series of deaths that aren’t quite what they appear to be.  The twists, the turns and the uncertainty play out as I cringe with each act of violence, worry over a particular character’s choices that may not be the best ones or weeping at the final words of the story as a whole.

From start to finish, I was on a literary joyride.  I had no desire to go about my daily life – work, hang out with my horses, talk to friends, for example.  All I wanted was to curl up and live inside these tomes, taking part in what Stephen King himself describes as a portable magic.  When I pick up a Stephen King novel, I don’t merely read them – I breathe them, live them, inhabit them as I follow each character down their unique path.  I can almost taste the air they breathe, feel the dirt that digs itself into their clothes or under their nails.

There have been times when I would come out of reading a book, having tuned out the world around me so completely that I felt like I was surfacing from the deep blue sea.

This trilogy was no different.

 

Rating: Five out Five stars.

*All book descriptions are from the covers.

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Review: Wicked Ones: Children of the Lost by JZ Foster

Book Description:

What if the old faery tales were true?

You know, the best thing about nightmares is that they’re not real. It’s all just in your head, and as soon as you wake up, pop! 

It’s all gone. You’re safe.

It’s not like they could crawl out, creeping from your mind with long, slender fingers and milky yellow eyes sunken into heads with pointed horns bursting out.

That’d just be insane.

Daniel Tanner’s life is insane. A mysterious disease came to claim his son, seemingly pulling him into the grave with cold fingers named misery and hopelessness.

Now a stranger has come calling with an even stranger tale of monsters—horrible things that take children in the middle of the night and leave their own, things that crawled out of the faery tales our barbarous ancestors used to tell, things that they tried to warn us about.

We didn’t listen.

Because monsters aren’t real, are they? There’s no reason to fear the dark, no reason at all to believe the old tales about the creatures with a taste for human meat.

That would be insane… wouldn’t it?

*****

There is a lot of folklore regarding changelings, particularly in Western Europe – how fairies would take a human infant and replace it with one of their own. The reasons for these stories are as varied as the countries they took hold in – a healthy child was far more valuable to a family than one who was sickly and drained whatever resources was available. It was easier to believe that fairies took the healthy child and replaced it with one of their dying ones.

Why human children were taken ranged from the unbaptized being easy targets to the fae believing that being raised by humans was a respectable start in life to old fae being cared for as children. According to the folklore, the human child is almost never seen again, presumably living with the fae forever.

In The Wicked Ones, author JZ Foster attempts to re-imagine aspects of changeling folklore into modern times, where a group of wounded people seek out the fae who took their loved ones.

As the novel opens, Daniel Tanner is grieving the death of his son, Sam, who was recently buried. He is also bitter towards his ex-wife, and mystified by her inexplicably callous behavior towards their son. Recruited by Larry Maker, Daniel realizes he is not the only one who has suffered such a loss and is brought into a group of unlikely companions who are united in only one thing – to kill the monsters behind the changelings.

As a student of mythology and folklore, I’m always fascinated how these old stories can be re-invented and brought to newer audiences. With vampires and werewolves enjoying a kind of renaissance in urban fantasy and horror, it’s only natural to expand and widen storytelling to incorporate the fae. Using their myths as inspiration is a valid start, but from there, it is the writer’s responsibility to create a fully- developed and realized world, along with the characters that populate it.

So it was with anticipation that I began reading Foster’s novel.

With the amount of exposition used, I felt shut out and removed from a tale of grief, revenge and the fae that should have been engrossing and heartbreaking. The story itself didn’t seem to really begin until mid-way through Chapter Four (man in the basement), but most definitely with Chapter Five (how the fae and changelings are involved). The characters themselves didn’t seem fully developed – given that the cast is primarily male, it was difficult to differentiate between them. Jenna and Rebekah, two of the primary female characters, fared a little better, but Daniel’s ex-wife, Julia (seen only in flashback) came across as a one-note, cold-hearted woman who watched her son die and is the focal point of Daniel’s anger.

Even the brief phone conversation between Daniel and his mother could have been better utilized – a good place to put active dialogue, showing who they were and what their relationship was now after the death Sam. Instead of a short, active scene driving the story forward, it was two or three lines of exposition and I was left with no information about how Daniel felt about his mother, how she felt about him and what Sam’s death did to their relationship.

Sam’s death may have been the catalyst for Daniel’s pursuit of the changelings and his willingness to join Maker’s group to stop them. But I was never really allowed to feel it or experience it – I was placed in the role of passive viewer.

If stories about the fae and how it impacts mortals (with a twist) tickles your fancy, then this is the story for you. If not, then perhaps one of Foster’s other titles will satisfy.

Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Review: IT: Chapter One (2017)

Before I even set foot into the movie theater, I felt surrounded by references to Stephen King’s IT.  When I walked into my favorite Irish pub, Smoky Robinson’s “The Way You Do the Thing You Do” was playing over the sound system, which is used during some of the Losers Club scenes in the 1990 TV adaptation (most notably, the dam building scene).  On the walls are the names of the counties in Ireland – Derry, Maine is named after County Derry, as King notes in the book. Having re-read IT twice in the last couple of months (and on another re-read currently), it felt like a good sign.

From my local Irish pub.

Interestingly, the two adaptations intersect at the same place – in the TV mini-series, 1990 shows the Losers Club as adults; 1989 is the starting point for the Losers as kids.  I remember seeing the TV mini-series when it aired.  Watching the current film, I remembered 1989 and where I was and what I was doing while the Losers were battling bullies, abuse, indifferent adults and Pennywise.  I picked up IT for the first time when I was 17, about two to three years before that intersection.  I read the book in three days. It was my life – except, you know, without the killer clown living in the sewers under the city (although, where I live, I would not be surprised).

Comparing and contrasting the two adaptations is a fruitless exercise, although many of the new film’s shots echoed the original.  Adaptations and re-makes are tricky, especially when the film-makers want to honor the sources that came before.  This was particularly noticeable at the beginning, when Bill and Georgie are building the paper boat.  When Bill sends Georgie to the basement for the paraffin, the shot of Georgie standing at the top of the basement stairs and his very palpable fear of the dark echoes the 1990 version.  Even the Denbrough house resembles its TV counterpart.

First one inside the theater – I had my pick of seats!

Seeing the 2017 movie was like falling into the book – all 1192 pages of IT.  Having read the book so many times, I could probably find my way around Derry without a map.  I recognized Up-Mile Hill as Mike cycled his way to make a delivery to the butcher shop.  The statue of Paul Bunyan watches over the park, just as he did in the book. The rotting house on Neibolt Street, where Eddie encounters the leper, has sunflowers in the front yard.  The Kenduskeag River that flows through town and into the Barrens, where Ben runs to while trying to escape Henry Bowers and his gang.

Derry, Maine is, as the book description says, as familiar to me as my own hometown.

The 1986 novel.

Many of the events that occur in the book happen in the movie and while, in some cases, the context remains the same, how it occurs is different.  The Apocalyptic Rock Fight, for example, is how Mike Hanlon meets and becomes a part of the Losers Club.  In the novel and the TV mini-series, Mike is running away from the Bowers gang when he stumbles upon the six kids who would become his best friends in the quarry.  In this adaptation, the Losers come upon Mike being beaten up by Henry and his gang.  Beverly strikes the first blow with a well-aimed rock that eventually drives the bullies away.  This scene is, in fact, the only time we see Beverly’s skill and keen eye – the sling-shot and silver slugs were removed from this adaptation, for what purpose, I am not quite sure.

As closely as the 2017 film adheres to the novel (or, at least, the kids’ story), it deviates in many ways from the source material.  Most of the deviation is with the characters – Ben (as the New Kid on the Block) is the historian of the group, not Mike, and his first encounter with It is not as a mummified clown, but a child victim of the ironworks explosion of 1908.  Bill is the one who uses a weapon against Pennywise in their final showdown, not Beverly. Instead of being chased by Henry Bowers and fellow bullies, Eddie breaks his arm falling through the ceiling of the Neibolt Street house.

The 1990 adaptation.

Adaptations and re-makes are tricky – fans of both the original source and the original adaptation are likely to hold a microscopic lens to the new interpretation.  Changes, re-shuffling of scenes and assigning one character’s skills/interests to another often occur to make a more cohesive narrative in a linear medium like film.  Even The Black Stallion (1979) bears little resemblance to the novel it’s based on, but it still tells the same story.

There are many references to the novel IT (1986) in this film.  Some went by so quickly, that I know I didn’t catch all of them.  More than once, I found myself anticipating and reciting bits of dialogue among the kids that came from the novel.  And it wasn’t until the end that I realized that the camera angles were at the same height as the Losers, making the entire experience told from their points of view.

Did I enjoy this film?  You bet I did.  Were there some quibbles?  Of course – I felt that the characters of Beverly and Mike were not utilized as well as they could have been, but it wasn’t my directorial vision on-screen.  However, I have many questions that hopefully will be answered in the follow up, featuring the Losers as adults.

I’ll be seeing IT again, perhaps this weekend, perhaps next week.  As I said, it was like falling into the novel that I didn’t just read, but lived.

And it’s a journey that I don’t mind repeating, to a childhood I do remember and the friends I shared it with.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay

Description:

It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

The first time I read Picnic at Hanging Rock, I was maybe 13 or 14 and had come straight off seeing of the movie of the same name (directed by Peter Weir) on TV.  Both the book and the film carry the narrative in a strangely quiet way, trusting the story to invite and beguile readers and viewers for years to come.  For me, with my love for all things unexplained and mysterious and slightly supernatural, that made it all the more haunting.

In my recent re-read of the book, I was reminded once again of how the quiet voice of the omnipresent narrator slips past one’s guard.  It insinuates itself into one’s thoughts as it tells the story of a women’s school in 1900 Australia.  Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the subtleties at play require one’s full attention or you’ll miss the clues that paint the final picture.

There are a variety of characters that work against and play off of each other – from unpleasant and cruel (Mrs. Appleyard), to the ethereal (Miranda), to the lost and hopeless (Sara).  And while there are a few male characters one might think of as leads (Arthur and Mike), this is primarily a story about women.  It’s about how, in the aftermath of the events at Hanging Rock, their lives change from existing in the protective web of their expected roles in society to the uncertainty of life’s cruelties and uknowns.

Told in the frame-work of being based on actual events, Picnic at Hanging Rock has haunted many readers over the years.  It has also inspired many amateur detectives determined to solve the mystery of two missing schoolgirls and their teacher.

In essence, the book and the movie are to 1967 what The Blair Witch Project was to 1999.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

This haunting tale can be found at your local bookstore or online.

Review: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova (2017)

From Amazon’s book description:

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi—and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by political oppression—and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

I picked this book up about a week ago, primarily because I’d read Kostova’s The Historian years earlier and fell in love with the world she evoked.  Also, Vlad Tsepes (inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and terrifying historical leader) was the driving focus of the story.  Kostova’s voice is rich, intelligent and literary, but she never talks down to her audience.  Rather, she invites us in with simple human concerns that we all share – letters, lost luggage, art. Upon accepting that invitation, we stumble into a world that is both familiar and alien.

The Shadow Land is another such invitation.  Set in Bulgaria, both during the aftermath of World War II and the (recent) present, I wasn’t sure what to expect, beyond the book description.  But I remembered The Historian and how much I loved that book, so I was more than willing to give this one a chance.

I.  Could.  Not.  Put.  It.  Down.

Every chance I could, when I wasn’t at work, or working on my own projects or learning French or being out with my horses or friends, I was curled up with this book.  I tuned out this world that I live in and poured myself into this story.  As a voracious reader with a habit of re-reading favorite titles, this one is definitely in for a re-read.  I’m sure there are details that I missed on the first go round.

That said, I do have a minor quibble – the romance between Alexandra Boyd and a character barely seen, but highly romanticized in daydreams by Alexandra, seems idealized.  It does not feel based on real feelings or real interactions – I actually found her relationship with Bobby, her taxi driver, to be far more interesting and intimate than what actually occurred.

Overall, however, it is a minor quibble, it is my quibble and I intend to push this book on anyone who will listen.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Shadow Land                        by Elizabeth Kostova

Review: The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

Description:
The stunning story of one of America’s great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation’s burgeoning industrial prosperity.
In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam.
Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing thr
ough Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal.

Graced by David McCullough’s remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.

My opinion:
There is not a spare word used in this brilliant and absorbing account of an American tragedy that resonates to this day – the breaking of a dam and a tidal wave of water destroying everything in its path, claiming over two thousand human lives of all ages and numerous animals – is still a legitimate concern in the 21st century.
We fear that the overpasses we drive under will collapse on top of us or that the bridges we drive over will fall out from under us. We go to sleep worrying that dams or levees will fail due to man-made or natural causes or both would lead up to such events. If we wait to take care of our infrastructure until it breaks, then we will continually repeat the Johnstown flood on grand and small scales.
The fear and uncertainty that is palpable throughout the pages of McCullough’s book isn’t just of those who survived the floods of May 31, 1889, but our own, as well. We are reminded every day that we are not in control of the environment around us, that we cannot bend it to our will, no matter what we do.
The lessons from the Johnstown tragedy are ones we still need to learn today – never underestimate the water level, don’t cut corners to accommodate your investors and always place human and animal welfare over the dollar.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

You can purchase David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood by clicking on the title.

Review: Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

From the back cover:
“Turning away from the privileged world of the ’eminent Victorians’, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T.E. Lawrence’s brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was, at the time, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.”

I’ve been recommending this book right and left to friends, family and strangers. An excellent read about a strong, independent and intelligent woman who was ahead of her time, it’s also a timely book, given the current political climate in the Middle East in general and Iraq specifically. Interestingly, many of the obstacles Gertrude Bell faced with her British co-workers in relaying what she knew about the Arab tribes because of her gender are still being dealt with today.

I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this book. Although it takes place in the early part of the Twentieth Century, Bell’s experiences of others due to her gender still resonate today. Her sheer determination and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer lead her achievement in venturing into places no other person ever attempted. She not only learns the language, but takes the time to observe the hierarchy and customs, earning her the respect of the tribe leaders she meets.

Although much of Gertrude Bell’s work in the Middle East took place during World War I, it read as if it was happening in the here and now. Articulate, intelligent, educated and well-versed in the culture she chose to live in, Bell dealt with men in positions of power who chose not to listen to her opinions. She felt that the wisest course in giving the Middle East some stability was to put local tribal leaders in positions of power to run their own newly formed government, with British officers acting in supporting roles.

Instead of listening to her advice, Capt. Arnold T. Wilson, among others, followed his own agenda in holding power close to the vest. It would be too easy to dismiss it as being ‘of the time’, that women had no place in politics, either foreign or domestic. The personal conflict between Bell and Wilson reflected the external and volatile conflict between the natives of the Middle East and those who sought to control it.

Desert Queen is a powerful biography with an insightful look inside the Victorian age, the Great War and the Middle East of one hundred years ago. One is left with the personality of a strong and fiercely intelligent woman who defied convention and sought her destiny outside the narrow confines of what was expected of her.

Look for Desert Queen at your local bookshop or on-line.

This review is my personal opinion and mine alone.

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