Friday, 26 December 2014

THE DECEMBER FIRST FIFTEEN!

2014 – not long now before this year fades into history and we will be greeting a brand new year:  here at Te Takere, our beautiful library and community centre in Levin, New Zealand (check out our Facebook page), the staff and volunteers (that’s me!) wish you a most happy and healthy 2015 and, in common with all the (marginally) more well-known lists of what’s currently hot in the world of contemporary fiction, I present for your entertainment MY list of the very best books I have reviewed this year:  MY FIRST FIFTEEN.  They are not in order of preference, but in date order as I reviewed them;  the full review of each title can be accessed on that month’s posting.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt   reviewed January

My Notorious  Life, by Kate Manning   reviewed April

The Blind Man’s Garden, by Nadeem Aslam  reviewed May

The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld   reviewed June

Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence   reviewed June

He Who Kills the Dragon, by Leif G.W. Persson  reviewed July

Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman   reviewed August

Remember Me Like This, by Bret Anthony Johnston   reviewed August

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle   reviewed September

The Secret Place, by Tana French   reviewed September

The Giver, by Lois Lowry    reviewed (finally!) October

The Drop, by Dennis Lehane   reviewed October

The Wolf in Winter, by John Connolly   reviewed  November

All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, reviewed November

Revival, by Stephen King   reviewed December.  (See below)

If I had to nominate top titles, then it would be a toss-up between Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch, and ‘All the Light we Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr, both masterworks of modern fiction, followed by ‘The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld.  How lucky are we to enjoy such peerless writing, but the same can be said of all the titles on the list, and how lucky are we that we have such great titles in the library stock, readily available to all.

Revival, by Stephen King.

One of the secrets of Mr King’s enormous success as a writer is that his protagonists are the usual flawed, everyday people that we can all identify with -  then he unleashes his soaring imagination and has unbelievable things happen to them, and part of his huge talent is to make the reader believe utterly in the credibility of his plotting.   I am constantly amazed at the unflagging energy that he possesses to produce a new book each year;  each one completely different, and each one – if that is possible – better than the last. ‘Revival’ is the latest addition to this enormous body of work, and yet again Mr King takes us on a journey that we would rather not make, but find impossible to resist.
Jamie Morton is six years old in 1962 when he first meets young Methodist minister Charles Jacobs who has come to the Morton’s small Maine town as a replacement.  Like every other Methodist in town, Jamie and his family are charmed by Charles, and all the young boys are in love with Mrs Jacobs because Mrs Jacobs is gorgeous – ‘youth was her makeup’ and it makes her glow.  The reverend and his wife also have a sweet little five-year-old boy, Morrie, and appear to be very happy with their new placing. 
When the reverend isn’t occupied with his pastoral duties he indulges himself in an unusual hobby:  a big interest in electricity - not its obvious power to heat or to light the surroundings but most of all, a belief in its power to heal.  He is convinced that eventually electricity will be used for curing all kinds of illnesses, even the hopeless cases.  Jamie is not convinced:  he thinks the reverend has his wires crossed – God figures out who should be healed, not electricity! 
As time passes, Jamie comes to love and admire the reverend, as do most of his congregation – until a shocking tragedy occurs which transfixes the whole town:  reverend Jacobs loses his wife and son in a terrible road accident,  causing him to lose his faith and to preach one last homily ‘The Terrible Sermon’ in which he professes his rejection of God and all religion.  The townsfolk are stunned and Charles Jacobs disappears from Jamie’s life forever – he thinks.  But as the years go by and his life path takes several bad turns, it is Jamie’s fate to meet up with the reverend again – whether he wants to or not.
By the time Jamie has reached his lowest ebb, the reverend Jacobs has become Dan Jacobs, carnival trick photographer, masterly at relieving ‘rubes’ of their money;  regardless, he is still there to help and ‘heal’ Jamie when his need is most desperate:  when Jamie sees him again many years later, Dan Jacobs has become Pastor Danny, renowned faith healer, dispenser of that good old fashioned hallelujah religion he scorned and rejected after the deaths of his beloved family – but scarily, many of his professed cures appear to work.  Notwithstanding, Jamie knows from his own experience of being ‘healed’ that there are vicious and inexplicable after-effects.  If he investigates his old friend further and tries to stop more ‘cures’ and electrical experiments, will he have a tiger by the tail?
We are all propelled inexorably towards the last terrible electrical ‘cure’, the object of the reverend’s lifelong quest to speak to his dead family once more, and I have to say (cynic that I am) that I found the climax to be the weakest part of an otherwise superb story.  Various allusions to Mary Shelley and her masterwork were clumsy and the monsters who made an appearance caused me to quake with laughter rather than fear – but, hey!  After 400 pages, Stephen King only fell at the last hurdle:  most times he wins the race.  (see July 2014 review below).  STILL highly recommended.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Former Detective K. William Hodges is nearing the end of his tether.  Since he retired from the city Police Force, life has lost its edge;  there is nothing meaningful to relieve the boredom of his days, most of which are spent watching inane TV shows, eating junk food and drinking too much. 
Some days are worse than others:  on those days he contemplates suicide and sits in front of his TV with his father’s gun by his side – until the day he gets a letter, purportedly from a man who mowed down a line of job seekers in a stolen Mercedes, a case that was still unsolved when he retired.
The letter writer seems to know a lot about Bill Hodges, including details of his first name (Kermit); information about his farewell bash (it was a drunken riot of fun!); and even more chilling:  insider knowledge of Bill’s suicidal thoughts.  Is this monster a mind-reader?  How does he know so much? 
The general tenor of the letter is designed to increase Bill’s feelings of worthlessness, to push him into that last act with his father’s gun:  ‘it would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People ‘slipped through your fingers’.
But you are thinking of it, aren’t you?  I would like to close with one final thought from ‘the one that got away’.  That thought is:
F--- YOU, LOSER.
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,
THE MERCEDES KILLER.’

Once again, Mr King takes the reader into the dark places of minds and hearts with his usual effortless skill.  In this latest opus there is nary a hint of the supernatural for which he is so famous; not a spectre in sight:  instead he writes of the monsters that contemporary society creates who walk among their unsuspecting victims disguised by spurious normality -  as here, where the Mercedes killer is revealed early in the plot as Brady Hartfield, dutiful son of an alcoholic mother and hard worker at two jobs, one as a computer technician, the other driving an ice cream van.  What could be more normal; (even a little sad – the sacrifices that boy makes for his mother!) he works super hard at blending in with everything and everyone – why, he’s practically invisible!
But not infallible.  Contrary to his expectations, his letter has given K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) a huge boost;  the depressive clouds have parted – his mind, always keen, has something to grapple with again:  start playing the game, Mr Mercedes.  Let’s see who wins!
As always, Mr King provides his main protagonists with great supporting characters, in this case Jerome, Bill’s 17 year old lawn and odd job boy – who just happens to be black, highly intelligent and a computer whizz – but not half as whizzy as Holly, a true PC Maestro who unfortunately is plagued with ‘issues’.  They are Bill’s doughty assistants.  Their dialogue is perfect, crackling and comic (how I wish I could remember some of those one liners!) but it never distracts us from the horror and creeping suspense of a great story.  Mr Mercedes is going to strike again.  But where?  When?  And can they stop him?
Stephen King has once again held a mirror up to contemporary society, and it shows a chilling image, one that is very hard to look at.  Highly recommended. 

                 





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