Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King

                I was enormously disappointed in this book.  Me, a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool, forever fan of Stephen King! I feel as though I have just blasphemed, uttering such an opinion, but it is true:  in ‘Finders Keepers’ the essential, vital element of dread and nail-biting suspense so effortlessly produced in all his novels is initially missing.  The story doesn’t gain impetus or pace until at least halfway through, when the great trio of characters from the brilliant ‘Mr. Mercedes’ (see July, 2014 review below) are reintroduced, for this is part two of a trilogy.   That I am glad to hear, for part three may yet fulfil the promise not realised in Finders Keepers;  then Mr King will be back to his usual superb standard.
            Morris Bellamy fancies himself an intellectual.  He is well-read enough to know that John Rothstein, reclusive writer of some of the greatest contemporary American literature, lives miles away from the nearest neighbour;  has few visitors;  the cleaning lady visits just once a week, making him a prime candidate for an easy break-in and robbery.  Morris and his two bumbling sidekicks don’t take long to rouse Rothstein from his sleep, force from him his safe combination, and rifle its contents.  The only deviation from the original plan being that Rothstein is mouthy:  he dares Morris to use his gun.  So he does.  Morris never could resist a dare, for Morris has a mouth of his own that has dropped him in the brown stuff more than once;  however, he does feel a fleeting regret for he admires Rothstein for the great writer he was (even though it was Morris who sent him into the past tense) – but what a bonus!  In the safe, along with a good chunk of money, are more than a hundred Moleskine notebooks, containing not one but two sequels to Rothstein’s master work.  Morris is well pleased with the night’s events but is starting to be irked by his colleagues, both of whom object strongly to the murder of the old man – so he despatches them, too.  Killing people is as easy as falling off a log, especially if one is a psychopath.
            Morris is lucky to avoid suspicion when the murder victims are eventually discovered – not all in the same place:  he isn’t STUPID.  Instead, he goes to jail for a very long time for another crime entirely, committed when he gets roaring drunk in a bar:  alcohol and Morris are enemies and should stay away from each other at all costs. Fortunately, Morris hides his stash of money and the notebooks (which he can hardly wait to read) before he is sent away for more than thirty years, the thought of the treasure awaiting him sustaining him as he grows into an old man.
            Enter the new tenants of Morris’s old house:  a good family fallen on hard times, for the father was horribly injured by the rampaging Mercedes driver while he stood in line at the Job Fair. The family is at a low financial and emotional ebb – until son Peter finds by accident a mysterious trunk containing money (praise be!) and notebooks filled with writings by one of America’s classic novelists.
            The family is saved from penury and certain breakup by this wonderful windfall – until Morris is released from jail and comes looking for his stash, only to find it gone.  His rage is Olympian, and when he finds the culprit, that sorry sinner will die.
FINALLY, suspense starts to build.  Pete knows he is in trouble and his sister worries about him so much she enlists the services of her friend Barbara, who calls in Finders Keepers, an investigative agency run by K. William Hodges, Det.ret., and Holly Gibney, computer supremo and Aspergers sufferer.  Barbara’s brother, Jerome, has gone to Harvard but he appears during the holidays to lend his particular talents to the investigation, which is just as well;  these three characters carry the story now, and should have appeared much sooner, for they are absolute stars.
And we haven’t heard the last from Brady Hartfield, the infamous Mr Mercedes of Book One:  he lies in hospital with irreparable brain damage, thanks to Holly’s brave intervention.  He is not expected to regain any motor skills, or any faculties at all, really, and Bill Hodges visits him on a regular basis, taking absolute delight at this murderer’s incapacity.  He cannot resist taunting his dull-eyed nemesis, secure in the knowledge that this beast will never kill again.  Or will he?  Roll on Book Three - and goodbye to Morris Bellamy, who just wasn’t up to snuff, but I look forward as always to meeting Jerome, Holly and Det.Ret. K. William Hodges once more for what I hope will be a stunning showdown with resurrected evil.

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 jobseekers 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:
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,

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.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015


Chappy, by Patricia Grace

It is ten years since Patricia Grace’s last novel, ‘Tu’ was published but her new novel ‘Chappy’ is worth the wait, for Ms Grace thrills her dedicated readers yet again with the beauty of her story, and will doubtless gain thousands more new converts to her unique and loving view of life in New Zealand, then and now, for the Tangata whenua (People of the Land).
            Daniel Knudsen is the son of a Maori mother and a Danish father – the great Dane, his mother’s family call him, because he is a prosperous banker based in Switzerland, where Daniel was born.  Twenty one year-old Daniel is a malcontent;  can’t really settle to anything;  doesn’t know why he is enrolled (at his parent’s suggestion) in a prestigious German university reading German literature – where will that lead him in life?  Until a car accident convinces his exasperated mother to send him back to his Maori kin in New Zealand:  if they can’t whip him into shape, then no-one can.
            As a treat for his sister and mother, Daniel, who is staying with his grandmother Oriwia, makes a written record of the family’s oral history, particularly that of the mysterious Japanese grandfather who died before he was born.  He is fascinated with the diversity of his lineage, and means to unearth as much as possible during his stay, particularly from his ‘double-adopted’ great-uncle Aki who lives alone (‘in the bush, the fool’ says Oriwia).  And Aki is ready to talk into Daniel’s little tape-recorder;  he is ready to unburden himself of the weight of history and family connections:  it is time to speak.
            Aki is a boy of fifteen when he is taken on as a seaman on a ship in the port of Wellington.  He considers himself lucky for these are the Depression years, years of terrible hardship for everybody, and Aki’s family is depending on him to help them when he can – which he does, and he finds the seagoing life and working his way round the world an admirable fit;  it also eases his aching heart, for Aki and his family are no strangers to sorrow, and it is a relief to be away from the ghosts – until he sees one on a corner of the deck one night.
            The ‘ghost’ turns out to be a sick, starving Japanese stowaway, so ill that Aki doesn’t know if he will survive the journey to Wellington, but Aki’s gifts of food and kindness make enough difference to ensure survival and the smuggling of the ‘Chappy’ off the ship, onto a train and up the coast to Aki’s family, an exotic extra gift on top of everything else:  ‘A little Hapanihi, from Chapan.’ 
            All branches of the family take Chappy to their hearts, particularly Oriwia, (even though she and Aki had an agreement to marry made during arithmetic at school) and she decides that it would be an excellent idea for she and Chappy to marry – it’s all very well having an ‘understanding’ with Aki (who already has met the love of his life in Hawaii) but what use is muscle and hard work if it’s always somewhere else?
            Oriwia knows she has found the right man and she and Chappy know great happiness – until Japan bombs Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941, and Chappy is now an enemy alien.
            Ms Grace’s research of this terrible time is exact and sure, conveying with elegant clarity the grief and lasting sorrow of absence and loss;  the mystery of a loving, staunchly loyal man’s motives for staying separated from his family for decades until found, once again, by Aki;  and the endless understanding and forgiveness from a huge family;  huge in number and huge in heart:  Daniel’s trip home to Aotearoa has whipped him into shape, and it didn’t hurt a bit.
  This is a great story:  it was worth waiting for.  Highly recommended.

The Liar’s Key, by Mark Lawrence.

Prince Jalan Kendeth of Red March returns to entertain and delight readers yet again with his utter lack of scruples, eye for the main chance and a remarkable propensity for attracting enemies by the shipload.  His reprehensible behaviour has not improved since Book One ‘The Prince of Fools’ (see 2014 review below);  he still lies, cheats and tries to flee at the first sign of danger to himself (too bad about anyone else!) and the only reason he leaves the comforts of the snowbound inn he and Snori ver Snagason have been wintering in is the usual pursuit by various cuckolded husbands and outraged women who considered themselves his only true love.  Yes, it is time to leave before his enviable looks are spoiled and he has been made to eat certain essential parts of his anatomy, and Snori, an honourable man who still (despite so much proof to the contrary) considers Jalan his friend, is the perfect bodyguard.
            But Snori is on a seemingly hopeless quest, and will not be dissuaded:  he has possession of Loki’s Key – Loki, the trickster God of Norse mythology, Loki the Liar, Loki the Cheat who fashioned a key that can open any door, including that of the Underworld.  Snori means to find that door, open it, and search for his dead family.  He will bring them back, or die in the attempt, for his life is meaningless without them. 
            Needless to say Jalan (right up there with Loki at lying and cheating) is horrified at Snori’s reckless pursuit of a sticky end, but will travel with him (the Norseman might be mad but he’s superb insurance against the dangers on the road) as far as Vermillion.  Even though Jalan is only a minor princeling it will be wonderful to return home, where he can embellish shamelessly the stories of his exploits – and where he will at last be warm.  He thinks.
            Jalan is indeed warm, but the welcome from his family is not;   yet again he is forced to flee from creditors who are tiresomely demanding their money  and he finds to his horror that he misses his travelling companions – Christ on a bike – he must be ill!
            True to form, our cowardly hero undergoes much privation (usually his own fault), battles disturbing visions from mages, necromancers et al as they try to find out what he knows about Loki’s Key and its whereabouts – ‘A key?  What key?  I am a prince of Red March.  What use have I for keys!’  Yeah, right.  Those sorcerers aren’t fooled for a second.  Jalan is the conduit:  when he reunites with Snori, the Key will be theirs.
            It is not easy to create sequels that are successively better with each volume but Mr Lawrence is one great storyteller who seems to manage this feat effortlessly;  he leaves the reader always wanting more, hanging out impatiently for the next episode – which will see Snori and craven companion Jalan exactly where he does not want to be:  in Hel, searching for Snori’s beloved family.  My only complaint about this book is that I shall have to wait at least another year for Mr Lawrence to enlighten me.  I’ll be doing it hard!  Highly recommended. 

Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence

Jalan Kendeth is a prince of Red March, a southern kingdom blessed with bountiful harvests and buxom wenches.  He is young, handsome and filled with boundless energy – but not for anything constructive.  He freely admits to being irresponsible, (he is hugely in debt to a sadistic moneylender) feckless, (no woman is safe from his doubtful charms) and famously disinterested in the affairs and business of ruling his country – which is fortunate;  he is tenth in line to his grandmother the Red Queen’s throne and as such would never be considered for the crown.  Also, he is considered the runt of the litter of his family of older brothers, for despite his fine height and good build he is ‘The Little One’.  They dwarf him, every one.
Well, who cares?  Not him:  he’s quite happy to remain one step ahead of the moneylender (and he’s a damn fine runner!), and to worry about consequences for any of his actions after he has acted – until he becomes involved with a huge Norseman, a captive of his grandmother who has been freed because he gave her vital information about a huge and frightening army preparing to attack from the frozen Northern wastes of the Bitter Ice.  Through a dreadful twist of fate – and a ghastly spell concocted by a witch (truly!) – they are bound together by the good and bad strands of the spell and compelled to journey North to try to stop the advance of the Dead King and his ghastly army of corpses.  Snorri ver Snagason, the Norseman, is happy to begin the journey:  his wife and children are captives in the North and he means to rescue them.  Jalan, needless to say, feels exactly the opposite.  Heading purposely towards certain death is not on his agenda, but such is the power of the spell that he has no choice and begins the journey with a quaking heart and loud protestations.
And, regardless of his fears, he and Snorri travel inexorably northwards, most of the time with little food and no money, and depending more than once on ‘the kindness of strangers’, until they reach Ancrath, home of Jorg, Prince of Thorns, who is back in favour – however temporarily -  with his father, King Olidan.  Jalan makes much of his princely status while he can, until Olidan’s Queen tries to bribe him to kill Jorg, but Jalan has no stomach for such a task, especially when he sees the Prince of Thorns and is victim of his thousand yard stare.  No:  it’s time he and the Norseman resumed their journey – fast!
Once again, we are off on a marvellous adventure through Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy of Europe after The Big Bang, the Explosion of a Thousand Suns,  the setting of  his superb ‘Prince of Thorns’ trilogy. 

Jalan Kendeth’s story runs parallel to the action in the first trilogy so he is bound to cross paths again with the deadly Honorous Jorg Ancrath;  it will be fascinating to see if his and Norri’s travails have given him an injection of the courage he honestly acknowledges he lacks, but by the end of Book One our expectations are not high – instead, what is certain is that Mark Lawrence has produced once again a fantasy of the highest order, with characters that readers truly care about, and more action than you can shake a stick at.  There are Unborn, Undead and Unnaturals littering every chapter, not to mention witches, bitches and seers by the score:  what more could a dedicated fantasy reader ask for, except top quality writing and plotting.  Mark Lawrence does it all.  Highly recommended.