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January/February 2016
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

 

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King, Scribner, 2014, $30, hardcover.

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King, Scribner, 2015, $30, hardcover.

 
I'VE BEEN burned a few times with Stephen King's longer books, really enjoying the journey until I get to the end and find out that the whole book turns on something that is—to me, at least—preposterous. A somewhat recent example would be Under the Dome, which set up a fascinating premise (an entire town is encased by an invisible and impenetrable dome) that turned out to be alien kids doing a science experiment. Or something like that.

So I put off reading Mr. Mercedes, even though it had gotten a lot of good reviews, until Finders Keepers came out and a friend convinced me to give the pair of books a try. I'm glad I did.

They're not horror—though they each feature a serial killer as the antagonist—but rather the sort of character study at which King excels.

In Mr. Mercedes, our two principal viewpoint characters are retired police detective Bill Hodges and Brady Hatfield, the titular character so named because a few years earlier he rammed a stolen Mercedes into a crowd lined up for a job fair, killing eight, wounding another fifteen. Hatfield escaped without being identified and was never caught.

Hodges was one of the detectives on the case. When he retired, it remained unsolved.

There are a number of things Hodges regrets about the case beyond the principal one that he never caught Mr. Mercedes. One of them is how he and his partner treated Olivia Trelawney, the fifty-something wealthy owner of the stolen car used in the mass murder. Trelawney wasn't an easy person to like and when she committed suicide it seemed to cement the idea that it was her carelessness that had made it so easy for Hatfield to steal her car.

Retirement doesn't sit well with Hodges. When the novel opens, the flat routine of his life is so dull that he's spending his days in front of the TV, watching shows he doesn't care about, with a loaded .38 on the table beside him. He isn't ready to use it on himself, but he thinks about it.

And then the taunting letter from Mr. Mercedes comes.

Because of things in the letter, Hodges realizes that Hatfield has to have been stalking him, and while the letter is basically suggesting Hodges give up and eat his gun, it actually has the opposite effect, galvanizing Hodges to have another run at the case.

The letter is evidence and Hodges knows that he should be turning it over to his former partner, but he feels compelled to investigate a little further on his own first. He knows the department is busy. He knows he has a better shot at figuring things out himself. And he's pretty sure that—contrary to the protestations in the letter—Mr. Mercedes is planning another event that will be even more damaging than what he did before.

Before Hodges knows it, he's too deep into the case to get out of it. He gets help from Trelawney's sister Janey—which Hodges comes to regret—from Jerome Robinson, the local kid who cuts his grass, and finally from Trelawney's niece Holly Gibney who has many of the same problems relating to other people as did her aunt.

By now you're thinking you've heard variations on all of this before. The retired, depressed cop running a case on his own pretty much has a subgenre all to itself in the mystery field. But a good writer can make even the most tired tropes his own, and King does just that throughout Mr. Mercedes. It's easily one of my favorite King titles in a while. The straightforward prose combined with the twisty mystery are strong reasons for that, but mostly it's the cast of characters that kept me so entranced.

King has always had a gift for characterization. He's one of the few writers that, in just a few lines, can bring even a walk-on member of his cast to life. The ones with which he spends more time…well, we get to know them as well as we do the people close to us in life.

(As a side note, I found some interesting similarities in how King dealt with some of the quirky, secondary characters in this book to the way the other big "K" in the horror/thriller field, Dean Koontz, handles his, though with Koontz it's usually the principal viewpoint members of his cast that have the most interesting character tics and traits. These idiosyncratic elements—leavened with a dash of humor—are what make them so unforgettable.)

I'm not going to discuss the plot elements any more than I already have because one of the joys of a good mystery novel is figuring out what's going to happen next. But I will say that Mr. Mercedes came to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

Moving on to the sequel, Finders Keepers, I'm assuming it won't be a spoiler to say that Hodges, Holly, and Jerome are all back. (It is a sequel, after all.)

This time the title comes from the repo business that Hodges and Holly have started.

A good sequel brings something new to the plate, and Finders Keepers does just that. In fact, it's a little over 150 pages before any of the surviving characters from the first book make an appearance.

Our antagonist this time is a small-time crook named Morris Bellamy, who has a fascination with the highly respected but reclusive author John Rothstein. Rothstein only has three books to his name, each of them featuring his creation Jimmy Gold. Bellamy adores the first two but the third makes him crazy with anger because he feels that Rothstein sold out Jimmy, undermining everything that made the first two books so outstanding.

Finders Keepers opens with Bellamy and a couple of pals robbing Rothstein. They've broken into the house and forced Rothstein to give them the combination to his safe. Inside is a lot of money, but also a treasure trove of notebooks in which Rothstein has been writing since he disappeared from public view years before.

Bellamy ends up killing Rothstein, and then also his partners. He wraps money and notebooks in plastic, puts them in a chest and buries the chest in a wooded lot behind his mother's house. He plans to wait for the heat to die down to see if he gets implicated before he spends the money or reads the notebooks. Then he goes out to celebrate.

That's a bad mistake. He has a history of drunken blackouts. When he comes to from this one it's to find himself in jail for raping and beating a young woman. He gets put away and spends the next couple of decades in prison, dreaming about what's in those notebooks.

The viewpoint in this early section of the book switches between Bellamy and a boy named Pete Saubers, whose father was among the severely injured when Mr. Mercedes took his stolen car and rammed into the lineup of people waiting at that job fair. Things are tense in the Saubers household. Money's tight, and the relationship between Pete's parents is fraying to the point where he and his sister Tina are afraid that the family is going to come apart.

Then Pete finds Bellamy's buried chest. He gets the bright idea of using the money to help solve the family's woes and starts sending them an envelope of five hundred dollars every month.

His plan works. Then he starts to read the notebooks and eventually becomes as taken with Rothstein's Jimmy Gold as Bellamy was. When the money finally runs, out he's torn between figuring out a way to sell a few of the notebooks or donating them all to some place where everybody will get to read them.

In the meantime, Bellamy gets out of prison and goes looking for his money and those same notebooks. It's when he eventually realizes that Pete has them that Hodges and his motley crew come into the picture, hoping to rescue Pete and his family before the vengeful and ever more deranged Bellamy gets hold of them.

King has tackled the crazed reader before in Misery but though the theme is similar here, the approach he takes in Finders Keepers is a far cry from that earlier novel.

That's one of the things I like about King's work. The constants are that he has a true gift for characterization, an uncanny eye for observation that he's able to translate to his fiction, and a high readability factor. The latter is the reason his books are so hard to put down. But I especially appreciate the breadth of his subject matter and the approaches he takes to it. I'm not always happy to be along for the ride, but I admire how he's always pushing himself out of his own comfort zone.

It's worth remembering that he doesn't need to write for a living. At this point in his career his books and the film adaptations have made him enough money that he could have stopped a long time ago. But he's a born storyteller, the one who has to write, because the stories he tells are what define him.

In that regard, King's a little like jazz guitar great Bill Frisell. You never have any idea what sort of project he'll tackle next. When it does come out, it might not appeal to you, but it's always high quality and interesting.

These two fat novels feel like an author working at the top of his game and really, is there any more we can ask from a writer?

Highly recommended.

 

*   *   *

 

The Land Beyond All Dreams, by Bryan Fields, MuseItUp Publishing, 2014, $4.75, ebook.

Dragon's Luck, by Bryan Fields, MuseItUp Publishing, 2015, $2.99, ebook.

 

In The Land Beyond All Dreams, pagan gamer David Fraser and his dragon girlfriend Rose (first introduced in Life with a Fire-Breathing Girlfriend) are back in another geek-friendly novel. Like the first book, it starts with small problems that build upon each other until all hell breaks loose.

This time a simple solstice ceremony deposits a weird cat in the couple's lives. And I do mean weird. It's got the rear paws of a cat, but the front ones of a raccoon. Its skin is tough and hard, the fur rough with dirt that later turns out to be mildly radioactive. Its collar has the word "Thirteen" written on it, so that's what they call it when it appears in their back seat at the ceremony.

Oh, and it's wearing a hat.

And it turns out it can teleport.

Thirteen isn't the strangest thing they encounter. The company where David works has been involved in illegal drug-testing, and it turns out that the main researcher is an immortal sorcerer from another world who is using one particular drug to create an army of undead when that drug should still be in the lab for testing. David blows the whistle on this particular scheme—leaving out the immortal sorcerer from another world and army of the undead bits—but he's already too late.

From that point on, it's a race to stop the sorcerer that takes us to other worlds, meeting all sorts of strange and wonderful beings—oh, and finding out where Thirteen came from in the process.

In Dragon's Luck, David is now the owner of a computer online gaming company that is having internal problems before it can even release its first game. In case you're wondering, how he can afford this is explained in the previous book. But now the money's running out and he and his staff head out to a big gaming convention called BuzzCon in Las Vegas in hopes of finding investors.

Anyone who's worked a booth at a convention will appreciate the mundane problems David runs into. But most people with such experience didn't also have to deal with a war between an upstart deity-wannabe named the Bloodmaiden and the war god Crom. (Robert E. Howard fans, there's a good reason Fields uses Howard's fictional deity, but I'm not going to tell you what it is.)

Luckily, David and his friends have the help of some literally out-of-this-world investors to try to stop the upcoming bloodbath. But they're still badly outnumbered.

It occurred to me while reading Dragon's Luck that this latest book really carries on the spirit of Roger Zelazny's Amber series. There's the royal hierarchy of the new characters, all of them with special abilities; the walking between worlds; the jostling for power in family politics; the expectations of having only the finest and best of lodgings, food, and drink.

I don't think Fields is copying Zelazny. It might be a homage to the Amber series. Or it might just be something I'm seeing of which Fields is unaware. But it still made me smile and gave a little extra zest to an already entertaining read.

That sense of fun is what makes this series so successful.

We've probably all heard a certain piece of the advice that's often given to authors: write about what you love. Bryan Fields has definitely taken that advice to heart, and his enthusiasm for his subject matter is part of the driving force that makes these books work as well as they do. Yes, many of the elements in these stories are wish fulfillment. Some might even say that they play out like a fanboy's—or fangirl's—wet dreams. But the stories are fast-paced and so engaging that even if you don't share all of Fields' interests in fantasy, cosplay, and gaming, you'll still have a great time when you come along for the ride.

What's particularly interesting to me is how he takes these light-hearted action romps and folds in serious concerns—societal ills, the environment, interpersonal relationships, elective death, families of choice, sexual identity—without ever bringing the story to a halt. The serious elements are a part of the characters' lives, things they have to deal with along with fighting the undead, dark elves, and all the other evildoers who show up to make their lives miserable.

I'm certainly looking forward to the next installment of David and Rose's ongoing adventures.

 

*   *   *

 

Spirit Caller Books 1-3, by Krista D. Ball, Krista D. Ball, 2014, $12.99, trade paperback.

 

What a breath of fresh air this Spirit Caller series is. It's set in Wisemen's Cove, a small town in northern Newfoundland (population twenty). Our viewpoint character Rachel Mills is neither an ass-kicking PI, detective, vampire, nor witch. She doesn't look like she stepped out of the pages of the latest Victoria's Secret catalogue or from a SuicideGirls web page. In short, she's ordinary folks just like us, albeit with excellent observational skills and a delightful narrative voice.

Mind you, she can see and speak to ghosts, but that's more a hindering nuisance than any sort of useful life skill.

This omnibus brings together the first three novellas in the series along with a couple of short stories. I loved the cover copy for the first novella, introducing our protagonist:

"Rachel has no trouble believing in spirits. It's the living she has a tough time believing in.

"The man she's in love with? Taken. The job she loved? Gone. Her neighbors? They're taping religious tracts to her door."

It's to author Krista D. Ball's credit that with all that going against her, Rachel doesn't come off as either whiny or pathetic.

As the book opens, Rachel gets a call for help from a boy who has inadvertently called up all the spirits in the area, but the ones that are causing particular problems are those of the Viking invaders, still at war after death with the Beothuks and the other natives who came before them. And the real problem is that they appear to be solid enough to cause damage to their surroundings. Woodpiles, garbage bins, cars are getting busted up, and it's only a matter of time before people start to get hurt as well.

Adding insult to injury—in Rachel's eyes—is that it turns out the boy's father is the one who's been taping those religious tracts to her door. Blaming her for being a witch (she isn't) while his own son is practicing the craft.

The stories have a great supporting cast. I particularly like Rachel's feisty ninety-three-year-old neighbor Mrs. Saunders (who takes a pivotal role in helping to solve the problem of the ghosts) and RCMP Constable Jeremy Garratt (Rachel's secret crush). I have to admit that Rachel's fixation on Jeremy wears a bit, but then I thought about it a bit. We don't choose who we are attracted to, and in a village as small as Wisemen's Cove I suppose there aren't a lot of viable options, so it felt true to life. And Mrs. Saunders makes up for pretty much anything, stealing the scene every time she steps onto a page.

I'm not going to get too much into the various plots, mostly because I don't want to spoil anything. If the above intrigues you, you'll enjoy the stories and be happy I left the surprises to be just that.

This is the first fantasy I've run across set in Newfoundland, and it made me stop and wonder why that is. When you consider the popularity of Celtic/Teutonic/Native mythologies in fantasy, you'd think writers would have delved into its rich folklore before. Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia's Cape Breton, are ripe settings for the stories rooted in Celtic folklore, founded as they were by the Irish and Scots, and before them Vikings and indigenous peoples. The feeling you get in Newfoundland is akin to the rugged coastlines of Ireland and the Hebrides, and Cape Breton could easily stand in for the Scottish Highlands. In many of these places they still retain the original Gaelic languages. And of course the folklore.

I know Tanya Huff has had characters visit Cape Breton, and I believe O. R. Melling has as well, but neither has had their characters stay long enough in either area for a whole book.

Which gives Krista D. Ball a bit of a head start, and so far she's doing a great job in setting the bar.

 

*   *   *

 

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth, by Judd Winick, Random House Books for Young Readers, 2015, $13.99, hardcover.

 

I have just enough room left in this column to quickly mention the newest book by Judd Winick, author of Barry Ween: Boy Genius and Pedro and Me, the former a laugh-out-loud romp, the latter a moving autobiographical graphic novel about his friendship with AIDS educator Pedro Zamora after the two met while on the reality television series, The Real World: San Francisco.

Hilo leans more to Barry Ween with a little less swearing. As the title says, Hilo crashed to Earth—from where, he doesn't remember. He's found by a boy named D. J. who helps Hilo acclimatize himself to living on Earth. Together with his best friend Gina, D. J. sticks with Hilo as Hilo tries to figure out who he is and where he came from.

There's so much to like about this book. The bright, striking art that moves the eye effortlessly from panel to panel. The multicultural cast who aren't diverse to make a statement, it's just who they are. Hilo's wide-eyed wonder as he explores our world, seeing what we consider ordinary as amazing and infinitely interesting.

Kids are going to love Hilo. It's fun and funny, unselfconscious and a rollicking good story. But there's also room for serious moments that are especially poignant as you come to care for the characters. And care for them you will.

It's all so engaging that I think this would be a particularly good book to get a reluctant reader started.

 

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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