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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hey, Mom! Talking to My Mother #548 - End of the Year Book Review Roundup - part one

Hey, Mom! Talking to My Mother #548 - End of the Year Book Review Roundup - part one

Hi Mom, I could do a goodbye to 2016, a year of tragic deaths (but then, isn't every year filled with tragedy?), but I feel I have covered that subject well this week. Instead, I would rather wrap up my book reviews for the year, so I can clear my Good Reads queue.

This is going to be a big one, even with restricting myself to brief comments.

I try to avoid SPOILERS, but I would warn caution as I am claiming that the following is completely SPOILER FREE.

I read a lot of books this year. Not as many as some people manage to read but a lot at least for me.
Here's the grid of these books below. I have already reviewed many of them, such as the following link, which takes you to the category of book reviews for this blog.


According to this count, kept on my Good Reads account, I have read 42 books in 2016 not counting those to be reviewed in this entry. Adding the new books, the total 58 because two of the books in the grid in the header (Preacher volume two and Against Authority, I have not finished reading yet and will not review here). The actual book count for the year, subtracting the graphic novels, is 34, as I read and logged here 24 graphic novels. Of the remaining 34 books, I read by listening to audio books 18 of them, leaving 16 that I read with my own eyes. I started Avenue of Mysteries as one I just read (no audio) and then switched to audio. I read Between the World and Me three times. Twice without audio and once with audio. There are probably many nonfiction books not included here.

As I did with previous review wrap up installments (like this one)  I listed the books to be reviewed with my ratings next to each using a ten point scale, which I think has better options and accuracy than the five star scale on Good Reads that only uses whole number integers (no decimals). I plan to review Between The World And Me in a separate post as I am teaching it and I will refer my students.

Here's the list (not in order of appearance below):

The Demolished Man = 10
Avenue of Mysteries = 8.9
Mr. Mercedes = 9.8
Finders Keepers =  10
End of Watch = 9.4
Normal = 9.6
The Swarm = 9.4
Rat Queens =  9.1
The Girl on the Train = 9
The Dispatcher = 10
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August = 10
Weapons of Math Destruction = 9.4
The Ritual = 7.9
Prince Lestat = 9.2


Among the best books I "read" this year (as in listened to the audio books narrated by Will Patton)
was the Bill Hodges trilogy by Stephen King. I blew through these three in under a month, while listening in almost every spare moment: driving, doing dishes, cooking, walking the dog, bike rides, folding laundry, and more.

I have to confess that I am not much interested in the majority of immensely popular authors. There are notable exceptions, such as JK Rowling. Here I am thinking more of the James Pattersons, the Nora Roberts, the John Grishams. I do not often find their books very well crafted or in much of any worth my time. But of the grand popular authors, Stephen King is surely the best and my favorite.

Mr. Mercedes: A Novel (The Bill Hodges Trilogy)
by Stephen King  (Author)

Mr. Mercedes = 9.8

I didn't know this book won the Edgar Award for best novel in 2015. It's very deserving.

Here's the sum text from Amazon: #1 New York Times bestseller! In a high-suspense race against time, three of the most unlikely heroes Stephen King has ever created try to stop a lone killer from blowing up thousands. “Mr. Mercedes is a rich, resonant, exceptionally readable accomplishment by a man who can write in whatever genre he chooses” (The Washington Post).

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.

Mr. Mercedes is a war between good and evil, from the master of suspense whose insight into the mind of this obsessed, insane killer is chilling and unforgettable.

MY TAKE: This book gripped me from the first page and never let go in its jaws of death, which it kept shaking like a dog shakes a kill held tightly in its jaws.

I love a book with a strong premise, and this one has that premise. A seemingly random but well-planned mass murder seems unsolvable until the killer cannot leave well enough alone and begins taunting the chief detective, now retired, Bill Hodges.

I did not read the summary before diving into this one, and so I was quite surprised when the POV character of the first chapter and the woman he meets are killed by the end of the chapter.

This book is a great study in a killer's mind, and King does an effective job of switching between Hodges POV and Brady Harstfield's POV. The other characters are well defined and well rounded, also. The cast is also well set up for the following books.

There's great twists and turns and plenty of examination of what I like to call the Hitchcock Principle.
(Though others have referred to it as this). Some point to the example from the film The Rope. I often think of an example spitballed by Hitchcock in an interview. As he explained, it's the difference between suspense and surprise. See the Hitchcock Bomb Theory via Google search. Or this:


“There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

― Alfred Hitchcock

King builds excellent suspense in this novel that drives the tension hard and fast to a superb climax with many twists and turns along the way.

But I feel he did an even better job with this idea in the next book, though a friend of mine disagreed. Amazon reviews seem to back me up on this idea as Mr. Mercedes received a 4.3 out of five stars but Finders Keepers earned a 4.5.

Finders Keepers: A Novel
(The Bill Hodges Trilogy)
Mass Market Paperback – March 22, 2016
by Stephen King  (Author)
4.5 out of 5 stars    4,562 customer reviews
Book 2 of 3 in the Bill Hodges Trilogy Series

Finders Keepers =  10

AMAZON TEXT: A masterful, intensely suspenseful novel about a reader whose obsession with a reclusive writer goes much too far—the #1 New York Times bestseller about the power of storytelling, starring the same trio of unlikely and winning heroes Stephen King introduced in Mr. Mercedes.

“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....

Not since Misery has Stephen King played with the notion of a reader and murderous obsession, in this #1 acclaimed bestseller filled with “nail biting suspense that’s the hallmark of [his] best work” (Publishers Weekly).

—The New York Times Book Review

—The Washington Post

To best understand my reviews, I am not solely judging the book's quality independent of my own and personal enjoyment of it. In this case, with a book with a premise I love, I am going to be a bit over fond of it.

In the same geeky way that Stephen King surely loved the idea of combining careers and stories of John Updike, Phillip Roth, and JD Salinger in a single person for this novel -- John Rothstein -- I love the idea, too. Is it goofy? Yeah. Is it something a different author without King's clout could have managed? No. A first time author would either be talked out of this obvious amalgam or just rejected because of it.

But for King's story it works and becomes archetypal. To truly understand the importance of unpublished work by fictional Rothstein in this fictional world, he has to be an obvious amalgam of important writers from our world so we can imagine along with Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers just how much the lost books of Rothstein's fictional creation Jimmy Gold would be worth in money and in their impact on the literary world.

Beyond loving the fictional author idea, I love the way this book builds its suspense. The summary indicates that murderer and thief Morris Bellamy will be on a collision course with Pete Saubers who has found Bellamy's stolen treasure. By Hitchcock's Bomb Theory of suspense, we're the viewers who know all, we see the bomb under the table, but the characters do not. We watch as Morris is released from prison and goes to find his treasure but Pete does not know about Morris until its almost too late. The suspense of this collision of characters is brilliantly handled by King and makes the book engrossing. Even more satisfying is how the conflict plays out and how the story ends.

It seems that most of the Amazon reviewers agreed.

Of the trilogy, this one was by far my favorite, but I feel it's a good trilogy overall and any distinctions between books is hair-splittingly fine.

End of Watch: A Novel (The Bill Hodges Trilogy) Hardcover – Unabridged, June 7, 2016
by Stephen King  (Author)
4.5 out of 5 stars    2,907 customer reviews
Book 3 of 3 in the Bill Hodges Trilogy Series

My rating - End of Watch = 9.4

A New York Times Notable Book

The spectacular finale to the New York Times bestselling trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes (winner of the Edgar Award) and Finders Keepers—In End of Watch, the diabolical “Mercedes Killer” drives his enemies to suicide, and if Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney don’t figure out a way to stop him, they’ll be victims themselves.

In Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, something has awakened. Something evil. Brady Hartsfield, perpetrator of the Mercedes Massacre, where eight people were killed and many more were badly injured, has been in the clinic for five years, in a vegetative state. According to his doctors, anything approaching a complete recovery is unlikely. But behind the drool and stare, Brady is awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.

Retired police detective Bill Hodges, the unlikely hero of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, now runs an investigation agency with his partner, Holly Gibney—the woman who delivered the blow to Hartsfield’s head that put him on the brain injury ward. When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill’s heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city.

In End of Watch, Stephen King brings the Hodges trilogy to a sublimely terrifying conclusion, combining the detective fiction of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers with the heart-pounding, supernatural suspense that has been his bestselling trademark. The result is an unnerving look at human vulnerability and chilling suspense. No one does it better than King.

Of the three Bill Hodges books, this one was my least favorite, but as I wrote before, that's a hair-splitting distinction. I think this entire trilogy is excellent, and I burned through it in about a month this summer while doing household chores, mowing the lawn, walking the dog. These books are highly entertaining and very well written. This is Stephen King at the height of his powers.

Of the three books, this one is more like a traditional Stephen King novel, if King can be thought to have a tradition of his own. Arguably, even though Mr. Mercedes had a good ending for the story itself, it did not conclude the epic clash of good and evil that is represented by Bill Hodges and his cohorts Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson and the villain Brady Hartsfield. For King, given his story arcs, such as The Stand and The Dark Tower, he needed a more epic clash of archetypes, complete with a psychically empowered Brady Hartsfield who can manipulate technology, which we already knew he loved and had mastered, in a new and interesting way. I won't spoil the plot device that King uses, but it's clever enough and very typical of Stephen King's work.

This book brings the story of these characters to a close well and with plenty of pathos.

It seems my own feelings are mirrored by Amazon reviews. Though overall, this book scores a 4.5 some of the reviews displayed first have this book rated much lower than the other two. It is a departure in terms of story concept. The other two books were more like hard-boiled detective novels, but this one adds a super-powered villain, who in the end becomes more like the Joker of the Batman comics than an actual human being in terms of his characterization. I don't mind those kinds of broad strokes, but others may not like it as much.

I enjoyed the conclusion to the trilogy but like a lot of people, I wanted more as well.

My rating - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August = 10

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August 
Paperback – October 21, 2014
by Claire North  (Author)
4.4 out of 5 stars    825 customer reviews


Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. "I nearly missed you, Doctor August," she says. "I need to send a message."

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

Without a doubt or hesitation, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was the best book I read in 2016. I discovered it as an excerpt in the back of M. Carey's The Girl With all The Gifts. The title intrigued me, and so I read the excerpt. I immediately added the book to my wish list and within a few months I bought it and began to consume it. I did not LISTEN to the audio book of this novel. I read it in the traditional way one silently reads to one's self.

I was blown away.

I was riveted.

I took the book with me on my trip to Salem and plowed through much of it on my Kindle (though at home I read the paper copy).

I strongly recommended it to Liesel, who started and loved it but has not finished it yet.

Instantly, this book soared to the top of my list of favorite books of all time. ALL TIME. I am not sure if it places top 10. I have to give that some thought. But it's surely in the top 30 and could dislodge newcomers like Night Film or even The Girl With All The Gifts from that list.

It's obvious that Amazon reviews cannot be trusted when this book receives only 4.4 stars and the Stephen King books received 4.5. I know I said the King books were very good, but this book is even BETTER.

This book makes me want to devote more time to my own writing. I am envious that I did not think of this story myself. When I felt that envy, then it's a testament to the excellence of this work.

For instance, I found a two star review that claimed the book was enjoyable but problematic (so why not four stars??). He claimed that the time travel aspect of the book did not make sense.

Here's a PERMALINK to that review. I can't agree with this guy as he proceeds to make condemnations based on faulty assumptions. I will circle back to write about just this book with a spoiler warning because I don't want to do that here. Others seemed to like it, though some inexplicably gave it four stars with no reason given for not giving it five stars.

More on this later, but for now know that this book receives my highest recommendation.

Avenue of Mysteries 
Paperback – June 7, 2016
by John Irving  (Author)
3.3 out of 5 stars    527 customer reviews

MY RATING: Avenue of Mysteries = 8.9.

AMAZON TEXT: John Irving returns to the themes that established him as one of our most admired and beloved authors in this absorbing novel of fate and memory.

In Avenue of Mysteries, Juan Diego—a fourteen-year-old boy, who was born and grew up in Mexico—has a thirteen-year-old sister. Her name is Lupe, and she thinks she sees what’s coming—specifically, her own future and her brother’s. Lupe is a mind reader; she doesn’t know what everyone is thinking, but she knows what most people are thinking. Regarding what has happened, as opposed to what will, Lupe is usually right about the past; without your telling her, she knows all the worst things that have happened to you.

Lupe doesn’t know the future as accurately. But consider what a terrible burden it is, if you believe you know the future—especially your own future, or, even worse, the future of someone you love. What might a thirteen-year-old girl be driven to do, if she thought she could change the future?

As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but what travels with him are his dreams and memories; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. As we grow older—most of all, in what we remember and what we dream—we live in the past. Sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present.

Avenue of Mysteries is the story of what happens to Juan Diego in the Philippines, where what happened to him in the past—in Mexico—collides with his future.

Amazon reviewers were harsh with this book giving it a 3.3 total out of 5 stars.

One review who claims to love Irving wrote the following: 1.0 out of 5 stars
i would still like to talk to him
By Shep on December 18, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am a major Irving guy.For Years he was in my 3 person Diner Party. I'd still like to talk w him. However. my dear boy, has Jumped the SHARK. Way sad. I have read every word Irving has offered. I have devoured every word he has written. NOONE, noone, has ever written dialogue better than J Irving.
So I love the guy. Despite all of the obvious J Irving issues. I thought this book was unreadable. Loved the dialogue - clever and amusing, as always. However the story line is SO disjointed and frivolous as to be almost insulting. The storyline is so contrived. Irving needs someone to answer to. Where the heck is his editor?????? Sadly, this enormous talent has lost his way.

I can't agree with this assessment, which I think is over harsh and surely unkind for someone who supposedly loves Irving as much as he claims. This book is NOT "unreadable." But it's currently at the bottom of the list for me of Irving's books. Granted I have not read them all, but I liked all of them better than this novel. 

I chose to devote some of my valuable traditional reading time to this novel. I made it a little over half way before I gave up and decided to finish it as an audio book. It's ponderously slow, and there's not enough character design or promise of titillating sex -- as the main character Juan Diego pops Viagra and alternately hooks up with both a daughter and her mother (in that order) -- to keep me reading. When I found myself starting to skim, I switched to audio and moved on to a better book for traditional reading (the previously reviewed The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August).

But "unreadable"? Hardly. Irving is a masterful writer and even a subpar effort by him is still excellent and well wrought. Irving is experimenting with magical realism here, and though this novel will stand along side the work of Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it's still very good.

Though many others were negative in their Amazon reviews, there were many positive reviews.

Overall, I liked the book, much of the writing was gorgeous. It definitely felt like a swan song to me for a writer later in his life and his career, much like the character in the novel.

More reviews in part two, which I hope to post tomorrow, but no promises.


Reflect and connect.

Have someone give you a kiss, and tell you that I love you.

I miss you so very much, Mom.

Talk to you tomorrow, Mom.


- Days ago = 550 days ago

- Bloggery committed by chris tower - 1701.05 - 10:10

NOTE on time: When I post late, I had been posting at 7:10 a.m. because Google is on Pacific Time, and so this is really 10:10 EDT. However, it still shows up on the blog in Pacific time. So, I am going to start posting at 10:10 a.m. Pacific time, intending this to be 10:10 Eastern time. I know this only matters to me, and to you, Mom. But I am not going back and changing all the 7:10 a.m. times. But I will run this note for a while. Mom, you know that I am posting at 10:10 a.m. often because this is the time of your death.
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