“End of Watch” By Stephen King – (Book Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.

End of Watch (2016) oversees incomparable best-selling author Stephen King concluding his Bill Hodges Trilogy, which began with the riveting and Edgar Award winning Mr. Mercedes (2014) and continued with the experimentally designed Finders Keepers (2015), in spectacular fashion. Published by Scribner on June 7th, the 432 page volume is a labyrinthine maze of a novel. King has given us another instant classic. It radiates as another wildly inventive, skillfully paced example of why King endures as such a beloved storyteller. He is one who has captivated audiences for over four decades. Two years ago, I wrote that Mr. Mercedes was “elaborately conceived” and “worthy of Hitchcock”. The same sentiment certainly applies here. It even elucidates much the same relentless tone and sheer, compulsive enjoyment as Mr. Mercedes. End of Watch is a worthy, fitting finish. It is every bit on par with the initial effort which started this fascinating, ambitious, hard-boiled detective series.

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To its further credit, the work cracks with King’s sharp focus on characterization. He also sews his believable, sinister situations into often darkly comic humor. Likewise, his singular metaphors, vivid imagery and fluently engaging style are engraved deep into the fabric of the narrative. Such makes the experience all the more endlessly absorbing. It is also, much in the King tradition, ingeniously structured and plotted. King frequently fashions white-knuckle suspense, with touches of the supernatural and the everyday, gradually. This is issued organically and entertainingly throughout the entirety of this masterfully macabre ride. He creates a mounting wall of dread that is introduced strongly early on. True to King’s conventions, it mercilessly builds upon itself. There are also subtle references to both his prior undertakings, with The Shining (1977) being the most evident among them, and pop culture articles carefully, and with a wink to his audience, placed throughout the entirety. We are also, refreshingly, given an anything but overblown climax. It only adds to the realism King so ingeniously mirrors his latest tour de force after. The true to life drama and moments of heart King derives from these jarring circumstances, most visible in the last few pages, make this full-throttle investigative chronicle all the more well-rounded and illuminating. King’s ‘constant readers’, as well as those who are simply looking for a gripping account, will leave the tale fully satisfied.

The fiction concerns the infamous Mercedes killer, Brady Hartsfield, who remains one of the most purely wicked and intriguing antagonists conceived by King, slowing gaining power. This is while appearing dormant in hospital room 217. He is still in a persistent vegetative state. When a rash of suicides, many of them are individuals who have come into contact with Hartsfield at one point or another, begin to accrue: Hodges, who is suffering from pancreatic cancer, and his movie-loving partner, Holly Gibney, have an unshakable, inexplicable feeling that it is Hartsfield himself who is the cause of these tragedies. What is just as odd is that all of these horrific events are traced back to a cartoonish game, with potent hypnotic abilities, called Fishin’ Hole. Yet, what are these voices players seem to hear coming from the app? Furthermore, how does the letter ‘X’, which is left at many of the crime scenes, tie into all of this? Hodges and Gibney, who are eventually re-teamed with the computer savvy Jerome Robinson, must solve this case. This is before this wave of self-killings becomes an epidemic which wipes out hundreds or even thousands.

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Hodges, Gibney and Robinson are as likable as ever. The dialogue King presents them is always absorbing. This attribute is lively and beautifully put together. It is easy to equate their mutual speeches to the conversations three real life friends may have. This is especially accurate considering being confronted with the puzzle, which is just as mesmerizing itself as Fishin’ Hole is to its victims, as the one King presents to them and, simultaneously, his legion of enthusiastic fans. King also weaves pivotal information from the past two entries in a seamless, diverting fashion. At no point does any of this feel forced, as it may with a less capable auteur. Additionally, those who have not had the pleasure of becoming lost in the world conjured by the other two installments in this saga will have no problem following this mesmerizing volume. For those of us who have perused the tomes, it offers a pleasant reminder of details that might have become a fuzzy effect of time. He also introduces other on-going personas, such as Hodges former police colleague, Pete Huntley, just as logically into the proceedings. He blends the perspectives of these individuals just as well into this striking exertion. These specifics are all further indications of the literary prowess King has injected into every technical venue herein.

The result of these components are highly addictive. King deserves every ounce of the acclaim he has attained throughout his career. He hits every note necessary for a wholly filling venture. This is done, as expected, with increasing interest and gusto. He draws us in with his opening words. This is by recreating the events which commenced Mr. Mercedes from an entirely new viewpoint. From then on we are trapped in the grim web that is End of Watch. We are gripped in this manner through the duration. King’s incredible imagination and ability to pull horror from mundane daily occurrences is in full swing here. It is as welcome, and tremendously wrought, as ever. He will have you seeing pink fish, and the various other more terrifying mental picture he invokes from them, swimming through the electronic currents of your nightmares. All the while, you will be as entranced by King’s brilliant, often cinematic, writing skills. This is yet another masterpiece in a career rich with titles where such a term can easily be equated. The king of the terror genre has returned and he is as amazing as ever. End of Watch stands alongside The Fireman by King’s son, Joe Hill, as another example of the year’s best books!

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“Beyond the Ice Limit” by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child – (Book Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.

The fourth Gideon Crew novel from the collaborative team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child is a sequel to the duo’s July 1st of 2001 release, The Ice Limit. It is entitled Beyond the Ice Limit (2016). The 384 page volume, released through Grand Central Publishing, succeeds as a stand-alone novel. It is just as triumphant as a sequel. Preston and Child craftily find a way to interject pivotal details from the original into the dialogue. These are all crucial components that would’ve left those who haven’t read The Ice Limit confused. All of this is done in a manner that appears genuine and never forced. Simultaneously, it still smartly maneuvers forward the chronicle. The undertaking even manages to ultimately leave us, satisfyingly enough, with a dash of the mystery that concluded The Ice Limit. However, as a follow-up to Crew’s last harrowing adventure, The Lost Island, it fails to summon the old-fashioned excitement, at least to the degree, of the previously stated work.

Part of this has to do with the proficient, but too gradual for a composition of this pulse pounding ilk, pace. We go through over half the book until any real suspense or sense of danger seems imminent. This is save for several promising instances beforehand. All of which seem cut from a high tech rendition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) by Jules Verne. Nevertheless, Preston and Child’s fascination with science and theorization, which calls to mind Michael Chrichton, is in full swing in this early section. For the most part, this aspect is absorbing. This is as much as the riveting entertainment commonly equated with an opus from the collaborative team. The difficulty is that the emphasis on this angle takes up so much of the hardcover that the plot seems to be left stationary. Such is most visible as past occurrences and ideas are constantly mulled over and re-explained. This happens so frequently that one can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed. This repetition is also intermittently evident in the last 1/3.

Another problem area is that all of the new characters are given little time, despite the length dedicated to the exposition, to be established as a unique personality. All we know about them is from the perspective of their occupation. The rare glimpses we are given into these beings suggest stereotypical banality. Already established personas, such as Effective Engineering Solutions’ head Eli Glinn, are the only ones we feel any intimacy or sense of presence towards. Even Gideon Crew, the hero of these volumes, seems noticeably underused.

Preston and Child’s latest concerns an expedition to the remnants of the ship which was destroyed in The Ice Limit: the Rolvaag. This mission is propelled by the belief that the meteorite they attempted to recover last time was not such an item at all. Instead, it is an extraterrestrial entity. One that is planted two miles below the surface. It is located within the Antarctic sea bed itself. The organism, if that is indeed what it is, seems to be growing. If it continues to do so it may just mean the extinction of mankind. This is unless Crew, who only has nine months left to live due to a fatal medical condition, and a varied band of individuals can find out how to stop it. This is while the option to do so remains.

This is a fascinating and fun set-up. It is a plot that should be naturally intriguing. Likewise, it arises as a perfect platform for Preston and Child’s trademark intellectual, white-knuckle style. For the most part, this is true. Such is especially accurate when the affair turns into an underwater variation of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) in the later segments. Preston and Child prove again capable of blending multiple genres as the tale moves from adventure to romance, science-fiction and, ultimately, horror. There are even impressive statements on the destructive nature of mankind brilliantly woven into the proceedings. Each genre turn is blended seamlessly into the composition. There’s a natural transition to those shifting components at every interval. Such is a distinctly impressive feat.

Despite this, even when the opus is at its most engaging: the sense of exhilaration and fear never catches on. At least, not in the way that is expected. Moreover, nearly every turn in the story is familiar. Preston and Child seem determined to bring us one cliché after another. All that transpires in Beyond the Ice Limit has been done far too often. What also sinks the proceedings is that most of the climax, outside of an epilogue which nicely ties up many questions and adds a few more, is limp. Still, its structure, as frustrating as it may be, is oddly compelling in its own right.

The best attribute is Preston and Child’s cinematic prose. Their writing is clear, meticulous, intelligent and compulsively readable. They have a style which is perfect for beach reads. Such is the case of the bulk of the endeavors in their literary catalogue. It is easy to get swept up in the vividly described world they have created with each respective tome. Such makes the flaws herein largely forgivable. They even come off as strangely charming.

The result is a solid read. It is one that certainly soars over the mediocre tedium of Preston and Child’s recent Agent Pendergast entry, Crimson Shore (2015). Yet, without such a herculean characteristic as Preston and Child’s talents piloting the narrative: the endeavor may have quickly flatlined. If this were so, its brightest trait would be the literary homage to antiquated B-movies and similarly themed literature erupting from its surface. As it is, the exertion ebbs and flows amusement. The piece could use considerable tightening. This is noticeable in the first two hundred pages. Even with such excess this remains a pleasant diversion. Sometimes that is all you need.

“The Fireman” by Joe Hill – (Book Review)

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By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.

One of the great joys of reading Joe Hill is that his stories seem to exist in the same literary world created by his father, Stephen King. So when Hill’s masterful fourth novel, The Fireman (2016), calls upon, and often directly incorporates, ideas from King benchmarks like The Shining (1977) it doesn’t just summon a smirk. Instead, it seems natural and even expected. This sensibility is so strong that I often even silently anticipate Hill’s antagonists running into those who populated King’s tales at any given interval.

With this in mind, it should not be a shock that throughout Hill’s latest eight ‘book’ epic he also slyly references other King works. For example, the novella which was first made available in King’s short story collection Different Seasons, Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption (1982). There is also an undeniable parallel to The Stand (1978). This is most evident in the end of the world theme, scale and ambition. It is also comparable in the sheer length of Hill’s massive seven hundred and fifty two page tome. Hill also shares King’s knack for effortlessly entertaining his audience through the pure readability of his terrifically written sheets alone.

There is also an intimate character-focus and various pop-culture mentions. We are also amended statements concerning Maine and the state’s surrounding spots. All of these further align Hill to King. Yet, there is a noticeable inspiration from J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury and, of all things, Julie Andrews. Mary Poppins (1964) is a personal favorite of Hill’s heroine, Harper Willowes. Likewise, the Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman composed song, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, is constantly mentioned. It is also creatively mixed into the proceedings. There is also a direct comparison to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and the trials which occur within the confines of Hill’s most recent opus itself. This creates a direct arrangement to the measures of Hill’s fiction sewn into the fabric. It also seems to be modeling itself after The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Chrichton in many respects.

True of all the talents of the authors mentioned above, Hill has an affinity to make us deeply care for our leads. He keeps a sense of urgency, a quiet intensity, lurking at every turn. This is present even in the numerous exposition heavy stretches which take up much of the mid-section. Yet, such makes every tragic, unexpectedly poignant and occasionally comic item all the more pivotal, intimate and immediate. This makes the adventure Harper, a nurse, takes with John Rookwood, a likable Englishman whose own dreams are alluded to in the title all the more jarring, exciting and spectacular. Helping matters is the singular, expertly developed personalities Harper meets along the way. For example, a vindictive radio personality dubbed ‘The Marlboro Man’ is among Hill’s more interesting antagonists. This only enhances the credibility and quality of the undertaking stupendously.

The story itself is set in modern day New Hampshire. It concerns an outbreak of Draco Incendia Trychophyton or, as it is commonly dubbed throughout this meticulously detailed affair, Dragonscale. This is a lethal spore which evokes spontaneous combustion in those who have not learned how to control it. Those who do find the beauty in this microorganism. Such activities, taught to Harper by The Fireman himself, bring about a sense of time slowed down. Among the benefits of such a control is the ability to create blazes without a match. But, how long will it be before this power is corrupted?

Once Harper unveils that she is a carrier of Dragonscale, early in the undertaking, we follow her on a continually mesmerizing journey. She narrowly escapes her husband, Jakob. He is a self-proposed ‘intellectual’ and amateur writer. One that is slowly becoming unhinged and increasingly more fascinated with a suicide pact he made with Harper before she found out she was pregnant. She is fearful. This is until she finds a presumed safety at a place for those who are infected. The name of this area is Camp Wyndham. It is run by the ever-intriguing Father Storey.

Here she becomes more familiar with the title entity. It also gives her a sense of temporary safety. She thinks this will be a haven. One which will ensure that her unborn child will be protected from her increasingly violence prone spouse. This is until the pleasantries of those at Camp Wyndham are unveiled to be a ruse. It is than she must fight to survive for the sake of herself, those around her and the babe within her.

The result of this struggle, the pushing force of the entire narrative, is fully satisfying on all fronts. This is sprawling, suspenseful and smartly paced in equal doses. All the more admirably, these attributes often appears to transpire simultaneously. Hill’s structure throughout is meticulous and always fascinating. He also evokes crisp imagery. It is as spectacularly visual and unforgettable as the most haunting and harrowing mainstream blockbuster. This is especially true in the first and last hundred pages.

What is just as admirable is the magnificent way he ties up as many loose ends as possible in the concluding stretches. This makes the rare predictable element, such as a chain of events brought forth by the hierarchy in Camp Wyndham, easily forgettable. This is also true of the last 1/3 of the hardcover. Here Hill follows a generally formulaic pattern for tales of this variety. Still, he breaks new ground and dismantles expectations at nearly every turn. Thus, these small familiarities are made all the more trivial in comparison.

The volume triumphs as action. There are plenty of scenes so rigorously detailed you can often hear the crack of the shots fired and the clash of fictional vehicles. It succeeds just as well as science-fiction, horror and drama. There’s terror, poignancy, life lessons and wisdom in abundance. Just as prevalent is Hill’s rich prose. It is as grand as the plethora of authors who served as the muse for this astonishing tour de force.

Hill wants to teach us the importance of a song and unveiling moments of splendor amid an ever-blackening backdrop. Furthermore, he wants to instruct us on how everyday people can turn into heroes under the most horrific circumstances. There is also a strong emphasis on kindness and humanity amid insurmountable odds. Such, along with a tremendously realized and deservedly poetic finale, will produce tears from even the sourest of hearts. To its further credit, there is also an active imagination vividly alive here. It also easily aligns Hill with those who he specifically notes as his muse early on. These are but a few of the many numerous achievements visible in The Fireman.

Hill’s latest is endlessly engaging and meditative. It showcases the remarkable talent he demonstrated in his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts (2005), and in the Bram Stoker Award for Best Debut Novel winning, Heart Shaped Box (2007), as continuing to blossom and take flight. Though the overall content may not be as horrific as that exhibited in NOS4A2 (2013), whose Christmasland is also cleverly referenced here, it is every bit as magnificent. The William Morrow and Company published piece certainly towers over Hill’s uneven Horns (2010). What’s best is that the comic book series Locke and Key (2008-2014) scribe continues to exhibit growth, further potential and brilliance.

There’s a lot of Hill’s dad in him. This much is true. Admittedly, this connection is what drew me initially to his material. But, with every new labor turned in Hill proves that his voice is exceptional and distinctly his own. The Fireman is no exception. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most striking novels I’ve read in years. For those of us who like many genres triumphantly put together into one compulsively readable digest: this is an absolutely mandatory experience.

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