The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

Hardcover, 495 pages
Published November 3rd 2015 by Scribner

I have to say, The Bazaar from Uncle Steve was a bit of a letdown. Stephen King is, obviously, one of the most-hyped authors of today, which is why the fall from so high can be so hard for his readers. This collection of previously published works, in itself, had a range like open arms – from eye-roll-warranting clunkers that never took off and seemed rather (dare I say it?) juvenile for such a master wordsmith to others that truly took my breath away and really explored the mental and emotional crevices of humanity in a way that was breathtakingly clear and surprising – similar to reaching the summit of a huge roller coaster and seeing the landscape around you for those vivid two seconds before being dragged back down again. Billy Blockade, Bad Little Kid and Under the Weather, I’m looking at you now. Overall, I will remember this collection as a hodgepodge that had some really great highlights – and those highlights are what I will take from it. The short introductions to each story were a real treat. Those anecdotes and revelations were the extra seasoning that this collection needed to thread it all together. However, it would’ve been cool if the original place of publication had been added to those intro snippets; after all, we all knew that most of them were previously published anyway.

 

Mile 81 –

This story was surprisingly and glaringly amateur. I appreciate that he led us into that with the knowledge that it was one of his earliest works, but it left an awful taste in my mouth and a hesitation to continue on with the collection. Not the best choice for starting out; better to bury that one somewhere in the middle. No stars.

 

Premium Harmony –

Deliciously dry and sardonic. The dialogue hit the nail on the head in that matter-of-fact sort of way that makes you laugh out loud, and the title – fittingly ironic indeed – tied the humor and storyline all together. Great story! **** 4 stars

 

Batman and Robin Have an Altercation –

The father-son storyline warmed the heart, but there wasn’t much else here. * 1 star

 

The Dune –

This story had a setting and cadence that really made the story, but this one would’ve been more compelling if it had showcased action scenes (which King definitely seems to have shied away from in this collection on a whole). At minimum, it would have carried more resonance if the narrator hadn’t described the deaths in such a half-removed-from-the-situation fashion. Nonetheless, the voice and pace were very steady and controlled, allowing me to trust both the author’s hand and the narrator’s voice. **** 4 stars

 

Bad Little Kid –

Awesome story! Sinister, slow and, at times, somber, but never too much. It was a true King story for his avid readers, his hand for the disturbing on full display here. ***** 5 stars

 

A Death –

A great “period” piece mixed with a little “local color” – sorry King, I know you have “no use for that.” This one was an excellent example of how dialogue and regional slang can really set the scene and shape a work! **** 4 stars

 

The Bone Church –

I’m all for contemporary poetry that doesn’t follow the rules, but the two poetry selections presented here proved that I am not a fan of King’s attempts at that particular form of art. Disjointed and confusing, this one gets no stars.

 

Morality –

This story was very well written, but anti-climactic for sure, particularly the ending. Sure – it was a real-world sort of ending, but it didn’t live up to the hype at all, and the “crime” that was so central to the story’s theme was so minor, I couldn’t believe all the hyperventilation they were doing over it! Good story telling, but not much there to sink my teeth into. ** 2.5 stars

 

Afterlife –

This story had a biting humor, juxtaposed by the two main characters’ past interactions with women, that added a new an unexpected layer to this story. The 50s setting and various decades referenced as they discuss the mistakes of their past gave this one body and made it more memorable and 3-D. Good story. *** 3.5 stars

 

 

 

Ur –

UGH! This story was great for the sort of Super Bowl celebrity selling out that we expect to see in commercials, but this one SERIOUSLY took away a lot of King’s street cred! Great for Kindle/Amazon propaganda, but an otherwise ridiculous attempt with a cop-out, oh-this-story-is-getting-to-be-way-to-long-so-let’s-just-end-it-now sort of finale. Definitely warranted more than a few eye rolls. One star for referencing the cool possibility of authors writing new and previously unexplored works in other dimensions, but that’s about it. * 1 star

 

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive –

I LOVED the blunt and unornamented examination of life that this one provided. It was so real, in fact, that it was almost pure. This look at real life aimed for the authentic and came from a character’s POV who was really examining it all for the first time. Thought-provoking and funny, this one was a winner. The story would’ve really hit the mark if it hadn’t been watered down by the elderly couple’s POV. **** 4 stars

 

Under the Weather –

AWESOME story; definitely one of the best of the bunch! I felt a nod to “A Rose for Emily” in this one that I loved; it was macabre in a delectable way that resonated loudly at the end. It had all of the elements of a good short story and a King-worthy ending. The thread about the dream really tied this one together. ***** easily 5 stars

 

Blockade Billy –

This one was another long one, but I truly did not mind it being long at all! The jargon here was thick as molasses, which I didn’t always get, but it didn’t take away from the story; in a lot of ways, it made the story. I felt like I was a part of their world, which is the whole reason that people read when they could just watch a movie. The ending was KILLLER. Really. Killer.  ***** easily 5 stars

 

 

Mr. Yummy –

This one didn’t live up to the intro that King wrote for it; it was neither about desire nor AIDS (for that matter), which made it a bit of a letdown. The irony and humor of the “grim reaper” aspect made the story unique, but this one seemed like a failed attempt overall because those topics were just mentioned in passing, not really explored as the intro seemed to promise. *** 3 stars

Tommy –

No comment is comment enough. Not a fan of Uncle Stevie’s poetry in this collection.

 

The Little Green God of Agony –

Umm, not a winner for me. This was like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps on steroids (mild steroids that made it appropriate for an adult, not extreme steroids that made it King-like). Enough said. ** 2 stars for the humor added by the nurse’s thoughts and the dynamic between she and her boss.

 

That Bus Is Another World –

Good little short with a surprise ending. I’ll tip a nod here to King for putting his characteristic examination of humanity into this one. *** 3 stars

 

Obits –

Didn’t live up to the phenomenal story I thought I was getting (because of its length and premise highlighted on the jacket flap). You’d think that only the best stories would be highlighted there, but, in my opinion, the opposite happened. This one also veered towards juvenile at times and the ending was…whhhhaaaaat?… a letdown for sure. ** 2.5 stars for the premise

 

Drunken Fireworks –

This one had absolutely nothing to do with horror or even the vaguely macabre. Though King shared his distaste for the term, this one was definitely just an episode of “local color,” which is likely why he felt the need to defend against that. ** 2 stars

 

Summer Thunder –

Sure, what better way to end the collection than with the apocalypse, I agree. This, however, showed again how King didn’t jump in to tackle the big action scenes but settled for examining the aftermath, or 3rd person removed version of them. Other than that, it was a solid story, worthy of the King brand, with an ending that was foreshadowed but…comme si comme ça.

4 stars ****

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The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 417 pages
Published October 27th 2015 by Little, Brown and Company

I’m sorry to say that this one nearly bored me to tears (yes, literal and actual tears), which is a far cry from what I’d expected—and what Miss Schiff’s previous prize-winner, Cleopatra, invoked in me during the reading of it. I was ever so excited to start this one because I’d SO enjoyed Cleopatra—that one had me turning pages faster than any fiction thriller ever has and literally brought me to tears in the end—definitely the kind of roller coaster read that we all yearn for but wouldn’t dream of finding in a biography!

However, I found The Witches to be a muddled let-down from the very first page! A tremendous bore whose tendency towards superfluous purple prose didn’t have nearly the moving effect as it offered before. This one proved to be as laborious a task in reading as it must have been in writing, which is never the effect that an author wishes to achieve, I’d imagine. It skipped around from progressing through the timeline of events in its narration to delving into the most minute details of the backgrounds of even the most minor individuals—an enterprise to be applauded that her research yielded such the treasure trove of information, but a fact that severely slowed the progression of the narrative and made the following of it more difficult than necessary.

I felt like I was constantly juggling the backstory of each minister, shop keeper, servant and—Lord help me, each family line. Now, who refused to bring firewood to the new minister, and who first accused who of witchcraft because what (and whose cousin/sister/brother/niece/neighbor was that again)? That’s what it sounded like in my head with every page I turned! Ordinarily, such a deep understanding of the characters would be enriching to say the least, but this made me feel leaden down and burdened with the reading of the minutiae, like I was trudging through never-ending quicksand! This actually made it hard to get back into the timeline of events because I sometimes couldn’t remember where I’d even left off in the recounting before the meandering path of anecdotes about all of the interweaving families had knocked me off my reading compass. It was a lot like trying to follow a path already overridden with weeds (over-wrought in its attempts at setting the setting) only to be led off the path and back onto it again over and over by trails you thought you were following to stay on course.

Honestly, the reading of this would have been much easier and more enjoyable if Schiff had organized the information differently—shorter chapters would have been an immensely helpful start—so that the reader could more easily remember, categorize and process all of the moving parts of the story in a way that worked more like a novel, as her previous work did. Sure, there was a Shakespearean-like list and description of characters at the start, but even the use of that pulls the reader away from the flow of the work. The Witches would function wonderfully as a reference for an academic paper or the like, but not as a read for any sort of personal enjoyment, whether it had been based on fact or fiction. And this from someone who thoroughly enjoyed one of her other works. After all, as they say, nonfiction writing requires the finesse for story-telling of fiction authoring. Here, the finesse that I previously knew her for was missing. I would give five stars for the sheer amount of information presented here and for just how deeply her research went, but only one star for the way that it read. 1 star *

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published May 12th 2015 by Simon & Schuster

This novel was a trumped up work packaged and sold as the must-read of summer 2015. Of course, publishing houses are very good at packaging and selling—that’s what they do—but this one must’ve had the PR agent from heaven! When it appeared on the NYT with its fashionable blurb, I instantly reached for it (all hail the power of sales), but upon reading it, I quickly found it to be an awkward collision between The Devil Wears Prada (though quite the lesser, copy-cat sort of version of it) and Columbine. Yes, try for a moment to imagine that!

The writing was immature, though there were moments where it managed the humorous tone that it was seeking—No man feels very much compelled to rip your clothes off after you inform him, bitchily, that he left one lone turd floating in the toilet—is an example of both, offered fairly early in the novel. However, the juxtaposition between her old life and new was fairly amateurishly handled, and while Knoll tried to paint the picture of “girl with rough past makes it big,” the main character, Ani, really came off as whiny and spoiled and eye-roll-promptingly annoying. Unfortunately, there’s enough to read out there about the privileged white female, so while I have no qualms reading it when done right, generally, no one needs another whiny heroine who fawns over Choo pumps and pink nail polish.

I will give it this nod though, the Columbine-esque overture was handled decently—that entire sequence did prompt page turning, and TifAni’s past sexual experiences were relatable to female readers, I’m sure. We all know of someone who’s encountered something similar (and for similar reasons). In that way, TifAni’s school-age character came off a little of a cliché, but it was a cliché worth exploring because she exists for a reason. And the way that they happened allowed Knoll to reach out and touch an audience that was wide enough, it seems, to propel this novel onto the NYT Bestseller List. In fact, the “past” chapters carried the novel much farther than the “present-day” chapters ever could have.

With that in mind, this one would have been much better if she’d been able to carry that tone throughout because, in a lot of ways, TifAni’s voice was more mature than Ani’s, a regression in tone that irked me to no end and proffered only a snarky tone that often missed the mark and whininess that made her character the utmost annoying and hard to read, let alone like. 2 stars **

The Quiet Ones by Betsy Reavley

Kindle Edition, 215 pages
Published February 18th 2016 by Bloodhound Books

In my partnership with Bloodhound Books, I was given this book in exchange for an honest review.

This one started off a bit wobbly out of the gate, but turned out to be worth a closer look by the end of it. The prologue turned me off a bit, which is never a good start; the voice was so affected and juvenile that I wasn’t sure I hadn’t picked up a teen thriller. Many of the chapters were slow and little tedious, particularly at the start. At times, this method can be exhilarating, especially in thrillers—that slow build that the reader can feel without yet knowing where they’ll find the quick bend around the corner. Yet, the quick bend here didn’t arrive until roughly two-thirds of the way through the novel, so this build ended up being more of a slightly laborious read, filling in the everyday life of Josie and her husband right down to the color of her nails and the way she takes her breakfast. Such an intimate look at characters can be rewarding, but the way that it was presented in The Quiet Ones did not have the immediate payoff that I’d hoped for; the author wasn’t able to make me care (or give me anything to care about) throughout the first half.

Yes, there is the theme of abuse here, but the way that it was presented has been done before (countless times), so it came off as cliché—a prop for the main character’s issues and situations that was never really filled out and wasn’t helped by the flaccid dialogue surrounding the topic either. In fact, many of the themes and circumstances here weren’t properly filled out the way that we’ve come to expect today—they were just sort of placed there in the novel and then rushed through. Soph and her beau are great examples of this. She was painted as the stereotypical Perfect Patty, and that feeling that Josie had about the new boyfriend, this being a psychological thriller and all, never really panned out and felt limply handled once I realized that his last scene had passed me by and no deeper look at him had been presented. Was he a good guy? Did he have a secret? Was he after her money or did he truly love Josie’s friend? This was never explored.

The shift in voice was off-putting and sudden, again something that could have worked if executed better. I made a note at the start that the voice sounded just like the narrator’s just with a splattering of apostrophes and a few filthy words. I thought that this might play out later, but it seems that it was just the author’s attempt at displaying two voices in one work that fell flat.

Then there’s the glaring appendage of a loose end. I’ll leave that one at that.

All in all, this novel had a wonderful premise—honestly, the plotline of it had the makings of a really top-notch psychological roller coaster. But the execution fell short for me, probably because this one could have easily stood up to another 100 pages or so. That extra filling out of the characters and situations—not additional exposition about the peculiars of Josie’s day-to-day that did nothing to move the novel forward, mind you—would have been an immense help here. Don’t get me wrong—the last 45 pages or so had bite, but it could have been much sharper if done in a different way.

This one forgot that television exists. By that I mean it didn’t cater to the reader who’s “been there, done that;” it didn’t quicken the heartrate or pull me in the way that thrillers these days are designed to do. That can be a plus for some. If you’re looking for a slower read that attempts a cozier approach than other psych thrillers, one that carries your read more gently around the bend of suspense than many of the more fast-paced thrillers on the shelf at your local bookstore or on the NYT, this one may be a great one for you. Two stars. **

 

11/22/63 by Stephen King

11_22_63_Stephen King

 

Hardcover, 849 pages
Published November 8th 2011 by Scribner

Stephen King’s 11/22/63 was a behemoth of a work with more layers than a Chicagoan in December. The premise in itself was exhilarating, and the execution was near flawless. Another chef-d’oeuvre from Ole’ Uncle Stevie. This one was a novel that absolutely could not have been tackled by just anyone and may have fallen flat on its face if handled by a less experienced craftsman. The worlds on both sides of the time-travel line were utterly realistic, but where King really showed his masterful hand was with the threads throughout the novel that wove it all together, from the Yellow Card Man to the janitor’s father to JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald themselves. No character was superfluous, and despite the massive word count on this one, there wasn’t a single phrase that was either. Even characters who were fleeting left their mark, shocking me, tickling me, and provoking thought along the way.
The jargon that King used to color the various neighborhoods and scenes from Maine to Florida to Texas was deliciously realistic—he has a knack for that and it was on full display here—and I felt that I was fully immersed in the world that he painted. This one gave me goosebumps in more than one place and food for thought in several others. And, refreshingly, King resisted painting the 50s as a happy-go-lucky time of just sock-hops and poodle skirts and gave the 60s the gritty air that it deserved. He infused this glimpse at this time period with realistic strokes of segregation and poverty in his portrayal—truly showing us the world through King-colored glasses. 11/22/63 shifted voices between characters in an effortless way that’s hard to execute. From backwoods Maine lingo to deep Southern vernacular, the voices were masterfully done and the characters were all fully realized. There are biblical references and historical facts—and distortions of them that allowed for his own creative riff on the past—Gothic elements galore and grit. True, unflinching grit.
This one came full circle in various parts of the novel, not just in the end in that formulaic way that we are all oh-so-familiar with, showing how all of the pieces connected hand-in-hand to tell one larger story. Quite the narrative tool for building suspense and tension. I’ll admit that there were times when the full-circle aspect of this one hit me too squarely on the head, when it was too dead on, towards the end, and that pulled me out of the world briefly while I wrestled with my annoyance at being dowsed with that unnecessary, cold splash of water. But the sheer gravity of this novel and unimpeachable hand that resonated through to the very last page overrode those small annoyances. I resist giving this one 4 ½ stars to pay for that annoyance that I experienced, because the rest of the work was so masterfully done that it would honestly border on being petty. JIMLA! Five stars *****