A Thinner Elevation

When I finished Stephen King’s latest novel Elevation the other day, I couldn’t help but think of it as being related to another one of his earlier works writing under the pen name Richard Bachman: Thinner

Thinner is about a successful lawyer named Billy Halleck who is severely overweight. Driving home as he and his wife are engaging in a little hanky-panky, his car strikes and kills an old Gypsy woman. The charge of manslaughter is dropped by the judge (a personal friend of Billy’s) and as he’s leaving the courtroom, the elderly father of the woman he ran over caresses his cheek and whispers “Thinner.” I wish someone would whisper “Billionaire” or “Bestselling novelist” at me. Without the caress. It would really make my life easier, you know?

Soon, Billy begins to shed weight. At first, it’s all good because he’s morbidly obese. But he can’t stop losing weight. He begins to realize the old man cursed him. With the help of a former client with ties to the mafia, Billy tracks down the old man at a gypsy camp to ask him to lift the curse. Taduz, the old man, refuses, saying Billy has to pay for his wrongdoing. Before they leave the camp, Taduz’s great-granddaughter shoots Billy through the hand. Richie fixes him up with a mafia doctor who takes care of his hand.

Richie then goes back to the gypsy camp and goes all Godfather on them. Billy returns and Tazduz agrees to break the curse. He has a strawberry pie and has Billy drip his blood into the pie. Taduz says the curse can be lifted if someone else eats a piece of the pie. A transferred curse. The ending of Thinner is not a happy one but that’s what makes Stephen King….well, the king of horror.

King’s latest offering, Elevation, starts out with Scott Carey visiting his old doctor who retired years ago. Scott shares a wondrous and horrifying secret: even though his clothes remain the same and he doesn’t look like he’s losing any weight ,each time he gets on the scale he sees he’s lost weight. His old doctor is skeptical until Scott tells him to get a scale and he’ll make the doc a believer. Fully clothed, Scott steps onto the scale and waits for the doctor to do his thing.

Way over six feet tall and on the hefty side, Scott tells the doctor he’s losing about two pounds a day without the loss ever showing up on his body. The doc is still skeptical and tells Scott he needs to go to see a practicing doctor, get tests done, the whole she-bang. Nowhere on this planet is someone who loses weight and has nothing to show for it. Scott refuses. He’s not scared, even when the doc brings up the possibility of cancer. In fact, he’s never felt so wonderfully alive and eager to do things. He swears the doc to secrecy.

Down the block from Scott a couple moves in. They run a restaurant which is slowly tanking because they happen to be married to one another. As one kid puts it they’re “Lesbean.” One of them is a sweet heart while the other has a giant chip on her shoulder. They jog past Scott’s house and allow their dogs to use his lawn as a bathroom. And they don’t pick it up. Scott decides to confront them and does so politely. They take offense at being accused of letting their dogs poop on his lawn. They’re frosty towards him and change the path of their jog so they don’t go by his house. The small town is ripe with gossip about the female married couple. Many put their two cents in, declaring such a thing as two women married to each other an abomination. Soon, their  restaurant loses business and is on the verge of going under all because the town is not comfortable with their “lifestyle.”

Going on about his business, Scott weighs himself every day and night and sees that he’s still steadily losing weight but it still doesn’t show on his body. He’s still not afraid and in fact enters into euphoria as he gets lighter and lighter. He does the math and calculates how long he has left as his weight crumbles. He marks his calendar for when he believes he’ll cease to exist. He forms a close bond with the doc and the couple (after they patched things up and the chip falls off that woman’s shoulder) and he asks them to care for him as the pounds melt away. The due date on his calendar is counting down the days until….what? What will happen if he keeps losing weight? Scott has an idea of what’ll happen to him and decides to prepare himself.

I know many of you are Stephen King fans (I’m his number one fan) and drain his books dry as soon as they come out, but Elevation was unlike any other King book I’ve read. The story felt old and somehow familiar like catching a whiff of perfume and not recognizing the scent even though it’s on the very tip of your tongue. This tiny book can be finished in one sitting. However, after reading it you’ll wish the story had no ending and just kept going.

There you have it. Two Stephen King books about inevitable change and living with what you’ve dreamed of even if it doesn’t go the way you’ve planned.

Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning

Philip Tonkin is healing. Fast. It should be impossible, no, it IS impossible because he was smashed flatter than a proverbial pancake. Nearly every single bone in his body shattered and he was in a coma for six months and yet he’s awake now and beginning to move. But waking only fuels Philip Tonkin’s nightmare.

In Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel it’s the 1950s and Tonkin and his band The Danes have had a brush with fame with one of their songs. They’re in a studio helping to produce another band’s music. The Danes met and formed while serving in WWII. They didn’t consider themselves soldiers, just musicians serving Uncle Sam. One day while sitting in a bar in between songs, they’re approached by a man with the government who tells them about a sound emanating from the Namib Desert in Africa. Officials haven’t been able to pinpoint the sound’s exact origin, not even after sending in two other teams who came back empty-handed.

The band agrees to give the sound a listen and back in the studio they watch the GI man put earplugs in. Never a good sign. The reel to reel is set up and PLAY is pressed. The sound begins as nothing at first and then comes out as almost more of a feeling than a sound. The band members begin to vomit and curl in on themselves with pain. The reel to reel is stopped and as the band struggles to recover physically and mentally from the eerie sound, the government man says they’ll each get $100,000 to travel to the Namib Desert and find the sound’s location. They have 24 hours to decide. After that, the deal is off the table. After mulling it over, the Danes decide to do it. If anyone can do it, a group of musicians should be able to hunt the sound down.

Sounds easy peasy, yeah?

No.

They endure the journey to the desert, flying in a military plane. Getting nearer the sound the men begin to sicken, the noise a squeezing thrum of a physical presence. The GI man sets them and all their recording equipment in the desert along with a historian, an old drill Sargent from boot camp who has been mysteriously turned out of the military. The GI man says he will be back to collect all of them in exactly two weeks, he says, and leaves them in the desert.

Then the ‘Black Mad Sh*t’ begins to hit the fan.

A band member is taken by a strange creature that leaves goat like hoof prints in the sand. They begin the search for him but he’s vanished.

In between recounting the band’s mission, Philip Tonkin wakes from his long coma in an Iowa hospital. Ellen, a nurse, has been caring for him for six months and has grown attached to him. He’s shot full of painkillers around the clock and she’s shocked that someone whose body has been nearly obliterated has not only survived but, upon waking, slowly begins to move.

His body is in ruins and his mind scarred from the desert, but he knows the rest of the Danes are still alive somewhere in that desert. But the hospital he’s in is no ordinary hospital and his doctor is ‘off’ in a way no doctor should be. Ellen does as she’s told but has begun to question the doctor’s motives. So has Philip. Something dangerous is happening. And something even worse is about to go down.

Black Mad Wheel is full of shadowy government dealings, a heavy and palpable supernatural presence, and the paranoia that the unknown is going to be weaponized before the ‘good’ guys can find it. Put your earplugs in if you don’t think you can handle it. I bought mine in bulk from Costco.

Down in Savage Land

It’s a universal truth that we can pick on our siblings and tease them mercilessly. In my case, my oldest brother used to chase me around the house wearing this hideous chicken mask with neon green curls. Can you guess what I might have talked about during a few therapy sessions in my 30s?

But God help anyone outside the family who teases or threatens our siblings in anyway. I’m the baby of the family with two older brothers. This means that in the span of one day I could have my brother sit down on me and fart and then he would get off the school bus before me so he could go toe to toe with a bully who’d been making noise about pushing me around.

That’s what siblings do.

In Sadie by Courtney Summers, there’s nothing Sadie won’t do for her little sister Mattie and that includes seeking revenge on the man who killed her.

Radio personality West McCray, who airs a wildly popular crime podcast, gets a telephone call from a stranger begging him to help find 19 year old runaway Sadie Hunter. West contends there are girls who runaway all the time. There’s no mystery there. Until the stranger tells him Sadie has runaway to seek revenge on the man who killed her 13 year old sister Mattie. West’s boss is convinced there is a story there and sends West off on the hunt to find the truth.

A year before, 13 year old Mattie’s body was found savagely mutilated next to an abandoned schoolhouse being eaten by fire. Someone had tried to destroy his handy work by setting the school ablaze; no doubt hoping it would incinerate any evidence on Mattie’s body along with the school.

Sadie has been like a zombie for the last year, going through the motions of living. Their mother is an addict who disappeared a few years ago and Sadie has brought up her little sister almost single-handedly with the help of a surrogate grandmother/neighbor May Beth. She’s the woman who called West McCray and said, “I can’t take another dead girl.”

When Sadie’s mother was around, flying high on pills or nearly comatose with alcohol, there would usually be a man around the house, one she picked up at a bar.  Some were harmless. Others tipped the creepy scales. But one man in particular was evil incarnate. Sadie didn’t realize just how predatory the man was or how far his monstrous ways reached until she began to hunt him.

Told in alternating transcripts of McCray’s podcast and Sadie’s own story of tracking the killer down, Sadie is not your average revenge tale. It’s not even about right and wrong or being alone in the world and having absolutely nothing to keep you here. It’s about the love between siblings and a life on hold until the job of revenge can be completed.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. But what they (whoever they are) don’t know is that revenge is a white-hot agonizing fire coursing through you, a fire that can only be doused and even then it smolders and lingers like a tire fire. Sadie will feed your need for close siblings, vengeance, and the downfall of the evil that men do.

You Don’t Have to be a Witch About It

Adriana Mather’s How to Hang a Witch had me at the description: Mean Girls meets the Salem Witch Trials. I kept imagining a group of teen witches in black velvet pointy witch hats saying “On Thursday’s we wear black.” Pause. “And like, every other day of the week too.”

Sam Mather is going through a pretty crappy time. Her father had successful heart surgery but slipped into a coma. For the last four months the doctors can’t figure out why he’s not waking up. Sam’s mother died when she was little and her father remarried. Sam and her stepmother get along, but with the stress of the last few months their verbal sparring is right up there with Rocky fighting that Russian boxer. Money’s getting tight and the medical bills are piling up. Sam’s stepmom sells the only house she’s ever known and moves them from New York to Salem, Massachusetts.

Sam’s got an attitude problem. I know. Shocker. A teenager with attitude. But Sam is kind of a lone wolf, hanging out by herself and never really making friends. She says what she means and means what she says. In Salem, they move into the giant house of the eccentric grandmother Sam never met. Sam’s father never spoke of his mother and Sam thought it was to keep her oddness from tainting the rest of the family. Strange things begin to happen around the house: things moved, books knocked over, threatening notes left to tell Sam to leave. Sam begins attending her new high school and isn’t surprised when she’s both ignored and gawked at.

The Salem residents are huge on their history of witchcraft and the trials. There’s a group of girls who dress all in black and call themselves the ‘Descendants.’ You guessed it. They’re the daughters of the women and men accused of witchcraft hundreds of years ago. You know what else. Sam Mather is a descendant of Cotton Mather, the ring leader of the witch trials and the man who sent many innocents to their deaths. Once everybody catches wind of who Sam is, things go from worse to disastrous.

Bad things begin to happen the moment Sam arrives in town. There are sudden deaths and a food poisoning outbreak from cupcakes that Sam brought to school as a gesture of goodwill. At a party, everybody is struck by a rash except Sam. The students, especially the Descendants, believe it’s all Sam’s doing. Sam has found a secret room in her grandmother’s house full of books on the occult and her personal journals. Her grandmother believed there was a curse linked not only to her family but to the Descendants as well.

The odd happenings in the house coalesce and a ghost appears. An extremely angry ghost. And of course, extremely good looking. There’s chemistry between them. He’s over 300 years old and once lived in the same house. I like older dudes too, but have yet to meet one that has been around through several wars and can walk through walls. He decides he wants to help Sam with the curse. The Descendants and Sam come to an uneasy truce, forming an alliance to find the origin of the curse and break it. For awhile there, it seems like the town’s going to go all Walpurgisnacht on Sam and repeat history by blaming her for all the bad things going down. It’s a race to change both history and the present.

This book had so many unexpected plot twists that I actually yelled at my dog “You have to read this book!” and then felt bad because he looked at me like “You know I don’t have thumbs to turn the pages.” Witches and witchcraft have long interested me and I’d probably be a Wiccan if I weren’t so lazy. Look, if you want to read a book about family history that keeps repeating itself on a loop, ghostly love, and modern witchcraft, pick up How to Hang a Witch. It’s also about people not being what they seem at first blush and how we’re not our history but who we make ourselves in our time.

Pleasant reading, fellow book lovers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have rituals to complete under a full moon while dancing around a bonfire and chanting. Nah. Like I said, I’m lazy. I’ll just light a bunch of candles, shuffle around in my version of a dance and my chanting will be just me messing up the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

We are ALL Alice

Sometimes (okay, all the time) when I’m readying books for the public to check out, I go all Liam Neeson in Taken:

I don’t know when I’m going to read you or how you’ll make me feel but I can tell you I have a particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long life as a reader. Skills that make me a nightmare to play against in the literary portion of Jeopardy. I will look for you, I will find you, and I will read you.

Lil bit hardcore but books are my passion. I’ll read just about anything. Except computer books. Bless the people who can understand those because when I flip through a computer book all I hear in my head is a bunch of underwater bleeps and bloops.

That being said, I’ve found myself gravitating towards kid books lately. You might already know I have a slightly embarrassing love of YA novels (still couldn’t pay me enough to ever be a teenager again though) so it makes sense that my eyes landed on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s series of books about a young girl named Alice. I’m opening up myself to a long commitment because these books span Alice’s life from an 8-year-old all the way through high school. But I don’t think of it as a commitment. It’s meeting a new friend and becoming comfortable enough to steal food from their refrigerator.

The first book in the series is Starting With Alice. Alice McKinley is a lot like other 8-year-old girls. She wants pierced ears, gloriously long hair, a pet, and she wants a mother. Hers died a few years ago and it’s been her, her brother Lester, and their father ever since. What Alice would REALLY like is some friends. Her family moves to Maryland and she doesn’t know a soul except for her neighbor Donald and she’s having a hard time figuring out if he’s really smart or so smart he’s stupid: he’s the kind of boy who asks you if you can lick your elbow.

Starting third grade at a new school isn’t as easy as Alice thinks. She sees a trio of girls she names ‘The Terrible Triplets’ after they go all Mean Girls on her and don’t bother to get to know her. Lonely, facing the world as an 8-year-old without her mother, and living with two males, Alice begins to think she’ll never make friends and never quite get it right. But friends pop up when Alice least expects them, along with weird adventures, a lost cat, and her brother’s awful basement band.

Fans of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series will dive into the Alice saga and surface wanting to find their own Alice to be best friends with.

I Don’t Want the Drama, Just Tell Me 110% of What’s Going On

A thirty year old unsolved murder.

A mother frozen in time.

A wife discovers a devastating secret.

A woman revisits her past.

Sounds like a Lifetime movie, doesn’t it? Except Valerie Bertinelli isn’t in this one and what happens is oh so more interesting than a movie of the week.

In Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, three seemingly unconnected lives collide head on.

30 years ago, Rachel’s daughter Janie was found murdered in a park and Rachel hasn’t moved on. What mother could? She works at a private school and has a grandson she absolutely adores; the one bright spot in a life that has seemed empty after the loss of her daughter. But now her son and daughter-in-law are going to move to New York for a couple of years and she’ll be empty again.

She’s had a suspect in mind for her daughter’s murder, a man named Connor who was madly in love with Janie when they were teenagers. Connor works at her school as a gym teacher. Over the years Rachel has hounded the police with her suspicions and knows they tend to humor her with sympathy while brushing her off at the same time.

Tess runs a successful business with her husband and her cousin Felicity who has been her best friend since birth. They’ve been inseparable. Just one thing: the two sit Tess down one evening and tell her they’ve fallen in love with one another. Oops. Sorry.

Tess packs a bag and takes their 7-year-old son Liam far away to her mother’s place to regroup, maybe start fresh. She registers her son at the private school Rachel works at and sees that her old boyfriend Connor is a teacher there. Tess begins to think about staying, getting a new job, and rekindling things with him.

Cecilia is a mother, a wife in a comfortable (if not much of a physical) marriage, and a businesswoman with a formidable Tupperware empire. She’s still in love with her husband even though they’ve been married roughly 500 years and he’s away on business most of the time. Cecilia’s life is supremely organized, everything in the right place. Life is good. It is frustrating at times with three daughters and an AWOL husband but she thanks her stars for everything good in her life.

But one day she needs to find something in the attic. She knocks down a box belonging to her husband and a letter settles to the floor. It has her name on it and it’s sealed.  She respects his privacy and doesn’t snoop, but the sealed letter is on her mind throughout the following days. She mentions it to her away on business husband and he makes her promise not to read it, to put it back where she found it.

Well, now she just wants to read it even more. One day she opens it and begins reading. What happens next will bring the three women together in a harrowing disaster that makes each of them wonder if they’ll come out whole on the other side.

By the author of Little Big Lies, The Husband’s Secret draws the reader in with fine honed characters and a twisting plot, leaving anyone to wonder: what would they do after discovering a life altering secret?

Darkness at the Edge of Town

Whenever I’m reading something online I always appreciate the kind souls who write in bold capitals: WARNING! SPOILERS! There are some mean-spirited folks out there who seem to delight in spoiling a movie or a TV series or even a book. Some butthead online ruined an episode of The Walking Dead way back in season 6 and I stopped watching the show. It was ruined.

So when I heard Stephen King was coming out with a new book titled The Outsider, I was hesitant about reading anything about it online. But being me, I went online because I had no idea what the book was about. The first word in an article about the book that caught my eye was ‘crime procedural.’ My gut sank. I may have even switched to YouTube to watch clips of cats falling off stuff.

I didn’t want a King book about crime and murder. Well, yeah, I wanted the murder part but what I wanted to read about was a monster. Give me a little of that old something’s-hiding-under-my-bed-and-is-reaching-out-to-touch-my-foot. The Outsider didn’t seem to offer up anything supernatural but hell, it’s a Stephen King book. And in the words of Misery’s Annie Wilkes, “I’m his number one fan.”

Set in the small town of Flint City, Oklahoma, The Outsider opens with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Frank Peterson. Horrible things have been done to him. Throat ripped out, violated with a tree branch. The stuff of every parent’s nightmare. Detective Ralph Anderson begins pulling in eyewitnesses who all describe seeing the same man in the vicinity of Frank Peterson: Terry Maitland, teacher and Little League coach. In fact, Terry is a well-known and well liked citizen and has coached hundreds of children over the years. He even coached Detective Anderson’s son back in the day.

The evidence is stacking up against Terry Maitland and when the DNA comes back from samples collected from the Peterson boy it’s a match for Terry. With a few other officers in tow, Anderson decides to arrest Maitland during a huge Little League game. With the stands filled with nearly 1,500 spectators, Anderson approaches the dugout, handcuffs Maitland’s hands in front of him, and reads him his rights. Now, I know what you’re thinking (and no, I haven’t been drinking): of course this guy is guilty as hell. He tore the throat out of a child, raped him, and left enough physical evidence behind to send him to death row to ride the needle.

As Terry pleads his innocence, a little niggling worry started in the back of my mind. And I think everyone is guilty of something. But something about Terry Maitland comes across as innocent. Detective Anderson has seen many horrors during his career. He knows a child rapist and killer could be beloved by the town, attend church every Sunday, and still be a predator. Anderson thinks he has this case closed and solved, eager for Terry Maitland to go to trial and get the needle.

Then the unexpected happens and throws a wrench in Anderson’s case. At the time of Frank Peterson’s murder, Terry Maitland was 200 miles away attending a conference which had the author Harlan Coben as a guest speaker. Not only was Terry with several other teachers, the event was taped. During the question and answer period of the talk, a camera shows Terry stand up to ask a question. There’s no way Terry Maitland killed Frank Peterson. But all that DNA….how is that even possible? I went down several rabbit holes trying to think of a way that could happen. I got stuck in one rabbit hole thinking maybe Terry had a twin he didn’t know about and the twin shows up exacting some kind of ancient twin revenge. Detective Anderson is spinning his wheels, wanting Terry to go to trial and death row but also having heavy doubts.

DON’T WORRY! NO SPOILERS AHEAD.

Remember how I said I wanted a monster, something supernatural? I wanted a good old Stephen King book that was like his first dozen books? Well, he delivered. I’ll give you this little morsel. Picture it: a man with a lumpy, misshapen face and straw for eyes. That is all.

The Outsider is like a comfortable old sweater that fell in the back of your closet and is discovered only when you turn 40 and crawl into the back of your closet to cry and eat a sleeve of Oreos. Not that I do that. Often. King has created memorable characters (I was at work the other day and suddenly found myself thinking about one of them and wondering what they would do next with their life) and a plot so fast and full of action that I was saddened when I reached the end. If you’re looking for a return of the old King (Return of the King! See what I did there?) where he indulges all your dark obsessions and fears, The Outsider is a book to pick up and devour. But keep your feet from dangling off the end of the bed.