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bazaarofbaddreams‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Stories’ by Stephen King

Stephen King’s latest is his first collection of short stories in five years (“Full Dark, No Stars” was published in 2010). It’s full of some of King’s favorite tales — some never have been in print before — and themes familiar to his “constant readers”: the importance of literature, questions of morality, evil beings and death. Lots of death.

What else would you expect from this prolific purveyor of nightmares?

The collection is preceded by a typical introduction by the author, but then each of the 20 stories features another introduction from King, who informs the reader of the origins of that story.

Things begin with “Mile 81,” a sort of mash-up of two of King’s earlier works (to name them here might reveal too much). In it, a young boy is abandoned by his brother and decides to ride his Huffy bike to an old rest stop on the Interstate, where the initial thrill at prowling through an abandoned building gives way to a standoff with an evil that this reader never saw coming.

Some stories are based on real-life events King read about or witnessed himself. “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” sprung from seeing a son helping his elderly father eat in a restaurant. “That Bus is Another World” was inspired by an experience King had while stopped in traffic in Paris (it reminded me of the set up for a classic Hitchcock story). And the devastating “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” was written after the author read the story of a horrific car accident.

In the middle of the collection is the great tale “Ur,” originally published in 2009 as a single for the Kindle e-reader. It concerns a small-town college professor who decides to give in to technological peer pressure and order the device. The tale then takes off as the professor discovers unknown works by literary greats (Hemingway, Shakespeare) and then shifts to a race against time as he tries to save the woman he loves.

Two tales feature tough decisions. “Afterlife” is King’s surprisingly humorous take on what happens to one older man after he crosses over into that “great white light,” and then is faced with the decision either to head off to oblivion or relive his life again. The unsettling “Morality” centers on a young couple’s deal with the devil that the two are sure they can win. Good luck trying to shake this one, I still haven’t.

“Premium History” revolves around a bickering couple and their dog in a car on their way to Wal-Mart. Fate plays cruel tricks here on all three characters, while “The Dune” tells the tale of an old man who confesses to his younger lawyer that he knows of a sand dune on a small island where the names of people who are about to die appear.

The closing story, “Summer Thunder,” set in a post-apocalyptic Vermont, features another canine — this one named Gandalf — who will more than likely haunt your dreams for a very, very long time.

King’s constant readers will devour this new collection — the author is in rare form, not only talking to the reader directly in each introduction, but in making his characters fully human. Their hopes and their dreams are all on display. King says himself in the opening pages, “Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.” Indeed.

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‘Revival’ by Stephen King

Scribner, 416 pp., $30

Stephen King’s second new novel this year (his straight-up detective novel “Mr. Mercedes” published in June) is mostly a return to creepy form for the prolific author of horror and suspense.

In his new novel, “Revival,” King gives us a relatable narrator/hero and a villain with power issues. Then he has them drift in and out of each other’s lives over the next 50 years, leading up to an electric finale where good triumphs (the reader hopes) over evil.

When we first meet hero Jamie Morton, it is October of 1962 and he is 6 years old, playing in the dirt outside his family home in rural Maine. We also meet the Reverend Charles Jacobs, a charismatic young preacher who has moved to town to take over the pulpit at the First United Methodist Church of Harlow. He also has an odd fascination with electricity.

We follow Jamie through his first young love and the discovery of his talent for playing guitar. Jamie goes on to discover fame and all its pitfalls. King clearly wants the reader to identify with Jamie, and the passages about his family life and relationships can be quite touching.

The Rev. Jacobs suffers a loss early on — described in grisly detail — and while he continues, in a fashion, to preach, his life and fate are forever determined by this tragedy.

And this is my one small complaint with the story. Jacobs leaves the church and doesn’t surface again until decades later, running a sideshow carnival specializing in “portraits in lightning.” Later, he becomes a revival-show healer, devolving into a reclusive, evil villain. The reader has spent the majority of time with Jamie, and not enough time with Jacobs to understand this transition.

This is not to say that fans won’t love King’s new novel. I think they will. The characters feel like real people, and their reactions to events — everyday and supernatural — are believable.   They might even find themselves (as I did) reading this tale of morality, redemption and faith long into the night.

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stationelevenOn a winter night in present-day Toronto, an actor collapses onstage during the “mad scene” while playing the title role in “King Lear.” An audience member leaps to his feet and tries to assist under the bright lights and fake snow. Outside the theater real snow is falling and a deadly epidemic is encroaching. The world is about to change, for every single person on the planet.

Emily St. John Mandel’s darkly lyrical new novel kicks off with this scene – at the “beginning and end of everything” – then follows several key characters both forward and backward in time to give us an appreciation of art, love and the triumph of the human spirit.

After the opening chapters, we’re whisked twenty years into the future, where a group of performers known as the Traveling Symphony are roaming through a dystopian Great Lakes region rehearsing “King Lear.” The Symphony is made of assorted musicians and performers who survived the deadly epidemic in the opening chapters and are walking in the oppressive heat, preparing to perform at the next settlement on their route. When the troupe stumbles upon a self-proclaimed prophet and his followers, Mandel sets in motion a suspenseful storyline that has echoes throughout the book.

Then we head back in time, to a time before the “Georgia flu” as the epidemic is called, when the actor from the opening scenes (Arthur Leander) was famous enough to be hounded by paparazzi while going through a succession of wives and relationships. His first wife Miranda – a nod to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” – is a lonely soul who creates a futuristic graphic novel called “Station Eleven,” set on a faraway planet.

Mandel effortlessly moves between time periods, showing us how all these people are connected, through photographs, memories and family bonds. There is a great chapter early on where the members of the Traveling Symphony discuss their grievances, one that rings true of any group of people who spend a lot of time together. The passages involving the troupe’s life together are compelling and moving.

The book is full of beautiful set pieces and landscapes; big, bustling cities before and during the outbreak, an eerily peaceful Malaysian seashore, and an all-but-abandoned Midwest airport-turned museum that becomes an all important setting for the last third of the book.

Mandel ties up all the loose ends in a smooth and moving way, giving humanity to all her characters – both in a world that you might recognize as the one we all live in today (and perhaps take for granted) and a post-apocalyptic world without electricity, smartphones and the Internet. “Station Eleven” is a truly haunting book, one that is hard to put down and a pleasure to read.

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In 2008, in the foggy early-morning hours in an unnamed Midwestern city, something horrific happens to a group of innocent people waiting in line at a job fair. Since this is the opening of “Mr. Mercedes,” the latest novel by Stephen King, you might expect something supernatural to be the cause, but the title character is all too human. It’s someone you might hire to fix your computer or who would drive an ice-cream truck in your neighborhood.

King has written a straight-up detective novel here, a page-turner without a ghoul or ghost in sight, but plenty of well-drawn characters. After the gruesome opening chapter, King gets down to what he does best, the business of introducing us to his key players.

First up, there’s retired detective Bill Hodges, who left the police force months ago without ever solving the now-famous crime. He’s the relatable everyman character that you identify with and root for, who’s becoming bored and complacent (and possibly suicidal) in retirement. Then one day a lengthy and taunting letter arrives with his daily mail from someone claiming to be the “perk.”

Not long thereafter, the reader meets Brady Hartsfield, the self-described “perk” (Hartsfield, who thinks he’s using police jargon, means “perp” for perpetrator). He’s a quiet, intelligent and disturbed young man who works two jobs (at a big electronics store and delivering ice cream), has a basement lair full of technology and a more than disturbing relationship with his alcoholic mother.

No one can create a villain quite like King. Brady is the product of his upbringing and environment. You pity and fear him at the same time.

Then the deadly cat-and-mouse game begins. Hodges gets pulled back into the case and enlists the help of a college-age neighbor kid who helps him negotiate and understand the world of computers, chat rooms and hard drives that have passed him by. While Hartsfield, initially claiming to never want to commit another crime, begins to slowly plot a new and even deadlier one.

And this is where King excels, doling out just a little bit of information on the crime here, filling in a little more background on his characters there, switching points of view between the two main characters and introducing secondary ones that may or may not make it to the final pages.

It’s a rather short read, by King standards (just over 400 pages), but all the elements come together in a very public, potentially explosive finale (with a surprising post script). King fans may find themselves furiously turning pages long into the night.

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JOE-BAR

Marsha Glazière’s book features 41 paintings of Puget Sound area coffee shops. And she mentions my favorite, Joe Bar.

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