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Best of 2018 Pt. 2: Everything else

20 Jan

I posted on my favorite films last week… here are my other favorites of the year:

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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Hill House

 

Hands down my favorite anything of the year. Anything. By far.

Mike Flanagan’s reworking of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel (he also riffs generously on Robert Wise’s wonderful 1963 adaptation, The Haunting) is, pardon my french, fucking incredible. Even the master, Stephen King, called it “close to genius.” I’ll one up my hero and say it plainly: The Haunting of Hill House is indeed genius. While Flanagan in his revision uses both the novel and film in clever ways, he’s up to something much deeper than just a horror series. At its core, the series is a penetrating and devastating family drama. It’s as if Flanagan took Ordinary People, magnified the emotional depth of that brilliant movie ten fold, then stuck it inside Jackson’s sick and twisted Hill House, “a house that was born bad.” Every episode scared the shit out of me, and each episode also hit me on a powerful emotional level. The intricacy of Flanagan’s time jumping plot is dazzling. When his technique purposefully dovetails into that intricacy, such as in the justifiably famous 6th episode, a series of single takes designed to look like one, the effect is truly mind-blowing. Don’t shy away from the series because it’s scary…  the family stuff is so universal, anyone can relate to the marvelous, human Crain family.  But be warned, it is indeed scary. Flanagan is the best ‘jump-scarer’ I’ve ever encountered. Those of us watching together starting counting how many shrieks each episode elicited from our group. And there’s this one particular scare… well, it’s the best scare of all time. If you watched the series, you know of what I speak. I had to stop this episode midstream and have a couple of shots of bourbon to calm down before I could finish the episode, though my heart was still racing hours later. As a creative, The Haunting of Hill House is the kind of narrative success that is both enervating and energizing. Enervating because I think, ‘Goodness, I could never achieve that, just stop trying” but also energizing because, for a storyteller, this series reaches the peak for which we all strive. I may never reach such a pinnacle but Flanagan and his remarkable team and superb cast of actors certainly make me want to try.

Finally, though I know people who disagree, Flanagans’ twist on Jackson’s famous last line is electrifying.

 

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The Bent Neck Lady

 

BODYGUARD

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Things are going to get intense

 

WHOA. One of the biggest hits ever in the history of UK broadcasting, Bodyguard is a short (six episodes) but far from sweet adrenaline rush I could not turn off. This is ‘call into work sick’ material, because you have to finish it. If you’ve seen it, you know of what I write. If you haven’t, the less you know the better. Richard Madden is stunning as ‘the bodyguard’, he goes deep, goodness and Keely Hawes matches him perfectly. As does the rest of the British cast. Great show, an intense blast to watch. 

HOMECOMING

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Something weird is going on

 

Julia Roberts is having one hell of a year. She gave the best performance of her life in superb Ben Is Back (see last post) and her performance in Homecoming is just as stellar. Yet she’s not getting much attention on the awards circuit… what gives?? Oh well, ultimately, who cares. After 30 years onscreen, she has become one of our best actresses and it was a joy to watch her this year. As for the show itself? Kick. Ass. A subtle mystery that really gets under your skin, I did not hear the podcast upon which the series was based so the story was new to me. Sam Esmail’s decision to approach Homecoming like a classic 70’s thriller in the vein of Alan J. Pakula et al. was a huge turn on to a film buff like me. As was his decision to score the entire series using music from those films. But you don’t have to be aware of that to enjoy. This is another one of those shows I watched and thought, ‘Wow, I wish I had worked on that.” Every performance is terrific, though I have to single out Stephan James and, in particular, Shea Whigham. His turn as a downtrodden DOJ investigator also deserves many more accolades than he is receiving. Finally, the genius move to make each episode 22 minutes instead of an hour made the show incredibly binge-able. Hear hear! Show creators, more of this in the future!

THE TERROR

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The Terror, indeed

 

One of my favorite novels, by the great Dan Simmons, became one of my favorite shows of the year. A fictionalized account of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition in 1845, this sumptuous adaptation is an atmospheric chiller, no pun intended, superbly directed with an outstanding cast. (Again, those Brits…) You may want to subtitle it, as the accents are pretty thick. Filled with shocks and surprises and deep humanity, The Terror is yet another reason 2018 was one of the best years of television in recent memory.

THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL SEASON 2

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I want to live inside this show

 

Paris! The Catskills! Lenny Bruce! Zachary Levi! Susie! Season 2 of one of the best shows on television was even better than season one. I cannot imagine what they spend on this show and/or how they get away with the production value and music budget. Sublime to watch, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is Amy Sherman-Palladino at her best, which is about as good as it gets. There are too many wonderful moments and performances here to even begin to start listing favorites, but may I say what a joy it was to watch Marin Hinkle’s Rose evolve this season. In the very strong likelihood you see me running around with a plunger over my shoulder, Mrs. Maisel is why.

WESTWORLD SEASON 2

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Brilliant. Frustrating. Westworld.

 

My favorite show of 2017, and, admittedly, an intense obsession, thrilled me for 9 brilliant episodes that came crashing down in the season two finale. I’ve friends I trust who love the finale, however, and I need to watch it again after some distance to see if I can overcome my misgivings. Still, those other 9 episodes. Wow. I watched each one twice without plumbing their depths entirely and am still enough of a fan to re-watch all of Season 2 before Season 3 begins… fingers crossed. 

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I read a lot of novels this year. And some I very much enjoyed. But for the first time, I didn’t have a novel this year I wanted to put on the list. I still read an amazing book, however: Simple, a cookbook by the extremely talented Yotam Ottolenghi. I have all of his cookbooks and use Jerusalem often. (Click here for a post covering that wonderful book.)  For me, if a cookbook is enjoyable to read and gives me just two or three killer recipes I will use for years, I’m happy.  I’ve been cooking a lot from Simple the last few months, however, and after making ten or twelve recipes, I’ve yet to hit one I didn’t love. This is a bonanza of flavor and food joy. (Do NOT miss the “baked rice with confit tomatoes and garlic”… I’m Cajun, rice is one of my favorite foods in all the world, I’ve eaten white rice happily since the day I was born. This is the best rice I’ve ever had, bar none.)  Simple is hands down the cookbook of the year. 

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The best rice I’ve ever eaten

PADDINGTON 2

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Wonderful

I quietly scoffed at a couple of friends who told me Paddington 2 was the best movie of the year. Seriously? Well… I might not call it the best of the year but having just watched this delightful movie, I agree it is one of the best for sure. A visual feast that is creative, clever and ultimately heartwarming in the best way possible, Paddington 2 is one of the very few movies on Rotten Tomatoes to score 100%. Deservedly so. Additionally, Hugh Grant is %@$# incredible in it. Like Julia Roberts, he’s been on screen a long time and his gifts are now innumerable and invisible. Great performance, great movie.

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Our bear goes to prison!

Homemade Butter… in 5 minutes

14 Sep
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Butter made in 5 minutes

One of my favorite movies of all time is Rosemary’s Baby, still as chilling and brilliantly acted and directed as it was almost 50 years ago when it debuted. A favorite line in the movie has a modern relevance regarding food.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow), as you should know, becomes pregnant after moving into an old gothic apartment building on Central Park. On the advice of her doctor, she begins drinking a fresh, healthy milkshake every day, mixed and delivered by her next door neighbor, Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon deservedly won an Oscar for this role). According to Minnie, the shake contains raw egg, gelatin, herbs, and something called Tannis Root.

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Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon in “Rosemary’s Baby”

Rosemary, along with the audience, slowly begins to suspect there is a conspiracy to steal or harm her baby. Famously, very little happens in the movie yet it ruthlessly crawls under the skin. The ordinary becomes terrifying as we wonder if something is actually happening or if Rosemary’s imagination is running wild. 

When the book (1967) and the movie (1968) were each released, both phenomenal hits, our country and much of the world was in the midst of a decades long embrace of chemically created food over natural: formula over breast milk, margarine or oleo over butter, Saccharin and corn syrup instead of sugar, boxed food over food made from scratch, etc, etc. It seems so obvious now that something natural would be healthier than something created in a lab. But given years of misinformation and outright lies from both the government and food corporations, there was no reason for the public to believe otherwise. (I really despise the FDA, a rant I’ll reserve for another post.)

What’s fascinating today about Rosemary’s Baby is that the shake, made from natural ingredients, is one of the creepiest things in the movie. It becomes a focal point and a source of fear for the audience, and then Rosemary herself. A knot begins to form in our stomachs every time Rosemary takes a sip. As her paranoia increases, she finally snaps and revolts against what she perceives is being done to her. Rosemary then delivers the line I love:

“I want my vitamins from pills, like everyone else!”

Crafted and created in a lab is what was healthy and normal to audiences at the time. Natural was not. Even with our modern perspective, we are thrilled when Rosemary takes this stand. Is she too late? Is anything actually wrong? You’ll have to watch this brilliant movie to find out. (Note: It’s free if you have Amazon prime… the movie is gorgeously shot by William Fraker so try to watch it on a big screen!)

We are thankfully moving away from the days of margarine and corn syrup (lies, LIES!) and the idea that crafted in a lab is good for you. We have returned to the wonderful knowledge that something as simple and wonderful as butter can be enjoyed without the guilt that was thrust upon us for years. It actually is healthy!

Yet true, decadent butter is still hard to find, at least in the USA, thank you FDA. Years ago I was in Italy and ate at a small family owned hotel/restaurant on a farm. After I sat down, they brought me bread and butter. I tasted the butter on the bread and thought my head would explode. I’d never tasted anything so good. I called the owner over and in my very broken Italian kept asking him, ‘What is this??” He kept shrugging and saying, “It’s butter.” I kept saying,  “No, this is NOT butter.” He became frustrated and looked at me like a stupid American and finally threw up his hands. “It’s just butter!” I realized later it was butter that had been churned that very day, with no pasteurization. My goodness, was that incredible butter, so different than what we buy in most stores. 

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Il Falconiere

I’ve recently discovered you can make such butter at home, fast, without a churn! All you need is some heavy (whipping) cream and a food processor. With basically no effort at all, you will have fresh, incredible butter. Give this a try (and let me know what you think!)

For the recipe, click here: Continue reading

Best Books of 2016

14 Dec

My annual review of my favorite books of the year. You cannot go wrong with any of these Best of the Best.

The City of Mirrors

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Justin Cronin’s finale to his magnificent ‘The Passage Trilogy’ is everything a fan of the series could want and much more. Heartfelt, suspenseful, emotionally gripping and ultimately uplifting, The City Of Mirrors devastates in the best of ways. The characters Cronin creates are rich, complex and beautifully human. I’ve rarely cared so deeply about the people I follow through a series. I loved the first two novels so much I was a little worried: as wonderful a writer as is Cronin, could he actually pull the finale off and write something that would satisfy the enormous expectations he set up? Oh my. Did he ever.

If you’ve read the first two, do not miss this book. If you haven’t read the series, get The Passage and start now.

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Scott Frank is one of the best screenwriters working today. I teach every year two of his masterworks, Out of Sight and Minority Report. This year, he published his first novel. Wow. Your first novel is this good, Scott Frank? What’s with these talented people? I’d be annoyed but damn did I love this book.

It’s hard to define Shaker. The novel is a mystery of sorts and kind of a thriller, yet it is literary in many ways and often very, very funny. I love how hard it is to describe in one word. Perhaps the best single word to use is original. Shaker also ranks with the best of narratives that explore and celebrate Los Angeles, a city I love passionately. The novel begins with an earthquake. Frank’s sharp description of the quake and its aftermath is both scary and hilarious. Perhaps most surprising to me was the emotional weight the novel had by the end. I gasped out loud a couple of times in the final pages and was appropriately shaken for days afterwards. I’ll say it again, I love this book.

(BTW, please find and watch another movie written and directed by Frank, his slam dunk adaptation of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among The Tombstones. Few people saw this movie when it was released, which is such a shame. The movie is so rich and detailed you still feel as if you are immersed in a novel. This guy Scott Frank is going places.)

For more picks, click here to Continue reading

The Grand Romances of Stephen King

18 Feb

Yes, constant reader, that’s right, it’s true. Here, come sit beside me and let’s talk. There’s a story within the story. The Master is a romantic at heart.

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I was 12 years old when Ann McPherson handed me a copy of The Shining. A wonderful woman with a joyous and infectious laugh, Mrs. McPherson was one of my mom’s best friends. She lived a few doors down and often dropped by our the house in the late afternoon. She treated me as an equal, for which I adored her, and we shared an intense love for books. Earlier that year Ann gave me Robin Cook’s Coma, a terrific thriller I finished in two days while my parents banged on my bedroom door trying to get me to emerge. (It may be the one time in my life I willingly skipped a meal.) After Coma, I was ready to read anything Mrs. McPherson recommended.

The copy of The Shining she handed me was the initial paperback release. The cover was in reflective silver with the outline of a young boy’s head. 

 

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How awesome is this?!

 

I looked at the cover over and over, tingling with anticipation. I figured they must have spent some bucks on this cover if it reflected! Incredibly cool! The cover read A Masterpiece of Modern Horror. The marketing team earned their salary with that phrase. I was scared already. And a young boy as the centerpiece? Talk about primed.

Primed indeed. The book changed my life, not only because it remains one of my favorite novels of all time, not only because it has haunted me since, but because it introduced me to the man who has influenced my life as much as anyone on the planet. 

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I love this.

What strikes me now about The Shining, which I’ve read umpteen times, is the novel’s humanity. As dark as Stephen King can go – and, oh my, can he go there: try Cujo, one of his best and easily his darkest novel, it’s shattering – his novels have enormous power because he has such a clear love and respect for people, their dreams, their emotions and their love. In The Shining, Jack Torrance’s fierce love for his son Danny (completely missing from the cold, emotionless Kubrick adaptation) drives the novel. Jack’s fierce love for his son is also what ultimately saves everyone from hell. Certainly, yes, terrible things happen in Stephen King novels. (Is life any different?) Yet there is a compassion surrounding the events and the characters that surmounts the horror. I’ve read almost everything in King’s canon and can attest that this love of humanity is evident in just about everything he writes.

Continue reading

Best of 2015 Pt. 2 (Books & TV)

15 Jan

Last week I posted my favorite films of 2015. Here is part 2 of my ‘best of’ list:

Only 3 of the many books I read this year make the list… but wow, are these three terrific:

A MONSTER CALLS

No other narrative in 2015 affected me as deeply as this heartbreaking, brutal yet beautiful novel. My good friend Shay handed me A Monster Calls, recommending it highly, and, with no other warning from her, I made the mistake of reading it on a plane. I can’t imagine what the passengers in the surrounding 5 or 6 rows were thinking when, during the last third, I audibly fell apart and then could not pull myself together when I finished. And I don’t cry. (Too much a man… you know…) Patrick Ness’ exquisite prose with deep emotional insight and stunning illustratations by Jim Kay create a book, an experience, that will be with me a long, long time. I will return to it often.

A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness.

WEST OF SUNSET

If you love 1) Old Hollywood 2) Movies and/or 3) F. Scott Fitzgerald, you will be in heaven reading this near perfect rendering of the last year or so of Fitzgerald’s his life as he struggles to survive in the film business and the world at large. I’ve read and enjoyed a number of author Stewart O’Nan’s novels but nothing prepared me for the beauty and craft of his latest, and best. The book is fictional, yes, but based largely on the actual facts of Fitzgerald’s life. Peppered with other real life characters such as Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart and Hemingway, this was pure pleasure to read, even though recounting perhaps the darkest era in the famous author’s life.

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

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Touted by critics as “this year’s Gone Girl‘, Paula Hawkin’s debut novel is even better and, if you can believe it, even darker. A stunning thriller with one of the most complex main characters I’ve encountered in a while, The Girl on the Train blew me away. I read it in two days then immediately read it again, knowing all the secrets, to appreciate Hawkin’s mastery at deception and the best use of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. Unsurprisingly, the movie is currently filming with a terrific cast, though the movie’s switch of locale from London to New York is baffling and irritating. Read the book, don’t wait for the movie.

Continue reading

Building Your Cookbook Library Vol. I

3 Oct

People keep asking which cookbooks they should buy. If you take a look at the photo below, you can see I am as good as person to ask as any! So I decided I would do a few posts about how to practically build your cookbook library.

It should be noted that the photo below was taken after I tossed over 50 cookbooks… and the books are stacked on these shelves two deep… and I am not showing the myriad cookbooks in various bookshelves all over the house… nor the two large drawers under the shelf in the photo that are filled to the brim.

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a small part of my cookbook collection, 2 deep

It’s true, I have a cookbook addiction.

Not only are cookbooks worth buying because, well, you know, you can cook great food from them, the best cookbooks open up different parts of the world. Even better, the best cookbooks are not only about food but about exquisite and passionate writing. There are few things I love to read more than a chef writing vividly about their love for food and their approach to food. Reading cookbooks is a big de-stresser for me. I can get lost in them for hours.

For starters, we need to be semi-practical. I will later do another post about more exotic cookbooks. For this post, I want to recommend the books I return to over and over and over again. Each one has terrific recipes that are for the most part practical and simple, recipes you will make again and again. These books are all terrific references for anything you might need. If you have just these cookbooks I list in this post, and no other, you will enjoy years of amazing food.

FAVORITES

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I’ve written before about a cookbook that changed my life, Patricia Wells at Home In Provence. Read the entire post to find out my experience with both this book and this wonderful woman. Know, however, that the book is filled with easy, glorious dishes that will transform your table and, additionally, your approach to cooking. If you can find a copy of the original book, cover shown above, I highly recommend it as it is a beautiful book. I am including a photo of the original copy of my book, which proves how much I return to it.

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I’ve used this book quite a bit…

Among many favorites in this book, Patricia’s Gratin Dauphinois recipe (potatoes au gratin) is a divine version I make for every holiday meal.

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I also wrote lovingly about Suzanne Goin and her cornbread, the best ever invented. She, too, is a chef that changed how I thought about cooking and food. Her book Sunday Suppers at Lucques is filled with marvelous food I’ve cited many times before on this blog. Two standouts of many, many killer recipes are her Devil’s Chicken Thighs with Braised Leeks (you can simply make the leeks as well, they are great as is and are usually on my holiday table) and her Braised Beef Stew. Check this link for a few more recipes… the 5 recipes in the link are recipes I make all the time. The tart is a go-to I make constantly.

For the rest of my choices, click here ->>> Continue reading

Summer Reading 2014

10 Jul

Time for another yearly post that is always popular: summer book recommendations. I’ve been tearing through a stack of novels the last few weeks and have come across some true finds. Hopefully there will be one or two you might find as enjoyable.

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some of the books I am reading this summer

MICHAEL KORTYA

I have two picks from Michael Kortya, whose two last novels, The Prophet and Those Who Wish Me Dead, are terrific. The Prophet, in fact, is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

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Michael Kortya signing copies of The Prophet

One critic described The Prophet as a cross between Friday Night Lights and In Cold Blood. I could not put it better myself so I’m stealing it here. The novel is a thriller about a killer stalking people in a small town. But the book is really about two estranged brothers, one the popular high school football coach, who warily come together in an attempt to solve the mystery. The book was very, very suspenseful and quite emotional as well. I found myself rather verklempt at the end. The guy can also write one hell of an exciting football game! This is a perfect summer read. It’s a great thriller but it’s much more than that, I found it a deep and emotionally resonant novel that goes way beyond the thriller genre. The Prophet is a great novel, period.

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Kortya’s next novel, the recently released Those Who Wish Me Dead, is an exemplary summer thriller, the kind the cliched phrase ‘Don’t start it unless you have time, you will not be able to put this down!” was made for. It starts off with a bang and never lets up. (I think that also is one of those cliched phrases.) Ignore the bad literary criticism and check this one out, I loved it. 

ORDINARY GRACE

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William Kent Krueger’s latest novel quietly blew me away. If you’ve read Peace Like A River (and if you haven’t, stop everything you are doing right now and read it, you must!) imagine Peace but with a mystery layered into the mix. “All the dying that summer began with the death of a child…” starts the novel and there is indeed a lot of death. Don’t let that deter you, Ordinary Grace is a beautifully written coming of age novel, written from the 1st person perspective of the son of the town pastor. Krueger grapples intelligently with God, faith and, yes, grace, but without a trace of sentimentality. It’s a tough novel but not tough to read, if that makes sense. The mystery keeps it driving forward and the richness of Krueger’s writing is continually surprising. To Kill A Mockingbird also kept coming to mind though here the narrator is a teen, not a child. Ordinary Grace is a wonderful novel that makes me excited for Krueger’s next. Oh and it just won the Edgar Award for Best Novel of the year. It’s that good.

REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS

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And here we have another ‘wow’. The most emotionally devastating novel of the bunch, Remember Me Like This is a gorgeously written, deeply nuanced novel about a family grappling with the disappearance of their teenage son. It’s not what you would anticipate from that pitch-line, however. One of the many twists is that the novel starts four years after the boy disappeared. Rather than watch the family implode when the boy cannot be found, we start well after the implosion: where most novels would end, this one begins as all hell once again breaks loose in a surprising way. Also a mystery of sorts, it’s an extremely involving narrative that keeps wrenching your heart with revelations and conflict. Set in Corpus Christi, Texas, I can heartily affirm the author nailed the milieu perfectly, given I myself grew up on the gulf coast of Texas. Bret Anthony Johnston’s first novel, Remember Me is the announcement of an extraordinary talent.

MR. MERCEDES

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And then there is Stephen King’s latest. I don’t know how the man does it over and over but this novel is so $#%* awesome, just like his last two novels, Sir King is getting his own entire blog post coming up next, The Grand Romances of Stephen King. That’s right, The Grand Romances of Stephen King is the title, I’ve already started it, but feel free to run get this novel as fast as you can. Mr. Mercedes is, ahem, a killer.

Have you any books you’ve read this summer you recommend? Let us know in the comments section below. As always, thanks for reading!