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3/5: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn



Nick Dunne’s wife Amy goes missing on their fifth anniversary. And as revelations about their life come out, it looks like Nick might be the guilty party…

I did something unusual with this book: I didn’t read the teaser on the back (My wife never reads the teaser – she says it spoils the story too much for her, so I thought I’d give it a try). So I had no idea what this was about going in. None at all. I picked it up from a charity shop simply because I’d seen other people reading it on my Goodreads feeds, and I’d vaguely heard they’d made a movie about it.

During the first half, the narrative alternates between real-time Nick discovering Amy is missing and flashback diary entries from her. It’s a nice narrative split between the two of them, listening to their voices and slowly getting to know them.

It quickly becomes obvious that Nick is screwed down very, very tight and has quite a few self-worth problems and anger management issues, especially towards women. He unsurprisingly becomes prime suspect material, the reveal of which is paced quite slowly up to the middle of the book.

I didn’t believe that Nick, as angry as he is, murdered his wife at any point during the first half of the story. He seems smarter than the clumsy way the disappearance is organised, and his bemusement as to what’s going on seems genuine. But Nick admits he’s an unreliable narrator – the first time he talks to the police, he says he lied to them five times. So what is going on here? It’s the uncertainty that keeps the book moving through its slower first half. There’s a slow drip of revelations that keep things moving.

At halfway, the story rockets away into a new direction. There’s a bombshell, and what a bombshell it is: Suddenly we switch to Amy’s point of view, an Amy very much alive and very much running the show. The real Amy, not the one who wrote the fake diary we’ve been reading. And this woman is an out and out sociopath, with a steel trap of a mind to rival Hannibal Lecter. She operates and plans on levels so far above the rest of us that no one has a chance to keep up. She runs rings around the local police, the FBI and even the reader.

And what gleeful pleasure she takes in destroying Nick, of sending him to prison or even death for his transgression of taking a mistress. This is a revenge plan a year or more in the making. This is a not a woman you want to cross. Or even meet, for that matter. Nick has no chance. It’s like watching someone who runs for a bus trying to compete against an Olympic sprinter. All you can do is watch and wince as she carves Nick up.

At least at first she does. Amy has been extremely coddled her entire life, and it has its own pleasure to watch her struggle and fail in the real world and to have her backup plans fail. There are people out there crazier than her, it seems.

In the meantime, Nick has got her measure, and she eventually returns, believing him contrite and beaten. They try to outsmart each other, but after a few weeks of manoeuvring, she pulls a final rabbit from her hat: She’s pregnant and Nick decides to stay because of the child.

I read the ending yesterday, and then some reviews where they didn’t like it. The villain wins, after all. Nick is defeated because he wants to give his child a semblance of a normal life. He buckles under. It's unsatisfying. We want justice for the underdog.

Some said Nick should have been braver and stronger. In a sense I agree: Having encountered a few sociopaths in my life, I know the only winning move with them is not to play. The only path to take is away.

But then I was thinking about it again this morning. How many times has it been a woman who has buckled under because of their children? How many stay in loveless marriages – in and out of fiction – because of their child?

Does it take more courage to walk away and never see your children again, or to stay and tough it out? Which would you choose?

2/5: From a Certain Point of View

Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View - Paul Kemp

A collection of forty short stories, celebrating forty years of Star Wars.

Warning: I’m going into some Star Wars minutiae below and your eyes may glaze over. If you don’t give a diddly about Star Wars, feel free to stop right here and get off. I won’t mind.

You know that creature in the cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, the one who looks like a bat? Don’t worry if you don’t…they’re only in the movie for about five seconds.


This character has a name (Kabe). This character has a backstory and a characterisation. This character has a gender. This book is forty stories from characters like Kabe, peripheral to the main plot of Star Wars, but running alongside it. Some of them take bigger roles (Like Wedge Antilles, who shoots down a TIE fighter and saves Luke Skywalker), but most are like Kabe.

So as you can imagine, this isn’t a book for an initiate into the Star Wars universe. There are characters only the most devoted Star Wars fan will recognise in here. It makes it hard for it to be accessible for someone who might just wander by and pick it up. The same goes for some of the authors – I recognised some had penned other Star Wars works, or were associated with Star Wars in some way.

I had higher hopes for this collection. For a start, all forty stories take place over the course of only Star Wars: A New Hope. There are nine (at time of writing) official Star Wars films to choose from (more if you drag in the Ewok movies), so I found the limit to be an odd one. I’d have liked to have seen a story from The Empire Strikes Back or Rogue One. It’s a big universe to choose from.

But enough with the flaws. What worked for me?

A particular favourite was the officer who files the endless paperwork that keeps the Empire moving and who knows how to work the system to bail out other officers. Sounds like a hoot, right? A paper pushing bureaucrat? But the story centres on the officer who didn’t fire at the escaping droids in A New Hope (His name is Hija, for those keeping notes), and how this bureaucrat helps him figure out a good reason for not firing. And any author who can write a decent story about a bureaucrat deserves Kudos.

There’s a kicker of a story from Wil Wheaton about a tower guard who watches the X-Wings depart for the Death Star - the twist near the climax is heart breaking. There’s a fun story from Emperor Palpatine done entirely in rhyming couplet. A tale from Boba Fett done like a 1940s pulp detective story. A tale from the last seconds of Alderaan. An argument between Whills.

Not a collection for the Star Wars novice by any means, and the scope of the tales was disappointing. Nevertheless, some were very entertaining.


3/5: The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, Stephen King

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - Stephen King

When nine year old Tricia McFarland steps off a hiking trail – mostly to ease her bladder, but more to escape the arguing of her brother and mother - she makes a mistake. When she doesn’t retrace her steps, she makes a bigger one. What follows is nine days of deprivation and rising terror…

King says he works best when he’s writing epics, full of a hundred characters, but I’ve always found his best work to be the simplest: a few characters, a simple setting – Misery comes to mind, as do his short stories.

Concentrating on Tricia gives him a chance to dig in and scoop her out, to see what she’s made of, and we feel every ache and cut as she does. King certainly puts her through the grinder in her walk in the woods: Thirst, hunger, swarms of insects that love the taste of her sweat. There are simple joys too, like a meteor shower on a crystal clear night.

But there’s something more in the woods: Something odd following her, waiting for her strength to fail. It’s girl versus nature tale, simple and effective in its delivery and its imagery.

I checked the map from where Trish started her walk after I’d finished the novel, and it seemed to me the woods were conspiring against her – I don’t think it’s possible to walk as she did without crossing what looks like a major road. But then again, the things she sees – or imagines she sees – probably wouldn’t have been there either.

I devoured the first half of this book in roughly two hours. It’s not a long tale at around three hundred pages, and it didn’t take me long to finish the rest.

The only parts that slowed it down for me were the baseball references. Trish has a personal stereo with a radio that can pick up baseball games, and the sound of human voices is what keeps her moving, especially when her hero appears, a man named Tom Gordon.

The only problem with a book with sports references (of any kind) is the inference that your reader knows what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about baseball except its basic terminology, so I was lost when Gordon is called “A closer” or “it’s the bottom of the eighth with three outs.”

It’s either a case of explaining it and slowing the book down, or moving on and hoping for the best. I mentally skimmed the parts where Trish is listening and commenting on the baseball matches she’s listening to. They weren’t more than a page or so anyway, so the effect was minimal. But it felt like I missed something important, since Trisha’s survival is linked to the game so closely. Even the chapters are titled after segments of a baseball game. (I feel the same way when I watch “A Field of Dreams”. Still love the movie though.)

I would have rated this four stars but for King’s notorious weak spot: His endings. I bought this book from a charity shop, and the ending changed my mind from I-want-to-keep-it to I’m-donating-it-back.

In the last few chapters, King simply seems to give up. He jumps out of Trish’s world and rushes headlong to the climax, as though suddenly bored with the tale and wanting to get it done. He skips four days of her walking in two pages to reach that climax. It’s a jarring jump out of a very involving and personal story.

And, much, much worse, when Trish finally faces the creature following her (Something which seemed to me was a twisted relative of IT), it’s not her that banishes it, but a random passing hunter. Not what I wanted to see in any way. I wanted to see her do it! It’s her I’ve been rooting for over the past three hundred pages, Mr King! Don’t drop in a random stranger with a rifle just to wrap it up.

A few years ago, I was in Washington State, driving through its endless evergreen forests. You could have lost anything in there – aircraft carriers, towns, whole civilisations. Walk into those woods more than a few hundred yards and you would die as you looked for a way out. A single child, alone, un-provisioned, unprepared? No one would ever find her.

Forests are a primeval environment anyway, a scary-as-hell place to get lost. A scary as hell sensation to feel like you’re being followed on top of that (as I can personally attest to).

Trish is made of tough stuff, I’ll tell you that, and to not have her beat the creature following her is simply a cheat.

2/5: The Pelican Brief, John Grisham

The Pelican Brief - John Grisham

Two US Supreme Court judges are killed in what appears to be a related incident, but no one can figure out why, except a law student named Darby Shaw who suddenly everyone wants killed…

This was John Grisham’s third novel, and in a way it follows closely the formula of the previous one, The Firm. I picked it up on a whim, mainly because the copy of The Firm I have has a teaser for this at the end.

As a comparison to The Firm: both protagonists go on the run, “chased…by anonymous corporations and police forces” to paraphrase Inception. Both of them find a way to tell their stories and both end up in the Caribbean in the epilogue. Neither have any real ties, and both are rich enough to be able to hop on a plane at a minutes notice and stop in decent hotels night after night. The Firm’s male protagonist needs a woman to help him succeed; Darby Shaw needs a man to help her succeed.

I don’t wish to drop too many spoilers here, but the plot creaked and dragged in too many places for me to rate this higher. In the middle of the book, there’s a long section where two characters are interviewing students. Obviously, it’s going to be the last student they talk to, or none at all, that gives them the information they need. It dragged on for a whole chapter, and it could have been trimmed and we wouldn’t have missed anything.

There’s an exposition scene at the end where the head of the FBI explains what’s been going on and my eyes glazed over, even though it was only a page.

It’s a timely book though, given the political situation of 2018 in the US: A golf loving president tells the head of the FBI to stop investigating a crime, and it’s repeatedly stated it’s close to obstruction of justice to do so.

There also seems to be some author-intrusion going on in one chapter as well, when Grisham is discussing the oil business in Louisiana and it's destruction of the environment. It's a jarring note.

The premise had a touch of Agatha Christie: It’s impossible to work out why these Supreme Court judges were killed without information that comes to light only 80% of the way through the book.

Perhaps I was reading it too much as a who-done-it, but that does seem to be the intent: Darby goes to a records office to research her brief, but no clues are given as to what the subject is. And because I was looking for those clues, it made an unsatisfactory read to be given the answer in a plot dump.

3/5: Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens, Mark Ford

Nicholas Nickleby is thrown into increasing debt on the death of his father. With a sister and a widowed mother to take care of, he travels to London and seek the help of his uncle. The only problem is, uncle Ralph is a miserable and miserly money-lender with who wouldn’t spit on Nicholas if he was on fire. Grudgingly, he packs Nick off to Yorkshire, and so his adventures to find his own fortune begin.

Nick arrives at an appalling boys school called Dotheboys Hall, run by a one-eyed child-hating Wackford Squeers. It’s tense as to how long Nick will keep his easily-lost temper with all the casual cruelty going on (If only it had been merely fictional…). It’s a delight when he finally snaps and metes some punishment to the Squeers family. I practically cheered.

Nick leaves Yorkshire in a hurry after that, and the book starts to ramble a little. He finds himself in London (briefly, to argue with his uncle), then on the road again and heading to the coast to become a sailor…but he’s diverted into becoming an actor instead. You can tell Dickens is having fun at the expense of actors and theatres in general through that section – he acted often, and the odd characters Nick meets seem like they were people Dickens would have met.

Determined to carve a living for himself, Nick eventually finds some good friends in the Cheerbyle brothers and their bottomless goodwill and endless philanthropy.

Nick’s good fortune - and more importantly, his good friends and family – are contrasted with Uncle Ralph, who lives alone, unloved and uncared for in a cold and draughty home with a single housekeeper (he’s rich and could afford to warm it; he’s just too tight with money). He looms in the background of Nick’s life throughout the book. Nick would be quite happy to ignore him, but Ralph has made it his mission to break him. It ultimately ends up breaking Ralph, instead though…this is Dickens, after all, and happy endings are guaranteed.

This was the third of Dickens novels, written in monthly instalments between 1838 and ’39. It starts off strongly enough, with the backstory of how Ralph and Nick’s father came be estranged, and the collapse of the Nickleby estate and the journey to London. But then it starts to ramble – there are two chapters which are nothing more than travellers relating to Nick some folk tales about York on his way there. I skipped them, and I know for a fact I didn’t miss a thing.

In fact the book doesn’t really settle into a rhythm until Nick finds himself back in London again, about halfway through. Even then, there’s almost a chapter dedicated to a dinner party for characters who live downstairs from Nick. They play a very peripheral part in the book, and I skimmed it until I saw the word “Nicholas” again. They turn up towards the climax for a single chapter to tie up their storyline.

The ending almost feels like an anti-climax, even though it’s obviously well developed and planned. I can see Dickens practically ticking boxes labelled “Loose ends” as he works through the epilogue. With the death of Ralph, it felt like the book ran out of steam immediately.

Villains really do get the best parts of a story.

4/5 "Bag of Bones", Stephen King

Bag of Bones - Stephen King

Mike Noonan last sees his wife alive after she runs a routine errand. As he struggles to come to terms with her death, his writing career and life falls apart, and he closes himself off from the world.

An idea for a vacation at his summer home by a lake restarts his life after four years and leads to some surprising places and revelations, particularly when he stumbles into the middle of a custody battle over a small girl…

When things start going bump (and when bells start ringing) in Mike’s home, he realises fairly quickly he’s living in a haunted house…with more than one ghost. That bubbles along under the surface for most of the story, but the real plot is the custody battle between the woman living in almost poverty down the road in a double-wide trailer and one of the richest men in the country.

A pleasingly old-fashioned ghost story from King – the ghosts are fairly benign to begin with, and the horror only kicks in towards the climax of the book, which is told in a breathless rush of a few chapters.

It’s more of a character driven story than most of King’s work, and Mike feels very real and solid for it. King also goes down the route of Mike being an unreliable narrator, an unusual device for him. So much so that an alternative explanation of what’s going on could be made: Mike could simply be psychotic and imagining most of it. There’s an element of uncertainty there that livens things up. Like most of us, Mike considers himself a hero in his own story, but King drops hints both broad and subtle that he wasn’t at times as wonderful as he would like to think.

There’s none of the usual bloat of King’s work – he doesn’t spend a chapter talking about characters only peripherally related to the story, for instance, and the plot doesn’t slacken even through the custody battle.

The horror is low key, the supernatural quite tame, the characters nicely developed, and the whole thing hums along smoothly without dragging. If I was looking to start someone on King’s work, I would pick this one.

5/5: House of Stairs

House of Stairs - William Sleator

Five orphaned teenagers find themselves pushed into a strange room. There’s nothing but stairs that lead them eventually back to the only object beside a primitive toilet and a water source: a machine that delivers their food. But what do they have to do to earn that food?

This is a short book – only 166 pages for the paperback. I’d never heard of it until my wife sent me a message on Facebook (She found it while I was asleep and didn’t want to forget). As soon as I saw the premise, I ordered a copy. It’s a testament to the story that my wife read this when she was perhaps ten or eleven and still remembers it forty years later.

I can see why. Last night, I had forty pages to read and even though it was getting late and I needed to be up for work the next day, I had to finish it.

If I have a complaint about the story, it was the fact that all the characters survived. The civilisation I read about that would allow this experiment would have no problems letting them starve, I suspect.

The setup is chilling in its simplicity. Take five teens, drop them in a minimalist prison of stairs and condition them to act bizarrely with the reward of food. Then condition them to fight, condition them to move without thinking on the production of lights and sound. Condition them to begin to hate each other. Feed them when they become violent.

My wife asked me last night if it’s something I would have read when I was ten or eleven, its target age group. I probably would have, but I wouldn’t have believed it would have been possible for human beings to become sociopathic so easily.

But since I was that age, I’ve found out about things like The Milgram Experiment and The Stanford Prison Experiment, and I’ve learned differently. I’ve come across the phrase “Civilisation is only nine missed meals from anarchy”, and I’ve learned differently.

It’s the most terrifying truth of all: How easy it is to strip the humanity from someone and turn them into a monster. To get on a bus with a bomb strapped to your belt, to drop the Zyklon B down a tube. To see our fellow primates as something below us. Untermensch, indeed.

The circuit in our heads that gives us our compassion is so very, very fragile. How easy it is for us to short circuit it, to trip some mental fuse. To take a human being and break them is so very easy and so utterly terrifying.

There are characters in this story that refuse to bow to the machine, who start a resistance. I wish I would be as brave as them if I were in the same situation.

2/5 "Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children"

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs

Jacob’s grandfather use to spin some stories about his own World War Two childhood, some pretty strange ones…stories about the boy who could lift rocks with one hand and the girl who could fly. As he turns into a teenager, Jacob realises they couldn’t have been true. Could they?

An entertaining read from Ransom, based on some odd Victorian photographs he’s collected over the years, the basis of which pull the story along and illustrate it nicely. Some of the pictures are very odd and disquieting. Of particular note is a dentist with no pupils or irises, and the worlds creepiest Santa. I even bought the paperback so I could see the pictures better than on my Kindle. It’s a nice novelty for a story to see the frame it’s draped on, to see the process of turning pictures into a story.

There’s nothing wrong with Ransom’s characters, and his writing style is easy on the eye, flowing along nicely. The descriptions of the Welsh island where Jacob finds himself are all nicely done as well, lending a solid and realistic feel to everything. I would have probably commented more on the bi-lingual nature of Wales, but that’s just a minor point.

So why only two stars? The problem for me was that the story was remarkably…forgettable. I finished this three days ago, and I had to check the book to look up the name of the main character before I started this review.

Nobody stuck with me; I have no urge to see where the next two books are going, where the lives of the characters are taking them next. If you asked me to name Jacob's love interest or his fathers name, I couldn’t do it.

2/5: Rogue One, Alexander Freed

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Alexander Freed

A prequel movie to the original Star Wars, "A New Hope".

There's nothing wrong with Freed's writing style, and there are some nice asides with background information - the leader of the Rebel Alliance's thoughts about Jyn and a very realistic back-and-forth memo about the reactor hole in the Death Star, for example.

The movie wasn't that brilliant though, and the book does what it can with what it has. I suspect it's not the fault of Freed that it's such thin material.

1/5: Martin Chuzzlewit

Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens, Patricia Ingham

A story of the extended and generally mean and selfish Chuzzlewit family.

According to my reading history, it took me nine months to read this. That’s not quite representative – I did put it on hold for a while and also read two books in between – but it’s an illustration of what’s wrong with this monster. For a comparison, this is about seven hundred pages; I read War and Peace at over a thousand pages in just over a month.

So where did it go wrong?

This was Dicken’s sixth book, and he was obviously very off his game at this point. There’s no coherent plot, or through line (Except the general selfishness of most of the characters). The padding is immense and never-ending. Seriously: He spent almost an entire chapter describing a boarding house / inn. This boarding house appears for a chapter more or so, then we’re on to something else. It’s wonderful descriptive writing, but it doesn’t move the story on one jot.

The novel was written as a serial for publication, and when Dickens decided that the story wasn’t working, he wasn’t above ditching it and shifting to a new one. So, we start with the death of an aged relative, move on to the Pecksniff family, then on to something else. Then…Boom! A character decides he’s off to America! When I read that, coming from absolutely nowhere, I knew this book was in trouble. It’s also very obvious when Dickens wasn’t up to his word count and spent pages describing a London market, or a forest. He’s never one to use one word when a dozen will do.

Mostly, it’s forgivable because you know his characters are so grand and well-drawn, but not here.

Plot after plot is thrown at this thing in a desperate attempt to save it, and nothing works. The American adventures are padded to the point of insanity; there’s (again) almost a whole chapter describing a town-hall meeting, where an American foists a letter upon our character. But not to worry, since the letter isn’t important and is never featured again.

By the time the climax (such as it is) begins to roll around and the bad guys get their justice, I’d lost interest in being able to tell the characters apart. Someone is murdered in a forest, and I really couldn’t tell you why beyond the idea there was some sort of scam going on. Someone nearly dies and then doesn’t, for no point whatsoever.

I checked the summary of the plot on Wikipedia, and it says a character conned another out of a pocket watch at one point. I have no memory of this event having taken place at all, in a book I just read.

There are a few chapters which work. Tom Pinch and his sister have a few memorable scenes of domestic bliss. Mrs Gamp and her umbrella were apparently so popular (Or there was a genius at the marketing department) that a Gamp became a byword for an umbrella. But she adds little to the story beyond a social commentary on Victorian healthcare. Everyone else is utterly forgettable.

It’s. A. Mess.

4/5: The Martian

The Martian - Andy Weir

During a mission to Mars, Mark Watney is left stranded by a freak accident. The rest of his crew think him dead and leave for Earth.

This book should be subtitled “How to survive on Mars when everything there wants to kill you.” Almost every chapter has something going wrong for Watney, yet he manages to stay alive using the most powerful tools he has – his brain and his will to survive.

Watney is indomitable, a Martian Terminator. He won’t stay down, and it’s that spirit of resilience that carries the book. We all love someone who just. Won’t. Quit.

I say it’s Watney that carries the book, and I’ll stick with that. We’ll get to his character in a minute, but the rest of the cast are pretty flat and two dimensional. They exist only as props for the main action. And yet they work, because all we really care about is the guy on Mars. Everyone else can be the second spear-carrier on the left and it doesn’t really matter.

Watney himself is an odd character. He writes sometimes like a twelve year old, his logs full of exclamation marks and comments like “Look, boobs! (.Y.)”. The immaturity is striking against his other character traits. He’s a very smart guy, very determined to survive.

We never get a feel for what’s going on internally though; we only get surface impressions. Nothing about the intense pressure of someone living alone without hearing a human voice, without seeing a blade of grass, or even the simple pleasure of taking a shower. Very little about what it’s like to be where he is. I’m reminded of other stories about Mars that bear comparison – “I, Mars” by Ray Bradbury and his “Martian Chronicles” both of which give more insights into what people are experiencing as they wander the Martian hills.

The book is so much more powerful when we do get to see inside Watney – he makes contact with Earth, then goes back to his habitat and cries. When he’s being rescued, he asks for a minute when he sees another human being for the first time in years. More moments like that would have deepened the book.

Mars itself exists only to throw things at Watney. Weir is (perhaps intentionally) vague on what it would really feel like to be there, to see what Watney is seeing. Watney is trying to survive, but there’s nothing even as small as the way the Martian dust clings to his boots or gets in his hair.

Because of that, the setting of Mars becomes irrelevant. With a few tweaks, the story could have been set anywhere where the character is isolated and survives on his own wits. An asteroid or a desert island – if you don’t immerse me in where you are, it doesn't matter.

There are a lot of pages where this book felt like maths problems from a textbook: “I have 50 square metres of soil which I need to cover to a depth of 3.4cm. I need to irrigate it with 1.64 cubic centimetres per gram of water, how much will I need?” Fortunately, the answer is given instantly and it can be skimmed through without thinking about it.

As a last note, I saw the film before I read the book, and I think the two complement each other very well. A rare case where each is as good as the other.

3/5. "Dreamcatcher" by Stephen King

Dreamcatcher - Stephen King

Four friends on an annual hunting trip find themselves in the middle of an alien invasion…

King has said that “Dreamcatcher” is the least favourite of his novels. It was written when he was recovering from a car accident and doped up on painkillers. Some of the descriptions of the physical suffering of the characters are turned up a notch or two as a result. This is Stephen King, though, and it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

He’s on familiar ground here. Four friends are defined by a childhood incident that still pulls them together as adults (as in IT). There’s more than a hint of extra-sensory abilities going on with them (as in IT) and they even visit Derry briefly, one of the best scenes of the story. There’s also a Down’s Syndrome man-child called Duddits (A name which becomes a drinking game with its repetition. Duddits, Duddits, Duddits).

If anything, this is a fifties B-movie sci-fi. Aliens invade, the humans defeat them (I’m sure that’s not a spoiler). Some folks live, some folks die.

Most of the book is a car chase; it’s a testament to King’s abilities as a story-teller that I wasn’t bored with it. It would have been easy to skip to the last few chapters and not felt like I’d missed anything.

King, as usual, has trouble with his ending. The alien being carried by a character in his mind may not be an alien after all…I was confused as to what was going on there. There are also some odd references to the Dreamcatcher of the title and its twin which seemed muddled and poorly developed.


3/5: Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams - Stephen King

A short story collection from Stephen King.

There was nothing technically wrong with the stories contained inside this collection. What was wrong was my expectations of the kind of stories I’d be reading. A lot of them were character driven, and the stories felt flat to me. Herman Wouk is still Alive was the weakest entry for me.

I don’t expect King’s stories to simply end without a kicker or a punch, and a lot of these stories simply petered out. They felt like drafts rather than finished products.

King’s thread running through a lot of these is closure. Many protagonists are facing the end of their lives, or the end of another dear to them. King at sixty-nine is clearly feeling the weight of his age and the loss of his lifelong friends. Nothing wrong with writing about it; just not what I like to read in a King short story.

There were some crackers as well though. Mile 81 is a wonderful little King snapshot of horror. Under the Weather is a subtle delight. For me, the best two were Morality and Drunken Fireworks which was a hoot.

4/5: Being, Kevin Brooks

Being - Kevin Brooks

Robert goes in for minor procedure on his stomach…but what is it that terrifies the doctors who are looking inside him?

A great thriller from Brooks. I read the 320 or so pages in about four hours, which gives you an idea of the pacing and the speed it zips along.

Robert’s reactions to what’s going on are believable and logical, and his arc through the book is nicely handled. But the villains hunting him down are mostly two dimensional, and we never discover what he is – Robert decides he is what he is, and that’s good enough. That's oddly unsatisfying.

The world building is nicely done. There are shades of Blade Runner in the almost constant rain and grim streets and grey world Robert walks and drives through (And there’s a lot of driving going on).

Only in the last third of the book does the pace slacken as Robert finds himself in Spain. The climax was pushed into the last few pages, and was predictable in hindsight (A we-could-be-a-family-when-this-is-all-over moment that means certain death for at least one character). It didn’t ruin the book or it’s enjoyment for me, though.

3/5: The Lie Tree, Francis Hardinge

The Lie Tree - Frances Hardinge

Fourteen-year-old Faith and her Victorian family are forced to flee mainland England for a quieter island off the coast of France. But scandal has followed them, and when her father is murdered, Faith must break free of her extremely binding social conventions to bring some justice to his memory.

When a book has paragraphs like this one:

"She had tumbled off the safe, hallowed shore of childhood, and now she was in no-man's-water, neither one thing nor another, like a mermaid. Until she dragged herself up on the rock of marriage, she was difficult."

...you know this might be a bumpy ride. Purple prose like that litters the early pages of the book, and it staggers and reels for the first few hundred pages or so, apparently seeking a plot.

I read that paragraph to my wife who said, "If I'd read that, I'd put the book down right there and then."

But I stuck with it because I'm not someone who relishes the thought of a didn't-finish. It did take its time to get moving in a direction - two hundred pages, give or take, and only when Faith's father is murdered.

As usual in young-adult fiction, the adults are useless, and it's entirely up to Faith to sort the murder out. Further constraining her is the setting: The number of things a Victorian girl can't do is quite startling 150 years later. She can't go out alone, or at night, she can't be alone with a man or even a boy her age and be less than ten feet from them. She's encumbered and corseted (literally and figuratively) by the clothes she wears, by the society that regards her as invisible and incapable. She will not be attending school or furthering her education for much longer. Her interest in natural history and science can only be expanded by picking at the crumbs her father drops.

But Faith is like a Judo champion, twisting the forces opposing her so they work in her favour, taking the expectations of the men (and women) around her and slamming them to the ground. There's a nice twist at the reveal of the murderer when Faith realises she's party to that short-sighted sexism as much as anyone.

A word or two about the reveal of the murderer...to me, it seemed very Agatha Christie. Information we couldn't possibly know suddenly turns up three pages before it happens, making it impossible to solve for those playing along at home.

There's a nice sense of place and time throughout, a very solid feel to the island and the physical, emotional, social and intellectual restraints placed on a young woman and widows and families in the 1860s.

Faith is not a particularly nice character, not exactly pleasant to be around. She has only one ally on the island, and she tolerates him only because she needs a male partner. She's bratty and sullen, a typical teenager a hundred years before the word existed.

I'm a long way into this review and I haven't mentioned The Lie Tree. Its origins are left nicely vague, open to a scientific interpretation or a spiritual one. Faith and her father approach it from different ends and almost meet in the middle. An unanswered question is whether the tree grew because of the lies Faith told, or whether it would have done so anyway.

A tree that feeds on lies and gives out a fruit filled with knowledge (although that knowledge is extremely vague and abstract) has obvious Biblical overtones, but there's more to the symbolism to that. The lies that Faith feeds it twist and grow as quickly as the plant does.

I was surprised that Faith didn't see it for the honey trap it was. I imagined she would already be someone accustomed to lies, and would know how they grow and thicken without much effort. And like their modern equivalent, the Meme, they don't need much watering.

5/5: The Talisman, Stephen King and Peter Straub

The Talisman - Stephen King, Peter Straub

Chased by the ambitious and power-hungry partner of his dead father, Jack Sawyer and his dying mother find themselves in New Hampshire, exiled from California. Jack is sent on a road trip back to the west coast to retrieve something called “The Talisman”. Its description is vague to the point of non-existence by the odd man sending him on the trip. But Jack is just desperate enough to try it…to try anything to save his mother. It’s the McGuffin that powers the plot along.

And, it seems, not just his mother is in trouble. Jack discovers he can travel to a parallel world called “The Territories”, a place which has “magic instead of physics.” (A world King would later expand into his Dark Tower series). Ruler of this place is a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jack’s mother, a dying queen who also needs saving from the Territories equivalent of his father’s partner.

The Talisman is not a short book by any means…but the best part? I didn’t even notice, because the pages flip by so easily. From Jack’s first trips into the Territories to the horrors and good friends he finds in this world and the other, nothing lags or drops. There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to leave the book alone, even though I’ve read it before and knew where it was all going.

At the time of publication (around 1984), this was touted as an adult horror story, I believe. But horror forms such a subset that it seems like a mis-identification. This is odyssey, this is Frodo and Sam growing as characters as they travel the road to Mordor. This is all about the journey. This is about finding strength you didn’t know you had, discovering who your friends are, friends willing to die for you, as you would for them.

This is as much about a twelve year old boy discovering what it takes to turn into a man, and what sort of man he wants to turn in to.

In 1984, this was classed as adult fiction, but there’s nothing here that a teenager couldn’t read. I would class it as young-adult, actually, both in terms of protagonist and the themes that run through it. And like the best of YA, there’s something there for all of us, no matter how old we are.

The Talisman is, in two words, bloody brilliant.