Boy Swallows Universe is the buzz in Australian books right now. It’s going to sell itself, as all of the pull quotes and window displays tell us. First it’s about one thing, then it’s about another, then you turn the page and years have passed, but one thing is certain: Boy Swallows Universe is an Australian novel that is at least in part about children who have to fend for themselves in the face of their parental figures’ involvement in drugs. We certainly haven’t published one of those before. Cynical though that sounds, Boy Swallows Universe isn’t bad, it just isn’t up to much and is up to too much all at once.
The President is Missing is a trap, a lie of a novel. It’s the best title for a political thriller ever, and it is squandered on a book where we know where the president is at all times. It seems like a no-brainer: Former President Bill Clinton and Former Author James Patterson team up to write a political thriller. It is a no-brainer, but the brains are lacking from the book itself, rather than the reader.
If you have any experience with The Dark Tower series, it doesn’t take long to realise that the works of Stephen King are all connected, even if the links are sub-dermal. The Outsider presents itself at first as if it were a straight crime drama, like Mr. Mercedes, but as the impossibility of the crime presented becomes more apparent, we are asked to accept that perhaps something else is at play; like End of Watch, as it turns out. This leads to one of King’s bigger works of pastiche: at times The Outsider seems to be echoing Salem’s Lot by way of It with a light brushing of Bill Hodges’ finest moments. The result isn’t a bad novel, but it is one that peaks early and never quite recovers its momentum.
After Terry “Coach T” Maitland is arrested at a baseball game in front of 1,588 spectators, the town of Flint turns against him. Police investigator Ralph Anderson has incontrovertible evidence that Maitland killed eleven year old Frank Peterson, but Maitland has an airtight alibi. As the impossibilities of Maitland’s guilt continue to pile up, Anderson doubles down on his conviction, and Maitland’s friends look further afield for answers.
The first third of The Outsider is some of King’s finest work, in a career littered with fine works. The classic small town feel King has honed across the years meets with a crime procedural thrown slightly off-kilter and it works well. The whole book could have been about this sequence of events and you might never have minded that it never opened up. But open up it does, and after that it can’t help but taper somewhat.
The key problem with the second and third acts of The Outsider is that King’s protagonist focus is hazier than usual: by the time you realise that Ralph Anderson is supposed to be a sympathetic figure, the man has exhausted whatever sympathy he had been allocated, and he has a long way to claw his way back up to respectability. King has had far more wicked characters make greater leaps to sympathy — as recently as last year’s Sleeping Beauties, with its exquisitely realised Frank Geary — but up to the end, Anderson doesn’t seem worthy, even as a flawed protagonist.
King has more luck with another character, a different outsider, introduced around the halfway mark. She provides much of the investigative legwork and it’s difficult not to warm to her, but she doesn’t work as well as a foil for Anderson as one might hope. This character is the true heart of the book, the drawcard to reward the Constant Reader, yet she also unlocks The Outsider’s Council of Elrond problem.
The Outsider has the convening of councils to cope with their constituents’ crises of conscience – just like Salem’s Lot – but they take up many more pages and recycle information that both us and the characters already know. At no point does the reader need to suspend disbelief; they are, after all, reading a Stephen King novel. There is good reason for King to want to show the investigation process, yet the desire to both show and tell hinders the development of a novel that essentially stops for a giant stretch of time.
The pastiche carries on into the finale, which is familiar to the point of feeling like King has explicitly rewritten one of his earlier works. It’s good reading, but the build-up and the payoff don’t quite meet each other; the consolation lies in knowing that we are supposed to recognise what King has done and where he is going, but it smacks more of King’s desire to return to old stomping grounds than it does to explicitly satisfactory storytelling.
The Outsider mixes some of King’s best work with a good, if slightly rusty, caboose slapped onto the back. Some of its lesser elements will inevitably age well if King follows through on any of what he appears to promise between these pages, but as it stands, <I>The Outsider</i> is a good if not fully cohesive novel.
In Simon vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda, the only thing worse than the title was the character of Leah. Leah got angry at Simon for no reason on more than one occasion, and her motivations were entirely shadowy from start to finish. She was the least defined of the entire Simon crew and the least worthy of the reader’s attention. Leah existed to make Simon feel bad, and he had enough to feel bad about in the first place.
A book is the crystallisation of a moment in time. To add anything to that runs the risk of disturbing the balance of the original story. In Leah on the Offbeat, Becky Albertalli, answering the call of “the readers who knew something was up, even when I didn’t”, has written a novel solely to pander to fans of an obscure “ship”. The balance has been disturbed.
No book exists in a vacuum, even if you try to pick your reading schedule relatively blindly. It is hard to pick up Less now without knowing that it won the Pulitzer this year – even if you had meant to read it before you knew that it was in the running. The knowledge of a win hangs over a book: it bolsters sales and raises awareness, but it also raises expectations, and allows the dreaded word “overrated” to be floated.
Andrew Sean Greer’s Less won a Pulitzer. If it hadn’t, it would still be a good novel, but you can see how some of its preoccupations might have attracted the attention of an awards committee.
Some readers, though eclectic in their tastes, have areas that they don’t tend to stray into. True Crime is the sort of genre that attracts people who are really into true crime. What satisfies them may not hit the spot for your average Joe who doesn’t stray onto that side of the non-fiction tracks. Crimes aren’t always solved, and facts aren’t always known; those who are looking for neat packages may be discouraged.
This is the case for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which is about an unsolved string of rapes and murders, written by an author who herself passed away in the process of compiling the book. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has become a blind alley in a blind alley, a doubly unsolved mystery which can never deliver on its promise. Is it satisfying to True Crime afficionados, or is I’ll Be Gone in the Dark a book published solely on the strength of its authorial cachet?
There is a closing paragraph that has only worked once, and that was back in 1985*. All variations on it – and there have been more than a few – should really see the books that feature it either pulped, or at the very least sent back for a slight edit before being released on a public hungry for the opposite of the cliché. Such is the case with The Woman in the Window, a The Girl on the Train-cum-Rear Window-cum-entire Golden Age of Cinema pastiche: it has an ending that is unforgivable.
But how did we get here, to this imperfect conclusion? The Woman in the Window is touted as “the thriller of 2018”, and it is easy to see how it will capture the imagination of a reading public that devoured The Girl on the Train and tore through Gone Girl – although it does not distinguish itself as well as either of those. One could be forgiven, simply from looking at the covers and blurbs of the recent spate of unreliable narrator led thrillers, that there is a definite trend in publishing. But they’d be right: there is a definite trend.
Andy Weir is his own worst enemy. In Artemis he offers his readers a 26 year old Saudi-born Moon woman named Jazz, but one could be forgiven for confusing her voice with that of 42 year old American born Martian Mark Watney. Their sarcasm and their approach to problem solving are both very similar, despite their wildly different backgrounds. For the most part this is okay, but occasionally Weir will throw an absolute clunker of a line onto the page and hope that it will land; often it will not, and will go on bouncing indefinitely until it splats against the farthest reaches of your mind.
Moving Target: The History and Evolution of Green Arrow represents an incredibly deeply researched history of one of DC’s most enduring but often under-utilised heroes.
Gray offers both fact and analysis and pairs them with far-reaching interviews with a wide variety of people tied to the history of Green Arrow, many of whom reveal far more than one might expect. The people who have worked on Green Arrow have obviously been passionate about the character, and that passion is reflected in both their own words, the work itself and Gray’s analysis.
Gray is not afraid to illustrate that Green Arrow’s catalogue has not always been a a cavalcade of quality, and his asides about the history of DC itself in relation to the character are invaluable.
If you want to know what primary colours combine to form Green Arrow, you likely cannot do better than Moving Target. Moving Target fills a niche you may not have known existed, but if you’re an Oliver Queen diehard or a fresh recruit to the cause of the Emerald Archer, this is a more than worthy addition to your quiver.
The Talisman was the sort of book that a lot of people idolise, even if so much of it was a product of a darker, far less progressive time. Where that book had a lot of good material, much of it was mired in the unnecessary. Some seventeen years later, Peter Straub and Stephen King teamed up again to bring back Jack Sawyer, in adult form. Like its predecessor, Black House features children in peril, but none of them are the protagonist. This remove makes the novel easier to take because no unsuspecting preteen boys are being preyed upon by literally every car driving man in America, and the two have a stronger grasp of both audience expectation and precisely what they’re plotting.