Category: Books

Book Review: A Simple Favour – Darcey Bell

The success of Gone Girl lead to a series of imitators. Some of them are full blooded and can stand on their own, but a lot of them are pale. Gillian Flynn’s book was not thrown together, but was carefully constructed and plotted – and she and other authors alike are probably sick of the endless comparisons. When you have a book like Darcey Bell’s A Simple Favour, which is a blatant facsimile of Gone Girl with all the good parts taken out and a thousand idiotic kitchen sinks thrown in, you have to make the comparison. A Simple Favour literally could not exist without the intervention of Gillian Flynn, and humanity is collectively stupider for it.

Book Review: Things We Didn’t See Coming – Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a trap. In at least one paperback form, it does not have a blurb, just pull quotes. It is not until you open it and get a few stories in that you realise that they are all connected – and only then, if you’re me, because three consecutive stories featured a character called Margo. One can’t be blamed for not coming to this realisation sooner: Things We Didn’t See Coming has the appearance of a collection of short stories, and the majority of them, while post-apocalyptic, appear to deal with apocalypses of different varieties and root causes. The narrator is never named. Each apocalypse is presented without much in the way of context, and it does not need it. But, if you really are allergic to short stories, you may feel free to treat Things We Didn’t See Coming as a novel with large time gaps between chapters.

Constant Reader Chronicle: The Shining

The famous "Warren Beatty" first edition.

Spoilometer: this write up goes into a fair amount of detail about The Shining. It is not safe if you want to discover the secrets of The Overlook for yourself, because The Shining is one of the more pure delights available on this mortal plane.

The third book in Stephen King’s catalogue is The Shining, which is famous for inspiring one of the most iconic films of all time. However, Kubrick’s The Shining is the first of many adaptations that King has been disappointed in, to the point that he eventually had to sign an agreement saying that he would stop publicly expressing his distaste for the film.

While The Shining (1980) rightfully has a place in the cinematic canon, The Shining is a novel that we can not (doctor) sleep on. While both Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot had much to recommend them, The Shining is arguably his first masterpiece. Drawing on what we would come to recognise as parts of King’s personal, professional, and family life, there are many demons exercised and exorcised between these pages. The Shining is a completely realised work in a way that few novels of any genre are.

Book Review: Whiskey When We’re Dry – John Larison

The Old West holds an intoxicating allure to the modern mind. Between both versions of Westworld, Back to the Future Part III, City Slickers and The Legend of Curly’s Gold alike, as a society we can’t help going back there. Whiskey When We’re Dry, John Larison’s debut novel, is a return to a well that we can visit any number of times without ever exhausting the supply. The West was boundless in the imagination, and can fit many stories; Whiskey When We’re Dry is one of the more meditative examples.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Carrie

Constant Reader Chronicle is a new feature that aims to cover a single Stephen King novel, in chronological order, on a near monthly basis. It will skip novels undertaken as part of the Dark Tower cycle and the Mr. Mercedes novels but will otherwise cover every major work that Stephen King and that pesky Richard Bachman has committed to the page. Given that Carrie is such an iconic place to begin a career, this entry will contain fairly comprehensive spoilers. The remaining entries will be spoiler rated on an individual basis.

Stephen King’s first published novel is the prototypical King. The seeds of so many future books are present here, often in the most embryonic form, and Carrie predicts a bright future for its author that came true in perhaps the most lucrative way imaginable. You have a girl with a Shine (although it is not, of course, called that yet), a small town filled with people both decent and awful, and a cavalcade of carnage concentrated in the climax. Though parts of Carrie flirt with a form that wouldn’t ultimately come to be associated with King, this is an exquisitely realised first release.

Book Review: Boy Swallows Universe – Trent Dalton

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.

Book Review: The President is Missing – Bill Clinton & James Patterson

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.

Book Review: The Outsider — Stephen King

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, The Outsideris a good if not fully cohesive novel.

Book Review: Leah on the Offbeat – Becky Albertalli

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.

Book Review: Less – Andrew Sean Greer

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.