Mr Mercedes, by Stephen King – a review


I seem to remember Stephen King announcing his retirement some years ago. And yet, the books keep coming – and I’m thankful for that.

I saved Mr Mercedes for my annual vacation (sorry to make you jealous, but I’m writing this review on my iPad, on the sundeck of the cruise ship Azura, just off the coast of Italy, while listening to Haydn’s Symphony 103 on my iPod).

I romped through Mr Mercedes in just a couple of days or so, pulled along by King’s easy style – the thing I’ve always most admired about his writing is that it is so immersive; the words fade away in your mind and it becomes like watching a film.

The book is a cat-and-mouse story; one where it’s often difficult to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse. Retired detective Kermit William Hodges (thankfully known as Bill to his friends) passes time by watching TV and gaining weight, until a letter arrives from the perpetrator of an unsolved crime, goading him back into life.

Brady Hartsfield is a man without conscience; he takes enjoyment from inflicting misery and has a somewhat unhealthy relationship with his mother. It’s often said that believable villains can’t be ‘all bad’ but there’s very little to redeem Brady. And Hodges is his latest target – but far from the biggest one in his sights.

As ever, King creates characters which are as believable as the person next to you. The pace of the book is almost unrelenting – there are several natural pauses as characters develop their relationships – and the plot twists in a way that real life does. Only one event I felt was foreshadowed too clearly; I won’t spoil it for you but I think you’ll know which one I mean, once you reach it.

Hodges becomes our friend; his good nature balanced by the ability to be tough when the going demands it. The insight into his thought processes, as he tracks the letter’s writer, is as enjoyable as the plot. Brady’s mind works in a different way and he’s the counterbalance to Hodge’s morality – outwardly so ordinary that he’s forgettable, but inwardly as dark as anyone King has created.

I’ve heard people say that they ‘prefer classic King’ but I have to say that I really like the way that his writing has evolved. I recently re-read The Shining and found it less satisfying (in terms of writing style) than his later work.

It’s true, this is less horror than we’re used to with King’s earlier works; there’s nothing supernatural here – just the perverse nature of the human race. But this book is no poorer for that. There are some enjoyable name-checks of King’s other work to look out for along the way, too.

This is yet another great book from Stephen King. Thoroughly enjoyable, it’s definitely one that you won’t want to put down until you’re done – and when you are, you’ll wish it wasn’t over.


Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut – a review


When reviewing books, I’m usually careful not to reveal too much of the plot – after all, while I might want to encourage people to read a book, I don’t want to spoil it for them.

For those who like to avoid spoilers, feel free to stop reading after this paragraph. I’ll simply say that this is one of those ‘must-read’ books. I enjoyed it from beginning to end, though it wasn’t anything like I expected in any way. I was certainly more than a little sorry that this is a book discovered later in life, as I expect to return to it more than once.

It’s said that we judge a book by its cover, but I’ve always felt that was wrong. Perhaps we might buy a book based on its cover, but judging any book on such scant information – a title and picture – is seldom right. Never more so than with Slaughterhouse-Five, which for years I’d suspected is set in the future (it isn’t) and centres around a place of grim violence (it doesn’t). Why it’s called Slaughterhouse-Five is something I’ll hold back as a joy for you to discover, should you deem to read it.

Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim’s life, framed around his time in the Second World War – more specifically, the terrible bombing of Dresden, of which he is, was and will be a survivor. I say is, was and will be partly because the book is written in snatches – small chunks of Billy’s life from seemingly random points. I also say this partly because that’s how Billy experiences time – for him, it’s not linear.

It’s a story not told by Billy, but by someone who knows him. The author has promised himself – and many others – that he will write something about the bombing of Dresden; something that brings a kind of meaning to the events there. But he can’t. He struggles to recall it and friends he was with do the same, or are reluctant to speak of it. It almost falls into being a story about Billy, while at the same time becomes a story about Dresden. It also is, perhaps more than anything else, a story about death.

Death pervades almost every part of this book, sewn into its every paragraph like stitches that hold the piece together. And yet it’s not the death that we might expect. It’s not a brooding or violent death, more an essay in how to put death into the story of life. It talks about death as not something to mourn or fear, but more an inevitable part of a greater whole – life and existence – that is to be celebrated. So it goes. (I won’t spoil what that little phrase means, either.)

The writing style is welcoming – open, honest and conversational snippets that convey far more than posturing prose ever could. It’s an easy read. As Billy travels through life – and time – his story unfolds. Yet much of the writing is achingly beautiful, despite the apparent simplicity of the prose. It’s both philosophical and poetic; it’s never condescending or pretentious. And it’s also not a book about time-travel: this is not The Time-Traveller’s Wife. Time-travel is not a plot device, it’s a means of unfolding the story, and a way in which both life and death can be put into context.

This is also part of Billy’s journey – how he must convey to others what he knows is the truth of life, time and death. It’s a mission he undertakes late in life – and involves him revealing to others something about himself (with disarming honesty) that can, for many, only serve to fundamentally undermine the integrity of his viewpoint. I won’t spoil this for you either, but this key point is written so deftly that you’re never sure if it’s a delusion or fact. Not that this matters. Billy can’t convey his philosophy without revealing how it came about – and why he knows his philosophy to be fact. It’s part of a whole – and the whole has to be accepted for any part of it to make sense.

In many ways, it’s a highly unusual novel. As the book itself says of war (and perhaps of itself): “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick or so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is both casual and epic. It’s an easy tale with a deep, deep message, wrapped into a tale of life, woven into a story of war.

And war is enormous – yet we sometimes lose perspective. We think of the bombing of Hiroshima as one of the Second World War’s biggest events, where 71,379 people died. Yet on a single night, 5 March 1945, Americans dropped high explosives and incendiary bombs on Tokyo – killing 83,793 people. And Dresden? Around 130,000 people were killed in one night. So it goes.

Billy survived Dresden by ironic chance of the place in which he was held prisoner – and went on to explain to others that it was neither something that had to be done nor could have been avoided, it ‘just was’. If you have war, you have death. If you have life, you have death.

I doubt that any book could make sense of (let alone give meaning to) something as awful as the bombing of Dresden, or part of any war – or indeed war itself. But death is part of war as death is part of life and Slaughterhouse-Five gets as close to raising our awareness of where death fits into life as any book I’ve read. A truly excellent book and one that is easily worthy of its reputation of being a modern masterpiece.


Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison – a review


I’m currently working my way through several books which are recognised classics in their genre, yet which I’ve somehow managed to overlook.

Make Room! Make Room! was the inspiration for the film Soylent Green – and, as is so often the case, a chasm exists between the book and the film. Not that I’d knock the film; it’s a good enough piece of cinema – and a classic in its own right. But in the same way that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? forms only the basic foundation for the film Blade Runner, so it is with Harry Harrison’s novel.

Set in New York, Make Room! Make Room! imagines a world where all natural resources are all but gone. The world is overcrowded. Water is rationed. Work is scarce. Those who can work are still incredibly poor, forced to share tiny rooms. Those who can’t work survive – just about – on benefits, often supplemented by crime. Food is almost always synthetic or manufactured from everything from seaweed to soya and lentils – which is where the name Soylent comes from.

Written in the 1960s and set in 1999, the story follows detective Andy Rusch as he struggles to both survive in a world of increasing violence and decreasing resources – pressured from above to find the killer to a well-connected but dubious businessman. We also follow the killer – an unfortunate, poverty-stricken young man – as he evades the law.

New York, in the middle of a heatwave, is a desperately crowded, dirty and mistrusting place. The heat, hunger, thirst and deprivation keep the population malcontented but too exhausted to even imagine change let alone create a better future.

Harrison breathes incredible life into what could have been a tired story and into what is a well-realised and exhausted world, gasping its last breath like a desperate old man clinging onto a pointless life.

Pointlessness and futility pervade this tale. There’s nothing in life to strive for, other than survival. Only a wealthy few enjoy comparative luxuries (such as real meat and air conditioning) and they live on the same knife edge as anyone else – what they have could be lost at any time, dragging back into poverty all of their dependants. The crime itself is pointless, the search itself little better.

In many ways, I was reminded of The Grapes of Wrath, where the Joad family can aspire only to survival and little else. The world Harrison paints is a complete one; it wraps itself around the reader like a coat of utter believability. Sure, written when it was, some of the future is wrongly predicted – telegrams still exist and computers are evident only by their absence. Yet, this too remains credible – without power, what good are computers? The police would have to go back to manually matching fingerprints, for instance. It would be that, or wait for the few hours a week when the power might, if they were lucky, come back on.

Unlike the film, which builds towards an epic denouement, the book steadily grinds down its characters as their options – along with their resources – become ever more limited.

Just as I feel that Frankenstein has never been filmed in a way that does justice to the source material, so I’d love to see a film made which tells the story in a more faithful way than does Soylent Green.

As with the discovery of any wonderful book, I revelled in reading this for the first time – something one can only do once. But I’m also more than a little sad that I didn’t discover this in my youth as I’m certain that this is a book one reads again and again.

Highly recommended, this book’s classic status is well-earned.


The Brittle Birds, by Anthony Cowin – a review


I’ve always felt that inside every really great short story is the makings of an even better novel. Not that the novel should always be written – the short form can be the best way to put the idea across.

Yet short stories shouldn’t have to mean small ideas. I cite as evidence for the defence The Sentinel by Arthur C Clarke. Famously the inspiration for Clarke’s seminal novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, the short story would be no less satisfying if Clarke and Kubrick hadn’t gone on to make one of the best science-fiction films of all time. I also cite as evidence for the defence the superb To Avenge Man by Lester Del Rey. This is possibly one of my favourite short stories, but it’s never been filmed or expanded into a novel – yet it has the capacity, easily, to be either.

All of which leads me to The Brittle Birds by Anthony Cowin. The central idea behind the story (it’s revealed early in the story, but I won’t do so here) is both fascinating and frightening. It could easily have become the core of a novel. Within the short story format, it comes across with a dash of the dark atmosphere of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing; it’s almost something you can feel, rather than something you read.

The writing is assured, the mood oppressive, the pace brooding – building slowly to something that suffocates rather than explodes. A very enjoyable short story, with – as all great short stories should – the capacity to be so much more.


Storytelling versus spectacle


Watching the trailer for I, Frankenstein I yet again feel sad that no one has so far filmed a faithful version of one of my favourite books.

While it’s poor form to slate a film you haven’t yet seen (and, in this case have very little enthusiasm to watch) the trailer does set out the stall of the movie: action, explosions and don’t-know-when-to-stop spectacle.

(As an aside, the film isn’t exactly winning the hearts of critics. Mark Kermode gives it one star – I suspect because zero stars isn’t an option – his review is nothing short of damning.)

I, Frankenstein is yet another in a long line of spectacular yet dull movies churned out by Hollywood – a neat enough idea perhaps, but with all the money going to big stars and big CGI rather than investment in the script.

It seems to me that, when it comes to storytelling, television increasingly has the edge over cinema. Television doesn’t have the same budgets as cinema (though it’s inching closer) so there’s much more of a focus on storytelling. Plus, the medium itself inherently has something that Hollywood doesn’t – oodles of time.

Take Breaking Bad, one of the best character-driven dramas ever. Walter White’s slow decline from Mr Chips to Scarface takes place over six seasons. That’s 62 episodes with a usual runtime of 60 minutes. As a film, that would be just over two-and-a-half days. Quite a commitment but one that’s manageable on television. The format allows characters to be explored, subplots to thrive, red herrings to be teased continually. How would you shoehorn that into a couple of hours?

Breaking Bad isn’t alone. Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos, Rome, 24 – the list goes on. At the heart of all of these is great storytelling (though, to be fair, Game of Thrones has its share of decent – if not exaggerated – special effects). And decent television dramas don’t have to be bottom-numbing epics, either. Broadchurch spanned just 8 episodes of 45 minutes each. At roughly 360 minutes, that’s still comfortably longer than an epic film such as Lawrence of Arabia (222 minutes in the original release; 228 minutes in the restored version).

True enough, the three Lord of the Rings films made for 558 minutes in the theatre and 726 minutes on Blu-ray; there are always exceptions – Lord of the Rings combines spectacle with storytelling brilliantly.

It seems to me that because television’s found strong storytelling feet in the long-form drama, Hollywood is hitting back in the only way it can: mostly with explosions and CGI. While there’s some long-form cinema (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings are just a few) there’s the inescapable fact: they have to be good stories to survive that kind of runtime. They are exceptions because they are good, character-driven stories.

Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers and Marvel’s other superhero films don’t really count. They’re not one long story, they’re really standalones with some connectivity bolted in; they’re also pretty hit-and-miss – typically further examples of thin plot and thick spectacle, smartly linked to create a pleasing universe in which to wallow.

By and large, enough people must be watching these vacant blockbusters to make them worthwhile – and keep the studio suits convinced that bigger, louder explosions equals audience satisfaction. Thank goodness that’s not the extent of cinema and that some good stories do make it on the big screen.

Sure, television’s not flawless. For every Breaking Bad there are dozens of tired, clichéd serials. And don’t get me started on cooking shows, makeover shows, celebrity challenges or whatever. But at least long-form television drama proves that massive audiences want great stories too.

Both Hollywood and television compete for our money, so they’ll make what mostly succeeds commercially. Yet I can’t help thinking that as a general trend, the Hollywood suits are backing spectacle over storytelling – perhaps in the hope that we won’t spot the threadbare plot in the middle of so many awesome explosions.


The Chrysalids – review


It feels slightly odd sitting down to write a review of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. I first read it when I was ten or eleven – about the same age as the book’s protagonist, David Strorm, when we first meet him. Since then, I’ve read it many, many times – and enjoyed it as much each time.

Falling for that reader’s temptation to spend time with an old friend, I’ve just finished reading it yet again – in fact, it’s one of the first books on my new Kindle Paperwhite.

The story is set at some point in the future. We don’t really know when, but it’s safe to assume that at least a thousand years have passed since today. Civilisation has fallen long ago – and is now trying to claw its way out of a largely non-technological agricultural era. What became of mankind, we’re not told for sure – but a large-scale nuclear war seems the safest bet.

David lives with his family on a farm in Waknuk, part of what we know now as Labrador. Life isn’t easy. ‘Deviations’ (mutated crops and animals) are feared as the work of the Devil and have to be guarded against, rooted out and destroyed to guarantee genetic purity. ‘Abominations’ (mutated people) are sterilised and cast out to the Fringes, a land where little grows true and life expectancy is short.

Physical deviations are easy to spot – an extra finger, long arms and so on. But David deviates in a way that people can’t see with the eye: he can communicate over long distances, with his mind. He’s one of a group with the same curse, or gift. As he grows, it becomes increasingly hard for the group to hide their deviation – and discovery can only end in one way.

In a land that is driven by religion (the Bible being only one of two books which survived the Tribulation, the passing of the old people) David’s father is one of the most fervent zealots, who wouldn’t hesitate to hand over one of his family to the authorities.

So, enough plot. I don’t want to spoil it if you’ve not read it.

To readers of science fiction, much of the above will seem like familiar territory. But remember: this was written in 1955. The Chrysalids is very much one of the first carts to cut grooves into science fiction’s muddy lanes.

It could certainly be said that some of the writing is of its time. A little formal for today’s eyes; a little proper; perhaps – now and again – a little stilted. But what can’t be said is that the book is ever anything less than absorbing – and its tale of prejudice, judgement, intolerance and fear is as relevant today as the day it was written.

If the book has a flaw, for me it’s a grand speech given towards the end – by one of the characters. Again, I don’t want to spoil things for you – but it retreads the themes of the book in a less than subtle way, needlessly repeating and reinforcing the book’s core messages. It’s not a great crime – but possibly something of a stumble.

I personally consider this to be Wyndham’s finest book. The characters are stronger than in The Day of The Triffids; their relationships more realistic, moving and engaging. The prose is wonderful. The plot keeps moving – raising the stakes until it reaches the conclusion.

I can’t deny my deep fondness for this book. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Its values and sensibilities have helped to shape mine. I’m affectionate towards it, as you would be with a loved old friend. It also was responsible for instilling in me a romanticism; a high regard for relationships based on deep love. In a time where most science fiction writers were somewhat emotionally constipated, Wyndham paints the relationship between David and his cousin, Rosalind, in a way that those of us who can’t connect with our minds – and are restricted to physical senses – can only envy.


Full Dark, No Stars – review


Don’t ask me why, I’d just not got around to reading this one, even though I’d bought it a couple of years ago. Full Dark, No Stars consists of four (loosely) thematically linked novellas.

The first story, 1992, is a man’s first-person confession of a killing – and in many ways owes more than a tip of the hat to Poe’s A Tell-Tale Heart. The second story, Dig Driver, is darker still – the revenge of a rape victim. The third, Fair Extension, deals with a pact and its consequences – though this is far from being The Monkey’s Paw. The final story, A Good Marriage, deals with the horror of discovering that the man you’ve lived with most of your life isn’t what he seems.

Stephen King describes these stories as harsh. It’s an accurate word. Although there are hints (and sometimes more than hints) of the supernatural, these are really tales of the dark that is within us all – those parts of human nature which we tell ourselves don’t exist, or occur only rarely. We may tell ourselves this, yet we know even as we do that this is self-deceit. Such darkness is around us – we only have to watch the news to know this is the truth. Sometimes the darkness is close to us. Sometimes it is inside us.

It can be the case with a collection of shorter stories that there’s one stand-out story and at least one lame duck. Not so here. Each story is as strong as the next – an engaging plot that’s driven forwards by believable, though flawed, characters in horrific situations.

None suffer from ‘clockwork plot’ syndrome (that you can tell instantly where things are going and nothing falls in the characters’ paths). None miss a step. None dawdle or linger. None flinch in the face of giving the reader the truth – the truth that’s a bone, broken, with skin and flesh torn away. These are examinations of human nature; the dark with the light – though of course mostly dark.

Yet, the stories never become salacious. This isn’t horror porn, it’s our dark selves under scrutiny. What someone might do if tempted, pushed or cornered.

King remains a gripping writer. Someone who is able to conjure characters that are as solid and believable as your own neighbours, friends and family. He’s also someone who’s a master of not just the novel but also the novella – so unfashionable elsewhere, perhaps, but here the stories are exactly right for the word count.


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